Thursday, April 07, 2011

Why I went into the woods

Stirring the pensieve again...

And speaking of the demonic:

Austin - Today Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee unanimously voted against HB 1, the Republican budget proposal for 2012-2013. HB 1 passed the Committee on a vote of 18-7 and will be considered by the full House of Representatives in the coming weeks. Democrats on the Committee spoke out against the proposal to cut funding for neighborhood schools, make college more expensive, and eliminate basic services for children, seniors and the disabled.

House Democrats have called on state leaders to fix the $10 billion permanent budget hole created by the Republicans' 2006 tax plan and use a portion of the $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund to address the 2012-2013 budget, but the leadership has refused to do so.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin) said, "In many cases the cuts in health and human services are making life and death decisions. Texas children, senior citizens and disabled Texans deserve better. With inadequate resources, our school children are destined to a second class education and unable to compete in today's global economy. This budget is unacceptable to our constituencies who have sent us to ensure a first class education for our children, protect our citizens, care for those who no longer can care for themselves and provide services to those who have nowhere else to turn."

Rep. Craig Eiland (D-Galveston) said, "Texas is experiencing a budget shortfall, but cutting funds to schools, the elderly and disabled is not the only way to address our problem. It is important that we uphold the commitment to our citizens and not put the most vulnerable of our population, like children, the disabled and the mentally challenged at risk. I will continue to work throughout the rest of the session and any special sessions to have a bill with the appropriate cuts that I can eventually vote for."

Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) said, "Just like so many Texas families, the state has put money into savings for times of fiscal crisis. Texas Republicans are today demanding that we make devastating cuts that will hurt Texas' school-aged, elderly, and disabled residents, cuts that they would never suggest for their own families. It is unconscionable that such brutal cuts are being proposed while billions of dollars sit unspent in the state's savings account."

Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) said, "Not a single person showed up in our committee and asked us to eliminate pre-k grants for our youngest schoolchildren and financial aid for college freshmen, but that's what this budget does. Prior generations of Texans have invested in educating children in our state, but this generation will drop the torch if this budget passes.

The budget is almost $8 billion short of funding our legal obligations to schools. These cuts will destroy the infrastructure of education and health care that past generations have built for our children.

The Republican budget fails to uphold our obligation to our children and threatens to end our state's prosperity. We can do better than this if the Republicans fix the recurring $10 billion hole they put in the budget with the 2006 Perry Tax Swap and eliminate tax loopholes that litter our tax laws."
I highlighted a portion of that to emphasize the destructive nature of the demonic. It is this desire for destruction which sets this apart from the merely selfish or short-sighted. This is not the theology of scarcity; this is the theology of destruction. This is beyond despair; this is demonic. What do I mean? I mean this:

The consistent thread through the Hebrew scriptures into the proclamation of the basileia tou theou is that humans must eschew and avoid political power, because power draws its source from the fear of scarcity.
This has certainly been true all my life. In my childhood, it was the Cold War, and the fear of scarcity was the fear of a scarcity of liberty, a scarcity of life itself in the shadow of the Bomb. We only had to capitalize it to know what we all meant. That fear turned into the informal slogan of the Bush Administration: "Freedom is not free." The scarcity lingered on, the idea that nothing is ours without purchase, without price, and purchase and price always means one to a customer, and only to the paying customer. Blow you, Jack, I got mine!

Before that, and even alongside it, was the scarcity of security in one's job; so that white plantation owners, long after the end of slavery, kept poor whites fearful of poor blacks who would take their property, their jobs, their women. Scarcity was a handy tool for keeping the poor from noticing their enemy was the wealthy who exploited their poverty, not the blacks who shared it, who even suffered worse from it. Power draws its source from the fear of scarcity. And when that fear is not enough, or when that fear replaces reason itself, it becomes demonic. It becomes destructive.

But maybe we have only ourselves to blame, because one can never have too much milkshake. Scarcity is built into our very way of life:

Scarcity is the peculiar province of economics, the "dismal science." How much is available to go around, how fairly can it be distributed? This is the assumption of utilitarianism, this is the assumption of John Rawls' "Theory of Justice," this is the assumption of economists: scarcity is the nature of the world, now how do we adjust our desires to meet this wholly reasonable and undeniable conclusion? The economic pie can only be so large. Full employment, for example, would be disastrous: without a scarcity of jobs, what bargaining power would the employer have, what incentive would drive the worker to labor rather than laziness? With every niche filled, there would be nowhere to go, and little reason to worry about being asked to go. Scarcity is not only reality, we deem it necessity. The desert is our model for the world, it is the spur of our incentives: we are not creatures driven and derided by lust, because lust we can market. Lust is another model of scarcity, as you can never have enough things, look good enough, have enough sex or be attractive, knowledgeable, witty, intelligent, enough. You must always lack and desire what you do not have. It is not lust we are driven by now, but fear. Fear for our security, but also fear for our want, fear that the world, indeed, is not enough and that we must always have more. Our fear is that the world is actually the desert we are afraid it might be, and that enough will never be afforded us.
But now what we agree we are living in the desert, we have panicked, and we are turning on each other.

Except, of course, we aren't. No one followed George W. Bush when he tried to use his "political capital" to lead us into privatizing Social Security. Wisconsin hasn't followed Scott Walker into accepting his union busting law. Ohio is moving to put John Kasich's similar attempt on the ballot for repeal. GOP governors across the country who moved to destroy in the name of fear and scarcity, are finding they have no support for their demonic actions. Even John Boehner, who insisted until recently that "we are broke," is now ignoring the demands of the Tea Party to reach a reasonable compromise with the Democrats in order to avoid calamity. Which is not to say the legislature in Washington is beyond reproach:

Who are — once again — under attack, this time in the House budget bill, H.R. 1. The budget proposes cuts in the WIC program (which supports women, infants and children), in international food and health aid (18 million people would be immediately cut off from a much-needed food stream, and 4 million would lose access to malaria medicine) and in programs that aid farmers in underdeveloped countries. Food stamps are also being attacked, in the twisted “Welfare Reform 2011” bill. (There are other egregious maneuvers in H.R. 1, but I’m sticking to those related to food.)

These supposedly deficit-reducing cuts — they’d barely make a dent — will quite literally cause more people to starve to death, go to bed hungry or live more miserably than are doing so now. And: The bill would increase defense spending.
There is something evil in that, too; but we have become so inured to reducing the poor to greater poverty (Title X funds once signed into law by Richard Nixon and championed by then Rep. George H.W. Bush are now anathema in D.C.) that it's almost status quo, rather than a dramatic turn toward destruction. Which, itself, is a sad statement. Consider:

What’s poverty? Poverty guidelines have not changed since the 1960s: “A family is counted as poor if its pretax money income is below its poverty threshold,” which is $11,161 for a single adult — think about that! — and $17,286 for a couple with one child.

The poverty rate in 1959 was nearing 40 million. It dipped to about 23 million in 1973, only to rise again in the early 1990s to about 39 million. But the poverty rate in America in 2009 was the highest it’s been in the last 50 years, at about 43.6 million.
Who is "broke"? Who is damaged by current economic conditions? Who has the real problems here? People who can get the attention of TeeVee and politicians by traveling to D.C. for a "rally"? Or the poor, the destitute, the kind of people no U.S. politician has visited, at least in my memory, since Robert Kennedy?

Meanwhile, the Tea Party and its supporters continue to clamor for calamity, and they are set to achieve it in the "laboratories of democracy," if not on the national level. Even as they clamor, though, their support falls and the extremism they pursue in the name of liberty is being seen as a vice by the greater public. Which means there may ultimately be some redemption in the rush to extremism. an ironic result to countenance from one who is himself so extreme in his defense of the "attack upon Christendom."

I was re-reading Thoreau's words with a class I had assigned the excerpt to:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."
Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion. Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.
It has been 30 years or more since I first read those words. I had forgotten them, but they were obviously buried somewhere, and fertilizing that did grow in my mind over the decades. Should we live like men? Or like baboons? The question is as timely now as it was in the 19th century.

"How should we then live?" is emerging for me as the question of 19th century Europe. Tolstoy; Kierkegaard; the Romantics (now reduced to a minor literary movement that lasted only a few decades; no longer the sweeping change in fundamental human thought which we are still living through. Sometimes scholarship can be so blinkered and so in love with minutiae and novelty....); Thoreau; Emerson; the U.S. Civil War itself. So many writers and thinkers and events raised the question of what life was for; a question first raised in response to the Industrial Revolution and one still relevant today. It was the question raised by Sartre and existentialism in the aftermath of World War II. It is the question raised by mega-churches and the "Gospel of Wealth" and every vulture theologian who longs for the time when people open their eyes and realize their despair and come running back to the Church, if only in order to fill the pews and justify the time spent there by the loyalists, and to improve the self-esteem of the person in the high and lonely pulpit. It is the basis of the question of whether we should or should not live by faith, whether we should preserve our ancient metaphysics or toss the baby out with the bathwater; whether, having torn up noblesse oblige in our desire to be free Jeffersonians, we must now preserve the tattered Social Contract.

"How should we then live?" is emerging, for me, as the question of 19th century Europe. Tolstoy; Kierkegaard; the Romantics (now reduced to a minor literary movement that lasted only a few decades; no longer the sweeping change in fundamental human thought which we are still living through. Sometimes scholarship can be so blinkered and so in love with minutiae and novelty....); Thoreau; Emerson; the U.S. Civil War itself. So many writers and thinkers and events raised the question of what life was for; a question first raised in response to the Industrial Revolution and one still relevant today. But not a question many people want to tangle with. Far easier to wrestle with the question of how to get through the day and increase my acquisitions and improve my bottom line. Still, as even TV commercials knew in the '60's: "Is that all there is?" Is the goal of life simply to have a goal in life, and that goal to be "He who dies with the most toys, wins"? If it is then, of course, all we live with is anxiety about what we have, what we don't have, and how to keep the former and obtain the latter. As the cigarette commercial used to ask: "This is living?" And it answered its own question: "Some people don't think so."

But only some; most of us continue to live lives of quiet desperation. How should we then live?

Re-reading Thoreau has made me reconsider Sartre. Consider how this, with a slight shift of emphasis, becomes Sartre's responsibility of the individual:

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.
Surely we must; but can we do it?

We can't live the life of a Thoreau, anymore than he would want us to. We can't return to the idyllic life of the simple Russian peasant, the type of life Thomas Hardy worked hard to show us was neither simple nor idyllic. Maybe the question, though, isn't "Can we do it," but: "Can we avoid it?"

Aye, there's the rub.

Take poverty, for example. Is the poverty of another a detail that fritters away my life, that diverts me from the true responsibility of living? Or is it a burden I take upon myself merely by recognizing its reality, especially if I d nothing further about it. But responsibility! Am I responsible for the poverty in the world? Am I responsible to the extent I do nothing about it, to the limit to which I lift not a finger to alleviate it in the life of one soul I encounter in all my long, long years? Is my life to be spent in contemplation and rectified by giving away what I have and ennobled by attending more to nature than to society, and improved by working selflessly for the benefit of the widow and the orphan?

How should we then live?

Can we avoid the life of awareness Thoreau and Sartre urge upon us? Certainly we can, but what credit is that? Do not the Gentiles do as much?

How should we then live? Getting and spending and laying waste our powers? This is an old, old story:

As Brueggemann reads the Biblical narrative, Pharaoh represents the people who live in fear and anxiety and anger. Such people have no energy left over for the neighborhood. In the story of Joseph and Pharaoh, the guy with the most power and authority and wealth, dreams of scarcity. Which is not surprising; Pharaoh's oikos is governed by the fear of running out. It is what keeps him in control, keeps him in power and why the people allow him to rule.
So long as Pharaoh kept us scared, kept us anxious and without energy for the neighborhood, the anxiety of scarcity could rule. It is not clear that is going to prevail much longer; or at least, that such anxiety can carry us all the way into pure destruction, into the realm of the demonic. Our leadership may be going there; but the people are refusing to follow.

This anxiety about scarcity is what drives the Hebrews into slavery and so, in brief, Genesis moves into Exodus.

Now Pharaoh is so afraid of scarcity, so filled with anxiety for what might be taken from him, he begins to kill the babies of the Hebrews (and here the parallel to Herod in the New Testament, where he is clearly Pharaoh to all the Gospel writers, becomes clearer. This is where Matthew draws his parallel with the Massacre of the Innocents). This is Pharaoh's anxiety at work. As my notes indicate from the lecture: "The system that generates anxiety cannot relate to steadfast love." Which all by itself explains much about the reaction to Tom Fox, and even to the desire to go to war in the Middle East, a desire Wesley Clark says originally led to a plan to invade 7 countries in that region. But the story of the Exodus is that "Anxiety generated by ideology and social systems is not a part of the human condition." It is, in other words, our creation, and our creation, unlike God's, is grossly imperfect.

Enter Moses, a person with nothing who dreamed of freedom and departure from the "anxiety producing system." And then there is the miracle in the desert, the gift of God's abundance in the manna which comes to break the influence of the anxiety system (it comes as the people are complaining that they were better off in Egypt than in the desert). Our anxiety, Brueggemann notes, is a product of our lack of trust (faith) in God. God's offer of abundance, he says, calls into question the anxiety created by social systems, by human structures and strictures; and yet God never gives us more than "this day our daily bread."

That is from a previous post of mine. Here is another example of Brueggeman, one where he attaches Israel directly to America through, not theology or history, but anthropology:

The treasured narrative memory of Israel is so familiar that we scarcely notice that it is not really a “religious” memory. It is a political-economic memory about the time when we were slaves in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Israel can remember the oppressive circumstance when we were nothing more than instruments for the acquisitive economics of Pharaoh (Exodus 5:4-19). We were busy making bricks in order to build pyramids that would bestow grand immortality, and busy building granaries where Pharaoh could store and exhibit his economic monopoly as he controlled the world’s food supply. We remember the pain and the sweat and the resentment and the anger and the foul smell of the huts in which we had to live.

We are able to remember that there was a dramatic contest between the intelligence community of Pharaoh (now called “magicians”) and the daring challenge of Moses, who had no credentials. We had heard about the contest that played to a draw. Some of us trusted Moses, many doubted him and some simply refused. The ones who trusted followed him in that dark night of death, reached the waters and crossed. The memory was sealed as Miriam and the other women danced the dance of YHWH, the God of economic emancipation: “The Lord will reign forever and ever” (Exodus 15:18).

We headed out to a new world, and departed Pharaoh. The memory, so vivid to us, culminated at Sinai. We assented, in a blank check, to the new rules of YHWH, because we knew they would be better than the old quotas of Pharaoh (Exodus 19:8). Right from the mountain we heard the holy voice of the covenant speak to us 10 times about the love of God and love of neighbor (Exodus 20:2-17). We pledged our loyalty and in that instant were converted from a company of weary slaves to a people summoned to neighborliness (Exodus 24:3, 7). It was a transformation wrought by the holy power of YHWH, but we gladly signed on.

This is the narrative memory we deeply treasure. We treasure it so much that we teach our kids and we regularly perform it in order to recall why this night is different from all other nights. It is the night of death and of new life. It is the night of departure. It turns out to be the event of abundant bread. And before we finished, the narrative led us to new promises and pledges of loyalty to neighborly justice. The trek from slavery through abundance to covenant is one we made in wonder. And we keep making it, always again in wonder. And every time we perform it well, it is yet again an awesome miracle that we can hardly trust.
Read the whole thing, of which that is an overly long or unjustifiably brief taste. Those last words are the best, for me: "The trek from slavery through abundance to covenant is one we made in wonder. And we keep making it, always again in wonder. And every time we perform it well, it is yet again an awesome miracle that we can hardly trust." We don't trust it at all, of course. And we don't always make it; or rather, we don't always want to make it. But somehow, we do. Not as a religious pilgrimage, but as a people pursuing democracy and the creation of a more perfect union. As Breuggeman says, citing the words of "America the Beautiful:"

We sing this belated version of our Manifest Destiny. It is serious reuse of the older biblical narrative and we do not doubt that the God of liberty and covenantal justice and mercy and compassion continues to be the primal agent in our history. That version was primarily Protestant; we have, however, all appropriated it. We have gathered around it a mix of deep faith and patriotic pride, sure that this radical God willed a revolution in public power that ends in practices of peace and prosperity, with liberty and justice for all.
Brueggeman draws the parallels between America and Solomon, some of which I've mentioned before. He applies what he finds in Scriptures to the "current" financial crisis (his words are from 2009), and he points out that: "Sinai is not an ancient memory; it is rather a current mandate," a word that, taken out of context, would surely disturb and challenge many more people than it should, for many more reasons than they should.

It is the covenantal justice, and mercy, and compassion, that we must focus on. We can avoid it; but for how long? We can do it; but where do we start? Auden once wrote about "New styles of architecture/a change of heart," indicating perhaps that the external could eventually influence the internal. But it's the internal that affects the external, if indeed there is a distinction between them. Jesus pointed out many times that it isn't what goes into a person that is the question, but what comes out. What you do, not what you think, is what matters. When the sheep are separated from the goats, the sheep had no better thoughts than the goats did; it was their actions that determined their fate. Neither group knew who they had served or failed to serve; it was the service (or lack of it) that mattered.

Maybe the beginning of an answer is to begin thinking about what we can do for others, rather than thinking about what we don't have for ourselves. It seems like a small thing; but it is the seed of such a big thing...

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. My moral life was informed by all of these writers.

    I still feel exactly the way I felt when I was in college and studying these thinkers and events, but it seems like very few people in power know the wisdom of political thought that has preceded their time.

    Thank you for reminding us.