Primal Altruism

We’ve been discussing the Didache at Journey, and last night we had an interesting conversation about the verse “Abstain from fleshly and bodily lusts” (1:4).  I know-  you think you can guess what follows this.  But you’d be wrong.  Here’s what the Didache says immediately following that verse:  “If someone strikes your right cheek, turn the other also, and be perfect.  If someone forces you to go one mile, go two.  If someone takes your cloak, give also your coat.  If someone takes from you what is yours, don’t ask for it back.  You really cannot.”

Leave it to the early church to remind us that retaliation, violence, hoarding and greed are “fleshly and bodily lusts” unbecoming to Jesus followers.

Another strand of our conversation came around the idea of these “forces” of discord, conflict, ungraciousness being described in a way that one of our community members, Misty, called “primal.”  We are like tigers crouching, eager to pounce in our attempt to gain power or control over any number of things.  One look through the headlines and in our own mirrors and this sounds about right.

Just to balance that sobering reality with a little hope (you know me, I’m in the hope business), here’s another thing about us that is primal:  altruism.  My husband forwarded this NY Times article to me and I found it quite fascinating.  Here’s a snippet:

Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards. A team including Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.

The implication is that we are hard-wired to be altruistic.

Of course, I attribute this to being created in the image of an altruistic God.  This doesn’t mean that we still don’t have struggles with the crouching power-hungry tiger that often lives inside of us, but it does mean that we are absolutely capable of choosing, in the Didache’s words, the way of life.  And wouldn’t you know it- we are even happier when we do so.


  1. I love it! Both the hope (we can always use more of it) and the neuroscience. I’m fascinated by the “backroom” workings of our brains, and–though this research may suggest that it’s not exactly “altruism”–think it’s fantastic that we’re so wired as to *want* to help each other out.

  2. That evolution selects for communal virtues such as altruism seems fairly logical. I think that generally the primal lusts that we are implored to deny are those that arise from situations where social networks break down. When it becomes every person for themselves, primal lusts make sense. Yet, the creative productivity of communities really suggest that social behavior is a higher degree of evolutionary fitness; altruism is an outgrowth of this.

    I think the challenge that Jesus presents, is that he leaves no room for the implicit exclusionary character that hides in the shadow of altruism. All of Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity and religion seemed to really bring to the forefront the way that altruism became a mask for a core of hidden lusts that seem to fester with all Christians. Jesus, though, shows that altruism is really a farce when it stops at boundaries that are convenient to our own social divisions. (i.e. race, social class, etc.)

    One thing I take from this article is that lustfulness lies dangerously close to altruism, and that even when we think we are acting selflessly, our selfishness can easily be pulling the strings. If the same part of the brain is getting rewards either way, it is no small task to follow Jesus’ example and genuinely live for the benefit of others outside our own particular cliques.

  3. Good thoughts, Joe. I agree that even altruism has a crouching tiger, eager to receive power or influence by being seen in a positive light. Perhaps this is why Jesus commands us so often to resist showy displays, even in pursuit of the good. (Don’t pray in public, if you’re fasting stick some rouge on your cheeks, etc.) And certainly we desire to be altruistic to some while excluding others we deem “unworthy.” The Didache says “flee evil of all kinds.” And that’s most dangerous when it’s hiding underneath the shadows of what seems so good.

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