Before I turn to this month’s column, I want to express my amazement at what resulted from publishing my open letter to Rupert Murdoch in the Community Alliance last month. As you may recall, I argued to Murdoch that keeping Glenn Beck on Fox was making Murdoch look like a fool. Within a week or so after being published, Beck’s termination was announced! This clearly demonstrates the far-reaching influence of the Community Alliance. (Especially since I had not gotten around to actually mailing the letter.) I say we should keep this up!
Abrahamic Religions Failing Humanity
While I do serve as a representative of the faith community (broadly defined) in the mix of the pages of the Community Alliance, it is my sad conclusion that the religions and the religious practices of more than half the world’s population are failing humanity by falling far short of their own standards. Although this failure is not absolute, it is far more extensive than I would wish it to be.
Christians, Muslims and Jews constitute roughly 3.6 billion of the world’s 7 billion people. At 14 million worldwide, Jews have many strengths but numbers is not one of them. By contrast, Muslims weigh in at 1.5 billion and Christians at 2.1 billion. Between these three religions, there should be a whole lot of peace, compassion and altruism being expressed.
Why? Because the majority of the world’s people belong to one of the three religions that claim Abraham as their forebear, and these religions traditionally elevate compassion, peace and care for the poor, the ill, the outcasts, to the highest of all values. If so, how can we be living in a world where clearly the opposite most often prevails among these same believers?
Why Are They Failing? Is It the Devil? Evil People?
There are a number of ways in which people explain this dichotomy. Some would blame this on the clever work by a personal source of evil, pointing to the dramatic images of “spiritual warfare” and the old favorite, the Devil, Beelzebub, Satan. I certainly see the power of evil in the world, but I don’t think it is either helpful or realistic to externalize it and to assign it a supernatural status.
Another traditional tactic has been to demonize whole classes of human beings as inherently evil and, often, as being subhuman. As they are evil and subhuman, they do not qualify for the protection accorded real human beings under the provisions of the Torah, the New Testament and the Quran.
A third tactic, at least among some Christians, is to read the Bible selectively, picking verses that support their own righteousness and their condemnation of those who disagree—in the name of God, of course. Often, these verses are found in the Jewish bible (which Christians call the Old Testament). To do this requires ignoring the core of the New Testament.
United States Becoming a Mean Nation
If what is published and broadcast by the media today is in any way representative of the U.S. population as a whole, we have become a nation that does not reflect or embody these religious values that are fundamental to any of these three Abrahamic religions (or to the tenants of Buddhism or the highest values of Hinduism). Yes, I am saying that despite the rhetoric of the political and social right, we are becoming distinctly un-Christian in our attitudes toward each other and particularly in our treatment of the disadvantaged.
Today’s media sports a huge, loud, raucous coordinated chorus of voices raised in disgust and sneering disdain to belittle and mock those who are concerned with the Common Good, those who seek to advocate for compassion and care for the less fortunate.
The level of meanness, of callousness expressed toward those in need seems to be greater now than any time I can recall in my life. I know that this kind of subjective assessment is not always an accurate measure, but I really do believe the tone of public discourse being expressed by far too many of those leading or influencing governments at all levels, particularly at the national level, has become exceptionally mean-spirited and definitely non-rational. That is, reasonableness has no place, it seems.
What Is Driving This?
What is going on and why? If it is not the Devil, what forces are driving this? What on earth could be the actual motivations and the goals for this huge wave of hostile and denigrating cold-heartedness?
There appear to be several factors at work that are responsible for shaping today’s contentious landscape. Although these factors may not be obvious and may not be what one first considers, I believe they are heavily involved, they are universal and they are basic to the makeup of our species. One set of those factors stems from our biology and another set stems from our psychology—our body and our mind.
Although I will not be elaborating on the ontological nature of the body-mind relationship in this column, I will say simply that both body and mind are real, highly interactive and made from the same “stuff.” But they have different functions. Our body is rooted in supporting life in the most basic sense, whereas our mind leads our passion for purpose and direction. (These distinctions are not absolute or clear cut.)
First, It Is Our Biology
Our biology is that of a primate, though our evolutionary history extends back through many earlier and simpler forms of the Animal Kingdom. One of the most basic and universal biological drives is to survive, even thrive, as a species. For that to happen, the strongest fertile individuals need to prevail in both inter- and intra-species conflicts. As we know from nature films, this is often an ugly, terrifying picture—at least from the point of view of the one who has been fought, hunted, killed and, often, eaten. The satisfied victor, obviously, has a much different perspective.
To oversimplify, one conclusion we can draw is that this drive to survive is a basic part of our biological system that extends from the bottoms of our feet up to and includes the evolutionarily older systems in our brain. In its purest, raw form, our life-preserving biology would not by itself give rise to remorse or would it be concerned about the defeated competition or about the terrified-but-now-dead food source. It does not tend to respond in a manner that leads to empathy or compassion toward others.
The human drives to dominate and to win have to be rooted in this. A third drive also seems to reside in this powerful arena. This emerges from a related theme, namely, the advantage that accrues when one has a large stockpile on hand. “If my tribe can’t make it through the winter with what we’ve harvested, we will take some of what you have—no, what the heck, make that all of yours.” This is the drive we call greed.
Second, It Is Our Psychology
On the more psychological side are the dynamics of self-valuation, most often referred to as either healthy self-esteem or narcissism when the valuation is favorable and as poor self-esteem or shame when the valuation is unfavorable. My work and my own self-reflection have led me to the realization that our need to feel positive about ourselves is a necessary dynamic in our personal psychological development.
The counterbalancing opposite of this is shame. Full-blown shame is a searing, shattering experience. Most people work hard to avoid being seen as shameful, even to the slightest extent. Shame can function to temper unrealistic self-valuation, a necessary dynamic in the development of the person. But the human instinct is to stay at least at arm’s length from the possibility of shame. And this motivation in its initial, immature form underlies so much of human destructiveness and violence.
The Initial Stage of Self-Esteem? Being Superior to Others
Why? Because the first stage in achieving self-esteem for most of us is to believe we are superior to someone else. I can only feel good about myself if I look down on you with disgust, with contempt. In our own nation’s history, this is an oft-repeated theme: The original European settlers characterized the Native Americans as ignorant savages. Among themselves, they saw women as inferior and those with differing religious beliefs as sinners or agents of evil. Of course, not everyone felt this way, but these became dominant views.
Enslaved Africans quickly and almost universally became subhuman. According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, even Lincoln was doubtful of the Black slaves’ native intelligence or capacity to be fully human. In Germany, Hitler helped the non-Jewish German population overcome the mortification that resulted from the losses in WWI by casting all the shame on the Jews (and others who deviated from acceptable norms).
Religious Values Could Stand Opposed to the Worst of These Drives
These drives, biological and psychological, can and do lead to horrible outcomes throughout history. In that sense, today is no different. One of the major controls to inhibit the extremes of these primal forces has been these core religious values. In Christianity, for example, loving your enemy means there is no enemy; loving your neighbor as you love yourself means kindness and care for others; the call to help the poor, the weak, the ill, requires a good degree of selflessness.
But for a variety of reasons, these values are not being fought for by religious leaders, and in many cases, they are not even being taught. I can’t say what is occurring in the Islamic mosques in the United States, or in the Jewish synagogues here, but I have seen a huge focus in Christian circles on personal salvation and not on social justice.
Furthermore, many well-educated Christian clergy avoid bringing the fruits of decades of superior biblical scholarship to their congregations because these new ideas and interpretations challenge what has been tradition. How often does one hear today that Jesus was a radical who challenged the status quo? Instead, today he often is held out as the one who blesses the status quo.
The Lords of the Rings…
And what is today’s status quo? In the United States and Europe, and increasingly in many other places, the status quo is that a tiny number of people control the lion’s share of the wealth. Through corporations and numerous financial institutions, they continue to accrue wealth and power—greed and domination coupled with highly inflated self-valuation.
If you are that wealthy, it means that you are unquestionably superior to most others and, by god, you are going to make sure that does not go away. These are the lords who are lording it over the rest of us. Of course, not everyone who is at this level of wealth and power is like this, but as Frodo discovered (and Gandalf knew), this level of power is highly seductive and extraordinarily destructive.
Next issue: What can we do about this?