The Root of All Evil

Let us be clear: the Bible does not say that money is the root of all evil–it says that the love of money is the root of all evil.  Money is merely a means of exchange.  I give my time and energy to some pursuit, and I am given money in return, so that I can exchange it for what I need to sustain myself and others.  It’s a mere convenience.  Without money, we would be spending much of our time trading and bartering. 

As societies grew more sophisticated, more complex economic systems evolved.  These systems are based on conceptual models, and they espouse certain values.  This country’s system of capitalism assumes that (1) competition is good and yields the best products at the lowest price for the consumer; and (2) when it becomes out of balance in one way or another, the system will “right” itself by market forces.  It is self-regulating, and ultimately serves the greater good. 

All this sounds dandy–except that it just doesn’t work quite that way.  The system doesn’t take into account (1) the endless and impossible demand for “growth” and “products” (as in GNP), which overtaxes our natural resources; (2) the cost of production to the earth and to living creatures (these costs are dismissed as “externalities”); (3) the needs of those people who fall through the cracks when the market doesn’t need them any more; (4) and finally, what this system does to the character and integrity of people and their relationships in a given culture.  It is perhaps this number four that is the least mentioned, but that is perhaps the most pervasive and the most dangerous, for it infects almost every element of our living.

Consider the following:

1.  Drug companies spend more money on gifts and stipends to doctors than they spend on research or consumer advertising.  They give free drug samples, free food, free medical refresher courses, and they pay doctors handsome stipends for marketing lectures.

2.  The popular culture offers very little of value, and yet billions upon billions are spent on producing artistically degraded films, derivative music, and escape literature.  Meantime, serious poets and independent filmmakers, artists and musicians who have much to offer, languish without support.

3.  We are inundated with advertising of all kinds, all day every day.  Billboards ruin our cityscapes and countrysides; radio and television ads can hardly be avoided.  There is no escape.

4.  News shows are really entertainment now, with very little hard news or enlightening analysis–”if it bleeds, it leads.”  Their job is not to thrive, but simply to survive.  So how are citizens truly informed in what is supposed to be a democracy?

5. We have been told since the ’50′s that we need more (of everything from  beautiful hair to bigger houses), and we can’t get off the cycle of getting and spending.  There is never enough.

6.  Our best and brightest students, we are told, have been majoring in “finance” for years and years now, and their goal is to get a lot of money–quickly.

I could go on . . . and so could you, but we both get the picture.  How did we get stuck with a system that seems to bring out the worst in so many of our people, that sets people apart instead of bringing them together, that is laying waste to the earth? 

You tell me–I don’t know.  But I do know this: the first step in change is awareness.  We have accepted the assumptions of this economic system far too long, and we are sick of heart and sick of character.  We need to stop.  (Well, maybe the economic downturn pushed us to this step.)  We need to re-imagine how we want to live together and how we might more equitably share the resources of the earth. 

As President Obama said today in his press conference, “These changes won’t be done in the first 100 days, or in the first year.  But one day we will look back, and we will say, yes, this is when we started, this was when the great change began.”

How do you want to live?  Begin to imagine it.  Then begin to go there, as fully as you are able.  We don’t have a moment to waste. 


What’s Worth Dying For?

This morning David Kellerman, 41, Acting CFO of mortgage giant Freddie Mac, was found dead, an apparent suicide.  Freddie Mac has been harshly criticized for financing risky loans that are now defaulting.  The company was also under fire for planning to pay more than $210,000,000 in bonuses to their executives, to give them incentives to stay.  Kellerman, who had taken over when the former CEO had been relieved of his duties, was responsible for 500 employees and was working on the current financial report at the time of his death.  He leaves behind a wife and a five-year-old daughter, Grace.

Why did Kellerman kill himself?  Was it the many points of pressure?  Was in shame, for being involved in what he knew were slight-of-hand loan deals?  Was it some illegal act that is yet to be uncovered?  There will be an investigation.  There will be follow-up articles.  But we may never know the truth.  He himself may not have fully understood the demons which pushed him to take his life.

But the question before us is: what’s worth dying for?  Making a mistake–even a big one–is not worth dying for.  Doing something that you are ashamed of–that’s not worth dying for, either.  Trying to live up to others’ expectations and failing–that’s not worth dying for, either.

What is worth dying for?  To save the life of another, perhaps.  To make justice.  To go against the powers that be, when the powers are corrupt and evil.  These are things worth dying for.  We remember those who have done so: the firemen of 9/11; soldiers who lay down their lives for their comrades or for their country; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Archbishop Romero; journalists who are murdered for writing the truth about crooked political leaders.

But suicide?  No.  It is always, always, always possible to start over when you make a mistake, or when you do wrong.  Forgiveness is always an option.  If it were not, which one of us could keep going, with our more or less constantly besmirched lives?  We all “fall short of the glory of God,” as my saintly grandmother used to say.  We can say, “I was wrong.  I’m sorry.”  And we can start over.  Every day, in fact.

The one who commits suicide just “wants out,” because the pain is so great, and that person cannot see an end to the suffering.  Many of us feel that intensity of pain at one time or another.  But depression can be cured, pain will end, and life turns round.  Dear reader, if you’re ever considering suicide, remember that. 

It is sad beyond words when a little five-year-old is left without a father–and answerless questions that will last a lifetime.  Suicide colors so many lives, and for so long: a wife left alone; fellow workers asking, “Why?”; friends blaming themselves and saying, “I should have called . . . .” 

 Sometimes it takes courage just to keep going, just to get up every morning and face the day.  But there is no honorable alternative, for it’s not just your own life–you belong to all of us.  We are all diminished when any one person takes his life.

We are irrevocably connected, the one with the other.  Stay with us, brother.  Hang in there, sister.  Together, we can find a way through anything. 


A Place Where Somebody Cares

A group of anti-faith folks are conducting a campaign–you may have seen the motto plastered on signs or flashing on TV: IMAGINE NO RELIGION.  When I saw this phrase, I actually thought it was a pro-religion group, asking people to imagine the loss we would feel if there were no religion.  But apparently the intent is just the opposite: they believe that the world would be a much better place without religion.

This sentiment fits perfectly the message of a number of best-selling books which have crowded the bookstores in recent years: Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, in which he says that belief in a personal god is delusional and “when many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion”; Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, in which he points out the remarkable insight that the Inquisition was a bad thing; and then Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, in which he disses not only St. Augustine (OK, so Augustine had a problem with sex), but also the Dalai Lama, St. Francis, and Gandhi. 

Who are these people, anyway, who write with such vigor and authority about God?  Are they theologians, who have studied for long years?  Are they philosophers?  Are they ministers or priests, who know the territory from the inside, by practice?  Actually, Dawkins is a science writer.  Hitchens is . . . a clever iconoclast.  and Sam Harris dropped out of Stanford, where he was majoring in English and 11 years later went back there to earn a B.A. in philosophy.  They are not exactly Tillichian.  They are all over-the-top angry, and they all point out the worst excesses of religion–without bothering to point out the worst excesses of science, of political ideology, and of secular leaders.  News flash: people are imperfect.  As my grandmother used to say, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  “All” would be inclusive of religious people.

But let me tell you a real story about real people.  A Methodist minister told me that a few weeks ago, a woman came to his church one Sunday, looking for help.  She was in an abusive relationship, and she was frightened, with nowhere to turn.  After the service, the minister talked with her, and got her the support she needed, from the appropriate agency.  This woman was a stranger, not a Methodist, not a church-goer at all.  Why did she choose to go to this church, then?  As she said, “My assumption was that there would be somebody there who cared.”

Yes, religion is imperfect, because human beings are imperfect.  We can take a message of love and new life from a prophet and turn it into a message of hate and death.  But that doesn’t negate the original message, nor does that negate the institutions that try to embody that message.  It doesn’t negate believers, people of faith like myself, who fail so often to do the good, and yet who, the next day, brush ourselves off and try to do better.

Imagine no religion?  Imagine not having a place to go where you can assume that somebody cares.  Imagine that.



Even the Least of These

California has just passed a ballot initiative protecting farm animals from abuse.  Is this just another one of those crazy California things that people living with unfailingly good weather come up with?  Or should the rest of the nation take heed of what surely is to come: rights for animals.

Peter Singer, professor at Princeton, was the first to bring the plight of animals to national attention.  He wrote an article for the New York Review of Books in 1972, and then published a book called Animal Liberation in 1975.  Do we have obligations to living creatures that are further down the phyla than we humans?  Singer said yes.  When I initially read his book, I thought it was way overstated.  Now I don’t think so.  I’ve been changed by Singer and his followers.  I don’t buy eggs from chicken “farms” that keep these creatures confined in cages so small that their feet curve in permanent closure around the wire.  I stopped eating veal at all, once I discovered how veal is created.

Well, just how far should I go with all of this, I ask myself.  Should I stop eating meat, for example.  Some people choose to be vegans and  do not eat any animal-produced products, such as milk or eggs.  At this point, I am neither a vegan or a vegetarian.  I love meat–though I confess that, like many others, I eat less meat all the time, and eat little red meat.

I confess something else: if I had to kill an animal in order to get its flesh for food, I would almost certainly be a vegetarian.  I hate killing anything–even ants.  I encourage them to run, when I come after them in my kitchen: “Hurry, you little rascals, you can do it!  Go back to the woods, or wherever you came from!”  I think I hate to kill creatures of any kind because I have such a reverence for life itself.  I know I can’t create a wondrous, magnificent little creature such as an ant–how dare I kill it?

Another experience has changed me–the care and protection of Molly, my cat.  Let me be clear: I do not think of Molly as “one of my family.”  She is not “my baby,” she is not the same as “my child.”  And I become very impatient with people who anthropomorphize their pets in this manner.  Losing a pet is not the same as losing a child.  Period.

But of course we pet owners become very attached to our pets, and they to us.  Animals are sentient creatures–we love them, and they simply adore us.  Unconditional love–hard to not return it.  But the larger question is–what is our responsiblity to any creature that is in our care?  Molly is an innocent creature and cannot care for herself when she is seriously ill–so I must see that she is cared for properly.  My question would come, I suppose, when the vet wants to do a procedure that costs $2,000 on a cat that is nearing the end of its life.  (Molly isn’t there yet, thank goodness.)  When is enough, enough?

One day I might become a vegetarian.  Who knows?  We are all evolving.  Some day in the far distance future, people may look back on our flesh-eating ways the same way we look back on slavery now.  They may say, “How could they have done that?”  And they may be right.