Why is there so much evil in the world?

This post delves into recent research on the human behaviors that underlie social conflict, and reveals the Biblical strategies to counteract this evil.

A close brother of mine wrote an open letter to the Christian community from his prison cell during the COVID epidemic. Locked into his cell, the hard concrete walls amplifying the sounds (and fears) of the coughs and sniffles of his fellow inmates, he listened to the news of the outside world – of the clashes between protesters and counter-protesters of racial injustice, and of the political arguments dividing the country and penned this question: Why is there so much evil in the world?

It’s a question that most of us have pondered at one point or another, and one that is often posed to Christians either by those seeking a measure of peace in time of crisis, or by those trying to disprove God and free themselves of His convicting Spirit.

Academic research over the past quarter century has provided a way of viewing our communal life through a new lens, and whenever we increase our understanding of ourselves and each other by incorporating such additional viewpoints, we have the opportunity to increase our sense of compassion for ourselves and each other, and so re-exploring the question of evil has value.

For those seeking peace — those trying to gain visibility into some greater hope that could help them make sense of tragedies that they are experiencing — the answers that Christians have to offer often fall short. Peace, during these times, comes from the knowledge that our Lord is walking beside us, and it is only through long-cultivated faith that we can trust the Lord without understanding.

Having said this, the question posed by my brother is an old one, and has been answered by theologians and philosophers throughout the ages. The problem that we face is that answers that may have satisfied people hundreds or thousands of years ago no longer satisfy some today. Human knowledge has advanced, and with it, our ability to grapple with the complexities of the topic.

The stock Christian answer to the question of evil is that God created the world without evil, but then Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and brought sin and corruption into the world. This answer seems lacking, though. First, how could there be knowledge of evil, without there first being evil to know about? The tree must have been named after evil existed. Second, a careful reading of Genesis 2 through 4 reveals far less of the story than is often preached, and third, the story seems almost as if God setup Adam and Eve. That is, He created Adam and Eve with curiosity and naivety, and so an all knowing God must have known that Adam and Eve would taste the apple eventually. And if so, then one could argue that God authored the evil that resulted from this trespass by creating the situation. But this is one of the oldest stories in the Bible, dating back thousands of years, and we can only assume, from its brevity, that much of the encounter has been lost to time; therefore, attempting to make the argument that God authored evil is an unjustified stretch of the available information. The Bible preserves the knowledge God wishes to be passed down through the ages, not necessarily all that is needed to satisfy our curiosities.

The question of evil can be divided into two parts: evil caused by man, and evil caused by the environment. The question of why God allows volcanoes, tornadoes and disease is more difficult to answer. Death of any kind is sad, frightening, and painful, regardless of its cause. If there was no death, though, there wouldn’t be standing room on earth, and so death by accident, environmental causes, and the slow degeneration of our bodies is a natural part of the cycle of life, and may not necessarily be an evil from the viewpoint of our Lord.

Evil caused by man, though, is another story. God could prevent us from doing or saying evil things to each other, but this would necessarily remove our free will. We would become little different than programmed robots. From God’s perspective, then, we would be as the trees. A tree stays where God planted it, and has no choice but to shade the patch of land that God wishes shaded. God created trees, and plants, and animals that do and act the way God programmed them to do and act, but we can surmise that He created man because he wanted a people that had the capacity to be a true friend, and a true ally. And to become a true friend or a true ally is a choice, and thus requires free will.

In one of Paul’s most intimate passages (Romans 7:15-20), where he struggles to understand his own selfish inclinations towards evil, he opens with: I do not understand what I do.

Paul, lived two thousand years ago, and while his diverse education enlightened him to the best of Greek, Roman, and Hebrew thinking of the time, his ability to articulate this internal struggle was still confined to these ancient frameworks of understanding. Recent advances in psychiatry, sociology, economics (surprisingly enough), neurology, and game theory provides us, though, with a new language and approach to thinking about Paul’s question: Why do we make the decisions we do? and it is worth exploring these advances to gain a fresh perspective on this question that has been debated since the time of Moses. 

We’d like to think that we make decisions after carefully weighing the risks and rewards of a particular choice. This balancing of information is something that we do in our cerebral cortex, the advanced part of our brain that has the power to contemplate and philosophize. From an evolutionary perspective, though, this has never been quite good enough. First, our cerebral cortex is too slow. In prehistoric times, if someone from an enemy tribe jumped out at us from behind a tree and we stopped to ponder what we should do, the delay could get us killed. The second problem with this, is that making these sorts of decisions requires knowledge and experience. What if we’d never been confronted with an enemy before? Would we stand there and wait to see what happens so that we’d know what we should do next time? Again, not a life preserving reaction.

As it turns, our brains have a complex, multi-stage mechanism for making decisions. Cognitive psychologists simplify the complexity by talking in terms of System One and System Two decision processes. System Two is the part of the brain that does higher-order thinking, the part that ponders, considers, and evaluates information. That little voice in our head lives squarely in System Two. In contrast, System One is physically located deep in the core of our brain and consists of neural hardwiring capable of processing information (particularly visual information), and then making decisions on that information fast. Cognitive psychologists use the terms heuristics, or mental biases to describe the type of decision making that happens in System One. When someone jumps out in front of us, we will either punch them or jump away from them: fight or flight. Our reaction is often so sudden that it even catches us by surprise. It’s a surprise, because the entire process of observation, to decision making, to executing that decision happens before any information is passed on to our System Two. Either our feet, or our fist will have been moving for some time before the little voice in our head enters into the conversation.

Much of our daily decision making starts out in the System One part of our brain, and then, time permitting, may be corrected by System Two thinking (which is why counting to ten when you are angry is a good thing to do), but this correcting comes with a cost. Exercising the System Two parts of our brain literally consumes far more calories than the System One part of our brain, and researchers have found that we have biases that discourage us from overthinking issues. A well-known bias, confirmation bias, is one such energy-saving bias. Studies have shown that once we make a decision, we will tend to readily accept any new information that confirms our previously held beliefs, and casually reject any new information that contradicts our previously held beliefs: this way, we don’t need to expend the mental energy to re-think the decision from scratch. Some speculate that, evolutionarily, this makes sense, since food was a scarce commodity for most of human history: biases that minimize energy consumption would help our species survive.

The examples mentioned so far, are biases that help us individually. For tens of thousands of years, though, humans haven’t lived alone … they’ve lived in tribes, and as expected, we have all sorts of social, or tribal heuristics wired into us.

An interesting study of just one tribal bias was performed by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They recruited several batches of students from Carnegie Mellon University to participate in a 15 minute, 20 question “math test”, telling them that they would get paid fifty cents for each problem they got right (the problems were made difficult enough, that there was no way for anyone to complete them all in 15 minutes). The students were given an envelope containing $10 in cash, and an exam paper. After finishing the test, they were to grade their own work, take what money they earned, and return the rest.

They conducted the test in batches, and ran several normal batches first, to determine how many students, on average, would cheat.

Afterwards, the researches secretly added a paid actor to the next batches of students who, one minute into the test, raised his hand and asked “I solved all the problems, what should I do?” The teacher reminded him of the instructions he gave before the test started, telling him that if he got them all right, and had no money to return, he could just leave. And so the actor did.

What the researchers found is that after seeing the first student obviously cheat, many more students cheated. The researches then ran the experiment a second time, but this time, they had the actor wear a sweatshirt with a large logo of a rival University. In this scenario, they found that far fewer students cheated after watching their rival cheat.

This research study is one of many that reveal that humans have a number of “tribal” biases. Our biases, or System One thinking, leads us to follow, model, and trust those who we see as part of our tribe, while feeling superior to, and having less trust and empathy for those that we see as different from our tribe.

In addition to being an energy-saving bias, the confirmation bias mentioned above also serves as a tribal bias. Tribes are more peaceful, cooperative, and productive when all the members share similar ideas, and so heuristic biases that encourage us to avoid arguing or questioning the values, beliefs, goals, and plans of tribemates keeps the tribe strong, which in turn, increases the security and survivability of its members individually. This is why many of us tend to treat the beliefs of the tribes that we identify with as foundational truths, and harbor some level of disdain (less empathy) for those who do not accept these same beliefs.

Two additional sub-categories of tribal heuristics are our sense of fairness and our desire for revenge, and research has been done to help us understand how these impulses integrate into our decision making.

To analyze human’s biases towards fairness, a UCLA psychologist ran an experiment where person A was given a certain amount of cash along with instructions to divide it, any way they wished, with another person B. Person B could accept that cash, and go home with some free pocket change, or reject the deal, in which case the money was taken away from both person’s A and B. What the psychologist didn’t tell their test subject B, was that person A was in on the experiment. In a series of tests, they would hand person A different amounts of money. In one scenario, they gave them, say $23 dollars, and in another $10. In each case, though, person A offered exactly $5 to person B. If you think about it, the smart thing for person B (the actual test subject) to do in each scenario, would be to accept the offer and go home $5 richer. What they found, though, is that if person A was given larger amounts of money, say $23 dollars, then the test subject would get disgusted at being given only $5 and reject the deal, walking away with nothing. On the other hand, when person A was given $10 and then split it evenly, person B would happily accept the offer. They then ran brain scans on person B after the test, and found that the area of the brain known to be related to aversion was activated by the unfair deal, while the area of the brain know to be related to reward was activated by the fair deal. The UCLA research team found that humans are hard-wired to appreciate fairness and have a strong aversion to unfairness. (Although what people consider to be fair is culturally dependent.)

Neuroscientists have identified a pathway in the brain that they’ve termed the rage circuit that is fed by other areas of the brain, including that area that detects unfairness. This circuit activates the insular cortex, which causes people to experience feelings of pain, anger, or disgust, at which point, the brain can move into different modes. In one mode, our brain works to overcome these unpleasant feelings helping us to move past the negative situation. In another mode, however, our brain transitions into a pleasure-seeking state, while day-dreaming, plotting, or planning revenge — giving us the same type of pleasurable feelings we might get as we head to a local diner to get a slice of peach pie, with a side of vanilla ice cream and a cup of fresh coffee.

With all these emotions and decisions being made by our System One processes, sometimes with little awareness by our System Two processes, it is a wonder that humans can live peaceably at all. But it is possible.

As it turns out, a number of experiments in game theory have revealed that these System One processes may have actually helped maximize peace in our ancestor’s tribal environments, and so it is worth discussing, at a high level, these experiments.

A foundational experiment is called the prisoner’s dilemma. Consider this: two men are caught at a crime scene by the police and put in separate interrogation rooms. Each is given a choice to cooperate with each other and say nothing or defect on their partner. If they defect, they will go free, while their partner gets six months. If both defect, they each will get a lesser sentence of three months, but if neither defect, that is, they both cooperate with each other, then they will both only get one month, because without confessions they can only be convicted of a lesser charge.

What is more interesting than the prisoner’s dilemma, in the study of human decision making, is what has been termed the iterated prisoner’s dilemma. Imagine the same scenario, but then imagine the men remain partners and after they are out of prison commit another crime together where the same thing happens, so they are again given a choice: defect or cooperate with each other. The iterated prisoner’s dilemma doesn’t make much sense in terms of long prison sentences, but the same concept applies to many other situations where cooperation gives the best outcome, but self-serving defection avoids the worst outcome. It applies to anything from the sharing of cleaning chores among roommates to international trade agreements, and the scenario is easily extended from two people to many people, because in reality, we are often in situations where multiple people, or multiple groups, need to work together, and in these situations, we may have opportunities to cooperate fairly, or cheat.

As you might imagine, if one person cheats, or defects against the others in one round of the experiment, the others are far more likely to cheat or defect, themselves, in subsequent rounds. Researches have run many simulations of the game theory in order to determine the most advantage course of action for a participant. In each iteration, each participant has only one choice: to cooperate, or to defect. If everyone cooperates, everyone is rewarded: people working together can always accomplish far more than if we each work alone. And if everyone defects too much, everyone ends up losing. What the simulations revealed, is that the smartest course of action is to mirror the partners last move. If the partner cooperates, then you cooperate, and if the partner defects on you, then you take your revenge and defect as well. This motivates the original defector to begin cooperating.

Theorists then advanced the simulation by introducing the idea of accidental defections. That is, sometimes we “defect” on our partners by mistake. These situations can cause a cascade of defection, as others take revenge, and then we take revenge on their revenge, etc. What they found counteracts this, though, is occasional forgiveness. That is, if we mostly response tit-for-tat, mirroring our partners choices, but sometimes we cooperate, even when they defect, then run-a-way cycles of revenge are stymied and our prosperity is maximized. These game-theory simulations model the same sort of dynamic that was needed in ancient tribal life and may reveal why our brains our hardwired to respond with satisfaction when treated fairly, and leap towards feelings of rage and desires for revenge when cheated. It turns out, that without adding any System Two thoughts to the process, our System One’s circuits drove the type of behavior that optimized cooperation within a tribal community.

Recent studies on the history of human violence, though, have shown us that System One “optimized” cooperation doesn’t necessarily mean things were ideal. While System One heuristics, like our fight-or-flight response or propensity towards revenge, may have given us a slight survival edge thousands of years ago, it didn’t always generate a good response: sometimes we fight when there’s no need, and of course, many of our System One responses became harmful as societies evolved into more complex structures.

For much of human history, murder and tribal conflict were the leading causes of death for humans, as is reflected in the stories contained in Old Testament books such as Samuel 1 & 2 and Kings 1 &2, but rates of violence have been declining recently, and in Western society, declining significantly since the Middle-Ages. When news stories report every violent crime that occurred in the past 24 hours, we may feel like the world has devolved into chaos of bloodshed. What is different now, though, is that we live in very large cities, and the news never reports on the millions of people who managed to interact, in that same 24 hour period, in a peaceable, cooperative fashion. In actuality, the level of cruelty and violence in the Western world, is at its lowest level ever, and this, researchers have found, is due to changes in our System Two thinking.

What separates humans from most animals, is our ability to do high-level System Two thinking: we have the ability to override our System One impulses and improve our decision making.

Historians, studying the decline of violence in civilization have noted several System Two processes that have heavily influenced this decline, but two stand out: the honor/shame culture, and the introduction of societal Leviathans.

Honor/shame cultures are as old as civilization itself, and for much of the time, and for much of the world, honor and shame has been the predominant System Two construct for mediating human behavior in tribal groups. (In today’s society, the word “tribal” applies to any number of different types of groups: families, clans, villages, towns, football fans, church groups, etc.) Over the past half century, the notions of honor and shame have diminished significantly in America, albeit regionally unevenly, but they still exists, and because of this, it is useful to discuss the components of the honor/shame construct.

Within a group, honor has both horizontal and vertical aspects. Horizontal honor is honor among peers: it is what gives a member the right to be respected, and is based on a mutually understood Code of Honor that describes the individual behaviors necessary for a member to obtain and maintain their honor, and conversely, individual behaviors that would bring shame (loss of honor) and possible exclusion from the group. In order for the honor group to survive, the group must defend their own honor, monitor their peer’s behavior, and swiftly impart shame and rejection on peers that fail to follow the code. In addition to this, members of an honor group must defend the code of honor, itself, and the values encapsulated by it, which may explain why one of the strongest motivators of man is to pass along his culture and values to his children.

While this may sound complex, it is, in fact, very natural and useful structure in small groups. In ancient, tribal times, villages were always under threats of attack and plunder from neighboring villagers, and so traditional honor codes required men to be brave and to defend their town, to develop skills (such as hunting, farming, or toolmaking) that would be beneficial to the community, and to not steal from, or take advantage of, their fellow tribe members. Having children, for a supported women, was a great honor because tribes needed new members to survive. However, given that a pregnant girl or small child is a burden on the entire tribe when there is no man to provide for them, traditional honor codes shamed those engaged in inappropriate sexual relations. In highly structured organizations, such as a military academy, the code of honor may be carefully documented and members required to memorize and recite it. In most honor societies, though, it is an unwritten code that members are expected to just know.

The honor/shame culture, within a society, reduces intra-group violence because members know that the consequences of violating of the code will be swift and severe, and the code, itself, is impersonal. If one villager steals, say a goat, from a neighbor and is caught, the community will heap shame on the thief, and the victim of this crime is obligated to defend his honor, perhaps by striking down the thief. Because everyone understands the honor code and the need for it to be defended, the family of the thief is unlikely to initiate revenge, and in fact, may be at risk of losing their own honor. Within an honor community, honor is both earned, and ascribed. That is, honor can be earned through following the code: acting bravely in battle, or coming to the aid of a neighbor, and it can be ascribed through association. If a young man’s father was highly respected in the community, that family honor may be conveyed to the child until he establishes a reputation of his own. Conversely, as in the example above, if a family’s honor was put in question, family members may need to perform particularly exemplar activities, such as unusual bravery, to re-affirm their honor status within the community.

Within a horizontal honor group, there may also exist a vertical honor hierarchy, with higher levels of respect going to those who earned it through actions in line with the code. In military units, these honors may be conveyed through promotions or the awarding of ribbons or medals.

Because of the honor code, adverse behavior is kept in check, and bloody cycles of revenge, within the group, are kept under control. As mentioned above, the honor/shame culture requires face-to-face relationships to work. If individual members can simply hide their poor behavior, then the system breaks down. Social scientists have found that honor is prioritized. That is, a man will prioritize the defense of his families honor and well-being over that of his town, and the honor of his town, over that of his country.

Aside from minimizing violence and intra-group strife, honor-based societies have the additional advantages of providing individuals with a sense of life-purpose, respect, and a sense of identity as being part of the group. Furthermore, this need to monitor other’s compliance to the code encourages social behavior, and so community and family gatherings, and a predisposition towards hospitality are natural outgrowths of the honor culture.

The challenges to the honor/shame cultural model include the fact that it breaks down when close personal connections cannot be maintained, that it has limited room for consideration of extenuating circumstances when an offense occurs, and that it doesn’t necessarily minimize inter-group violence. Social scientists found that, on average, humans can know up to about one hundred and fifty people reasonably well, and have also noted that, historically, tribes or villages would often split once they grew beyond this size. (Even going back to Roman times, military units were kept to within one hundred fifty people, enabling them to form their own honor group. Soldiers are typically far more motivated to fight for their brothers-in-arms, than for whatever abstract principal is behind the conflict itself.)

As civilization grew during the Middle Ages, towns and extended commerce began to outgrow the honor/shame culture. In large cities, people can easily hide the seedy side of their personal life and can remain mostly anonymous to those around them. At the same time, those pondering the teachings of Christ began to see conflict with their honor codes. Honor/shame societies were built around the idea of honoring and shaming one’s public behavior, but Jesus teachings, such as that in Matthew 5:8 (Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God), put the focus on inner thoughts and behaviors. The intellectually inclined Europeans, during this time, began re-defining their honor codes to be more self-focused – developing the idea that personal integrity, sincerity, and authenticity should be the traits that define a man’s honor.

The honor code system in the more populated regions of Europe was eventually replaced with the concept of a Leviathan. A Leviathan is, essentially, an impartial, disinterested referee between two parties, and our societies expression of this consists of a government with well-defined laws, and independent judges. Previously, if, for example, a member of the Hatfield’s clan killed a member of the McCoy clan, the McCoy clan would be honor-bound to avenge the death of their family member by striking out at the Hatfield’s. And then the Hatfield’s would feel honor-bound to retaliate back against the McCoy’s and so on.  With a strong government that upholds well-defined rules, the motivation for revenge is eliminated in inter-tribe conflicts. Instead of this being a Hatfield’s vs. McCoy conflict, it would become a Hatfield vs. the People of the United States. An impartial Judge, who doesn’t know either the Hatfield’s or the McCoy’s, would evaluate the facts behind the infraction and prescribe an appropriate judgement in accordance with the law. In the honor/shame cultures our motivations are to seek honor and avoid shame. In the Leviathan system, we are motivated to seek innocence, and avoid guilt. Those primarily influenced by honor and shame will have little regard for law enforcement and courts, and instead believe that the right and responsibility of settling trespasses is their own. Those primarily influenced by a Leviathan framework will consider someone settling their own disputes as criminals, themselves, and will believe that solutions to conflict require more legislation, and more legal action.

The introduction of Leviathans in the form of strong government, law, and impartial judges was a major driving force behind the rapid decline of violence in Europe and the United States over the past several hundred years.

This transition began in the cities of Europe, and as America grew, immigrants from these cities brought the Leviathan principle with them as they populated the American Northeast. In very rural areas of Europe, Leviathan principles didn’t take hold because these areas were too remote for governments to maintain much influence. Immigrants from these remote, largely pastoral or agricultural areas of Europe tended to move into the American South, and for this reason, the American South’s culture was heavily influenced by the honor/shame way of life, and in some respects, still is today.

People in the South are far more likely to feel outraged by an insult against themselves or their family, and far more likely to feel like it is their duty and right to settle a dispute themselves, rather than bring it to court. At the same time, Southerners are far more likely to volunteer for military service out of a sense of duty toward country. In fact, throughout American’s history, the South has always led the country in military volunteerism.

The honor/shame culture also thrives in areas of America that are under-served by traditional law and order, such as in certain low-income neighborhoods or very remote towns.

The Bible doesn’t mention System One and System Two thinking, because these are 20th Century scientific terms. However, the Bible does reveal an uncanny correspondence between God’s teachings and the discoveries that modern academics have made in regard to techniques for reducing violence.

On a heuristic (System One) level, our scientists now know that we inherently don’t trust, and have less empathy for, those that are not of our tribe. Understanding this, it is easy to see that emphasizing shared cultural traits is necessary to pacify the System One tribal biases. Galatians 3:26-28 tells us that for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Through Paul’s letter, God is teaching us to disregard all the markers that we might traditionally use to distinguish between tribe members. Furthermore, Paul’s words echo Christ’s use of familial language (calling us sons), to indicate that we are closer than normal tribe members, we are, in fact, part of the same family. By directing us to focus on what we have in common, and to see each other as family, this teaching enables us to bypass the System One filters, and thereby enables us to have empathetic responses to others.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. This advice from Jesus (Matthew 5:43-45) provides an additional shaping of our System One filters through what scientists call mental priming. By continually praying for, and keeping your enemies in mind, you are mentally humanizing them and building empathy for them. In other words, you are making the decision to love your enemies in advance of any conflict. Once conflict does arise, the confirmation biases will avoid changing this decision, and so will again lead your reaction towards a positive response.

Romans 12:10, touches on our System Two sense of honor as it teaches us to Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Within an honor group, members often jockey for vertical honor and diligently follow the honor code to maintain their sense of honor. In his letter, Paul doesn’t attempt to overthrow the honor code culture, but instead, re-defines how we are to behave when living within an honor/shame paradigm.

Within this same chapter, Paul emphasizes God’s role as our ultimate Leviathan. Verse 12:19 tells us to … never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

While the level of violence in the world, and in particular, Europe and America has gone down dramatically in the last few hundred years, we still have challenges. An emerging challenge is the rapid growth of transportation and information technology, which is exacerbating conflicts of local philosophies. Both the honor/shame style cultures and Leviathan-based cultures can curb violence when all members understand society’s workings, but problems arise when people with different cultural understandings are suddenly forced together, as has happened on a grand scale as a result of these new technologies.

During the American civil war, the Northern army had a number of issues caused by the fact that the officers tended to be of the highly educated, elite class who had begun to adopt the European idea of honor as being one of integrity and self-control, while the enlisted tended to be from the lowest classes who still held to old-style notions of honor that emphasized fighting prowess and quick defense of any insults. The result was that soldiers considered the officers to be wimps for maintaining self-control in the face of insults, while the officers considered the men unruly savages. Neither understood the code that the others lived by.

Similar conflicts are happening today. Those from the Northeast tend towards Leviathan thinking, with first thoughts on a subject being in terms of legal/illegal and guilty/innocent, and expecting that legislatures and judges will listen to well-thought out arguments when dictating society’s behavior. However, many in the South continue to think, first, in terms of a person or situation either upholding or tarnishing the honor of themselves, their family, their ancestors, their community, or their way of life, and may not be inclined to listen to any well-thought out arguments on the topic of dispute until the topic of honor is first addressed. When colleges or companies in the North or South attract large numbers of people from the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line, communities suddenly find themselves inhabited by groups of people who have very different ideas about how conflicts should be resolved, and who become frustrated that those of differing groups cannot grasp points of view that seem obvious to them.

Combat groups, first responders, and police have always had an honor code, because each member sees their comrades in arms as vital to their survival. Politicians who have never experienced the stresses of these occupations express contempt for these honor codes, and in doing so, cause each soldier or officer to feel rejected by the society that they are trying to serve, inadvertently driving an even deeper psychological need for the support of their honor group peers.

In Mark 12:28, Jesus commands us:  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” As Christians, we do not always put enough emphasis on the with all your mind aspect of this great commandment. Over the past century, human minds have advanced our understanding of human behavior, and while many of these scientists and researchers were not men and women of faith, Jesus’ command shows that Christians do have an obligation to leverage this new research in our endless pursuit to become peacemakers.

For Christians with Southern roots, the impulse may be to reject legal policies proposed by those in the Northeast that conflict with their sense of honor and history. Christians with Northern roots will often hold notions of honor and shame with antipathy, and feel obligated to force their “intellectually superior” Leviathan ideals on the South, and Christians coming from other cultural backgrounds may find little common ground with either group.

Upon reflection, though, most of us living today in America may realize that we all simultaneously live in a number of micro-cultures. That is, we may have a home culture, a church culture, a work culture, a school culture, and a “hang out with the guys/gals” culture, and our motivations within each environment may derive from various blends of Leviathan sensibilities and honor/shame factors, making it difficult to find effective strategies to initiate peace once trouble brews.

The Apostle Paul, who wrote the letters of Galatians and Romans quoted above, was a master of peacemaking. He was born to a Roman father, a Hebrew mother, and raised in a Greek environment, and through this, he learned how to bring the love of Christ into the hearts of men and women of all different backgrounds. His approach was to learn and understand the culture, and then work within that culture to affect change. He didn’t try to overthrow honor/shame cultures, he didn’t try to overthrow the Leviathan-based Roman government, or the Jewish authorities either. He learned how to love people who lived in a variety of different cultural systems, and he sought ways to influence the expression of their cultural philosophies for the glory of God. He found that those oriented towards Leviathan thinking could be influenced through instructions and commands that define right and wrong, but those oriented towards honor and shame could only be influenced through leadership, and since Paul’s audience (like our own) was diverse, he provided a mix of both approaches.

He emphasized the giving of honor to those living under the honor culture, and he emphasized mercy and forgiveness to those of Leviathan disposition (see 2 Corinthians 2:5-7).

With an understanding of System One tribal biases and the System Two honor/shame and Leviathan cultures, we can see that much of the tension found in the news is misunderstood by all parties, and because of this, insults and arguments have erupted that serve to deepen our sense of belonging to one tribe or another, and in turn, lessen our empathetic, peace-making impulses. Peace will come when we heed Paul’s advice and see that not only are we all brothers and sisters of one family, in Christ, but that we all need each other, as Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 12:20-22 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.

And through all our societies turmoil, remember to follow Paul’s advice, shared in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Great books for further reading:

Wray Herbert: On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits

Brett H. McKay: What Is Honor? And How to Revive It

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined

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