October 26, 2015

(Not) Looking Out For No. 1


You probably know a lot more about honeybees than I do. We recently went to the Topsfield Fair, and they have a “bee house” where expert beekeepers show off hives in glass enclosures. It seems chaotic, but the beekeepers told us about the specialized jobs each bee has, how the females tend the hive and gather the nectar. The males, of course, are only kept around in case the queen needs a consort. And the queen, who lives for several years, replenishes the population.

It’s not hard to wonder at how brilliantly organized the beehive is, and how communal, hard working, and selfless each member has to be in order for the system to work. I find myself comparing human society with that of colonial insects—bees, ants, termites—and often we humans come up short. Of course it’s not a fair comparison; human society is far more complex, and really only in dystopian books like The Giver and Divergent do we find the same kind of rigid segregation of jobs as are found in a beehive or ant hill. But still I’m drawn to bees as examples of how much can be accomplished if we all worked together instead of against each other.

* * *

When we meet James and John in Mark’s gospel, these two sons of Zebedee are jostling for the best seats in the eternal opera house that is God’s Heavenly Kingdom. On the surface, this story speaks immediately to the vanity of the two apostles. They each want places of honor in the afterlife. After all, they were handpicked by Jesus, so they have plenty of reason to believe that they have an inside track. Jesus eventually rebuffs them with the famous line, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all”. He says to them that they have mistaken privilege with responsibility; that they have become fixated on the reward, and not the work; that, in essence, they have not understood a large part of what Jesus has been preaching.

This is a very good and valuable lesson, and if I didn’t have 8 and a half more minutes to fill, we could leave it there.

But here’s the thing: It’s actually a very subtle and nuanced lesson. In these ten short verses, we actually see the entire arc of once and future humanity.

If you believe the fossil record, we’ve been working on becoming human for about 2 million years. The tree that eventually formed a branch that became us included many fits and starts, and then, by about 50 thousand years ago, a species that we would recognize as modern human finally emerged. It was a long time in coming, but here we are, with cars and houses and jobs and fancy clothes and French restaurants. We’ve made it, baby! We’re the top of the food chain! Ain’t it great to be human?

But I guess that’s my question for today. We’ve been working hard for 2 million years. We’ve done wonderful things with our big brains and our opposable thumbs. But have we really become human yet? Are we done?

If you take a really, really broad brush at it, you can imagine that the path to becoming homo sapiens has two major points of realization. The first comes rather naturally—being selfish.

Selfishness is actually a very important evolutionary trait. Simply put, the more selfish you are—that is, the more you look out for Number One—the more likely you could survive a bit longer, and the more likely your genetic material could be passed along. Competition was the name of the game of life. I grew up on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, so I saw plenty examples of huge and ferocious animals fighting each other for hunting territory or breeding rights. I imagine that the earliest humans acted pretty much the same way.

Then at some point, there was the second realization: competition gave way to cooperation, and we see humans living and working together. These small hunter-gatherer groups became villages, then city-states, then entire nations. Even today we look upon cooperation as a human ideal. We can do so much more when we work together, like bees. Cooperation is a huge improvement.

But was the move from competition to cooperation any less selfish? The truth is, somewhere along the evolutionary line, it became clear that Number One could survive longer in a social group than alone. The selfish move, therefore, is to not be quite so overtly selfish, but the end result is still rooted in self-interest.

Sociologists study this sort of thing, but it wasn’t until John Nash (the Nobel laureate and subject of the movie, A Beautiful Mind) that this selfish behavior was given a scientific framework called “Game Theory.” The premise is simple: Given a set of rules that everyone understands, and an objective that everyone wants, players will make moves that are in their best interest to maximize obtaining the objective. Simple, right? Here it is in plain English: Everyone plays to win. The best strategy, however, may mean you take a longer view of winning. That’s where cooperation comes in.

We do this every day, even if we don’t think about it. If I work for a company, and the company gives me money, we are both achieving our objectives, even though I’m not working for the sheer pleasure of it, and my company isn’t paying me out of a sense of altruism. We are playing games every day, sometimes for short-term gain, sometimes for a long-term result, but we’re all game players, and we’re pretty good at it, too.

Religion is not immune to acting out of a deep sense of self-interest. I say “religion,” but what I really mean is the instantiation of religion. The human instantiation. Somewhere in the chasm between God and people who want to know God, certain folks decided that they needed to act as our agent in our relationship with God. Sometimes this is awesome, and these folks help us understand God better. Sometimes it’s not, and the folks that shape the way we approach God wield a great deal of power within society. Too inevitably, they make up rules that help keep them in power—ever heard of “divine right”? And even more nefariously, these folks can use religion to corral and control their followers. You don’t have to think very hard to know exactly what I’m talking about.

Two weeks ago, the passage in Mark had Jesus sparring again with the Pharisees about the rules for engaging God. Jesus quite clearly delighted in constantly undermining the authority of the established religious leadership. Why is he doing this? Because Jesus knew then what we can see so prevalent today: When a small group of people control access to God, human nature takes over, and those people use religion as an instrument to further their own self-interest. They are looking out for Number One.

In last week’s installment, Mark told us about the rich young man who wanted to know God, but found that he could not give up his possessions to do so. No matter how sincere he was, human nature won. In the end, he was guide by his own self-interest. He was looking out for Number One.

And in today’s episode, Mark shows us, through James and John, that even the apostles were subject to the foibles of human nature. They wanted to be special, to have glory and praise above everyone else. They, too, were looking out for Number One.

Jesus has a choice here. On one hand, he can look around and say, “Well, people will be people,” and try to help us frame our relationship with God using the tools and tendencies we all come naturally equipped with—our innate human nature. He could have worked within the established religious system. He could have given the rich young man an easier way out. He could have smiled at the hubris of James and John.

But he didn’t.

Jesus did not come among us to make us feel better. Jesus never worked within the system; Jesus redefined the system. Jesus came among us to help us fully realize our own humanity. If the arc of human nature bends from competition to cooperation, then Jesus came to show us the next part of the progression: being Children of God.

Children of God. That’s an epithet that we in the Christian community use so often we take for granted what it really means. Through Mark, Jesus is telling us exactly what it means. It means putting all others before self. It means, in the language of Jesus’ day, “being slave to all.” It doesn’t just mean no longer looking out for Number One, it means that there can no longer be a Number One. Jesus tells us that to be truly human—the humanity that God has created us to experience—we have to disregard everything we know about human nature.

How do we live into the human ideal of selflessness, when the self-interest of human nature has a 2 million year head start? It’s not just difficult to constantly act in a way that completely and utterly denies self; it’s downright terrifying.

Who will look out for us, if we don’t look out for our own selves?

No one.


The point is this: To experience humanity, to truly be Children of God, we have to have faith. Faith that is okay to open ourselves to the vulnerability that comes when we dissolve away any need to look out for Number One. This is an immensely huge task. I don’t know if it’s even possible. It may take another 2 millions years. But I do know this. I know that it is essential that we work hard at it every day.

I’d better get started.