MLK Holiday 2017

Enshrined in the National African American History Museum in Washington, DC, are words by Archbishop Iakovos who was the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America from 1959-1996.   He was well known for his support of racial equality and civil rights.

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He was a visible presence with Martin Luther King in America.  By his life he indicated the importance of living the Gospel by supporting human rights.  For many migrants who brought with them their Orthodox faith to the American shores, they were looking exactly for civil and human rights, and some suffered rejection by those who saw this “foreign invasion” as endangering American society.  We all have benefited from those who have fought for the rights of minorities.  Besides the National African American Museum in Washington, DC, I would highly recommend to all the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH.   These museums do present us with our history as Americans – and the ongoing efforts to keep us all free.

 

A Statue of Responsibility

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“In a universe where values are relative and individual autonomy reigns supreme, personal responsibility is a doubtful proposition. Responsibility implies accountability to a higher authority than the face in the mirror, there is no need for shame or guilt. Even if you get caught, it is always the fault of someone else: your parents, your teachers, the government, faulty genes (again your parents! And no need for repentance if you can obtain the services of a clever lawyer!). Dr. Victor Frankl was an admirer of the United States and the many freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, but with some caveats. ‘Freedom…is a negative concept which requires a positive complement. And the positive complement is responsibleness..[which] refers to a meaning for whose fulfillment we are responsible, and also to a being before whom we are responsible…Freedom threatens to degenerate into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness..the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast [of the United States] should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.’” (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p. 81)

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President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation 1863

Lincoln2The recent U.S. presidential election was particularly rancourous and divisive.  There was unrest after the election as some were so shocked by the results that they couldn’t even accept it.  Even through the Thanksgiving  Holiday, some were still unsettled by the results of the election.  All of that made me call to mind President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863.  Talk about a divided nation – at that time we were in a civil war.  Yet, despite the war and the divided country, Lincoln still could see there were plenty of things for which the American people could be thankful.

And though Thanksgiving is already past us, I felt it is good for us, as Americans, to remember those things for which we owe our Creator thanksgiving, even in times of uncertainty or unrest or dissatisfaction.   Whatever our differences, however politics push us in polar opposite directions, we Americans also need to remember those gifts from God which we all enjoy and which make us the great nation we are.  Let us never forget our blessings and let us always remember that to be an American is to be thankful at heart, and to have gratitude for those gifts whether of nature or of freedom that we hold in common.

Here is what President Lincoln wrote to the nation:

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

Elections: Making Sense of the Senseless

I have no profound insight to offer as a result of the election, but was thinking about the main presidential candidates and what they represent.  I read a sapiential comment from the desert fathers which made me think about candidates in the election.  As with many sagacious sayings one has appreciate them by meditating on them.

It is why art museums place benches in the galleries – to give the viewer time to take the art in, to appreciate the details and all that is captured in the art. [Interesting that a bench gives us time!]   Or, it is why one has to sit in the garden for a bit to fully appreciate all the colors, scents, movements of the flowers to truly imbibe all that is being offered to us.

Though I read this some days before the election and I thought it relevant to our election, it didn’t help me decide how to vote for I remained unconvinced that our candidates possessed all the virtues praised here.

An old man used to say, ‘Wisdom and simplicity form the perfect order of the Apostles’ and of those who examine closely their rules of life and their conduct, and to this Christ urged them, saying, Be  harmless as doves and subtle like serpents (St. Matthew 10:16). And the Apostle [Paul] also admonished the Corinthians to the same effect, saying, ‘My brethren, be not childish in your minds, but be as  babes in respect of things which are evil, and be perfect in your minds’ (1 Corinthians 14:20). Now wisdom without simplicity is wicked cunning, and it is the subtlety of the philosophers among the pagans of which it is said, He catches the wise men in their own cunning (Job 5:13; 1 Corinthians 3:19), and again, The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain (Psalm 94:2; 1 Corinthians 3:20).

And simplicity without wisdom is the foolishness which is prone to error, and concerning this also  the Apostle spoke, and he wrote unto those who possessed it,  saying, I fear lest, even as the serpent led Eve into error by his craftiness, so your minds also may be destroyed in respect of your simplicity which is towards Christ (2 Corinthians 6:3). For they accepted every word without testing it, even as it is said in the [Book of] Proverbs, The simple man believes every word “ (Proverbs 14:15).     (adapted from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2), Kindle Loc. 3403-13)

There is a difference between wisdom and intelligence just as there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom.  In the wisdom of the desert fathers there was a recognition that even wisdom had to be combined with other virtues to be of value.  A criminal can be very wise and knowledgeable about his illegal activities.  Politicians can be astutely wise but that can mean only that they are wickedly cunning if they lack integrity and humility.  There can even be a person who has a certain simple straightforwardness but who lacks wisdom – that becomes nothing more than total foolishness.  Folly is sin according to the Bible (Proverbs 24:9; Mark 7:22)

Election Loses and Regrets

This is about all I’m going to say about our current election.  I don’t endorse candidates or political parties.  As a parish priest, my job is to pray for this country, its president, the congress, supreme court, its armed forces, all civil authority and for all its people.  I do this no matter who wins the election.  My prayers are not based on election outcomes, but upon my faith in the Trinitarian God’s love for creation including all people on the planet.

It is no wonder that Americans suffer from election fatigue.  From the moment the presidential election is decided, the political parties and machines begin gearing up for the next election.  Running campaigns has become a full time process, not just once every four years but every day of every year.  The political parties and PACs raise millions of dollars to spend on electing candidates, but how much does anyone invest in actually doing governance?  How much time and energy do the political parties, the PACs, the political pundits put into helping these candidates learn to govern in a democracy in a diverse society?  Precious little, which is part of the terrible money imbalance in American politics.  Political office is treated as “for sale to the highest bidder” rather than as the means to serve the nation and to lead the free world.

As soon as the election is decided, political parties and political fundraisers begin focusing all their time and energy on the next election and getting their party’s candidates elected.   If they invested in good candidates who could actually govern and who could help build American democracy we all would be better off.  They however are really interested in investing in winning and holding on to power, even if they have no wise or virtuous candidates to put forth.   How much better for us all if they focused on how to make the American democratic process work and on how to help our leaders govern our country in the 21st Century with its diversity, all its many issues and problems and with the world as it is today (not as we wished it were).

The political machines pick candidates who can win elections, not necessarily those who are capable of governing.  The political machines spend tens of millions of dollars on getting people elected, but nothing on training them in governace – how to work in, with and for a democracy.   Forget having a candidate be a statesman, as they will have no time for that – their purpose is only to win elections.   Any wonder that the Putins of the world have an easier time being statesmen, being world leaders and getting things done?   The Putins of the world can set goals and accomplish them while American presidential candidates are forced to short-shortsightedly focus on winning elections.  Putins can conquer enemies, American presidential candidates have to conquer the electorate which turns half of the very people they are supposed to serve into enemies of sorts and the rest into the vanquished.  This is why negative elections seem to work so well, in my opinion.  Americans have forgotten that both political parties and all elected candidates are supposed to represent and serve all the people not just the ones that agree with them.

Presidents are said to have about 100 days of their first administration to accomplish anything.  We spend 1461 days to elect a person who apparently is only going to be able to accomplish anything about 100 days in four years.   The rest of the time (935 of their four years) they will spend campaigning for themselves or others in their political party.  The elected politicians have to cater to those who financed their election and to the talk show hosts and their legions who endlessly criticize the politician.  Apparently,  the politicians weren’t elected to lead, but only to cater to money and to continually appease the squealing media wheels.  The “next” election looms over everything elected do not because of the electorate but because of the big money and big voices.

The media superstars, not elected by anybody, dominate the airwaves and the Internet and so it appears also the thoughts of the many who listen to them.  They fire up their base so that the president and congress have to spend most of their time paying attention to the political machines and to the media commentators rather than to issues before them.   The media moguls do not want the politicians to see anything except through their lens.  Don’t pay attention to the issues but only to those who loudly yell about the issues.   But these commentators do not pay attention to or care about  what strengthens democracy in a diverse culture.  Rather they really advocate against democracy and in favor of a one party system, with their own way as being the only acceptable way to see the world.  The word dictator comes from a Latin word meaning  “to say often, prescribe, to speak frequently.”   All talk show hosts are dictators.  Why do we listen to them?  We should favor democracy not dictatorship.  We are addicted to them and the next thing they might say, which is what also comes to haunt and fixate the politicians.

We invest so heavily in the elections but do not invest in governance.  We need to change the system so that it works to strengthen democracy not tear it down like the media people and political chieftains do today.  Their goal is purely to get their people elected.  But that isn’t necessarily what is good for the country or the world.

votevoteThere is in our country the wonderful freedom of speech, which unfortunately the Supreme Court says includes setting no limits on how much money people can spend or raise on elections.  But we the people should learn “freedom of listening.”  We can turn off all of the political talk show people.  We can stop listening to or watching political ads whether from the airwaves or on the Internet.  We need to find something better to do with our minds, like learning more about democracy and how it works, why it is so important to our lives and what we need to be as voters to make democracy work.  We should shake off our own laziness of listening to dictators and encourage politicians to be statesmen and leaders.  If we don’t like their ideas we vote them out of office.  Those candidates in favor of democracy should also support the idea that they can be removed from office rather than spending all their time and energy making sure they stay in office.

I have never made it my position to comment on “who” to vote for in an election.  However, I do value American democracy and consider it a strength of our nation.  I do think our current election trends and the power ceded to political parties and to media talk show hosts is weakening democracy.  We need to work on changing the system, and then we would get better candidates.

Dems-GOPIn a democracy, the majority decide which direction the country will go.  Political parties can hold to an ideology, but face the reality that their beloved convictions can’t win a majority of voters.   They can change their position to try to create an alliance of voters to win the election, or they can hold on to their ideology but lose elections.  What shouldn’t be accepted is that they try to buy elections or to have their unpopular ideas win through deceit or negative campaigning.  If they can’t convince us that their ideas are good for the country, even if painful, they need to try harder, improve their message, or find a combination of ideas that convince us to vote for them.  In my opinion as it is they instead just spend all their time and energy trying to get their candidates elected with no regard for how that effects the country. For them the end justifies the means, no matter what price democracy has to pay.   Their goal is to stay in power not necessarily to strengthen the American democratic process.  We voters can changes this, but we have to change our habits to do it.

I would recommend listening to the TED Talk: Democracy on Trial for further thinking about democracy and its importance and why we need to strengthen it through the election process rather than weaken it by allowing ourselves to become part of the partisan polarity problem.  I think a total reform of the party driven primaries would be helpful.   Let all candidates from all parties be put into a common pool in the primaries, and the voters decide who are the top two candidates – no matter what party they are from.  The general election would have the top two vote winners in the primary face off.  That way all candidates in all elections would have to offer a message that appeals to all or the most voters.  This I think would help end the parties become more polarized through the primaries and then offering no middle ground for voters.  I’m sure this would create other problems, perhaps some unseen at the moment, but it would help change the tenor of the election process now at work in America.

The Power of God and of the State

It is a presidential election year in the United States, which as I’ve noted before tends to cause a fair amount of angst in my fellow parishioners.  This year’s election has been even more troubling.  Often people are afraid what will happen if “the other” party wins the election.  This year people seem anxious and afraid even if their party wins.  Here is a quote from Russian Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov describing what the proper power of government is from a Christian point of view.  All of the things we might think of as the duties of government have a spiritual basis.

“Here there is a direct analogy with evil. God does not suppress it automatically by his omnipotence. Likewise he does not suppress social inequality by force, but makes it a spiritual victory over the passion of possession. In extreme cases, public authority ought to intervene. However, the state is not called upon to realize the Kingdom of God on earth. Its task is to prevent the world from becoming a hell and thus to place limits against the progression of evil among us.” (In the World, of the Church: A Paul Evdokimov Reader, p 88)

 Government, big or small, cannot create the kingdom of God on earth.  As Evdokimov notes God Himself does not “suppress social inequality by force.”  Rather Christ appeals to us to overcome our passions by voluntarily engaging in a spiritual warfare.  As Christians we should strive for a spiritual victory over our self-centered interests by making love our aim (1 Corinthians 14:1).  Sometimes the government has to intervene when social inequalities exceed what is humane, when the powerful behave inhumanly and the poor are dehumanized.  But he sees this as the exception, not the rule.   Certainly in history Christianity changed the all powerful Roman Empire, but did it without violence and without an election.  It was a change of hearts that occurred in enough citizenry to make a difference.

As Evdokimov notes the task of the state “is to prevent the world from becoming a hell.”   That in itself is no mean task.  It is of course made even more difficult if the election itself seems like hell!   The role of the state according to Evdokimov is “to place limits against the progression of evil among us.”   Evil however is not a nation with an army whom we can fight with conventional weapons.

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints…”   (Ephesians 6:11-18)

What it means for us is that politics is not purely secular with no religious element.  Evil is a theological concept.   Without God we cannot win that battle against evil.  Without God, we will never even be able to agree on what evil is.  But even with God, we are not going to establish Paradise on earth through government or armies.  We can resist the forces of evil.  We can work to make sure the earth does not become hell by opposing evil.

Fearing the Times

Presidential election years seem to bring out a certain darkness in the hearts and minds of those who pay attention to politics.  People are disquieted by the uncertainty of the swirling, sometimes rushing, muddy waters of the election.

My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit it’s going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down
I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now

(Mary Gauthier, “Mercy Now”)

In the 21st Century, or so it seems to me, every four years Americans experience a great amount of angst and anxiety about the present and the future.  Political parties do a great amount of fear-mongering as the presidential election approaches, feeding the fear, dragging people down, rather than giving them hope.  This year seems especially rife and ripe for this descent into despair.

It may be of little cheer, but certainly our country has survived darker and more turbulent times.  1860 comes to mind or 1940.

The Orthodox Church certainly has been confronted with darker times.  The rise of communism seemed to spell an endless and unmitigated period of church suffering and shrinking, and hiding in the darkness which overshadowed everything Orthodox.

The world is marked by its ever-changing quality – empires rise and fall.   The uncertainty of the world is an ever present feature in the life of millions of people.     Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh spoke uneasily about the church entering a new age in the 21st Century:

“I have a very clear or rather gloomy feeling that as we enter the third millennium we are entering some obscure and complex and, in a certain sense, unwelcome period. As for devotion to the Church, our faith must certainly retain its integrity, but we must not be afraid of thinking and expressing ourselves openly. Everything will eventually settle into order, but if we keep just endlessly reiterating what has been said long ago, more and more people will drift away from their faith (I mean not so much Russia as the world as a whole), not because everything that was stated before is erroneous, but because the approach and language being used are all wrong. Today’s people and the time they live in are different; today we think differently.

I believe one must become rooted in God and not be afraid of thinking and feeling freely. ‘Freely’ does not imply ‘free thinking’ or contempt for the past and for the tradition. However, God does not need slaves. ‘I no longer call you servants, I call you my friends…’ I think it is extremely important that we think and share our reflections with him. There is so much we could share with him in this new world we live in. It is so  good and so important to think openly without trying to conform. Intellectuals with great receptivity must come to the fore by their thinking and writing. The Church, or rather clergymen and some of the conscious churchgoers, are afraid to do something wrong. After all these years when people could not think or speak openly with each other and thereby outgrow, as it were, the nineteenth century, there is much fear, which leads people to be content with mere repetition of what has been adopted by the Church long before and what is known as Church language and Church doctrine. This has to change sooner or later.” (The Wheel 4 | Winter 2016)

The Church unfortunately contracts and becomes entrenched exactly at a moment when opportunity presents itself for moving into a new century, for being renewed by the Spirit.  Fear causes the church to hide behind closed doors as the apostles did after the crucifixion of Christ.  Jesus, however, came into their midst and commanded them to go out into that world which they so feared and from which they wanted to hide.

So while we Americans face another presidential election and the negativity it will bring, we might consider the words of the newly elected president Franklin Roosevelt at his first inauguration.  Spoken in 1933, the problems besetting the nation at that time see very familiar to us today:

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

…rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.   (Franklin D. Roosevelt, March 4, 1933)

There is hope.  We are still here, America survived the mid-20th Century and moved into more prosperous times.  The temptations of greed, selfishness and hatred are always there, as they always have been.  On a personal level, we can always choose better, no matter how leadership behaves.

Or, maybe we come to realize that in the world, human problems remain rather consistently – things though incredibly troubling and worrisome are not all that different from past times.  Democracy is a system which every few years calls for an election – because we are electing fellow citizens to lead us, it will always produce anxiety.  It will sometimes produce bad results, and sometimes miraculously, good emerges, nurturing and sustaining us for a life time.

 

Lies, Lies, Lies

nprI found pretty fascinating a show from the NPR program “On the Media“:  “Lies, Lies, Lies“.  I’m recommending it if you have about 50 minutes to ponder the truth about lies, and lying about the truth.

Inspired by this year’s presidential presidential campaign, it covers recent American history related to lies and truth, politicians and the press.  Though we hate when politicians lie to us (or maybe, more truthfully we just hate when those we oppose lie, we are more tolerant when the candidates we favor lie), the fact is politicians often say things they think that people want to hear.  As Psychologist Maria Hartwig comments:  “People want the truth if it fits with what they want to hear.”  So politicians are tempted by us and what we want to hear.  We like the truth if we agree with it, otherwise we are willing to dispense with it; so too, politicians.  Additionally, as the program points out, truth can become fashionable, or go out of fashion – I found that segment of the show to be fascinating – how the political process treats truthfulness and truthiness.   Politicians are willing to use truth when it is convenient and ignore it when it isn’t, and to twist it when that serves their purpose.  Politicians also know they can be punished for telling the truth as people don’t always appreciate the candor when they want to hear what agrees with their own preconceived ideas.

Is truth self-evident? Or, does the self not rely on the evidence when it comes to the truth?

One referenced quote in the program, I had to look up because it seemed such a classic political twisting of phrases.  The master communicator President Ronald Reagan speaking from the Oval Office:

“Let’s start with the part that is the most controversial. A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind. There are reasons why it happened, but no excuses. It was a mistake.”  (March 4, 1987)

reaganHis heart and best intentions told him it wasn’t true even though the facts and evidence told him it was true.   A classic case of “never let the facts get in the way of what you want to believe.”  or “Don’t believe everything you think.”   He so interestingly phrased it:  the facts and evidence aren’t giving him the truth, they are telling him what isn’t true.  Not a case that he couldn’t handle the truth, he handled it very well.   Douglas Adams described it well: “I don’t believe it. Prove it to me and I still won’t believe it.”

Reagan masterfully admits, “It was a mistake” which avoids any admission of intentional wrong behavior and also allows him to avoid having to admit he lied.

President Reagan was not the first president to handle truth, facts and evidence, as if it were modeling clay needing to be shaped by the artist.  This year’s presidential campaign shows he won’t be the last either.

“It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”  (Mark Twain)

Paying for the Free Market

I read in the Winter 2016 issue of THE WHEEL (a new journal of Orthodox literature and thought) the article by Anthony Artuso, “On Dominion and Progress: Sacramental Action in a Secular World.”     Artuso makes a few interesting claims that I piqued my interests.  He says that …

“The original political idea of the  Enlightenment was to create a religiously neutral public sphere where governments supported by the will of the people, would make decisions to enhance  overall welfare.”

The proponents of the 18th Century European Enlightenment and their successors felt some oppression from the existing religious structures in Europe and the wars between Christians which were frequent at that time.   The movement toward separating church and state was an effort to disentangle society, government and religion in the hope that people might behave more rationally and less passionately in disagreements.  By pushing religion to a more private sphere, some thought people would behave more rationally.  The reality is that people don’t need religion to become passionately driven on issues as a number of communist atheist tyrants have shown.  Religion does not automatically lead to irrationality, nor does the absence of religion guarantee humans will be reasonable.

But relying purely on human reason, allowed them to imagine that commerce/ the market/ capitalism would serve the people by keeping individual greed in check.  The market had an interest in a moral order and in spreading the benefits it brought about to a wide range of people (or so they believed).   Artuso says the market was to be

“always under the guidance and management of the state, which alone was entrusted with safeguarding the interests of all.”

reaganThe state was in their idealist view the preserver of reason.  This may have been the ideal, but this ideal  in the 18th and 19th Centuries for Enligtenment advocates, but it must not have been working which led President Reagan to identify the government as the problem, not the solution to the problem.  But then, even under Reagan, the government grew and the national debt doubled.  The government may have been the problem, but his policies enlarged the problem.

Artuso says the drive for deregulation of the market was a response to a feeling that the government wasn’t in fact a benevolent guide for the free market but could be turned into a monstrous tool of political interest groups.  So the new idea came to be to free the market from government oversight.  Artuso puts it this way:

“We have entrusted ourselves to the invisible hand of the market which we vaguely conceive as being wielded for our benefit by the god of progress.”

Therein is a dilemma.  Adam Smith, the patron of the free market, apparently thought the government was to manage the market for the public good.  But in modern America, the government came to be viewed as part of the problem because the government proved not to be a neutral force in the free enterprise system.  It was a huge force that could be manipulated by interest groups to carry out agendas other than the general welfare.

But, the market freed to move as it wishes without government oversight becomes a large and largely undirected force.   What or who guides the market and for what purpose?   Perhaps we are to think that the unguided force of commerce is always benevolent, but what would make us believe that is not clear.  The market can be manipulated by organized forces with particular agendas.  Is it too big to allow it to go where it will?  Or in fact  will some clever folks be able to guide it to their own benefit without regard to the general welfare?

money

The market is driven by greed if by anything, and certainly does not want to keep greed in check.  The market imagines unbounded growth which, at least in recent years, certainly has benefited the wealthiest people.  Unbridled growth in the market (as well as in the government!) seems to fit the American attitude that wealth is a god which we should always serve.

Our money says on it, “In God we Trust“, but perhaps the god we trust in is money itself.   St. Paul warned that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).  We tend to think on the other hand that money is THE solution to every problem.  [Think also about how much money gets invested in our elections – some do think money can influence the direction of governement].   Wealth and more wealth are assumed to be always a good, the more the better.   The notion of any kind of self-control by individuals, commerce or the government is out of favor these days, or perhaps in America always is.

Wealth of course is not a god, is not infinitely wise and can, as we have experienced throughout history, suddenly disappear throwing the world into depressions and recessions.    Wealth is not a neutral force unaffected by the greed and powerlust of people.   It certainly is a major force in human life and history, but it never claims to be benevolent towards humans.   It is always being pushed and pulled in various directions.  And to imagine that ever increasing wealth can only produce more good, we might ask: Would an infinitely rich Hitler have created a better world?  To imagine that wealth or the market are simply neutral, and unmanipulable is to ignore history where people were always striving to use the market for their own goals.

Besides all of this, studies have continuously shown that increasing wealth does not automatically equate with people being  happier.   Certainly it doesn’t guarantee people being wiser, kinder, more generous, more humane, more civic minded.  Money can be a good servant, but it is a bad master.

People are attracted to power, and the free market represents a huge power in the world.  People have and will continue to attempt to use government, wealth, the market, for their own ends  This is the fact that we have to be aware of and prepare for.

The Power of Fear

I heard Dwayne Betts interviewed on NPR and found the interview interesting enough to purchase his book, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison.

I was somewhat disappointed in the book, but found a quote in it that resonated with things I hear about Americans today.  News of terrorism, and wars and gun control often make Americans fearful – not only of enemies but of big government, immigrants, and just about everything or everyone else.

Fear becomes a sign of our times.

Presidential elections, and this is the year for it in America, also bring out lots of fears in people – and candidates constantly stoke those fears because apparently fear translates into votes. “If anyone else but me wins the presidency, be afraid!”  Of course, we might have reason to be afraid if these candidates win as well, but that is just more fear.

In any case, Betts writes about his experience of going to prison at age 16, for committing a carjacking.   He says of his experience of the courts, the police and the prisons:

“Fear was a commodity everyone traded in. In three months I’d learned that everyone from lawyers to the judges to the other kids around me thought their power rested in getting someone to fear you.”  (Kindle Location 144-146)

Sounds a bit like our presidential candidates as well – some of them want others to fear them, all of them want us to fear all the other candidates.

I don’t think fear is a great reason to vote for anyone.  Better that we rely on wisdom than fear.  Perhaps if we used wisdom more in our choice of candidates we could get the candidates to change their tactics and to tell us more about their policies rather than trying to create all manners of ghoulish caricatures and character assassinations of their opponents.

Both Betts in his book and our political candidates remind me of a Chinese proverb, which could be written by any Orthodox desert father:

“When you see a good man,

think of emulating him;

when you see a bad man,

examine  your own heart.”

Five Man Electrical Band sang for us:

“Signs, Signs, Everywhere there’s signs.
. . .
Do this! Don’t do that! Can’t you read the signs?”