The most primitive part of the human brain is the amygdala. The amygdala is very small, sitting at the back of the brain, near the brain stem. It’s what scientists call the “lizard brain” because it has the same basic functions as, well, a lizard’s brain.
In Florida, we have lots of lizards. When I lived in South Florida, we had all kinds of lizards – tiny ones, smaller than my pinky, to great big iguanas, growing to many feet long. Every time I opened my door, a gaggle of lizards scattered – from the tiniest, to the largest. Actually, “gaggle” is the wrong term. A “gaggle” is a group of geese. A group of lizards is called a “lounge,” which has nothing to do with today’s message at all!
Lizards scatter because they perceive threat, even when there’s no intent of harm. That’s how lizards’ brains work – RUN from perceived danger!!! In fact, a lizard’s brain has only three functions: eat, reproduce, flee from danger. That’s it.
Scientists say the amygdala serves the same function in humans – eat, reproduce, flee from danger. It’s the survival part of the brain. It’s where our “fight or flight” response originates. It’s what drives our reaction to perceived threat. And, in humans, that isn’t restricted to physical danger. We might feel threatened by someone’s disapproval; or fear of conflict; or upsetting someone; or feeling insecure; or someone cutting us off in traffic; or when we hear something go “thump” at night; or a post on social media. When our “safety” feels threatened – physical, emotional, psychological – our lizard brain reacts – RUN! FIGHT! – whether we need to or not.
But, unlike lizards, we have much larger, more advanced brains, capable of much higher thinking. The problem is, most of our amygdalas are WAY over-active – like lizards – perceiving danger EVERYWHERE, ALL OF THE TIME.
Just think about recent events…
- The “Me Too” movement revealed real dangers to women, and some men, by sexual predators in positions of power.
- The “Black Lives Matter” movement and recent protests has revealed the real life-and-death dangers African Americans face, often just for being black.
- Political ads play to our fears, playing on hot button issues like crime and immigration.
- Covid-19, and the whole issue of wearing face-masks, causes us to fear each other, not knowing who might be carrying the disease.
Real dangers become generalized, and begin to perceive danger everywhere.
This didn’t just start, of course. Fear and distrust existed among humans throughout history. There’ve always been “enemies,” wishing to do us harm – roving marauders, enemies at the gate. Children are taught about “stranger danger.” Watch the evening news, and it seems like life-threatening dangers are everywhere, all of the time.
We take self-defenses classes, live in gated communities, install home security systems, obtain concealed-carry permits for firearms, avoid driving through certain “high-crime’ neighborhoods, make sure our kids go to “good” – meaning “safe” – schools, we carry mace.
Don’t get me wrong. There ARE dangerous people in the world, who WILL do harm, if we aren’t careful. We have to be careful! The problem is, legitimate fears and dangers often expand exponentially beyond reality, and we start seeing risk everywhere. Lizard brain takes over, and we perceive danger, whether it actually exists or not.
For example, when I was a kid, we were served little cartons of milk with our school lunches. Every milk carton displayed the picture of a missing child. That was real and tragic. There were abducted children. Children DO need to be careful. But, none of us noticed that a relatively small number of faces appeared repeatedly on those cartons. Without realizing it, we saw the same faces, over and over. And, most of the children pictured, had been “abducted” by one of their own parents during a contentious custody battle. But, the milk carton campaign gave the impression MANY children had been abducted by strangers, and that ALL children were constantly under threat, terrifying an entire generation of children.
Similarly, there were stories about people doing terrible things on Halloween – like sticking needles in candy, or razor blades in apples, or poisoning candy. Hospital ERs, for a time, offered to x-ray bags of Halloween candy. Undeniably, it would be terrible for a child to bite down on a needle or a razor blade. But, all of that was a myth. No needles or razor blades were ever found! The reason children get sick on Halloween is from eating too much sugar – not poison. The #1 danger is on Halloween is children running in the street and getting hit by a car – not tainted Halloween candy!
I’m not suggesting we should put our children in danger, of course. My point is, our fears often expand way beyond actual threats, causing us, like lizards, to run and hide.
The result: we create safe little bubbles in which to live and function, pushing out any and every potential, perceived threat. We tighten the circle of safety; surrounding ourselves and our families with people we know; people who look like us, act like us, think like us, vote like us, shop like us, live near us, go to church with us; all the while thinking we’re keeping dangers at bay. But, are we? Or, are we just pushing people away – perfectly innocent people – people who could be potential friends in Christ?
John Pavlovitz writes, “Uniformity usually breeds an inherited affinity for the familiar and a fear of what isn’t.”
Desmond and Mpho Tutu, writing about our negative attitudes – fears and suspicions – of others, say, “When we are uncaring, when we lack compassion, when we are unforgiving, we will always pay the price for it. Is it not, however, we alone who suffer. Our whole community suffers, and ultimately our whole world suffers. We are made to exist in a delicate network of interdependence. We are sisters and brothers, whether we like it or not. To treat anyone as if they are less than human, less than a brother or a sister, no matter what they have done, is to contravene the very laws of humanity.”
That’s what fear often does. It dehumanizes people. It turns people into monsters to be avoided, instead of people with whom meaningful connections can be made.
In today’s scripture, we’re introduced to a man named Cornelius. Cornelius was, we are told, a good man, “He and his whole household were pious, Gentile God-worshippers. He gave generously to those in need among the Jewish people and prayed to God constantly.” (Acts 10:2).
Except, Cornelius had baggage. He was a Roman centurion. That made him two things: an enemy and a gentile. He was an enemy because the Romans were foreign invaders, who kept the locals subservient to Caesar through violent means. Even if Cornelius was a “good” centurion, he was still the enemy. And, he was a gentile. “Gentile” simply means “non” Jewish. But, to a Jew, that’s a big deal! Jews considered gentiles “unclean.” Jews weren’t allowed to enter the home of a gentile, because that would make you “unclean.” And, being “unclean,” for a devout Jew, was a VERY big deal!
But, one day, an angel appeared to Cornelius, saying, “Your prayers and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to God. Send messengers to Joppa at once and summon a certain Simon, the one known as Peter.” (Acts 10:4-6). This is the same Peter chosen by Jesus, who became one of the early leaders of the Church.
The next day, Peter was on the roof of the house, praying. Picking up at Acts 10:10ff, “Peter became hungry and wanted to eat. While others were preparing the meal, he had a visionary experience. He saw heaven opened up and something like a large linen sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. Inside the sheet were all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!” (vs. 10-13)
Jews, to this day, have strict dietary rules. “Unclean” foods were off-limits. And, in the same way a gentile makes you unclean, eating unclean foods had the same result. No devout Jew wants to be “unclean!”
But, Peter saw a vision of unclean foods, lowered from heaven, and a heavenly voice telling him to eat. At first, Peter rejected the idea on religious grounds, “Peter exclaimed, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke a second time, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This happened three times, then the object was suddenly pulled back into heaven. Peter was bewildered about the meaning of the vision.” (Acts 10:14-17)
No wonder Peter was bewildered. This changed EVERYTHING, and not just what you can and can’t eat! This meant Peter could order steak AND lobster for dinner, AND invite a gentile to join him! Heaven declared, “unclean” isn’t unclean anymore!
“Just then, the messengers sent by Cornelius discovered the whereabouts of Simon’s house and arrived at the gate. Calling out, they inquired whether the Simon known as Peter was a guest there. While Peter was brooding over the vision, the Spirit interrupted him, “Look! Three people are looking for you. Go downstairs. Don’t ask questions; just go with them because I have sent them.” (Acts 10:17-20)
Peter put two and two together. The vision wasn’t about dietary laws. It was about people; people previously considered unclean; people previously held at arm length; people previously feared.
Introductions were made. One thing led to another and Peter went to the home of Cornelius, saying, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:28). And then in Acts 10:34-36, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all!”
Later that day, Peter baptized the entire household, making them among the first gentile followers of Christ. Imagine if Peter had refused to go into Cornelius’ home, on the grounds “he wasn’t clean.”
Prior to this encounter, Peter kept his distance from “unclean” gentiles. Why? Primarily, fear; fear of strangers, fear of contamination, fear of God’s disapproval. Better to play it safe, keep your distance, associate with people like you.
It should be noted, unless you’re Jewish, you’re a gentile too. So am I. Think of that. You’re one of the people Peter thought was unclean. You and I are people Peter avoided! That is, until God declared us “clean.”
Let me ask a question: who do you consider “unclean?” Who do you avoid, exclude, lock-out, because you’re, at some level, afraid of them? Or, maybe “fear” is too strong of a word. Maybe it’s more accurate to say there are some people we distrust; we’re suspicious of; people that make us nervous; people we hold a prejudice against. Is it possible, sometimes, the person we see as “unclean” is our brother or sister in Christ?
Here’s the point of today’s message: when Jesus told us to love our neighbors, he meant everybody! He meant respectable people like Cornelius, that our fears and suspicions blind us too. And, he also told us to love our enemies. Christians are called to be bridge-builders, not wall builders! Our job is to, like Peter, confront our fears, and be courageous enough to overcome them, for the sake of relationship and connection.
How do we do that? Earlier, I mentioned our lizard brains, which are constantly reacting, or over-reacting, to perceived dangers or threats. But, the amygdala is the smallest part of the brain. God also gave humans huge pre-frontal cortexes, where we can think, discern, and reason. Fear, originating in our lizard brains, is just an unconscious impulse. From time to time, we need to honestly evaluate our fears, worries, mistrust and suspicions toward others. I’m not suggesting we put ourselves in danger. That’s why God also gives us wisdom and understanding.
Maybe part of how we love God with our minds is using more than just our lizard brains. Maybe part of how we love and connect with people, is not being unnecessarily afraid of them.