School shooting defused peacefully

Yesterday, in Willoughby, Ohio, a student brought a gun to school – and, instead of calling in the SWAT team, the principal and assistant principal confronted him and talked him down.

“Our gut told us that the young man did not want to hurt us, but he may in fact be ready to hurt himself very soon,” Lyons told NPR’s “All Things Considered” in an interview broadcast this afternoon. “Panic mode did set in a bit, but we then said to ourselves, ‘what are we going to do to keep this young man safe?'” Lyons said that he and the principal drew on years of experience working with kids, and, when the student threatened suicide, Lyons actually told him about his memories of a high school friend who had killed himself.

Not only is this an example of incredible bravery, it demonstrates that a peaceful response to a violent situation takes more nerve and creativity than simply resorting to force. I have a t-shirt with that message, but Lyons and his fellow administrator lived it yesterday.

CPT on the BBC

Something like a year after the tragic conclusion of a hostage crisis involving four of its volunteers in Iraq, Christian Peacemaker Teams gets some coverage over at the BBC. The Beeb has a photo essay about CPT’s team in Hebron, one of the worst flashpoints in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and also the team I happen to have visited during my undergraduate cross-cultural semester in the region. CPT’s stated mission is to bring a nonviolent presence to the worst conflicts in the world — to actually “get in the way” of warring parties — and the team I met were good folks. It’s good to seem their message reach a wider audience.

Via Young Anabaptist Radicals.

Essay: Biology and morality

My new favorite podcast is Radio Lab, from New York Public Radio. It’s sort of Nova plus This American Life, with a heavy dose of the Douglas Adams sensibilities that I’ve come to associate with co-host Robert Krulwich. And it’s awesome.

What’s on my mind right now is the episode of 28 April 2006, “Morality”. It delves into emerging studies of the biology of human morals – what parts of the brain are involved in moral decision-making, and how evolutionary history shaped them. A key point is that there are two kinds of moral thinking, rules-based decision-making (“Thou shalt not kill”) and calculating (“the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”). And these two kinds of moral thinking take place in different parts of the brain. When they come into conflict, maybe because you’re thinking about killing someone in order to save several other people, a third area of the brain kicks in to decide between the two. This third area is (apparently) entirely unique to humans – not even chimpanzees have it.

But chimpanzees (and other apes) do have the rules-based moral thinking area. It helps them get along with other chimps. Which means that rules-based morality is evolutionarily primitive. If they could write, chimps could probably come up with most of the Ten Commandments! Where does that leave Christian morality? Is it all just pre-programmed behavior wrapped up in unnecessary mysticism?

No. As it happens, I’ve just finished reading Michael Ruse’s excellent book Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? (Cambridge University Press, 2001), which addresses exactly this question. And, as Ruse points out, Christ’s teachings call us to live beyond the Ten Commandments – those moral principles that seem to crop up in every human belief system.

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet those who greet you, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5:46-8 (NIV)

In other words, Christians are to exceed the dictates of morality that everyone already follows. We’re to transcend our biology, using that part of our brain that sets us above the rest of the animal kingdom.