Monday, July 24, 2006

He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t

This is an op-ed column by Daniel Gilbert. Its from today's New York Times. Ordinarily I would just provide a link, but pieces have a very short shelf life in the NY Times online. Dr. Gilbert is a Harvard psychologist and the author of "Stumbling on Happiness."

LONG before seat belts or common sense were particularly widespread, my family made annual trips to New York in our 1963 Valiant station wagon. Mom and Dad took the front seat, my infant sister sat in my mother’s lap and my brother and I had what we called “the wayback” all to ourselves.

In the wayback, we’d lounge around doing puzzles, reading comics and counting license plates. Eventually we’d fight. When our fight had finally escalated to the point of tears, our mother would turn around to chastise us, and my brother and I would start to plead our cases. “But he hit me first,” one of us would say, to which the other would inevitably add, “But he hit me harder.”

It turns out that my brother and I were not alone in believing that these two claims can get a puncher off the hook. In virtually every human society, “He hit me first” provides an acceptable rationale for doing that which is otherwise forbidden. Both civil and religious law provide long lists of behaviors that are illegal or immoral — unless they are responses in kind, in which case they are perfectly fine.

After all, it is wrong to punch anyone except a puncher, and our language even has special words — like “retaliation” and “retribution” and “revenge” — whose common prefix is meant to remind us that a punch thrown second is legally and morally different than a punch thrown first.

That’s why participants in every one of the globe’s intractable conflicts — from Ireland to the Middle East — offer the even-numberedness of their punches as grounds for exculpation.

The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.

In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.

The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner’s statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner’s statements.

What seems like a grossly self-serving pattern of remembering is actually the product of two innocent facts. First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves — but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.

Examples aren’t hard to come by. Shiites seek revenge on Sunnis for the revenge they sought on Shiites; Irish Catholics retaliate against the Protestants who retaliated against them; and since 1948, it’s hard to think of any partisan in the Middle East who has done anything but play defense. In each of these instances, people on one side claim that they are merely responding to provocation and dismiss the other side’s identical claim as disingenuous spin. But research suggests that these claims reflect genuinely different perceptions of the same bloody conversation.

If the first principle of legitimate punching is that punches must be even-numbered, the second principle is that an even-numbered punch may be no more forceful than the odd-numbered punch that preceded it. Legitimate retribution is meant to restore balance, and thus an eye for an eye is fair, but an eye for an eyelash is not. When the European Union condemned Israel for bombing Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, it did not question Israel’s right to respond, but rather, its “disproportionate use of force.” It is O.K. to hit back, just not too hard.

Research shows that people have as much trouble applying the second principle as the first. In a study conducted by Sukhwinder Shergill and colleagues at University College London, pairs of volunteers were hooked up to a mechanical device that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer’s fingers.

The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on. The two volunteers took turns applying equal amounts of pressure to each other’s fingers while the researchers measured the actual amount of pressure they applied.

The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.

Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.

None of this is to deny the roles that hatred, intolerance, avarice and deceit play in human conflict. It is simply to say that basic principles of human psychology are important ingredients in this miserable stew. Until we learn to stop trusting everything our brains tell us about others — and to start trusting others themselves — there will continue to be tears and recriminations in the wayback.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Returning to our comfort zones

I spoke a couple of weeks ago at my church. I actually followed on from the sermon last January (posted here Jan 30), but this was of a more confessional tone. My text was Hebrews 12:1.

The Oxford Science Dictionary defines weight as “the force by which a body is attached to the earth.” It means that being weighted to the earth keeps us from being flung into space, but I think that it has interesting spiritual implications. And I went on to discuss the weight of daily routine.

I want to do more. I know that I can’t bring about something different by dong the same thing, but I find myself governed by routine and my good intentions remain good intentions. This hit home when I considered the January message and asked myself, have I thrived outside my comfort zone? The truth is, I don’t know. Over a long enough period of time everything evens out. Unless you’ve marked your path you won’t see it.

Daily routines are the habits that build the walls of our comfort zones. They keep us looking inward and prevent us from being open to new things. Its our natural inclination to stay within the walls. Of course, there are good and bad periods. On good days we think “this is how it should be” and don’t appreciate them for the blessings they are. On bad days we need to remember that Jesus is with us. Those who don’t have Christ go through the same trials we do, but we have a God who will keep us and use our trials to bring us closer to Him. But the good and bad pass and we return to our routines and we forget all about them. When the good times return, we take them for granted again. When the bad times return, we forget that the Lord has brought us through them before.

Over time everything evens out, and in the end it all comes down to inertia. We are the same today as we were yesterday and we’ll be the same tomorrow unless we can bring change. I have a lot of good intentions. There are a lot of things I can think of that I want to do for the Lord. But unless I push out, they will only ever be intentions.

When I spoke about Thriving Outside Your Comfort Zone I was talking about what to do when you found yourself outside your comfort zone. I didn’t realize that until now. We do find ourselves there, but we can’t plan of happenstance to be an engine for change. Particularly when we have somewhere we want to go. Its like being in a strange city and getting on a random bus, yet still expecting that we’ll get where we intend. We have to figure out where we are and where we want to go. We all want to do great things in the Lord. We want to see our families saved. We want to see our churches full. We want to live with all the potential that He has in store for us. But if we do nothing, we’ll get nothing. If we do the same thing we’ve always done, we’ll stay attached to the same piece of earth we’ve always been attached to.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Dispensationalism: A Look At II Peter 3

After a light spring, posting-wise, summer has come and I would like to start with a follow up from the earlier discussion on dispensationalism.

II Peter 3: 5-10 tells us that God will destroy this world – and the heavens – with fire and create a new heaven and a new earth. I have heard many Christians say that the planet we’re living on it irrelevant to the big picture. God’s going to destroy and replace it with an uncorrupted one. But is that what Peter is saying?

It might be easier to answer these questions by pointing out when this is happening:

II Peter 3:10:

But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.

The ‘day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night’ refers to the return of Jesus. What Peter is describing doesn’t happen after the millennial reign, but as a part of its establishment!

John the Baptist said of Jesus:

Luke 3: 16 – 17:
John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.

And throughout the Bible God’s judgement and His anger are described as a fire. Hell, where the condemned are forever suffering the wrath of God, is described as a place of everlasting fire. What we are reading in II Peter is not a description of the destruction of the planet, but rather God’s judgement and the establishment of the millennial kingdom, a world where sin doesn’t reign.

II Peter 3: 5-10:
For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.

II Thessalonians 1: 7-9:
Which is a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer: Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you; And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day.

When Jesus returns, it will be with a fiery judgement on those who rejected the Truth and who persecuted His church. These two passages describe the same event, one that happens prior to the millennium and not after it.

The fire in these passages is not metaphorical. Again, it is the judgement of God against those who spurned the gospel – a very real and everlasting fire to those who are judged, but to those who are under grace, our world will be renewed. For the first time since the fall, it will be a world in which sin doesn’t reign. Satan will be bound throughout this time and with him no longer prince of this world, the heavens – or spiritual realms – will also know the fire of judgement.

I am addressing this in the context of dispensationalism because it is taught as a part of the broader picture painted by dispensationalist teachings, but I think it can be argued that this interpretation doesn’t ultimately conflict with dispensationalism. Its importance, rather, is in directing us back to out stewardship of the earth. God gave us dominion over it, and God doesn’t give us blessings or responsibilities (Genesis 1:28) so that we can waste them.