Are you thinking with the reptile part of your brain?

Fiji banded iguana. Photo: Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr via CC Fiji banded iguana. Photo: Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr via CC

Have you ever noted how we spontaneously react to a perceived threat? Faced with a threat, our primal instincts tend to take over and we instantly freeze over and begin to shut all the doors inside us that open to warmth, gentleness and empathy.

That's a natural, deeply rooted reaction. Biologists tell us that, whenever we perceive something or someone as threatening us, paranoia instinctually arises inside us and has the effect of driving us back towards a more primitive place inside our bodies, namely, the reptile part our brain, that remnant still inside us from our evolutionary origins millions of years ago. Reptiles are cold-blooded. So too, it seems, are we when we're threatened.

This, I believe, helps explain much of the paranoia and violence in our world today as well as the bitter rhetoric that, almost universally, is blocking any real possibility of meaningful discussion apposite our tensions today within politics, economics and our churches.

We live in a bitterly polarized world. All of us recognize this, and all of us see a lot of cold-bloodedness inside world politics, inside the politics within our own countries and communities, and, sadly, not least, inside our churches. What we see in nearly every discussion today where there is disagreement is a cold, hard rhetoric that is not really open to genuine dialogue and is, invariably, the antithesis of charity, graciousness and respect.

What we see instead is paranoia, demonization of those who disagree with us, ridicule of our opponents' sincerity and values, and blind self-defensiveness.

Can you love an enemy?

Moreover this bitterness and disrespect, so contrary to all that's in the Gospels and to all that's noble inside us, is invariably "sacralized." It is rationalized as demanded by "God" because we believe that what we are doing is for God, or for truth, or for country, or for the poor, or for Mother Nature, or for art, or for something whose transcendent value, we believe, justifies our bracketing both Jesus and common courtesy.

If you doubt this, simply turn on any radio or television station that does commentary on politics or religion or listen to any political or religious debate today. We are, as theologian John Shea puts it, more skilled in justification than in self-examination; but, then, we can sacralize our disrespect and lack of elemental charity.

In doing so we are far from the Gospel, far from Jesus and far from what's best inside us. We're meant to be more than the reptile part of our brains and more than the instincts we inherited from our ancient ancestors, the beasts of prey. We're called to something higher, called to respond to threat beyond the blind response of instinct.

St. Paul's own reaction to threat can serve as a template for what our ideal response should be. He writes: “When ridiculed, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we respond gently.” (1 Corinthians 4:12-13)

Earlier, in the same letter, he had already given another counsel in regards to dealing with opposition. His counsel: Live with enough patience inside opposition so as not to have to defend yourself; let God and history do that for you. “It does not concern me in the least that I be judged by you or any human tribunal; I do not even pass judgment on myself; I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord." (1 Corinthians 4:3-4)

Admittedly, this is difficult. Our instinctual self is not easily subdued. Like everyone else, I struggle a lot with this. Every time I hear or read someone who dismisses my preaching and writing as heretical or dangerous or (even more biting) light-weight fluff, the reptile part of my brain stirs to do its ancient job and my natural instincts bitterly resist the high road that St. Paul so wisely counsels.

Natural instinct does not want to try to understand the position of the one who has belittled us, nor does it want to bless and endure and respond gently. It wants blood. I suspect that everyone's instincts work in the same way. Natural instinct doesn't easily honor the Gospel.

But, that's the test; indeed one of the litmus tests of Christian discipleship. When we look at the core of Jesus' moral teachings and ask ourselves, what more than anything else sets Jesus apart from other moral teachers? Which of his challenges might serve as a litmus test for genuine discipleship?

I submit that at the core of Jesus' teaching lies in this challenge: Can I love an enemy? Can I bless someone who curses me? Can I wish good to someone who wishes me evil? Can I genuinely forgive someone who's been unfair to me?

Perhaps even more importantly, can I live in patience when I'm in tension, not rushing to defend myself, but leaving that defense to history and to God?

Father Ron Rolheiser

Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Contact him at