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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

Why lectures or scolding won’t change behavior

Dru Johnson on healing the scars of community-ritualized violence and uncertainty

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Why lectures or scolding won’t change behavior

In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Our minds are to be aligned by various excellences, and human nature is such that we need to learn, we need to be taught how to recognize what is just and pure and commendable. The need for teaching is implied in the very next verse, when the apostle writes “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis reminded his readers that the premodern view of education was more about training the emotions or affections than about training analytic reason: “St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”

All education is fundamentally moral formation, and not all education happens in classrooms or through words. Our perception of what is really true and really good (not to mention what is really beautiful) is shaped by the routine practices of everyday life. James K. A. Smith calls these practices “liturgies.” They could also be described as rituals.

One of the guests on Volume 149 of the Journal is biblical scholar Dru Johnson, who talked about his book Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments (Eerdmans, 2019). In our conversation, Johnson stressed the fact that rituals have an epistemic role in our lives; they form the framework of understanding that orient our acting in the world. Our minds — and our loves — are aligned through the practices, usually involving bodily action, by which we have been and are being formed.

Rituals can malform us. Johnson has a chapter in Human Rites titled “When Rites Go Dark,” from which the following paragraphs are taken:

“If warped rituals have shaped our lives, we must be re-ritualized, oriented to true north. When corrupting rituals have gotten their hooks into us, we act and react. Sometimes the corruption comes from unsafe neighborhoods or abusive homes, which show us that dark ritual honors no socio-economic status. For corrupt rituals, the process is the same: ritual in, expected behavior out. And, of course, children can be the most susceptible to such corruptions. 

“Children corrupted by dark rituals act out their ritual lives. We’re often naïve about this, believing that teaching such children to think differently will make them act better. We believe that if a child understands how her reckless actions affect others, she’ll eventually stop misbehaving. But like Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD, not all children know why they do what they do. 

“Our church in Newark, New Jersey, spends much of its energy with children from the Newark housing authority neighborhoods. Most people, including the people who live there, would call it ‘the projects.’ Many of the kids in that downtrodden neighborhood have been ritualized into appalling practices. Caught in a world ruled by drugs and gangs, these children can’t have PTSD because they continue to live in their traumas, never having the opportunity to get to post-trauma. In many communities, that’s also the case for their parents. These beautiful folks bearing the image of God are often seized by fight-or-flight hypersensitivities.

“When we bring our neighbors in for a meal and time together, fights break out over the slightest infractions. These lovely children, by dint of the rituals shaping them and the white noise of violence surrounding them, often lose control of their faculties. And, like a triggered veteran, a child who has reacted violently to nothing more than an antagonistic smirk from another child can’t be reasoned with. 

“After spending years developing friendships in this community, we began to see the world differently. We all remembered watching the now-infamous videos of grown men from similar communities irrationally freaking out and breaking away from police. We used to think, 'Why would they do that? They know this isn't going to end well.’ Now we see our eleven-year-old friends in those videos. Just a few years from now, that could be them. Now we understand that their traumatized bodies react in a way that even they don’t understand. It’s a mode of panic most of us have never experienced. And years of such violence and uncertainty in a community don’t foster rational responses in the moments of their worst crises. 

“While making friends in that community, we came to realize that if years of community-ritualized violence and uncertainty had burned those reactions into the bodies and minds of those children, then it would take more than a few days or weeks of love and affection to re-orient them.

“In the first few years of our friendships with them, we reverted to the standard therapies for misbehavior: talking through what happened, why it was wrong, how it hurt that person, and so on. And reasoning with someone about their misdeeds certainly has its place. But if they’re completely overcome by ritualized reactions, they simply can’t process such reasoning at that moment. 

“Most often, a caring hand on the shoulder can be the best immediate response to such episodes. That’s no small task when you yourself are upset and pulling apart fighting kids. But research has shown us what we already know: children need regular and appropriate affectionate touch from caring adults. Those who don’t get it suffer dramatically over the course of their lives.

“Looking at these children as bearers of a ‘history of rituals’ has helped us to appreciate what’s great about them and to have patience for what’s not so great. Violent or anxious reactions that seemingly come from ‘out of nowhere’ come from somewhere, and can be re-directed toward something better. 

“If there’s one thing the biblical authors are convinced of, it’s that we need a new view of reality, one that can envision the reign of God charging into a housing project rife with corruption and the background threat of violence. So we walk alongside these kids, sharing food rituals and offering affection. 

“There’s no easy way to spot when good rituals go bad. And people will always find ways to corrupt rites toward the wrong goals. In fact, we’re all using rituals toward our own ends. But unless they have some kind of moral foundation, we will all eventually ritualize our world into a ‘kingdom of me.’ These dark rituals don't warn us about ‘those nefarious folks over there.’ They warn us about ourselves.We’re all prone to bend our rites back in our favor and exploit others in the process.

“When this happens, we need other people who care for us to script our rituals. Only they can see us soberly. Only they can help us think about which rituals we must embody and which we must avoid. A caring guide re-ritualizes us out of addiction or violence or whatever our particular darkness is, without twisting us toward their own agendas. It’s no accident that the Christian Scriptures describe a wise God who cares for humanity and wants to guide us through rituals for our benefit — no twists, no hooks, no addictions.”