be careful little eyes what you see

As a neuropsychologist, my day-to-day work involves assessing how people think and process information. Forgetfulness is people’s primary complaint when they see me; however, I evaluate more than memory. A thorough neuropsychological evaluation examines cognitive skills like memory, attention, and word-finding; emotions like depression, anxiety, or anger; sensory changes; and relational difficulties. Just as our thinking is complex, so are the variables associated with understanding and processing information. Although I use various psychological tests to assist in my evaluations, spending time with well over 10,000 patients over the years, I also notice behavioral trends that provide me with additional insight.

Increased anger and paranoia are patterns I have noticed more over the past few years, especially among my elderly patients. Although their doctors routinely refer them for evaluation of dementia, once they are in my office, their family members will tell me that dad has become much more irritable, judgmental, and paranoid. In my experience, it’s usually men who display this pattern. As a diagnostician, I am asked to determine what is wrong and what factors contribute to cognitive, behavioral, and interpersonal changes. In the case of dementia, changes in the structure and function of the brain are generally evident.

However, I have observed increased paranoia and anger often accompanied by constant exposure to cable news. More than once, as family members have lamented these behavioral changes, they have shared their exasperation, saying, “He watches Fox News 24/7” (n.b. I have only heard people say this about right-wing media. It does not, therefore, mean that the same thing does not happen with left-wing media).

Disease or injury can change our brains in drastic ways, but it is also true that experience changes our brains by strengthening or weakening synaptic connections. When we continually expose ourselves to toxic or divisive things, we unwittingly become more toxic and divisive. In truth, it is not only my dementia patients who are becoming this way; it is happening to many of us.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Many of the things we consume, both as edible food and as sensory impressions, have toxins in them. Just as we might feel worse after eating a whole bag of chips, we often feel worse after we spend many hours on social media sites or playing video games. After we consume like that in an effort to block out or cover up unpleasant feelings, somehow we only end up feeling even more loneliness, anger, and despair” (Silence: the Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise, 2015).

So what can you do? First, understand that regardless of how intelligent, wise, or objective you believe you might be, what you expose yourself to shapes you gradually at first, but the effect can be drastic over time. Second, regardless of what you are taking in, be willing to ask, “what is the message behind the message?” Is this meme/newscast/article encouraging love and understanding or hatred and division? What emotional response are they seeking to generate? Third, set boundaries with people who seem to be driven by divisiveness and hatred; your heart will thank you. Unfollowing people on Facebook or Twitter can be a holy act. Fourth, intentionally turn off the television and do something else. Go for a walk and say hello to your neighbors.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.-Philippians 4:8

*There is a fascinating 2015 documentary titled “The Brainwashing of my Dad,” that provides additional insight into this phenomenon. I watched it on Amazon Prime, though it can be found through multiple sources.

Some reflections on my faith

In their eagerness to defend their faith, many Christians refuse to look honestly at the crises American Christendom faces and the corruption within its ranks. They prefer to present to the world a spiritual Potemkin village, projecting an image of righteousness that hides some disturbing realities. There’s a desire to conceal the abuses and the wounds, the struggles and the failures, the harsh judgmentalism and craving to dominate and dehumanize others, the doubts and the dark sides. The viciousness of church politics can rival pretty much any other politics you can name; the difference is that the viciousness within churches is often cloaked in lofty spiritual language and euphemisms. 

Peter Wehner, The Scandal Rocking the Evangelical World

A few weeks ago, I told a friend, “I am as thirsty for the real Jesus as I have ever been, but I am tired of church bullshit.” Some of you reading this are more concerned that I said “bullshit” than you are about the state of the church in America. Some of you may have questioned whether I am still a Christian. I still believe Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and because I believe that, I feel burdened to add my voice to those saying that evangelicalism is in trouble. Yet there are many Christians who want to blame the surrounding culture for our problems rather than take a hard look inside.

I am not alone in my disillusionment. Every week, I hear from friends and acquaintances about their disappointment and confusion about the church in America. Some continue to go through the motions of going to church but feel conflicted. Others have stopped attending services while still considering themselves to be Jesus followers. Still others have rejected Christianity altogether. A substantial number of people have adopted the term “ex-vangelical” to describe themselves in recent years.

Why the exodus away from the church? There are too many reasons and individual stories to detail here, but here are some of my concerns. First, it seems that every week in the news, there is a new story about some prominent Christian leader or denomination caught in sexual abuse and exploitation. As I watched how one denomination chose to handle a victim of sexual abuse who bravely came forward, I felt disoriented and disgusted. The denominational leaders called her a liar and said she was making up her abuse because she was no longer under the control of her husband. I have watched other churches and denominations ignore, minimize, or try to sidestep accusations of abuse within their midst. Leaders in one prominent denomination recently suggested that sexual scandals are distracting them from the work of sharing the gospel. Father forgive us.

Christians claim to be pro-life, yet in truth, they generally mean they are anti-abortion. When it comes to taking steps to honor and protect the lives and dignity of those already born, too often, Christians act in dehumanizing ways. Several years ago, I wrote a blog post about the viciousness of some of the pastors from my hometown directed against Muslims. We claim to desire religious freedom, but routinely act in ways that deny that freedom to non-Christians. We respond to violence with violence in words and sometimes in action.

Evangelicals want to pretend that racism is not an issue in the American church, but too often are unwilling to look at the historical and current hurts experienced by racial minorities. Dismissive responses to movements like “Black Lives Matter” fail to acknowledge the unique pain felt by blacks and people of color. In recent months, many prominent evangelicals are more concerned about Critical Race Theory, which the average congregant knows nothing about, than they are about the ongoing racism in our midst. Rather than listening to understand, we insist that we are not racist while we fail to recognize the insensitivity and dismissiveness of saying things like “All Lives Matter.”

All of these issues mix under the heading of Christian nationalism, which is not biblical Christianity. I had friends justifying the January 6 attack on the Capitol building because they believe in the need to take back America for God. Some continue to think the 2020 election was rigged despite all evidence to the contrary. They not only gave a pass to a leader who was self-centered, narcissistic, sexually immoral, caustic, and deceptive–the very opposite of Jesus–many claimed that he was the best Christian president ever. We have failed to recognize our own hypocrisy in suggesting that character somehow no longer matters.

Friends, what I see happening in the American church breaks my heart. We want to blame the surrounding culture, but our problems are primarily internal. Jesus came to show us a better way, the way of peace, love, welcome, and service. Until we are willing to take a hard look at the inside of the cup, we will continue to be clanging cymbals that drive people away from the loving arms of Jesus.

the boy who cried wolf, reimagined

The Shepherd Boy and the Wolf is one of Aesop’s best known fables. In the parable, a young shepherd was bored, so to make life interesting, he ran into the village crying out that a wolf was attacking the flock. The villagers were rightly concerned and came running only to find the boy laughing at them. He repeated the pattern until one day, a real wolf attacked. This time, when the boy “cried wolf,” the townsfolk did not believe him and the wolf killed many of his sheep.

As I watch the world today, I wonder if this retelling of Aesop might be more accurate.

There once was a farmer who owned many sheep who needed someone to watch over his flock. After interviewing several potential shepherds, he settled on a boy who was well-known in the village. Everyone knew that he was rough around the edges and had a reputation for telling tall tales. Several of the farmer’s friends raised questions about the boy’s character, but the farmer said, “I only want him to watch over my sheep. I care nothing about his character so long as he can manage, and maybe even grow, my flock.”

Time passed and the shepherd boy seemed to be doing a good job. The flock appeared healthy and the boy’s confidence bolstered the farmer’s faith in him. In the village, people often heard the boy boasting that the sheep were the healthiest they had ever been. Nevertheless, some of the villagers were concerned. They had gone out into the hills and the sheep did not appear to be doing as well as he bragged, and they were also concerned about his farming methods. Whenever they raised their concerns, however, the shepherd boy insisted that they were lying and were jealous of his success.

Eventually, the farmer’s flock began to dwindle and the farmer also became concerned. When he confronted the shepherd, the boy blamed the villagers who had previously raised concerns about his character and methods. Though the farmer was uncertain, several of the boy’s acquaintances said, “He’s right. It’s the villagers.”

As time passed, more sheep disappeared. The shepherd continued to proclaim that his accusers were at fault and that he had proof, though he never produced anything to support his accusations. Still, more people began to believe his claims because he stated them with such frequency and confidence.

Finally, the farmer had enough. He went to the shepherd and said, “You are ruining my flock. You keep saying that a group of jealous villagers is at fault, but you have never given any proof. In fact, I even have evidence that refutes your claims. How do you expect me to respond?”

Without missing a beat, the shepherd boy looked at the farmer and said, “Do you want proof? Nearly half of the villagers believe me. Nothing you say will convince them otherwise. You can cry wolf all you want, but they all know the truth.”

And at his words, the pack descended upon the farmer and tore him limb from limb.

delusion

“Delusions are defined as fixed, false beliefs that conflict with reality. Despite contrary evidence, a person in a delusional state can’t let go of their convictions.”

Very Well Mind

Delusion is a term that has left its clinical origins and entered the general conversation. The oft-repeated phrase “delusions of grandeur” from the Star Wars movies has undoubtedly influenced its use. I suspect that most people understand from the context that delusions have to do with distorted thinking but fail to appreciate the complexity or pain of delusional thinking.

As a neuropsychologist, delusions are among the most fascinating things I have encountered and some of the most troubling. Some delusions are considered “bizarre” because they cannot happen in real life. My patients with schizophrenia have shared a variety of these. One person believed he was Napoleon’s bodyguard. Another indicated she had been murdered several dozen times. In a condition called Capgras syndrome, people think that an identical replica has replaced a loved one. Sadly, no evidence will convince them otherwise.

People can also have non-bizarre delusions, which could happen in real life, even though there is no evidence to support them. As a psychologist, these are particularly tricky. Over the years, several dementia patients have believed their spouses have been cheating on them, again without proof. I remember consoling an older woman whose husband of six decades was utterly convinced that she was having an affair with a repairman in his twenties.

I also met a middle-aged gentleman following a brain injury who shared tales that seemed plausible but unlikely. He told me how he had built considerable wealth and that his children were now trying to steal it from him. I have seen children taking advantage of parents often enough to know this was possible. However, as he continued talking, his stories felt less and less grounded in reality, but again, they were difficult to prove. Ultimately, he told me that he had developed a close friendship with his attending neurosurgeon. I was able to confirm my suspicion that the gentleman had a delusional disorder.

The malleability of delusions is also incredibly challenging. When presented with objective evidence of their false beliefs, delusions adapt to incorporate the new information. These misconceptions do not arise from willful ignorance but an inability to think otherwise.

I feel powerless and frustrated when I encounter such distorted thinking, especially when it comes to people I know. No matter how much objective proof is provided, the delusional thought system either rejects it or reinterprets it. For the person suffering delusions, they consider those who challenge them to be deluded, misinformed, or even enemies. Why does this happen? Because they cannot think otherwise.

I suspect we are witnessing mass delusion right now. For four years, there has been insurmountable evidence that our president has been routinely deceptive and divisive. Over time, more and more people have come to understand the dangers associated with Trump’s presidency. Yet, the beliefs of many have become more deeply entrenched. In the past four years, their thinking has devolved from “never Trump” to “we will hold our noses and vote for him” to “he is the greatest Christian president in history.” Despite overwhelming evidence that no election fraud occurred, some continue to believe it. As former Trump allies have publicly disagreed with the president, some have taken their dissent as evidence of the “deep state” rather than accepting what is plain to most of us, Trump is wrong. Some public figures have even expressed their willingness to fight and die for him, and to oppose him is Satanic.

I pray that the truth is revealed. I hope that people will be able to honestly ask, “Is it possible I am wrong?” Yet from what I know about delusional thinking, it will take a miracle.

seeking clarity

2020 was supposed to be the year of clarity. Many of us began the year with the hope of “twenty-twenty vision,” right? Yet, 2020 has proven disorienting and depressing for many of us. We have become lost in the dense fog of COVID-19, social distancing, Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, MAGA, impeachment, the election, and murder hornets. These events are just the tip of the iceberg.

This morning, I was thinking about clarity. I asked, “Are there things that, despite this year’s sufferings, are clearer than ever? In confusion and uncertainty, what has emerged as essential?”

It is more obvious to me that I relish time alone. For most of my life, I thought of myself as a strong extravert and yet this year, I have rarely found myself longing for large social gatherings. At the same time, I miss the deep relational connections that I have fostered with a few people over the years. I haven’t really gotten together with anyone in the past several months, which has been hard sometimes. I have especially realized that little boys can still miss their moms something terrible, even when they are 48 years old.

It is more clear to me now than ever that I feel politically and theologically homeless. I have considered myself to be a Republican since I could vote. In 2016, I was a never-Trump conservative. In 2016, when the field of GOP primary candidates remained relatively large, most of my conservative friends agreed, though as Trump became the presumptive nominee, it seemed to me that principled conservativism was a myth and I was shocked that I was in the 19% of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump. Watching 2020’s election and post-election antics have made it clear that I am not only never-Trump, but that I cannot imagine voting GOP again unless there is some cataclysmic change.

Unfortunately, partly due to the enmeshment of Trumpism and evangelicalism (81% in 2016 and similar numbers this year), I also no longer describe myself as an evangelical. I have good friends who are not ready to throw out the evangelical baby with the nationalistic bathwater, but I have been unable to disentangle these two things in my own mind. I have doubts about beliefs that once felt immovable.

Furthermore, I have long surmised that there is a link between the outcome of the 2016 election and the increased awareness of religious abuse. I will not take the time to share my reasoning here, but if you are interested, ask me sometime. Over the past five years or so, it seems that hardly a month passes before another high profile Christian leader is credibly accused of abuse. Unfortunately, Christians generally do not wield power well…perhaps because Jesus never encouraged us to pursue power or status.

My doubts have sometimes found their way into my writings and I am certain that many people have wondered about my faith. One beloved friend asked me directly if I still believe in Jesus. However, it is also clear that I am not the only one who is feeling unsettled. Many people have reached out to share their own confusion and I have been grateful for a fellowship of strugglers. Many of us are asking questions important questions about what it means to be a Christian in 2020. Sometimes, I fear they want me to give them satisfactory answers when all I can muster is helping them ask good questions, so we commiserate (from co-misery = suffer together).

Still, in confusion, we find clarity. In darkness, we look for light. In fragmentation, we desire wholeness. This year has taught me that faith and hope matter, but that if St. Paul was correct, it is clear that love matters most of all.

the burden of pretending

Yesterday at work, I felt a fresh wave of sadness as I read news of yet another friend losing a loved one to COVID-19. When I told my wife, she said, “This is getting scary. Please don’t die.” Anger joined with my sadness when I heard about another friend who was not wearing a mask in public because she does not like wearing them.

Men in America have often been discouraged from expressing their feelings, especially the “weak” emotions, like fear or grief. Real men are supposed to be tough and controlled, maintaining a veneer of strength even when inside we are feeling deep pain.

Christians are no better off. Our fear is discouraged when we are reminded that the Bible says “do not be afraid” 365 times (side note: it actually doesn’t, though it does frequently address fear). In the midst of sorrow, Christians sometimes “comfort” the grieving by saying “Everything happens for a reason.” When Christians are angry about injustice, we are told to remember the importance of unity, which is often code for “Keep quiet.” I believe this is especially true for Christian women.

If this is place where you are coming from, you may wish to stop reading now. You have been warned.

I am afraid. I am afraid that my wife or my children will die from COVID-19. I am afraid of what would happen to them if I died. I am afraid that I will never be able to hug my mom again. I am afraid that if I do catch COVID-19 that it will affect my mind. I am afraid that things will never be the same. I am afraid of what will happen if Trump fails to concede the election. I am afraid of what might happen as he continues to spread falsehood and propaganda.

I am angry. I am angry when I see friends defying mask requirements. Some days, it takes everything within me to not say, “Put on a f@%!ing mask! If you don’t like wearing one, stay home!” I am angry when people seem to be more concerned about their individual liberties than loving their neighbors. I am angry when president Trump continues to spread propaganda and insist that he will still win when there is no path to him doing so. I am angry that he continues to promote suspicion and division in a deeply hurting nation that desperately needs leadership. I am angry that other leaders in what used to be “my party” continue to support his delusion and deception. I am angry when I see people twisting facts that are plainly obvious.

I am sad. I am sad that people are sick and dying. I am sad that our hospitals and morgues are full and that our healthcare providers are exhausted. I am sad that people keep pretending that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu or that it is politicized to keep Trump down. I am sad that suicide rates have skyrocketed. I am sad that since December, I have only spent an hour with my mom. I am sad that I have barely seen my dad or my wife’s parents this year. I am sad that my daughter’s wedding was not what she had initially planned. I am sad that I won’t get to go home for the holidays. I am sad that many people seem more committed to Trump than they do to the United States. I am sad that I cannot join together with my friends for coffee and embrace.

Maybe you are angry, afraid, or sad about the same things I am. Maybe you feel differently than I do. Maybe you feel these things and you have no idea why. Regardless, let yourself feel. God created us with emotion. Jesus felt every one of these things and he never apologized for them.

Pretending is a heavy burden. Be who you are. Give space to others to express their emotions when you have the margin to do so. Beware of the tendency to spiritualize or shame others for their emotions. Instead, listen without judgment and love without reservation.

a prayer on the eve of the election

Father, forgive us 
It is obvious that we have no clue what we are doing.  
You have given us the gift of reason  
yet when we insist that our understanding is right,
and we fail to acknowledge you,  
we have lost our way.  
Help us to turn again to you  
trusting you will set us on the right path, 
which is the way of love  
and when we get lost again  
bring us back home once more. 

I cannot stay silent

I tried watching the debate on Tuesday night, but I soon turned it off. The behavior I was witnessing stirred up old memories.

When I was in junior high, my mom started dating the high school shop teacher. There was a rumor that years earlier, he had been abusive toward his first wife, but he was so charming, it was impossible to believe. He was mechanically gifted and often shared stories about the wonderful things he had done and made and more than once, he used his gifts to help others. Their relationship progressed and they eventually married. Over time though, his grandiosity and narcissism became increasingly evident and along with it, abuse.

He never hit me, but he never missed an opportunity to take shots at me, to remind me of my worthlessness. I regularly heard that I would never amount to anything. Name calling, manipulating, gas lighting, and eye rolling were a daily occurrence. He was verbally and psychologically abusive. He was a malignant narcissist.

When they had been married less than a year, I was selected by my teachers to go to Badger Boys State. My mom and I had a difficult conversation on the way to Ripon College. I somehow found the courage to tell her that if he was still there when I got home, I was going to move in with my grandma. In the days that followed, she found her courage too and moved out.

I wish I could tell you that their separation led to a repentant heart, but it didn’t. His abuse and manipulation only intensified and it definitely took its toll on both my mom and me, but ultimately, leaving was the only healthy option. Sadly, the responses of friends and family were often less than helpful. People were incredulous that someone who was capable of doing good things was so evil.

Now, as a psychologist, I hear stories of abuse and manipulation every day, women and men who live under the terror of narcissists who seek to control and psychologically manipulate them, working to break them down to nothing. Too often, they succeed. The psychological scars left by narcissists are often multigenerational. As Diana Beresford-Kroeger said in her excellent book, To Speak for the Trees, “Trauma casts a long shadow.”  

As I watched part of the presidential debate on Tuesday night, I saw a lot of similarities between the president and my former step-father. I watched as the president rolled his eyes, scoffed, lied, interrupted, and belittled Mr. Biden. This is what abusers do, plain and simple.

To be clear, this was not merely an off night for president Trump. These behaviors represent consistent patterns over time. He talks about how great he is while at the same time demeaning and criticizing others. When he failed to decisively condemn white supremacy but indirectly told a white supremacist group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by,” I heard a vailed threat. As a psychologist, I can tell you that other abuse victims perceived the same things, even if they could not put words to it. Like me, many people had to stop watching.

As someone who has been psychologically abused and who also works with abuse victims, let me offer an explanation about why you may have felt the way you did. You were witnessing an abusive narcissist in action. Donald Trump’s words and actions are not simply a difference in personality style. He doesn’t act the way he does because he’s a New Yorker. He is a manipulative bully.

Sometimes manipulative bullies do good things. In fact, narcissists will take every opportunity to make themselves look better, not principally in service to the greater good, but in order to stoke their pride. As they build themselves up, they leave piles of confused and broken people behind them.  

For me, this election is not simply about policy, it is about standing against abuse on a national scale. For me, this election is not about platform, but about speaking out on behalf of the belittled and downtrodden. For me, the election is not simply about difference of opinion, but about using my voice and my vote to speak out against a man who has had four years to “Make America Great Again,” but by his words and actions has left us more deeply divided than we have been for generations. 

Let me also recommend some additional resources:

Those People

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Yesterday, my cousin posted a news article about a woman who had repeatedly punched a 12 year old who was carrying a Trump sign while riding his bike. Thankfully, he reported what happened and it is currently being investigated. I wish I could say something like this crime surprised me, but it doesn’t, at least not anymore. Sadly, I also was not surprised at the comments. People were quick to write that this sort of behavior is “typical” of democrats and we “only hear of democrats doing crap like this.” I don’t know about you, but this sort of animosity fills my Facebook feed every day. I routinely have to resist rushing in to defend “my side” and I am not always successful.

Here’s the thing: The problem isn’t those people. It’s you. It’s me. When we physically attack people for carrying Trump (or Biden) signs, we reveal the evil within our own hearts, not theirs. When we say this sort of behavior is “typical of democrats” (or republicans), we convict ourselves, not them.

Friends, our self-righteousness and divisive attitudes are literally killing us. We make sweeping assumptions about the hearts and motives of people who think differently than we do. We presume that those people are evil, so by extension, we must be good. The consequence of this way of thinking is division, not love, and every single one of us is guilty.

Let me offer a few thoughts:

  • When you feel compelled to share an article critical of those people, pause for a moment. Ask yourself, “Am I honoring their humanity?”
  • When you feel angry about what those people have said or done, ask yourself, “In what ways do I do similar things?” Consider not only your actions, but your words and thoughts, which have a greater effect than you might imagine.
  • When you want to respond to someone who thinks differently than you do, whether online or in person, practice the pause. Ask yourself, “Have I stopped to listen to what they are trying to say?” When we don’t try to listen and understand, we contribute to the hatred.
  • Resist the urge to call those people names.
  • Pray for peace, within the world and within yourself. If you have a hard time praying, consider reading the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi every day.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

Above all, do no harm…

I have been thinking about ethical principles for the past few days. Most professional organizations have a code of ethics that their members are expected to observe. Although the specifics may vary from organization to organization, there are often overarching principles that apply more universally. For example, ideas like beneficence (seek to do good to others), non-malfeasance (do not harm others), autonomy (do not infringe upon the freedom of others), and integrity (promoting honesty and truthfulness) are common. These principles work well on paper, but in real life, ethical decisions are sometimes less obvious.

The typical American citizen is not beholden to these same ethical standards; however, I suspect a large majority of us would agree that these are useful ideas to uphold. Doing good to others while avoiding harm to them, respecting their freedom, promoting justice, and living with integrity are all good things. But how do we make decisions when these principles appear to conflict, especially when our decisions feel infinitely complex? We are faced with questions such as: who defines what is good? How do I decide when insisting upon my freedom may bring harm to other people? How do we resolve the dilemma when something that is beneficial to one group of people may be harmful to another group of people? Most of us would also agree that these choices are not easy.

Thus enters primum non nocere, rendered, “first, do no harm.” This phrase is often attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates, though it is not actually found in the physician oath bearing his name. Regardless, non-malfeasance is a good place to begin. If I am able to reasonably determine that my action or inaction may harm others, it then behooves me to choose an alternative if it is possible. Assuredly, beneficence is closely related to non-malfeasance. Seeking the good of others is virtuous. I would further suggest that for Christians, beneficence is central to our understanding of Christian love.

What has concerned me for some time is what appears to be a tendency to elevate autonomy above both beneficence and non-malfeasance. In other words, we often seem to be more committed to our personal freedom than we are to the well-being of others. We will loudly proclaim “What about my rights?” while seemingly overlooking or discounting the potential harm to others that might come from insisting upon our own way. Too often it seems, at least in 21st century America, our motto has become primum sui iuris (first, autonomy) rather than primum non nocere. I am doubtful that America’s founders saw autonomy as the highest good, although they clearly valued freedom. I am certain that Jesus did not value autonomy as the highest good.

How have we as Christians come to this place where our principal value, stated or unstated is not, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you,” but rather “Don’t tread on me”?

I suspect some people will read my words as rejecting autonomy. I’m not. What I am suggesting is that it appears, to me at least, that our values have gotten turned upside down. Jesus came and showed us how to live as citizens of God’s kingdom in this world, intentionally seeking the good of others and the glory of God. In fact, he went so far as to tell us, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NLT). This does not mean accepting the possibility of dying for your faith at some later date, but rather seeking the good of others even when it may cost you something. It means that when we are asked to do something that could benefit others, even though it means setting aside our rights, we will do so if it is reasonable.

If our primary citizenship is in the kingdom of the world, we will doubtless prioritize autonomy; however, if our first commitment is to the kingdom of God, we will seek to do good to others even when it means setting aside our own preferences or comfort.