As social primates how others react to us is extremely important. Our expressions of ourselves through word and deed are self revealing, leaving us vulnerable to a cruel word or act from others. Since trust cannot be naively extended to strangers, we rely on the defense mechanism of the persona, the mask we wear when we are just going through the motions, as we say. Each of us is able to cover our uniqueness in a cloak of collectively defined characteristics; the jock, the nerd, the rebel, the flirt, the hard hearted businessman, and the cold calculating player of real politic, to name a few. Whatever our chosen mask, for most of us the primary personas are molded into our nervous systems by the time we leave high school. As adults we become adapt at shifting masks as needed.
When the environment is safe and secure, when we can trust the ones around us not to hurt us cruelly, we are able to relax and, as we say, be ourselves. We are fed and nourished in these times as the reflection of ourselves in another’s eyes makes us real; they confirm our own perceptions and expressions. The ear and the tongue evolved together: we are story tellers at heart and love to share with one another. The smile is the ticket to the heartstrings and it plays a fine song, given the chance. We humans laugh, and when the laughter is free of malice, its sound is pure praise celebrating this moment, just as it is. Joyful moments shared with others are memories every human being holds dear.
In the abusive home this environment of safety is missing, so those within its walls are unable to receive the nurturance required by mammals of the social primate flavor. In an overly competitive society, such as ours, there is no external security to be found either. Arguably, everyone in such a society suffers some degree of self alienation, everyone is abused by the worship of cruelty as the final arbiter of power. In our fear, surrounded as we are by so many threats and dangers, we find it hard to take off our masks; to relax, safe and content. The danger is that then our lives can become little more than circus shows, staged for one another but not lived with one another.
The point, of course, is to live an authentic life. To use the masks, understand them and their role, but never to confuse the mask with the living flesh of the face it covers.
This, I think, is what the Jesus story’s crucifixion is teaching. That is a human face on that cross. It asks us to have compassion on the suffering being displayed. Which is stronger for you, on which will you ultimately place your faith: the cruelty of empire or the compassion of flesh? The Gospels provide just enough detail that we recognize an individual within their pages. On the cross this individual suffers the cruelty of torture, exposing the vulnerability of the flesh, but even more so that of the heart. On the cross Jesus wears no mask. Reality – this cosmic, mysterious thing made by an unknown – is its own balm, a harsh taskmaster at times, but not nearly as cruel as mankind can be to itself when we choose cruelty instead of love. This icon of Christianity teaches us torture hurts, it is wrong. It is a stake in the emotional ground. It may also have additional religious meaning, but what I want to point out is much more pedestrian than that. It says: this is real, this torture of other human beings, this action is really happening. And this action is wrong.
Emotion and values are inseparably linked. In our pursuit of value-free greed, we as a people have not had much respect for the inner, subjective life of the emotions. Animals, women and children were all thought to be ruled by their feelings, and hence lesser beings. To accept that what other people feel matters, that how I make them feel matters, is to invite a whole host of values captured in the universal Golden Rule. These threaten the values being used to prop up this consumer society in which status, as conferred by wealth and fame, is held up as the alternative ideal. When the powerful use this view to argue that the values of war are as serviceable for a society as those of compassion, they commit, in my mind, a crime against the truth. We cannot remake ourselves over into the image of our machines; cold, calculating robots capable of pushing the nuclear button without flinching. We are not our own creators.
To be human is to be, first, a mammal. The line of mammals is characterized by a unique trait: they show extended care for their young. From this quite real biological, emotional, and cognitive experience attachment bonds are formed. Mammals come to express care and compassion among themselves their whole life long. Second, we humans are primate mammals, and social primates at that. This means we have evolved around the need to need each other. The individual’s biological, emotional, and cognitive structures are attuned to reading and responding to social signals from others in our tribe.
Christianity is catholic aka universal; a message for the species is in the icon of the cross, just as it is in the icon of the meditating Buddha. The cross asks what do you, personally, choose to do about the fact human beings are capable of inflicting torture upon one another? That is the psychological maypole around which we are built. In the icon of the corpus on the cross the mystery is openly displayed. The psyche aligns itself either towards the pole of ‘I will not torture another sentient being whatever the cost,’ or not.
It is important to be clear we are talking about torture: the deliberate desire to inflict maximum pain through cruelty. Arguably all killing is suspect from compassion’s point of view, as the Jains have it, but how can there be an absolute rule when protectors need to execute evil when necessary? Regardless, what soldiers typically do on the battlefield is not the same violation of the integrity of another being’s subjectivity torture entails. Only acts of sexual and sever psychological abuse begin to position themselves on the spectrum of ‘soul violation’ that ends in torture.
The Gospel is about a man who learns to call this creator-mystery, this cosmic force of deep time planted on earth from out of deep space, by the most intimate form of address possible. Though Christianity typically speaks about god the father, Jesus addressed god as daddy, the child’s loving address, as if to teach that this cosmic force by which we were created is to become personalized by our fully becoming human. A task, I might add, no one who has ever lived has ultimately failed at. The teaching is we are not orphans in an uncaring universe: the very, very human love we share witnesses otherwise. That is the teaching of the god-man.
Torture rightly frightens the human animal. And so, in the Christian mythology, we are taught by ‘god’ to watch how people use this ability to be so cruel to one another. It is ‘his’ revelation. That cruelty, the teaching goes, kills the god among men.
These evolved traits around compassion are as real in the realm of human experience as gravity is. Our biology, emotions, and cognitions bear witness to our evolved inheritance as mammals of the social primate variety. The devil among us is not a supernatural, magical bogey man. It is the cruelty by which we humans can be lead astray, by which we lose our way.