Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Current Evil in Two Words

The basic meaning of evil is to be found, not in fantastic images of the satanic, but in the plainer, more down-to-earth matter of doing harm, whether by aggressive assault or more passive disregard for human life and well-being.  I said “human” because our attention has been focused most often upon the evils people do to each other, and upon reflection, we should add the damage people do to themselves because when evil is understood as harm, self-destruction may be considered evil, also, without necessarily becoming a matter of blame.  Is cruelty inflicted upon earth’s non-speaking creatures not, then, evil?  Indeed it is, whether done as the kind of brutality and neglect visited upon pets that makes for raging headlines and public outcries for punishment or as the routine destruction of animal environs that quietly kills off species.  If, through biblical knowledge or other ways of thought that lead us to a sense of our stewardship responsibility for this planet, we are moved to see ourselves as care-takers for the earth rather than privileged overlords, then harm done to ecosystems as such may rightly be called evil also.

What, then, do I mean by “the current evil”?  I am seeking to identify a source of great harm being done on earth these days, a contemporary evil with powerful and pervasive destructive force doing widespread and increasing damage to life on earth.  As usual, evil so great and powerful must be couched in terms that make it sound reasonable and right, even inevitable in the course of human development.  Such great evil must sound proper if not downright good and virtuous.

The two words are spoken as a command but also as a reasonable and well-recognized goal, a given elevated beyond question.  They are: “maximize profits.”  Not “make a profit” or even a nice profit.  Not even “increase profits,” although that’s a step closer, sometimes.  It’s not hard to imagine, though, a certain desperation even in that phrase when it speaks of a pressing concern, as in, “We must increase our profits soon, or we will not be able to stay in business.”  No, the word that pushes the business necessity of making money over the line is “maximize.”

Human commerce, of course, has a long history of corner cutting, cost shaving, and price inflating.  Some twenty-seven hundred years ago, Israel’s prophets railed against the harm being done by business people who cheated their suppliers (farmers), then cheated their customers as well using rigged scales and padding satchels of grain with inedible filler (“the sweepings of the wheat”), and even lending the farmers money at exorbitant interest rates in order to foreclose on the farms and force the former owners to carry on their labor as serfs, thereby cutting supply costs considerably.  People with power in society have demanded slaves in one form or another for as many centuries back as our histories take us.  So, in a sense, the new evil is not new at all, but in a profound sense it is new, for as Tolkien’s wizard puts it in the Lord of the Rings, “Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.” 

The computer, which is neither good nor evil in itself but only a tool, has enabled the Shadow to assume new shape that gives the ambitious new power to order, govern, and control human life, thereby enslaving millions through quite reasonable and even benign-looking means: metrics for driving labor (doing the work of countless slave drivers and crew chiefs), globalization for seeking the cheapest and most readily exploitable workers as wage-slaves and sometimes quite literal slaves, incredibly high speed stock trading for legally robbing ordinary investors of returns, avoiding regulations for the preservation of our ecosystems, stashing money in havens overseas, and now taking over and regimenting the training (no longer to be education) of our children for power and profit. 

Let me clarify.  The evil does not come from the word “profits” by itself.  Who can stay in business without making profits (acknowledging them as such on tax forms may be another matter)?  It is the word “maximizing” which identifies the evil at work.  It is a word of idolatry, of giving far too much and even supreme importance to something that should not matter so very much to human beings.  To maximize anything is to squeeze out other concerns and considerations.  To maximize is to worship.  It is to subordinate all else to one concern, one goal, one end in life.  Oh, to be sure, at first we allow other considerations, such as people and fairness to them, to modify our maximization processes, but there’s nothing like a computer algorithm to make it all seem like “nothing personal.”  “There, see on the screen or in the manual, it’s just the policy, the operating procedure, that has incidentally but most impersonally, without malice, crushed you and your family, stolen your pension, dried up your hopes for the future, and discounted your very existence.”  Nothing personal.  Nothing personal at all.

And that is the very nature and definition of sin: the denial of relationship and of relational responsibility.  “What am I, my brother’s keeper?  My sister’s guardian?” 

In reply to the wizard’s observation that always the Shadow takes another shape and grows again, the frightened little Hobbit moans, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” 

The wizard responds, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Monday, March 10, 2014

What Ifs

Decades have come and gone since I was a boy scout, but now in retirement I am getting back into hiking.  Much has changed, but the basic human needs for survival have not: air/oxygen, potable water, fire, shelter (including clothing), food, hope, and a certain amount of savvy.  Mosquito netting and some know-how about potentially dangerous wildlife, weather conditions, and first aid can help, too, depending upon the situation.

Not long ago, I read about a young father and two of his sons who perished in the mountains because they were caught in rain and darkness with dropping temperatures, no protective clothing, no light source, and no knowledge of how to survive.  I found myself thinking a lot about those two boys and how they could have been saved if they had been found after their father had stumbled off into the darkness and gotten lost.  I had already begun to gather things I called “what ifs,” but that tragic incident pushed my thinking.  What if a day hike turned into an unexpected overnight?  What if one of us sprained or broke an ankle?  Or fell into water in temperatures low enough to cause hypothermia?

I expanded my “what if” thinking to include ordinary car trips and not just when we were driving through an Arizona desert where packing water and protective clothing is as advisable as knowing what to do in a dust storm or the kind of cloud burst that generates flash flooding which turns dips in the road into impassible washes.

I’m no survival expert, and I’m not about to try to carry on my back special equipment for every conceivable situation, but I do think about the what ifs.  I also keep learning from people who know more than I about safety and responsible practices outdoors.

But this morning, I’m thinking on the larger scale.  On Facebook, the Presbyterian Hunger Program posted an article with the lead, “Democracy and diversity can mend broken food systems - final diagnosis from UN right to food expert.”  The article begins with this:

 “The eradication of hunger and malnutrition is an achievable goal. However, it will not be enough to refine the logic of our food systems – it must instead be reversed,” Mr. De Schutter stressed during the presentation of his final report to the UN Human Rights Council after a six-year term as Special Rapporteur.     
The expert warned that the current food systems are efficient only from the point of view of maximizing agribusiness profits. “At the local, national and international levels, the policy environment must urgently accommodate alternative, democratically-mandated visions,” he said.

Here’s the whole thing, which is not long. 

I believe we need to think about “what if” beyond the survival and well-being of “me and mine.”  Maximizing profits is a perverse goal that drives us toward slavery and death.  It’s not the word “profits” than enslaves and kills; it’s the word “maximizing” that becomes ruthless, glorifies greed, and falsely justifies inhuman practices.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday Again

To repent means to turn or to return, and so many associate the whole idea with guilt – with turning away from behaviors and even thoughts that are hurtful, enslaving, self-indulgent (or perhaps merely pleasurable), counter-productive, or immoral by one code or another.  I find that Christianity’s biblical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) present Jesus’ call to repentance with much more emphasis upon turning to the promising and life-giving than upon turning away from the stifling and life-defeating things, which I think makes it much more likely that the hurtful things actually will be left behind as trust and hope are pursued.

The prophetic view in the Hebrew scriptures (Isaiah, chapter 58) strives to turn fasting from a matter of grumpy self-denial into the deeper and more helpful self-denial of putting ourselves out to make justice and mercy happen for people who are marginalized, suffering, or deprived (without mention of whether we think they deserve help or not).  Instead of merely making ourselves artificially hungry by depriving ourselves for a while of our readily available food, feed the truly hungry who are deprived of adequate nutrition for real.  For me, that outwardly turned fasting requires, not only food or money donations, but also systemic shifts toward jobs that pay living wages (not merely minimum wage), fair housing, worker empowerment, health care for all, and equality as human beings.

Ash Wednesday begins the Christian season of Lent, a traditional time for education and renewal in the faith.  How might I use this season well? 

We live in an age of cynicism.  Turn?  We seem not to have much hope for turning, for changing our ways, for doing anything that makes a real difference, and many of us find no great reason to try.  For some, cynicism pushes toward greed, getting while the getting is good; for others, toward despair.  Lying has become so much a way of life that we tend more toward picking our favored distortions than seeking anything like truth that would challenge our opinions and beliefs or help us understand each other respectfully.

I won’t pretend to be able to tell you what you need, whether or not you have any concern about Lent.  I realize I don’t even know yet specifically what I need myself.  So, I think what Ash Wednesday requires of me is an open mind, an open heart, and maybe open hands as well.  But I do hope to be turned.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Darned Government!

When I led workshops for newly elected church officers, I asked them to question the term “church government.”  What does government have to do with people seeking to live by faith?  People unite with churches for a wide variety of reasons, but many come in search of some form of healing, comfort, hope, or sense of purpose in life.  Especially, I think, in the United States, many consider their motivations and even their faith itself personal almost to the point of private.  So why would a church need or want any form of government that, of course, puts rules and restrictions upon individual liberty?

It never took the people in such workshops long to understand the need for church government.  The questions are, “Who makes decisions for the church?” and, “How are those decisions made?”  At the simplest level, “When do we get together?” and “What do we do when we get together?”  For that matter, who are those included in the pronoun “we”? 

When I opened my seminary textbook on church administration, I immediately saw two principles.  The first told me that if church decisions are not made by the people properly responsible for making them, they will be made by someone else.  The second, very like the first, told me that if decisions are not made in the way prescribed for them, they will be made in some other manner, through some other procedure.  I wish we the people of the United States of America better understood and more reasonably accepted those two principles.  We don’t seem to realize that apart from our government, there is no United States of America because government is the manner in which we hold together and make decisions as a nation.

Anarchy, the absence of government, would not mean decisions were no longer made for all of us; it means they would be made by the most powerful for their own advantage without restraint.  Democracy is a form of government designed to limit the exercise of power by the powerful so that we the people may have more control over our shared national, state, and local life.  The powerful are the natural enemies of democracy because its exercise limits their freedom to use and abuse the rest of us as they please and to take as much of wealth, privilege, and enforced prestige as they can grab.

The non-powerful resent government when it forbids or restricts their doing something they wish to do (for example, drive at 80 miles per hour through residential neighborhoods), when it costs them money (as, of course, it must if we are all to pay our dues for our shared benefits), when it requires them to consider the common welfare and not just their own, or when it protects the rights of some minority they dislike.  The non-powerful resent government also when it violates their rights, intrudes upon their privacy, restricts their freedom to no good purpose they can see, or sells them out to the very powerful interests from which it should protect them.  So, yes, government itself, usually called “the government,” has considerable power that may be exercised properly or improperly.  To regulate this government power, we have a system of checks and balances, and those who govern us under this system must stand for re-election or depart their elected offices.  We need also the vigilance of educated and informed people not swayed by fear, prejudice, and ignorance to vote against their own interests.  This last part is the hardest.

Folly rules the land when the powerful, who resent democratic government, convince the non-powerful that government is their enemy.  If they could, foxes would gladly persuade the chickens that the door on the coop is an unnecessary and unfair restriction of their freedom and that the dogs’ barking in the night (when a fox approaches) is a disturbance of their peace.  Foxes do not have such opportunity to fool their victims into cooperating in their own destruction; the very wealthy and powerful do.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Otherizing

Okay, “otherizing” is not really a word but has come into use and, I think, proved itself quite useful.  In a Huffington Post blog, Mirabai Starr writes:

As a Native New York Jew who grew up in the counter-culture of New Mexico and spent my 20s in northern California, the American South is as foreign to me as Mongolia. Maybe more. And so visiting the Bible Belt is a perfect opportunity for me to walk my talk and reject the impulse to "otherize."
   
Otherizing is a word I thought I made up, but then I found it in the Urban Dictionary online. Also my friend Elizabeth Lesser uses it in a TED talk. So I'm in good company. Thou shalt not otherize is one of the pillars of the Judeo-Christian traditions. It did not make it onto the stone tablets, but (IMHO) it should have. 

Long before the coining of the word for it, otherizing has been the means and process by which groups of people have divorced other groups from our shared humanity, sometimes merely to exclude them from concern and compassion, sometimes to exploit, enslave, or kill them.  For the purposes of warfare, certainly, it is necessary to otherize the enemy.  Thomas Hardy shows us the problem in his poem, “The Man He Killed”:

    Had he and I but met
    By some old ancient inn,
    We should have set us down to wet
    Right many a nipperkin!
   
    But ranged as infantry,
    And staring face to face,
    I shot at him as he at me,
    And killed him in his place.
   
    I shot him dead because--
    Because he was my foe,
    Just so: my foe of course he was;
    That's clear enough; although
   
    He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
    Off-hand like--just as I--
    Was out of work--had sold his traps--
    No other reason why.
   
    Yes; quaint and curious war is!
    You shoot a fellow down
    You'd treat, if met where any bar is,
    Or help to half a crown.

The societal problems caused by our otherizing groups of people, most often minorities but also a majority (women) are legion.  The twice-election of the first black President of the United States has made otherizing him the daily occupation of countless people in our land, from the steady stream of disgustingly racist cartoons passed by email around American workplaces to the mind-numbing screeds of TV and radio blabbers.  Many Americans, it seems, cannot bear the reality of a black man in the White House and so find themselves compelled to make him appear in their own minds as subhuman or superhuman, sometimes both at once.  So divided are we now as a society that politicians and would-be politicians seek to label even the majority of us as “not real Americans.”  Someone once warned us about the impending downfall of a “house divided against itself.” 

Otherizing is also (and for me, at root) a theological problem.  We call it sin.  Yup, it’s what sin is.

Also at root, evil is harm – hurting and destroying.  As harm, evil emerges and acts from our lack of empathy with the other person: he or she is not one of us or one with us in any sharing of our humanity and so may be hurt or destroyed without pain to conscience.

By the way, I think Starr is both right and wrong.  She’s right that “Thou Shalt Not Otherize” is basic to biblical faith and life.  She’s wrong, except in the most literal sense of the words themselves, that this commandment did not make it onto the stone tablets; it’s all over them.

Monday, November 11, 2013

What's in It for Me?

“Why should we have to pay school taxes when we’re a retired couple with no children or grandchildren in school?”

“Why should I have to pay for health insurance that covers prenatal care and delivery of a baby when I’m a single man?”

“Why should I have to buy health insurance when I’m young and healthy?”

“Why should we have to get our children vaccinated?  Are we not their parents, and should the decision not be ours alone?”

“We’re retired.  Why should we care if Social Security benefits are cut for the younger generations as long as we seniors get to keep all the benefits we have?”

The answer to all of these questions and more like them is that we are a people and that all people are interrelated more deeply and closely than we have ever been willing to acknowledge.  No family, community, or society is merely a collection of autonomous individuals, each free to go his or her own way without regard for the others.  That kind of autonomy is not freedom but alienation; it is a denial of our humanity.

Such questions as I posed in quotation marks above are deeply troubling because they express a profound self-centeredness lacking, not only a basic human sense of community and shared responsibility, but also the most rudimentary appreciation of how mutual benefit and security work among us.  Such selfish thinking reveals a failure to comprehend even so simple and impersonal a matter as insurance.  How can we talk productively about our need for greater generational responsibility and for stewardship in management of the earth that is our shared home when so many of us sound as though they have no concern for anyone beyond their tiny circles of “me and mine”?  Some of us don’t seem to understand even that public health matters are, indeed, public and so we cannot stop the spread of communicable diseases if only some have their children vaccinated against them (unless they have some plan for magically keeping the disease in the family).

Insurance cannot operate if only those with claims to submit pay into it.  Many pay the insurance premiums so that those who come to need to submit claims can receive its benefits.  We all pay into car insurance because any of us could need it at any time; we hope we don’t need it, but we could.  Hopefully more is paid into the insurance program than must be paid out; otherwise it will fail.  We pay to lower our risk of heavy liability and to pay the expenses if our vehicle gets, say, rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.  It matters not only that I have car insurance but that the other person has it, also.

Public education is somewhat different.  We all pay, not only because we may have children or grandchildren who will benefit from public education, but because the society as a whole needs it, especially if we are to continue as a democracy.  Even from a selfish point of view, paying for public education is a good deal.  My children did not design the roadways and bridges over which I travel; neither did they develop medical science and dentistry for me.  We all benefit from each other’s education, innovations, and services, and we all benefit to the extent we have an educated population.  Public education is one of our best investments in the future.  I have near-zero musical ability, but I benefit from the music of others who have been enabled to develop their abilities.  We benefit collectively also from the economy developed by an educated populace, although these days an increasing amount of the public benefit is going to relatively few people who redistribute the nation’s wealth and the world’s to themselves.

These days, we’re moving more and more into a “me and mine” attitude toward education and even toward the public funding of it.  Can I get my child into a good charter school (at public expense)?  Great, then why should I worry about all those other children?  Janice Resseger has an analysis of the problem here, showing that charter schools, though publicly funded, do not fulfill the responsibilities of public schools or provide adequate public benefit for the future.

Human life is relational, and it is communal, both shared and interactive.  We are in this thing together, this thing called life.  From a biblical and theological point of view, the denial of relationship is the essence of sin.  “Am I my brother’s guardian (keeper)?” asks Cain the archetypal murderer of his brother in the Genesis story.

There is such a thing as smart selfishness, more often called enlightened self-interest; it is smart selfishness because it recognizes the benefits of mutuality, even though it is not the highest motive for caring about the well-being and thriving of other people and of the public in general.  It’s not selflessness or even compassion but smart self-interest.  Today, however, we are retreating into stupid selfishness, the kind that seeks short-term personal gain without heed to the consequences for all of us not far down the road.

How are we to turn the tide of stupid selfishness and begin to recover our much-needed sense of mutuality and of generational responsibility?  In a wealthy nation with a 22% rate of child poverty, we have a huge problem.  Our infrastructure crumbles as we pollute our water and contaminate our own food, all for the bucks – the quick bucks and the big bucks or else the few bucks saved at the big-box store as we close our minds to what it does to people, small businesses, and society.  The doctrine of “just me and mine” is not only wrong but very foolish, shortsighted, and childish.

What will it take to make us realize that all the children are our daughters and sons and all the elderly are our mothers and fathers?  We really are in this life together.

Hmm

“Why should we have to pay school taxes when we’re a retired couple with no children or grandchildren in school?”

“Why should I have to pay for health insurance that covers prenatal care and delivery of a baby when I’m a single man?”

“Why should I have to buy health insurance when I’m young and healthy?”

“Why should we have to get our children vaccinated?  Are we not their parents, and should the decision not be ours alone?”

“We’re retired.  Why should we care if Social Security benefits are cut for the younger generations as long as we seniors get to keep all the benefits we have?”

What do all the questions above have in common?  To be continued.