A Lenten Testimony, Part 1, Day 19

Not too long ago a dear and valued friend learned that I had become a Christian.  We had been out of touch for a very long time and when we knew each other in the 1970’s, and ran into each other briefly in the early 1980’s, I was anything but a Christian.  For the last couple of years I have been looking for my old friends and then sending them invitations to correspond by old fashioned letter mail, painstakingly written and lovingly folded, enveloped stamped, addressed and sent.  There is something human and personal in that which is missing in electronic communication, and I like it very much.

But I did not sit down to write about writing letters.  My friend expressed surprise at my faith and wondered how it came to pass.  I gave her the short story in a letter which nevertheless ran to six pages (we’ll see if one stamp was sufficient to get that letter mailed!) but I have been mulling her question over and over in my mind and feel compelled to write the longer story.  That will require more time and space than can be had in a simple letter, and so I will dedicate a Lent Reflection blog space to this project and will desist my daily Reflections until the job is complete, which may be tonight and may be a week from now.  We shall see.

My friend reminded me of something that I had said over four decades ago, something like “I was my own god, and I knew what was right and wrong and had my own standards to answer to”.  It humbles me that somebody remembers anything that I said over forty years ago.  When you begin the project of defining the word “friend”, I believe that having something that you said forty years ago felt to be worth remembering has to fit in there somewhere.

I believe that my friend’s memory is accurate, and I had even more to say about such things back then.  The “Virgin” Mary was just a teenage girl who got pregnant (no surprise there), said God did it, and to her amazement people believed her.  I also said that my idea of life after death was a marijuana plant growing out of my skull after I die, which a friend would place on the mantle over their fireplace.  That way, whenever they looked at the skull and marijuana plant they could say “There is old Glenn, still getting his head”.  But let’s forget the Mary and skull stuff.  That was all just shallow cynicism.  The part which my friend particularly reminded me of has substantially more meat on the bone and that is what I would like to gnaw on.

“I am my own god.”  Yeah, that sounds like something that I would have said, and it would have been true too!  I answered only to myself in those days.  As a child I grew up in a family where all authority lay unquestionably in the hands of my father.  I am sure that Dad was raised in a similarly authoritarian environment, and twenty years in the Navy had done nothing to temper that view of parenting.  I was not a robot, really, but my options were a good deal more narrow than those of my friends, and the consequences of arousing the displeasure of my father were something to avoid at all costs.  I chaffed under this oppressive system and at my first opportunity, the moment that I graduated from high school and turned 18 years old, I jumped ship and sought new freedom.

Unfortunately, this all occurred in 1966 when we were in the middle of a war and there was still a draft.  I knew that I would be drafted soon and honestly didn’t care one way or the other if I was, so down I went to the recruiters’ office one day and signed up for three years’ service.  Entering the service is probably not the best way to seek independence, but then I never was a bright kid.  I learned the inconvenient truth of this on the first full day that I was in the Army and had it drilled deeper and deeper into my head every day thereafter for the better part of three years.  And then my day of liberation arrived.  May 29, 1969 I walked off of an Army base, took a taxi ride to the airport and flew back to San Diego a civilian, captain of my own ship, and indeed my own god.

Those were the crazy times; the 1960’s and 70’s.  Old institutions were crumbling and I was free to create new ones in my own image.  Nobody could tell me what to do, and as long as I did not do anything blatantly illegal in front of any agent of civil authority I did whatever the hell I wanted to do.  Ultimately, I did a pale imitation of what the real God did; created my own universe and ruled it by my own rules for my own pleasure.

That plan did not work out so well.  My highest good was indeed seeking my own personal pleasure.  An anthem of the punk rock days was “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” (bawled out in an appropriately brash Cockney accent).  I think that the Sex Pistols did that one.  Well, I did it before they did.  Those three pursuits plus whatever else I enjoyed and desired at the moment were all that I sought in those years, and although I was not completely immune to a noble thought or a kind act, and engaged in those activities as much as anyone else with whom I hung around did, still my foundation was “What I want, I get if I possibly can without getting killed or going to jail”.

In that system friends can become more important than spouses.  How my first wife and I stayed together the first two unmarried years of our relationship I have no idea.  I was always more happy sitting on a bar stool with my friends than sitting at home with her.  And how we managed to stay married for three years after saying our vows is an even deeper mystery yet.  I continued to hold down bar stools at every opportunity until I founded a construction company with a friend.  From that point on I worked ten to fourteen hours a day seven days a week, intending to found our fortune and make a name for myself as a successful contractor.  Being a successful husband did not figure into that picture.  Finally and in the most gut-wrenching way, for me at least, the rug was pulled out from under my feet and I was shown that I did not ultimately get to rule what I thought was my kingdom.  If I was a god, then I had precious little power to order my universe the way I saw fit.

And then there’s the thing about right and wrong.  In my younger years I was pretty certain that I knew what those qualities were, but as I proceeded through my 20’s and the loss of a wife and business and home, became a construction gypsy, met and married a lady and then began to wander down the same old path, I began to rethink just how firm a grip I had on an understanding of right and wrong.

Why is something right?  Because I like it?  What if I think something is right but somebody else thinks that it is wrong?  If the other person is somebody whom I do not like then tough beans for him, but what if it is somebody whom I like and may even respect a little?  What do I do with that?  Slowly it dawned upon me that right and wrong may be elements which arise from somewhere outside of me and my perceptions; that my old paradigm of being the arbiter of my own personal standard of right and wrong was a philosophy that simply would not carry water.  For Nietzsche perhaps, but not for me.  Not now.  I recall sitting in an apartment with several friends when I was at my college, smoking weed and drinking beer, probably snorting cocaine too, and talking about how we were going to save the world.  That was a very common occupation back then.  I was a good deal more radical than were most of the others who were present that evening and declared a Trotskyite solution to the world’s problems.

This solution would be for the “good of the people”.  We harebrained radicals on either fringe are always plotting our idiocies for the good of the people.  One of the guys there, one whom I did not know as well as I knew the others, asked “What if your solution isn’t what the people want?”  My predictable reply was “We’ll do it anyway until they realize that it’s what’s good for them.”  The person who questioned my utopian vision just stared at me for a moment and then said “Wow man, you’re an elitist pig”.  Those were fighting words on so many levels!  They were also true, which didn’t help the situation any.  Somehow the truth in them seeped into my drug and alcohol addled brain however and i inexplicably allowed the insult to slide.

Maybe that was the beginning of my realiy searching for the meaning of right and wrong.  Eventually I came to understand that in the absence of some kind of metric which lies outside of the reach of mankind, and therefore beyond manipulation for any one person’s cynical ends, there is no such thing as right and wrong, or good and bad.  If we are the product of time plus accident, where does this notion of right and wrong come from?  There is so much doubt among scientists as to whether or not we are able to accurately discern physical reality with our senses, how can these same senses give us reliable information on whether or not those same incompletely understood phenomena are good or bad, right or wrong?

Many years ago a ship washed up on a beach in Oregon.  Being burrowed deeply into the sandy bottom of that beach on the Oregon coast, it steadfastly refused to be removed and ended up resting there for nine years.  During that time this ship leaked oil and damaged the ecology of that beach, which is rich in clams and bird nesting areas and so on.

Oregon is a socially liberal state.  In Portland people who order an omelette in a restaurant want to know the names and living conditions of the chickens and cows who gave up their eggs and cheese for the sake of their breakfast.  To this ardent and somewhat comical bunch the fouling of that beach was a horror too awful to contemplate and in my own estimation a very wrong thing, but I had to ask some of the people who held that view, mostly just to be an annoying turd but also partly to make a point, “why do you believe that it is wrong?”  To the ship’s owner, maybe losing this old rustbucket in a storm resulted in an insurance settlement that was of more value to him or her than was the ship.  Without an unmovable yardstick of good and bad, right and wrong, how do the perceptions of tree hugging Oregonians trump the perceptions of money hugging capitalists?  Unless there is a rule, something which says “The Lord God placed men in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it”, then all we have is dueling perceptions which, in a mechanistic and nietzschean universe, end with the strongest person being right.

By 1984 I was utterly disillusioned by my old philosophy of myself as god and as arbiter of right and wrong in the world.  Things I had seen in Vietnam, failures that I had endured since then and multiple close brushes with death or injury from drunk driving, drug overdose, or being shot, stabbed or beaten by outlaw motorcyclists or outraged boyfriends, to mention only a few instances, I finally arrived at a point where I had to make a change or I was going to jump off of a bridge.  God literally allowed me to feel His comfort and glory one night when I wandered into a church, and I have been with God ever since.

The rest of this story will appear sometime in the near future as “Part II”.

When Death comes For a Friend

I received some really crummy news today.  A friend of mine has A.L.S.  ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is a very nasty and untreatable disease.  In a nutshell, ALS causes degeneration of the nerves which conduct signals to the muscles.  As those nerves fail and finally die the muscles lose their ability to contract.  Things like walking, talking, swallowing, and finally breathing become progressively more difficult and finally impossible.  What my friend has received, in essence, is a death sentence.

A couple of things come to mind as I try to come to grips with this news, and the first of those is the definition of the word ‘friend’.  This person and I do not attend each other’s birthday parties and in fact I don’t even know when his birthday is.  We have never visited each others’ homes, nor lifted an ale at the pub.  In fact, at work is the only time that we see each other at all.  So how can I call this person my friend?

I call him friend because I like him and he feels like one.  We have worked together for many years and we have spent many hours talking together.  We both love gardening and football, although I watch college ball and he prefers the pro game.  We both love eating and cooking and classical rock and old movies but most of all we love to talk, and we like to talk with each other.  It has never occurred to us to get together away from work.  We would probably enjoy a friendship that extends beyond the confines of our workplace but the subject has just never come up.  I have a very full social life away from work as does he, so it just seems to work best for us to pursue our relationship at the workplace only.  Does that make our relationship any less a friendship?  I don’t think so.  I have several friends with whom I spend a great deal of time when I am not at work and I take great pleasure from their company, so I know what it feels like to be a friend and it feels very much that way with My Friend.

And that is why my eyes filled with tears several times today when my mind turned to my friend and his diagnosis.  My friend is younger than me and has a wife and young child.  His wife also works where we do and I speak with her from time to time on the phone in the line of duty.  We like each other too, but our relationship is much more that of ‘acquaintance’.  I have not spoken with her since I heard the news, and I know that it will be hard to talk about.  I will want to say something sympathetic but what will that be?  “I know what you’re going through?”  No, I don’t.  “Is there anything I can do for you?”  No, there isn’t.  “I’ll be thinking of you and praying for you both?”  Big friggin’ deal; he’s going to die.  Change that!  Perhaps I’ll just say “I have no idea what to say.  I’m as helpless as you are in this matter.  If you think of anything you need that I can do; anything, just say it.”  Maybe that will help, but probably it won’t.

The hardest thing for me is that my sense of fairness has been outraged.  Why does this decent, hard working family man and his loved ones have to go through this ordeal?  My friend does not deserve this.  Charles Manson, a name synonymous with ‘monster’ for my age group, rests comfortably in his cell in a California prison, living to a ripe old age and content in the tortured jungle that is his diseased mine.  Idi Amin, a dictator as likely to eat his victims as merely to kill them, dies after a long life of comfort in exile in Saudi Arabia.  Even Ariel Castro, the man who recently imprisoned and brutalized three women for more than a decade, met his end quickly at his own hand; no slow, wasting disease for him.  So why do these criminals get a pass and my friend must die slowly before his family’s eyes?

Mark Twain took a stab at that problem in his short book entitled “The Mysterious Stranger”.  In that story a young man runs into an extraordinary individual who turns out to be an angel.  At first delighted, the young man is soon horrified to learn that his new angelic friend’s name is Lucifer.  When the angel detects this reaction he says “Oh, you are thinking about my uncle, but what difference is that to you?  Who are you, a human, to judge us angels?”  Twain’s theology is tortured and Augustine answers that question clearly in “City of God”, but the story goes on to make a good point.

The young man learns that a friend of his is going to die soon.  He begs of the angel to spare the friend’s life if he can do it, and the angel replies “yes that is possible, but are you sure that you want that?”  The young man assures Lucifer Lite that he wants just that very much and so Lucifer says “It is done”.  Lucifer then shows the young man that his friend will now live a long life filled with disease, heartbreak and despair until the day when he finally, mercifully dies.

Now I’m OK with the proposition that an early death may be preferable to a lingering, tragic life, as long as that death is not self-inflicted.  In my view, willingly seeking death in order to avoid what is assumed, but not known, will be a long and painful life is caving in to Despair, who eats the souls of men and particularly enjoys dining on the souls of those who serve themselves up by their own hand on his infernal platter.  I am not talking about the position that suicides go to hell which would be a topic for a later conversation, and I assure you that you will not correctly presuppose my position.  I am only saying that Despair loves and feeds on our own personal despair, and I have no great desire to gratify his appetite.  But I can’t see how this can apply in my friend’s case.  There is no unexpected happy end to be found in his diagnosis.  ALS ends, after a very disagreeable time, in death.

But maybe I can still find some solace in Twain’s words after all.  Lucifer the nephew asked the young man “who are you to judge angels?”  The answer to that particular question is that angels can and will be judged just as humans will be judged and humans have (or will have) the rational powers to judge just as well as angels, but my comfort is not to be found in that quarter.  Instead, Twain’s greater (and probably unintended) observation that the imperfect perceptions of humans make it very hard for them to discern the course and ends of heaven-ordained events, or even events chance-ordained but guided by heaven for ultimately desirable ends, gives me some hope that a prognosis even as grim as my friend’s may, in the end, be shown to be in some way a mercy.  We are somewhere at the beginning, in the middle, or near the end of the creation parade.  We cannot see the whole stretch of time and do not know how all of the pieces will ultimately fit together.  It is therefore our lot to bet on a loving God who sees the clowns, the lions, the ringmaster, the Tattooed Lady and the guys sweeping up the elephant droppings all at the same time.  We do not have that perspective and can only hope in the One who does.  The alternative to that view is that we are all alone and utterly screwed and that would point towards Despair, and you know where that leads.

So will any of this make it easier for my friend if I share it with him?  I don’t know; probably not.  But maybe so.  Maybe the existence of a ‘maybe’ will be enough to kindle a hope that it will all work together for good in the end when the whole parade has passed by.  And in the end, isn’t Hope a much better thing than Despair?

Here Comes Santa Claus

Behold, the holiday season approacheth, and when we say “holiday season” we mean, by and large, Christmas.  Thanksgiving is a big deal to be sure, and grocers and home decor retailers look forward to that day with breath bated and fingers crossed.  Halloween too is a financial bonanza for candy retailers and, a few years down the road, dentists and bariatric surgeons.  But Christmas is the holy grail of the holiday season.  All of the business concerns mentioned above plus a galaxy of other purveyors of toys, clothing, tools, jewelry and every other conceivable commodity up to and including fruitcake lick their chops and compete with each other gladiatorially for their share of the mega billion dollar pie which will be divided up between Thanksgiving night and Christmas Eve.  Even the President’s economic policies will be celebrated or panned according to the holiday fervor that will be expressed at cash registers and internet shopping sites these next two months.  And all of this is to celebrate – – – Christmas?

Many have lamented the commercialization of Christmas before and it is not my intention to harp on that theme now.  Christmas in America is, well, Christmas, Xmas, The Holliday Season, or whatever anyone wants to call it, and I will not presume to lecture anyone about how they should conduct themselves during this time.  My primary sphere of interest as concerns this season is to be found in how I conduct myself at this time, and I now propose to describe the manner of my celebration and the reason why I choose to celebrate in that manner.

To begin with, Christmas is the time when I pay special attention to the fact that Jesus was born.  You know, Jesus.  The Jewish kid born to a homeless couple two thousand years ago who had a short but remarkable career preaching that God loves the little, overlooked folk and pointed out that the authority for His teaching lay in the fact that He was actually God Himself.  Well, part of the Trinity really, but we’ll set that aside for now.  I don’t really know just what day Jesus was born on, and frankly I don’t care.  December 25 is as good a day as any, so it is just fine with me.

The whole concept of gift-giving is an interesting topic all by itself, but again I will limit my comments to why I give and how I chose to do so.  Jesus and His life provide my model.  Somewhere between Christmas day and two years later some really rich guys showed up and gave some very expensive gifts to baby Jesus.  I would bet that Jesus was not like the baby in the commercial that is trading stocks; He no doubt squalled and nursed and pooped in His diapers just like any other kid does.  Jesus’ parents almost certainly converted that gold, frankincense and myrrh into hard currency and used that money to pay the bills and finance their flight to Egypt to avoid the murderous soldiers of the paranoid King Herod.

Later, Jesus was famous for distributing funds to the poor and needy of the province of Judea.  He made a point of the fact that He didn’t have a place of His own to lay His head, but depended on the generosity of others as He passed out the gifts and offerings which came in as a result of His preaching and teaching.  Judas the betrayer even complained that a very expensive vial of perfume that a follower broke over Jesus’ head could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor, although many suspect that Judas had his hand in the till and really didn’t care so much about the poor after all.  Still, Judas’ complaint points out that the usual pattern for Jesus was to eschew luxury and pass on to the needy the things that they needed to survive one more day, and that point brings the whole topic of giving to my own personal doorstep.

My inclination is to celebrate Christmas the way the Three Wise Men did and the way Jesus did Himself.  As regards the Three Kings of Orient, I am as rich as they were in the eyes of poor people living in Africa, Asia, Latin America on reservations in the United States and elsewhere.  One little pot of gold probably didn’t stretch the Wise Man who brought it to Jesus, and a check for one or two or three hundred dollars to brighten the life of a family in Chad or Bolivia wouldn’t really stretch me all that much.  Heck, I spend that much every two weeks for groceries.  More than a new sweater for my wife, a computer game for my granddaughter, or a Made In Washington gift box for my brother, a gift to a family in Africa of rice, millet, some chickens or a goat and a few, and I do mean few, dollars to spend on something just for fun for a change, is a gift that I believe to be worth giving.

At home there are myriad individuals, groups and agencies who are dedicated to making life better for the shadow people living at the margins where I don’t have to see them in my comfortable middle class world.  These individuals, groups and agencies are blessed by every dollar given to them and they, in turn, bless the very people who Jesus came to minster to and hang out with.  Instead of a toy or some other item which will be forgotten by the time that the Super Bowl is played, money given to these recipients will truly fulfill the definition of a gift in my estimation and will be worth the effort of giving.

There will be elements of stress in this holiday season for me.  Many people cannot grasp the point of my gift-giving philosophy, and the label of ‘Scrooge’ will inevitably be invoked.  I do not intend to be the negative manifestation of Scrooge at all.  Rather, I hope to channel the Scrooge who emerged from the ordeal of the three visitations and lived a life of giving generously to those who were truly in need.  Also like Scrooge, I purpose to give to my family, my friends, and my community the gift of myself; my time, my relationship, my friendship, and my genuine interest in their lives.  But then, why should I wait until Christmas to do that?

Money, Murder and Merton

I have recently read two stories which go in widely diverging paths but which have led me unexpectedly to a single destination.  I write that sentence with some trepidation however because it seems to suggest, by the use of the word ‘destination’, that I have arrived at a conclusion or a program that I can in turn share with the world and wait impatiently for the inevitable adulation which must necessarily follow. Nothing of the sort has occurred.  Instead, my destination is a tangle of observations, possible paths, hints and guesses which come together to form a tendency of thought and nothing more.  I will depend on people smarter and better organized than myself to help me refine these thoughts into a more coherent form.

One of these stories is a recent, mindless, tragic event in which three teenage boys from Oklahoma (alright, ‘young men’ if you must, but to me still boys) who were bored one day and decided to go and kill someone.  Their victim turned out to be a real young man who was jogging down a road.  There was no connection between these individuals that I know of; the teens needed a target and the jogger provided one.  As a result of good police work these teens were stopped before they could kill more, which is what they intended to do.  The other story is an autobiography of a Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  In his book he comments on capitalism, and while he is not accurate if the point of his statement is that capitalism is innately evil, I believe that his analysis of capitalism within the philosophical framework of a mechanistic and materialistic worldview is true and has a lot to say, in a roundabout way about the horrible event in Oklahoma.

Before I launch into my thoughts I would like to clarify some terminology.  I hate it when really smart people write as if only other really smart people are going to read their work, and then when a working class schmo like myself comes along I have to hope that I can figure out what the meaning of their words is by the context in which they are used.  I usually fail miserably in that task.  By ‘mechanistic’ I mean a view that the universe and everything in it is like a machine; it runs by perfectly logical rules without any input from supernatural sources and if science could learn perfectly the rules of the machine then science could perfectly predict events and eventually perfectly predetermine outcomes.

By ‘materialistic’ I mean that there is only ethically neutral matter in the universe.  We are only matter ourselves and we struggle to obtain and protect other bits of matter.  Since matter is ethically neutral there are no confusing values to guide individuals in their behavior.  The notion of ‘good’, if it arises at all, is of infinitely less importance than the notion of ‘mine’.  If this bit of matter will increase my happiness, or even if I only think that it will increase my happiness, then I must have it.  And that, I suppose, you may call ‘good’ if you wish.  For an example, there is no intrinsic notion of a rock being good because it is cold and hard and another rock being bad because it is hot and just was ejected from a volcano.  A rock is a rock; you may describe it’s physical features but you cannot confer upon it greater intrinsic value because it is hot of cold.  In the same manner, in a truly materialistic world one cannot ascribe to the action of an individual the value of good if he stops his car to allow a mother pushing a stroller to cross the street and bad if he speeds up so that he can hit them both (with due respect to Sartre, which in my case means no respect at all).  If either act made the driver feel good who, in a materialistic world, is to judge his act as being right or wrong?  Of course the family of the deceased mother and child might find that they gain pleasure by tearing the driver limb from limb and who am I to pass judgement upon their action?  My point is that with this worldview no innate value is placed on life or things or abstractions such as good, honor, justice, mercy, and the like.

With that in mind I will quote Thomas Merton from his autobiography:  “It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of [worldliness].  And nowhere, except perhaps in the analogous society of pagan Rome, has there ever been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism, where there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money.  We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest”.

Merton had no idea that his observations on capitalism would be applied to a case like the murder in Oklahoma I think, but the application can be made.  The teenage boys have grown up in a culture which truly strives to “excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension…” and “to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible…”.  In the absence of a culture which teaches definitively that individuals have worth which is established by authority higher than ourselves and that the violation of the values established from above us will result in severe personal loss on an eternal scale, these boys acted in a rational manner; they were bored, killing people on video games was no longer stimulating enough, and the next level was to kill something or someone in real life.

So how are these boys and capitalism to be connected?  What on Earth do three bored juvenile murderers and an economic system have to do with each other?  In a material sense, other than the boys being small-time consumers and the gigantic edifice that is international capitalism supplying the microscopic amount of goods that the boys consumed, nothing.  In the realm of ethics however, everything.  In the absence of an ethical framework to guide behavior that is more than a vague list of suggestions which might be followed if one feels so inclined on any particular day, the behavior of the boys and a businesswoman and everyone else is predictable and not subject to condemnation.

In our society we have some do’s and some don’ts, but we have no clearly explained moral reason for why they should be followed.  We are told not to use certain words but we are not taught why we should not use them.  “They will hurt someone’s feelings” you say.  “So what” I reply.  “It is demeaning and dehumanizing” you add.  Again I reply “so what”?  “You cannot paw at the body of a coworker who does not desire your attention”.  Why not?  The answer to all of these and other such questions is that you may be sued, fired or worse, forced to take sensitivity training.

Social rules are enforced only by the coercive potential violence of the state.  So what”  You will be punished if you do.  Why not?  You will lose your job and be sued for all you are worth.  But nowhere does society seem to be willing to say “do not do that because there is a supreme entity which has made all things, including you, and will hold you accountable for your actions.  I wish to point out that this picture is not a very accurate representation of the judeo-christian God but a more generic concept of deity.  Still it will suffice to represent a yardstick, a balancing scale external to our rational little rules made up in our own rational little minds to try to make people be nice.

Because people still won’t be nice.  In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s several television programs in America portrayed ideal families.  As a child growing up in those years I was aware that almost none of the kids I knew lived in homes like the Cleavers’ in “Leave It To Beaver”.  Probably the few who did seem to live in such homes actually lived in homes where their family dysfunction was just better hidden.  Still, we knew that families were SUPPOSED to be like that.  Love, respect, duty, justice were all supposed to reign in the home.  Love was the guiding principle in these homes and everybody tried in the end to do good and be reconciled with others in the family.

We knew that this was just a model and that there was a wide range of variation within the context of the greater society, but the model reflected function rather than dysfunction and for a while we bought into it.  Later, as cynicism became a dominant theme of society we opted to throw that model out, rather than to encourage husbands, wives and children to aspire to emulate the model with their own personal variations to the best of their ability.  Since we were not living up to something like the ideal, let’s just chuck the ideal out the window and do our own thing, be the captain of our own ship, make ourselves happy any way that we can.  We know how the unrestrained pursuit of happiness as a supreme goal has turned out:  The happiness of the three boys in Oklahoma consisted of putting at least one .22 caliber slug through the back of a runner whom they probably had never laid eyes upon before that sad day.

And where does capitalism fit into this?  Basically the problem is the same.  The two competing economic models are capitalism and socialism, and socialism has proven to have the same negative social drawbacks as capitalism plus the additional negative that it doesn’t work.  Capitalism as an economic system clearly does work but where it fails is in exactly the same place where society failed in the lives of the four victims in Oklahoma (yes, the boys are victims too; they will pay for their poor but materialistically rational choice by spending the rest of their lives in jail, where they unfortunately belong).  A capitalism which is not restrained by a concept that people are more than economic statistics and that the Earth is more than a pool of raw resources is a beast that devours it’s own children and then defecates in it’s own nest.

An otherwise good man or woman may live in a comfortable home in the developed world and make a living producing or selling goods which were made by impoverished or even slave labor in another country, who’s factories pour their effluent into the waterways of that country, and which do nothing towards improving the lives or economies of those countries.  A singer or actress may begin a line of cosmetics because her glamour attracts followers who wish to be like her, an how many animals are mutilated and killed as this product is tested?  The list of such miscarriages goes on and on.

The problem is not capitalism itself; the problem is capitalism without supernatural values from an absolute, supreme Source, which demands that the lives of laborers, retail employees and the environment be considered in the economy of businesses.  So many times I have read of a capitalist who says, sincerely I believe, “I would love to not do _____, but my competition does it.  I will go out of business if I don’t do it too”.  This is a place where government could do good if government were guided by the same external Source of values.  Realistic regulation of labor and environmental practices by governing agents untouched by bribes, either made in the back room or through campaign contributions should be something that an ethical government answerable to a deity could do.  Extending those regulations to factories and capitalists who work overseas but sell their products in our country would be a nice addition to that formula.

Ultimately we suffer from a lack of any good material reason why we shouldn’t exploit labor, pollute our environment, or murder random joggers.  The state, which has represented itself as all the religion that we need, will not tolerate competition from real religion.  The priests of that religion; university administrations and faculty, the entertainment industry and the machinery of government among many others advance their empty and destructive faith while hampering the challenge of any competition.  The system will not reform the system. The lot then falls to the Christian who fulfills the mission of Jesus Christ as it is given in the Bible; he is to love the Lord his God and her neighbor as herself.  Christians must apply themselves to the society in which they live rather than draw back from it to avoid being polluted by it.  Government, business, education law, entertainment, must all be infused with Christians who do not compromise their faith but who do not seek positions of authority within those fields in order to impose values from the top down simply because they have their hands on the controls of the coercive power of the state.  In other words love, not power, must win.

None of what I have written is original, and it has mostly been written better by somebody else.  The chance reading of the Merton quote just a few days after the murder in Oklahoma caused me to see a connection which I believed fit to share.  I hope that I have made some sense and will spur some further positive thought.  Christians must enter into the service of society in these and myriad other professions, bringing that supreme ethic into how they perform their duties.  The goal would be to become an ethical leaven which suffuses society from within rather than a Christian movement which seeks to mold society by seizing the controls of power.  But as I said in the beginning, I offer no roadmaps, other than that offered in the Gospels and by St. Paul.  We must find our own way in the desert, guided by the Holy Spirit.

If I have encouraged one person to think of the spiritual emptiness of our culture and to then initiate one act to bring the Kingdom of Heaven into this sick and hurting world I will consider that to be a wonderful thing and itself a gift to me from God.

Corporation as Snake

I have previously written of my opposition to taxing corporations for the purpose of furthering ‘shalom’, or harmony in relations between humans and other humans and humans and creation.  My opinion has not changed.  The power to tax is by definition a coercive power, and all forms of coercion have the threat of violence to make them effective.  Shalom, or harmony, cannot be initiated or supported by force.

It has bothered me, however, that some could read that opinion and conclude that I get a warm and fuzzy feeling about corporations.  I most definitely do not!  I have come to view  the corporation as one of the most dangerous forms of organization on Earth.  This article is an attempt to explain why I feel that way.

Corporations do not have a soul but they do have a spirit.  Corporations are made up of people but are by legal definition not a person, and therefore cannot have a soul.  A person with a soul to whom one could make an appeal for justice or harmony might be swayed to alter a course of action because it is the right thing to do.  A corporation is a gathering of board members and CEO’s and CFO’s and a slew of other officials who wish to generate the maximum amount of profit to fund personal lifestyles on a scale that would make the robber Barons blush.  Besides generating lakes of cash for their own use they also gather oceans of cash which they distribute to shareholders, some of whom own very large blocs of stock and who will engineer the replacement of the corporate executives if they falter in the acquisition of ever more money.  And so money; the acquisition of it by whatever means can be managed, is the spirit of the corporation.

Corporations exist to produce things.  On a limited scale corporations produce new things by recycling old things, but the usual way that this production of new things works is that corporations extract natural resources from the land and sea and process those resources into products.  Corporations, as stated above, love to make money, and the greatest amount of money can be made if the natural resources are extracted as cheaply as possible.  The easiest way to do this is to rip the earth open or strip it bare, take what you want, and leave the mess for somebody else to worry about.

This type of behavior is not encouraged in the developed countries, although there too money talks, and so the preferred method for obtaining resources on the cheap is to go to a poor country, bribe a few officials, and take what you want.

The people of these countries see precious little of the wealth that is extracted and trade a pittance wage for the despoliation of their land and poisoning of their water and air, and when the resources are gone the people are left with no more wealth and support than they had before the corporation came, and no undamaged land upon which to fall back.

Corporations have enough money to buy and sell entire countries, but they do not have to do that.  A couple of generals, a chief person from the most prominent tribe or cultural group, or a band of idealistic educated young people are bought for a lot less than the cost of a country.  These people in turn distribute patronage and weapons and soon there is a mineral rich, cash poor country selling whatever the corporation will buy for pennies on the dollar.

Just as corporations are able to buy poor countries, they are able to influence rich countries and manipulate laws and law-makers to establish favorable conditions or bend unfavorable ones to their advantage and to the disadvantage of the citizens of those countries  Corporations do this in all nations because corporations are beholden to no nation.  A fist full of dollars (or pounds or Euros, or bhat or sucres or whatever) is as welcome in Germany as it is in Guinea Bissau.

The carbon based units that make up the boards and executive teams of multinational corporations live where they want but feel no loyalty to that national state when the money is on the table.  A stream which is polluted in Nebraska is no different that a stream which is polluted in Niger as long as the shareholders are happy and next year’s boat has been selected and ordered.

The opposite end of the corporate raison d’etre is no more winsome than is the one just described.  Corporations exist to sell things too, and most of the things that they have to sell the great majority of us have no need to buy.  This is why the advertising industry has been created.

People need to be told that they must buy something.  Left to their own devices people will usually settle on a way of living and continue on with that until some obvious need comes along which demands change.  the Ad Industry (Mad Men?) devotes billions of dollars to convincing me that unless I have a rotary shaver to clip my nose hairs my life sucks and I will never get the girls.  Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, on television and the radio and the internet and even printed on one enterprising young man’s head in Nebraska, commercials are offering us the solutions to substandard lives that we didn’t even know that we were living, to be corrected by buying cars, deodorants, beer, and everything else that you can imagine.  In fact, I feel to this day that my own life failed to optimize it’s potential because I never did get that Pocket Fisherman (advertised only on TV).

The industry has actually exceeded it’s goals.  What began as a drive to increase the appetite for acquiring things grew beyond that into an appetite for the act of shopping itself, where the pleasure of seeking and purchasing an object or service dissipates into thin air upon the purchase of said object  and is replaced by the urge to shop for and buy the next object or service, which in turn loses it’s value and so the circle goes on.  This religion of consumerism supports the corporation which feeds our habits as surely as a pusher feeds the habits of the junky; at a price, of course.

I do not mean to imply that all members of corporate teams are cynical and purposely evil, especially as I do not know them all.  There will be many exceptions.  My concern is that corporations are largely anonymous entities with enormous financial resources and no particular national or creational loyalties, and as such tend inevitably to become predators looking for whom they can devour.