By: Janet Mendenhall
They are my friends. And in a way, they are my neighbors. But they were also squatters. It is true that they had been squatting on the porch of a condemned house down the street from me. A few were actually living on that porch, while others just spent parts of the day there hanging out, sharing stories and a beer or two. Sometimes I would visit with these friends as they walked through the community garden where I was weeding. Or I would have a chat with them as I was walking by the porch. I have had breakfast with some of them at Breakfast on Beech Street, and we have lunched and worshipped together at City Light Ministries.
The group had been congregating at houses closer to the corner convenience store that specializes in 40-ounce bottles of beer and cheap cigarettes, before being forced down the street one house at a time. This house was recently selected, and its overgrown shrubs and bushes provided shade and camouflage for the illegal campsite on the porch. This house also had next-door neighbors who complained loudly enough to rouse the interest of a reporter at the local television station, who was loud enough to shake up the city’s code enforcers. Within days the shady camouflage was cut down and the ragged remnants of the squatters’ makeshift quarters tossed in a waste bin. The squatters were warned by the city’s code compliance officer not to return. And just like that, they were gone.
I watched the news story as they interviewed my squatter neighbors, some of whom struggle with mental and physical disabilities, and I was both sad and frustrated. I love my friends who gathered at the corner of my street. They are kind and compassionate and loyal and helpful to one another. But they were there illegally, and sometimes messy and noisy and not respectful of their neighbors. There was always tension for me as I visited my friends at the corner and saw the mess that was theirs. I remarked to the corner community once about cleaning up the area, which was met with cheers and jeers but mostly ignored. I never knew quite how to respond to the situation. Consequently I didn’t do much, except continue to listen and receive the prayers and blessings and hugs and laughter they would offer me as we met and to lament the tenuous conditions of their daily life and the hopelessness I felt regarding a solution.
The news story was of course posted online as well as shown on the evening news. It was the comments posted in response to the story that frustrated me. They weren’t surprising. They were in fact, expected. They came in the standard two sizes fit all:
- Throw them in jail, those lazy, no-good squatters, or
- Leave them alone; they are people too, just like you, and we are called to love and be kind to all people.
And then follows the yelling back and forth. We have become accustomed to polarized posts that defend one’s position so loudly that there seems no hope for any listening, and certainly no resolution. I know this. Lately, I have read these comments on everything from Syria to suicide, Iraq to immigration, gun control to gay marriage. You have, too. Maybe you have made some.
Recent research has shown an actual, observable difference between the brains of those who typically support and vote for conservative ideals and their liberal counterparts. In that study published in 2011 in Current Biology, conservatives were found to have larger right amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear, which some would argue may provide this group with a keener response to threats and signs of danger. Liberals were found to have a larger anterior cingulate cortex, which might be linked to an enhanced ability to handle change and uncertainty. A number of other research projects point to differences in the way the two groups respond to stimuli and the neural mechanisms that are triggered in certain situations. These seem to indicate a biological and psychological basis for the different ideologies of these two groups. The research is not conclusive, and it could be with regard to the structural differences that these changes occur over time as a result of a person’s thinking.
But it is interesting to consider the possibilities:
What if it isn’t about who has the right answer or the most compelling argument? What if we are intentionally wired differently? What if two heads really are better than one – particularly if they are different? What if as God’s people with the help of his Spirit we can come together as one people? What if we can model seeing our differences as the completion of one another?
What if together we use our big amygdala AND our big anterior cingulate cortex to strive to build one kingdom, where rather than just argue about squatters and other such matters, we create space for both groups’ big ideas to work together toward a fuller life for all of us?