Picture it: The University of Parma, Italy in the 1990s. Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues were studying how macaque monkeys’ brains reacted when the animals performs actions like reaching for or biting a peanut. In the course of their observations, they discovered something unexpected: when the researcher picked up an object such as a peanut to hand it to the monkey, some of the monkey’s motor neurons would fire. Even more surprisingly, these were the same neurons that would also fire when the monkey itself grasped the peanut. They eventually dubbed these neurons “mirror neurons.”
The researchers found that individual neurons would only respond to very specific actions. A mirror neuron that fired when, say, the monkey grasped a peanut would also fire only when the experimenter grasped a peanut, while a neuron that fired when the monkey put a peanut in its mouth would also fire only when the experimenter put a peanut in his own mouth.[i]
Scientists have since demonstrated that humans have a mirror neuron system as well. Something that will be hard at work in a few hours as many of us find ourselves in front of the television, cheering or cringing.
Sports have used as a powerful example to show how are brains are wired to relate to others: physically and emotionally. We feel the hits and we experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as if we were the ones on the field catching passes and trying to avoid tackles.
This physical connection has given humans the ability to survive; to form inter-dependent communities where individuals support one another. We recognize similarities and on some level feel this connection between performed and observed actions.
So tonight, we choose our team. Many in the six New England states choose to connect to the Patriots because of proximity in location; or because they grew up watching a previous generation support the team; or because neighbors and friends watch the games. Meanwhile, most polls show that the other 44 states will be rooting against us – I mean, “them.” The Patriots. (Well, maybe 43 states – I’m not sure which way Louisiana will go.)
As you might guess, the effect of these mirror neurons can amplify conflict. A stadium full of folks rooting for one team can turn quickly on a handful of rival fans. And we can easily take this phenomena and apply it to more serious conflicts like racism and war.
We connect with and imitate those around us. When we started this reading last week, everything was great. Jesus show up in his hometown, reads a great verse from the prophet Isaiah talking about bringing Good News to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind. Then he declares that this has all been fulfilled, right then and there – at least implying that he himself is there to save them.
Surely, the crowd gathered at the synagogue saw themselves in the reading. Under the thumb of the oppressive empire, struggling to make a living, wondering what comes next: Maybe those mirror neurons were firing and they found themselves identifying as the poor, the captives, the blind.
But this week, the story continues. The crowd, impressed at first – proud of their hometown son – suddenly turns on him. Jesus basically says to them “I know that you’re going to ask me to help you. This is where I grew up, you think I should fix your problems first. But I’ve seen how this turns out. Over and over again scripture show prophets trying to save their hometown but getting run out or killed instead. ‘The truth is, prophets never gain acceptance in their hometown.’”
The connection felt by the gathered audience of listeners changes. Instead of a warm and fuzzy feeling reacting to Jesus’ declaration, disappointment and sadness turns to anger. As each person imitates the emotions and actions of the other they turn into a murderous mob.
Jesus understood this aspect of human behavior. He knew that we are driven to imitate and mime each other. His experience and his learning have shown the ups and downs of this instinct. The scriptures that he knew told the story over and over again of groups of humans desiring the same things: basics like food and shelter and clothing. But these desires then turn to conflict as individuals begin to hoard, as some desire and pursue power and riches at the expense of others.
Maybe it’s too difficult to identify with those who suffer. We would much rather feel those mirror neurons firing when we think about the rich and the powerful rather than the hungry and imprisoned.
But Jesus came to show us a different way. Jesus understood human behavior through divine inspiration, through the stories of his faith, and through being human himself. Remember, at this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has just returned from the desert where he faced his own temptations, where he was given the opportunity to abate his own hunger by turning stones to bread; to jump from a high place and prove that he has God’s protection; to become a powerful ruler of all the kingdoms on Earth.
Jesus could have given into the temptations and imitated the Tempter. Instead, he chose to give us another way to be human: to imitate the Messiah.
As the people of Nazareth drove Jesus to the edge of a cliff, he didn’t strike back with anger or vengeance, he slipped away quietly. He’ll go on to live the rest of his life imitating God’s love for everyone, demonstrating a love that goes beyond race and clan and class; a love that puts self-sacrifice over revenge.
Science and faith both demonstrate that we have an enormous capacity for empathy and connection. In the words of another great philosopher and prophet (Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben) “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s so easy to become “us” versus “them.” It’s so easy to group ourselves into teams and groups and even nations.
So, we are called to imitate Jesus. To follow the path that he chose: bringing Good News to the hungry and homeless, freedom to the captives, sight to the blind. But it’s more than that, it’s allowing that powerful biological and spiritual connection with others who we think are not like us. It’s identifying with the oppressed and outcasts and putting ourselves in situations we thought we never wanted to experience.
As many sports fans in the nation divides into teams tonight, as we find ourselves continuing to be divided by politics tomorrow, as we make our way through the shortest month of the year focusing on Black History: find ways to imitate Jesus’ desire to connect with everyone. Find love in your hearts for those who suffer, for those who believe differently than you, maybe even find love for fans of the LA Rams.
If Jesus can do it, maybe we can too.