Saturday, September 05, 2009

There is No Righteousness in Our Darkest Moment

I must admit I am deeply saddened to see so much division among Americans regarding the multitude of important issues which could quite literally either save us or sink us. Most of these often nasty, petty, and childish attacks are based almost exclusively on selfish motives, baseless attacks, and hardened hearts. When I survey the hand-made signs, the sarcastic rhetoric, the mean-spirited propaganda, and the frequently misspelled rants posted on the internet, a theme emerges. It's not a particularly inspiring one.

Collectively, it reads something along the lines of, (and I've toned this down a bit for the sake of propriety) "Screw you! I'm all right Jack!"

Urban Dictionary defines the term this way:

It describes the bitter dismay of sailors ("jacks") returning home after wartime in the Navy to find themselves not treated as patriots or heroes, but ignored / sneered at by a selfish, complacent, get-ahead society - phrase was subsequently toned down for acceptable general use.
Attitude of "every man for himself, survival of the fittest, devil take the hindmost", ... but also, that all the possible advantages (however gained), success (however won) and satisfaction (whatever the cost to others) belong to me first!" Narrow-focus, narrow-gauge pseudo-Darwinian selfishness glorified as a sensible philosophy of society and life.

Not very often have I ever seen any of these self-important protesters responding to the ways in which health care reform or an Obama proposal will make a potential negative impact on the lives of their neighbors or their fellow citizens. Instead, I have seen instance after instance where neurotic anxiety and self-centered concern lead many to conclude that they'll soon be losing something felt to be a basic entitlement. Some of them don't even know quite what it is they're going to be without, but that doesn't stop them from resolutely proclaiming that, "By God, no one's going to play me for a fool!" While I suppose I could I could attempt to show them that nothing they or any of us are fortunate enough to have belongs purely to them, or I could try to make them recognize that in reality everything belongs to God; as such he shares it with us out of unconditional love, but forgive me for often believing that doing so would be a pointless task.

The riot girrl group Sleater-Kinney recorded a song entitled "Sympathy". Here are the two most devastating lyrics of a devastating song.

There is no righteousness in your darkest moment
We’re all equal in the face of what we’re most afraid of

When we make an assumption based almost exclusively on a projection of our own fears and anxieties, then we end up drawing some pretty outlandish conclusion. One need only look at the last e-mail smears, contrived controversies, and outlandish conspiracy theories to be aware of that. My continued hope is that, with time, we will evolve as a race of beings to the point that we can think more with logic than with pure emotion alone, which in an unrestrained, unchallenged state leads to all sorts of terrible consequences among which are physical violence, civil disorder, and war. Casting this much anger and negativity into the world beyond feeds upon itself and swells with each hostile, antagonistic voice. We are creatures who look to avoid danger to preserve our own lives and we are hardwired to always be on the lookout. What we often don't take the time to recognize is that even one human can create ripple effects that influence other people both for good and for bad. History proves that enough of these ripples echoed, mirrored, and in so doing, combined can and do eventually create destructive events the likes of which none of us should ever be proud.

Though I may be stating the obvious, I acknowledge that sometimes the solution is as plainly obvious as the nose on our face. What this society needs, now more than ever, is the wholesale application of the Golden Rule. Conservatives will point to this deficiency and make a case that once upon a time such things were taught in schools or in churches, but were summarily wiped away by an liberal emphasis on secularism. I would argue that the Golden Rule has permutations that go beyond a strictly Biblical interpretation and might end up falling under the category titled common sense. If more of our detractors practiced it, I might be more inclined to take them seriously. Many supposed followers of Jesus have become Pharisees and Sadducees over the years, but this is hardly an affliction that only infects the Right. Some of us have even become Zealots, clamoring for blood and taking our passion (in moderation a highly necessary quality) to the point that we forget our primary devotion is to God's cause, not our own.

Shortly before he was crucified, Jesus brilliantly commented on this subject. A religious teacher, impressed by Jesus' deft answer to yet another question designed purely to provide any justification whatsoever to excuse the young rabbi's eventual murder, asked Jesus which of the commandments was the most important.

"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

"Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the Kingdom of God." And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

What we believe on the inside is far more important than whatever we ascribe to or perform on the outside. Or, to put it another way, "obedience is better than sacrifice." Good attitudes and pure intentions within ourselves speak far greater than any outward display of piety. The Jewish leaders of the time added layer upon layer of senseless rules for fellow believers to follow, so much so that only the top echelon of society were fully versed in how to properly adhere to and correctly observe each one. There were divisions within each subgroup of Jewish political society, each of which argued as to which laws were more powerful compared to other laws and also bickered about which laws need be subordinate to other laws. Jesus cut through all of this needless complication and reduced the whole of religious belief to two simple, easy-to-understand principals which are as applicable now as they were then.

The Epistle to Titus concludes,

...Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You know that people like this are corrupt. They are sinners condemned by their own actions.

The problem with so many of our more conservative opponents is that their conception of morality, faith, and ethical conduct is tightly tethered to a theory that we are living in the End Times and exist in a fallen world. Why reform a world that is already eaten up with sin? Their justification for resisting and in so doing refusing to compromise on even the most modestly controversial matter is a belief that those who oppose them are obviously motivated by Satan or at least the collected evil of humanity. They see themselves not so much as the chosen people, but as the true believers focused more on their own righteousness and in so doing, they believe they are preparing their path for the Second Coming. Though the Right has as many Doubting Thomases and lukewarm believers as the Left, and though the religious underpinnings once held by some conservatives might fall aside under scrutiny and individual skepticism, it is difficult to completely renounce the mentality into which one is born.

I pray constantly for some kind of mutual understanding and common decency in which each of us might be liberated. What I return to, time and time again, is the understanding that in my life, if I take care to respond, even to those who oppose me, as the best Quaker I can be-- deliberately advancing love and tact, even when I would be completely justified in being upset or enraged, then I have done my part in de-escalating the situation. I never forget that I am one person and I am always aware that I have a very limited impact on any grand scale, but if through my deeds, words, and actions I am able to decrease the stridency factor a little or perhaps even turn the volume down a few notches, then I know I have succeeded. What I am not seeking necessarily is to change anyone's minds, but what I am hoping to attain is to facilitate civility and calm at all cost.

To return to the Sleater-Kinney song I referenced earlier, which, it must be noted, is written from the perspective of a woman who has given birth to a premature child, here are a few more lines that summarize how I have felt many times in my own life. Indeed, I write this post very much in the same spirit.

I know I come to you only when in need
I’m not the best believer, not the most deserving

but all I have, all I am, all I can… for him
I’d beg you on bended knees for him


Utah Savage said...

Great essay Kevin!

jadedj said...

As usual, Kevin you have presented us with some truths. I think that we all inherently know what the right thing is. But doing the right thing is not always easy. In fact, it is the easy thing, or way, that most trips us up.

So, do unto others and do the right thing are one and the same. We have far too many people who are not doing what they ought to be doing...and don't even know it.