The First Condition

What is the first condition? Is it a clause in a legal contract? A synonym for the purported “mint condition” of the car on the lot? Maybe it’s Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, enjoying (and naming) the birds and the bees and the hippos and the goats and the blueberries and the sweet potatoes—before that scaly hissing thing turned up and ruined it all.
Maybe the first condition is a primal urge—something so intrinsic to the human psyche that it just pops up unexpectedly and carries us away, willy-nilly, despite whatever layers of civilization and education and religion we’ve piled on top of it. The naked truth of our species (there’s Adam and Eve again). What John Calvin meant, probably, by “original sin.”
I heard on NPR this past summer that gangs of Buddhists on motorcycles had been attacking Muslims in Myanmar. Really?! It seemed so outrageous that I almost laughed out loud.
Buddhists? Can you picture that? Our western vision of Buddhists—doubtless not accurate, or not including all the strains of that religion—is of someone sitting quietly in the lotus position, a man naked except for a loin cloth, meditating in silence for long periods of time, loving all creatures of the earth, so that he would not even slap at a mosquito feasting on his naked arms.
That Buddhist on a motorcycle? Imagine. He’d have to unwind to put his feet down and his hands on the handlebars. Would he put a helmet over his bald head? And a whole group of motorcycle-riding Buddhists, like those you sometimes encounter on the Blue Ridge Parkway or stopped at a bar? It boggles the imagination.
Armed Buddhists on motorcycles—attempting to assassinate Muslim families in the market or outside the mosque? With what weapons? “Knives, swords, and bamboo poles,” according to the article I found by googling “Buddhists motorcycles violence.” And there were three hundred of these armed bikers—more than enough to totally clog up the parkway.
As unbelievable as this scenario appears to be, it’s an illustration of a primal condition, something built into us as a species equipped to survive in “nature red in tooth and claw”—a species that evidently mated with the Neanderthals and then exterminated them.
The admiral aspect of this primal instinct is our impulse to care for our families, tribes or clans. Our desire to protect those we love. Our willingness to endanger ourselves and make sacrifices on their behalf.
But here’s the flipside of that particular coin. We are born with an ingrained ability to detect the differences between “our kind” and others. Our circle of love extends only so far—and then there is a border, a boundary. Those whom we perceive as unlike us are “outsiders”—not to be loved or cared for. We may “have to be carefully taught” what the crucial differences are—skin color or religion or dialect or nose shape—but we are hard-wired to discriminate. We dehumanize the outsiders, and we respond to them with fear—an emotion that is so easily transformed into hatred.
If resources are scarce, we will fight the outsiders in order to have food or land or other necessities for our own family or tribe—even if we are personally willing to starve in order to feed our children. Then, after the initial struggle, there is a history of mutual hatred, and our fear and our anger are now combined with a deep desire for revenge, the need to reciprocate, to do to the outsiders what they have done to us—or to other members of our clan. Down through the generations—the Hatfields and McCoys, Palestinians and Israelis, Tutsis and Hutus, us and them. Apparently, the rampaging Buddhists in Myanmar were trying to avenge the stabbing death of one of their own.
The basic question is this: Who is my kin, my neighbor, a member of my tribe? Jesus, like the prophets and teachers of other world religions, sought to expand our narrow protective circle until it included those we’d been taught to hate. But it’s a tough job to transform a primal instinct. It is not easily accomplished. It calls for an extreme make-over. I think that’s what is meant by dying to ourselves and being born again.

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