Wednesday, September 3, 2014
The oppressive heat of the afternoon has yielded to the temperate early evening. The world has drifted from brightness through shades of amber and ruddy orange and into deepening blue. The faint buzz of myriad insects has been overtaken by the hum of the little frogs which lurk in the bushes singing softly to each other. The smoke from my cigar swirls aimlessly before me until at last, with the almost imperceptible swaying of a blade of grass the only indication of its presence, the remnant of some earlier breeze gathers and slowly carries it away. The ice clicks gently as the cold tartness of my tea sweeps across my tongue and down my throat, and then a bead of sweat laboriously wends its way down the side of the glass after I have replaced it on the table beside me. My book now laid aside, I revel in the moment. I am at peace. Christ is risen, after all, and my Lord reigns. I give Him thanks for my moment of joy at the close of day.
Saturday, August 23, 2014
I catch just enough television to know that this summer of 2014 marked several significant anniversaries. It was the 50th anniversary of The Beatles arriving in the US. It was the 45th anniversary of the first landing of mankind on the moon (hard to believe it’s been almost 42 years since the last manned landing on the moon, unfortunately). Unremarked by most, though, is perhaps the most significant anniversary of all.
I refer, of course, to the 40th anniversary of the death of white racism in the United States.
White racism in this country had been mortally wounded and lingering since August of 1963. That’s when Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed his dream of a time when the nation would live up to its creed that “all men are created equal,” and his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. In the summer of 1974 the final end arrived with the release of the funniest movie of all time: “Blazing Saddles.”
Now, you might try to argue with the claim that “Blazing Saddles” is the funniest movie ever, but I’ve never doubted it since the first time I saw it, and according to a recent interview with the director, Mel Brooks, he makes the same assertion. Brooks said that he’d put his movie up against any other funny movie of your choice and in a side by side comparison he guaranteed that his would still get more, longer laughs than any other film. I don’t doubt it. To this day some of my friends and I can still crack ourselves up just by quoting a line from the movie. Like a certain brand of potato chip, however, you can’t just do one. Inevitably we wind up doing several minutes of dialog before we’re done.
But I digress.
The point here is that by the time white audiences walked out of the theaters after falling out of their seats laughing any remaining trace of racism they might have harbored in the inner recesses of their souls had been obliterated. The relentless, unblinking use of a certain word and the portrayal of those who used that word as ignorant buffoons who must be rescued from their benighted state by the noble minorities (even the Irish) made the retention of any racist attitudes unpalatable to the viewer. Brooks had completely succeeded in portraying white racism as the province of flatulent and backwards rubes, and no self-respecting person could think of himself as being included in that class or would allow herself to be thought of by others as possibly being among that kind of people. People of good will and character had been stung by King’s not so subtle reminder that white society was hypocritical in its pride over the worthy ideals upon which the nation had been founded while tolerating in both others and themselves lingering traces of the racist attitudes which had still been common just a few years earlier. While the “I Have a Dream” speech may have made people uncomfortable enough to start rethinking their earlier attitudes, “Blazing Saddles” absolutely gutted racism as a viable attitude.
Like the occasional twitching and sounds coming from a recent corpse which give the illusion of lingering life there occasionally may be the appearance of something resembling life in white racism, but it is time for everyone to accept the fact that it is dead. Despite all the many attempts to sustain it by those who have something to gain by keeping it alive, there only remain scattered bits and pieces of cellular activity slowly fading into oblivion. Eventually the last anachronistic elements will be flickering out for the last time.
Unfortunately, like a doctor who can’t accept the death of a patient and so keeps looking for that one last miracle, so there are those who refuse to accept the death of white racism. Their well-being and future depend on having a visible enemy to fight so they must find some way to resurrect the dead. To do so they have cobbled together a Frankenstein’s Monster version of racism, made up mostly of stuff that isn’t racism at all but which, when suitably dressed up, can be paraded in front of the gullible crowds as a living example of the object of their fears. Take a little bit of prejudice here, add some bigotry there, jump start it with a suitably shocking press conference loaded with lots of heat and little light and pretty soon you have a dancing simulacrum* of racism with which to impress and frighten the marks in the ongoing shakedown scam. But it isn’t real white racism.
King and Brooks, a black preacher and a Jewish movie director, killed the real thing. After 40 years, maybe it’s time to stop beating the dead horse in a futile attempt to get one more lap out of it.
* simulacrum: 1. any image or representation of something; 2. a slight, unreal, or vague semblance of something; superficial likeness
Saturday, August 2, 2014
I am a part of my local ecology. That’s hardly surprising, of course, because each of us is a part of our particular local ecologies. The thing is, sometimes it is easier to remember because of the way we experience it.
I missed the first “Earth Day” event. It occurred in the USA on April 22, 1970. Because this was almost exactly one month before I graduated from high school, I was totally caught up in end-of-year and end-of-school activities, including preparations for the annual regional band and music competitions held in my home town of Enid, Oklahoma (Tri-State Music Festival, for those who might recognize the name of the event) which would begin two weeks later. The environmentalist event simply passed me by with absolutely no notice at all. The second year event occurred during my freshman year at Oklahoma State University, and I still remember walking around the campus and browsing the various displays. To this day I have a souvenir from that day stuffed in a box somewhere: a lump of aluminum which was the result of a couple of soft drink cans melted down as a demonstration of recycling. One of my buddies developed a thing about plastic straws that day, and soon I was a convert to straw-less drinks as well. While I eventually returned to using straws, both paper and plastic, for my drinks, I’ve never gotten over the awareness I developed that people must be responsible in their interactions with the environment.
“Responsible,” though, has certain implications. Among them would be a requirement to be thoughtful and informed on the subject of environmentalism. This would include, I should think, including a cost/benefit analysis when potential solutions for identified problems are proposed. For example, the reaction to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring quickly led to a ban on the use of DDT in the US and other nations. Just as one could say that more research should have been done on potential side effects of heavy DDT use before such use became commonplace after WWII, so it appears that more thought should have been given to the proposed solution (the ban) before implementing it. Without DDT as an effective preventative tool, malaria has continued to be an incredibly devastating disease in many parts of the world. Fortunately there has been progress made in finding more effective and less potentially harmful ways of using the chemical in recent years, and its judicious application combined with other effective preventative practices are proving beneficial.
“Responsible environmentalism” must also take into consideration the broadest and most comprehensive understanding possible of the ecological systems at work. This should include understanding the role of humankind as part of those systems. People are a part of the natural order and though we may have the ability to modify our personal environment in many ways we still remain an integral part of the overall ecology of the world. For far too many who regard themselves as environmentalists, though, the participation of humankind in global ecology is viewed solely as a negative factor. Some of the more extreme among them even actively promote the idea that eliminating people is the solution to protecting the environment, although I notice that so far none of them have volunteered to be among the first to be eliminated.
Unless one joins the extremists in viewing mankind as a blight on the environment, one must find a way to see humanity as a vital element within the total picture. For those who are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, this should not be too difficult. The guiding texts of our faith make it clear that mankind is in the world as the steward of the One who created and thus owns it. This calls us to develop a mindset in which we seek not just to use or even maintain what is here, but to improve and develop it. At the very least it should mean that where we have been should be better for our having been there. Unfortunately, the environmentalists are often standing on strong ground when they point to evidence that the reverse is far too frequently the case.
The case for living in harmony with and improving the natural world has become much harder for people to understand as we have moved from an agrarian society to an urbanized and industrialized one. These days relatively few people plant and tend gardens. Maintaining a lawn is about the limit of horticultural activity for most people in our country. In this modern age the rhythm of the calendar with its ebb and flow of natural seasons gets lost, replaced with school years, sports seasons (increasingly overlapped though they may be), and the commercialized holiday marketing seasons.
Rural living proves to be a blessing in this regard. Through my regular activities I am given the opportunity to see glimpses of my place in the local ecology and to understand that I am a vital part of the environment. Perhaps nothing emphasizes this more to me than mowing the fields. Because our regular employment has us on the road for weeks at a time our spring, summer, and early fall breaks at home are always greeted with an abundance of growth, sometimes as much as four or five feet of grasses waving in the breeze. This requires breaking out the tractor and mower, which I have discovered I really enjoy doing. Mowing has its own rhythm as I pass back and forth over the fields bringing them back into order. I have stirred up field rodents, quail and even fawns from the deep grass on occasion as I work, which reminds me how much closer to nature I live these days.
The greatest indicator that even in my mowing activities I am integrated into the local ecology, though, is the cattle egrets which show up soon after I get started. I sometimes have as many as a dozen or more following the tractor around the field, swooping from one side of me to the other as I pass back and forth. Sometimes they dart right in front of me, taking brief flight at the last possible second. They are chasing the bugs that I am disturbing and revealing by my activity. I watch them enjoy the feast, talking to and laughing at them as they swirl around me. Eventually, though, the tractor will be put away and though the egrets will continue for a while to chase bugs, eventually they will take flight, disappearing back to wherever it is that they came from when I first fired up the tractor. Usually by the time they finish feasting and wing away into the distance I’m comfortably ensconced on my porch with a cold beverage and possibly a cigar where I can gaze out across that portion of my environment to which some small measure of order has been restored. Invariably, I also find in that moment that some small measure of order has been restored to my soul, and I am happy and at peace with myself and the world at large.
There will come a time, of course, when I have to turn the stewardship of this small piece of ground to someone else. When that time arrives, I hope to be able to look back and see not just mowed grass and fattened cattle egrets but an improved place. I’ve planted some trees, and have plans to move and replant others. There are a couple of places I’d like to put in some decorative gardens, and some places prone to erosion that I want to fix. A row of crepe myrtles full of color lining the drive would be nice. The possibilities are endless, I suppose. Whatever I wind up doing, though, I hope will always be determined according to the first principle of stewardship. Let it be better for my having been here.
Monday, May 12, 2014
Who owns you?
Let me put it this way: who owns each of us? You and me?
As a Christian it is tempting to say that, of course, God owns me. All of us, actually. There is a sense in which this is true. As believers, Christians affirm that our eternal life was bought and paid for by the sacrifice of the Eternal Son. Therefore we can fairly say that He owns us. But let’s set that aside for the moment, and take a look at the question from a slightly different angle.
If, as the Declaration of Independence says, all of us are created equal and endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it can be inferred that each of us owns our own self. An endowment is a gift. A gift, once given, becomes the property of the recipient. Just as I can make no claim to ownership of the things I have given to others, God makes no claim of ownership over us. I might desire to see my gift to someone else used in a particular way, but I cannot and do not try to enforce such usage. Likewise, God having given us our life, liberty and the opportunity to pursue happiness leaves us free to use those gifts as we please, whether to our benefit or detriment. My life, therefore, belongs to me and yours belongs to you.
So who owns us? Each and every one of us? Each of us owns our own self. That means completely. 24 hours a day, 365.25 days a year, for all the years that we live. Our time, our very life energy belongs to each and every one of us individually. Every day we are gifted with more time and energy which belongs only to us, to use as we see fit.
We can take that time and energy and create something of value with it which we can sell to the highest bidder. We can plant crops and tend animals and so provide for ourselves and quite possibly others who will buy our surplus production from us. We can rent ourselves out to others, by the hour, the week, month or year, to transform our time, energy, and abilities into the monetary resource we need to support ourselves and satisfy our wants and desires. We can sit on a beach with a cold beverage and a fine cigar pondering the nature of reality, or sequester ourselves in darkened rooms staring at the flickering images reflecting the imagination of others. It is our time and our energy, our life, and our individual choice how we will use it.
Used well and wisely our time and energy can be converted into a surplus of value beyond our immediate needs, called profit or savings, which can be kept for later use when we have less time and energy to invest or spend. Properly understood, then, profit or savings is our own time and life energy stored up for another time. That profit or savings, therefore, is as much owned by each individual as the time and energy of the immediate day.
This is not to say that there are not legitimate claims which can and should be made on our time and energy. The Anglican priest and poet John Donne famously wrote that “no man is an island, entire of itself,” and he was right. We do not exist in isolation from each other, but live in community depending on each other to create or do for us that which we cannot for whatever reason do solely for ourselves. But when I turn to another to do something for me I am asking that person to spend some of that precious commodity, life, with which they have been gifted on or for my benefit. It is only fair that I compensate that person through the payment of wages for their time or for the purchase of the goods and services which are the result of their invested time and energy. By the same token when I benefit from my participation in the community, sharing in the common resources and infrastructure, it is also only fair that I contribute my fair share to cover the cost of providing those resources and infrastructure which I am using. The common term for this contribution is “taxes.” A reasonable and honorable person recognizes that these payments, either to individuals or to the community, are the fair and justified working out of the principle that each of us owns ourselves complete with the time and energy bestowed on us each new day.
It is extremely important that we understand this, because in so many ways the fundamental concept of self-ownership is under attack every day in our society. With increasing frequency I hear suggestions that somehow profit is evil or that to have saved up significantly more than someone else is morally repugnant. Every day it seems I hear of some new claim on the time and life energy of some being asserted by or on behalf of someone else.
The suggestion that there is something wrong or evil about creating a profit or savings account cannot be justified, however, if we accept that each person owns him or herself complete with stored forms of time and energy, and that life in all its forms belongs to the individual to be spent when and where that person chooses, whether that is immediately or deferred indefinitely. Profit or savings can only be vilified by first denying the principle of self-ownership.
Worse than the denigration of profit and savings is the casual ease with which so many seem willing to make a claim on the life of others these days. If I am compelled to use a portion of my life for the benefit of another, in the absence of just compensation, I am having that portion of my life stolen from me, and whether the thief is an individual or the government does not negate the immorality of the act. If I am compelled to spend a portion of my life providing for the wishes and desires of another, despite my unwillingness to do so for whatever reason seems sufficient to me, then I am being forced into a position of servitude to that other person. The proper term for this position of involuntary servitude is “slavery.” While it is considered axiomatic in our society that slavery in any form is morally repugnant and justifiably outlawed, a huge portion of our citizenry seems to have no problem with reducing nearly half of the population to the status of slaves working for the benefit of the other half. That it is done under the covering of “taxes” and “welfare,” or the cover of “protecting certain victim classes,” does not change the reality that we have arrived at a point where half of the citizens (not just the so-called “one percent”) have been made slaves serving the other half by being compelled to pay for their needs, wants, and desires. The only way that this can be justified is again to deny the fundamental principle of self-ownership.
The present system of taxation and welfare, of income transfers from one individual to another or from one group to another, of compelled provision of business services, is based on the immoral notion that people do not own themselves and that they belong to and exist for the benefit of the government, the society in general, the needy, or the wanting. Ultimately, no matter how you structure or defend it, the result is the same: the life of some, in the form of their time and energy and the monetary forms those take, is stolen by others.
None of this is meant to deny that there exists a moral obligation to care for those among us who cannot provide or care for themselves. However, this obligation if it is to be truly moral must function in compliance with the concept of self-ownership. Since compulsion negates self-ownership, any form of compelled provision or care is necessarily immoral. The only way to avoid this is through voluntary participation, in which each individual is free to determine whether and at what level he or she will practice care for the needy. The name for such an approach is “charity,” and by definition it cannot be carried out through involuntary means such as taxes and government operated income transfer programs, no matter how noble sounding the cause.
Finally, returning to the issue of God’s ownership of all of us, or some of us as the case may be, the immorality inherent in the denial of self-ownership can only be viewed as much more serious if that is the case. If we belong to Him, then our time and our energy is His to use for His ends and purposes. When that time and energy is diverted to other ends or for the benefit of others, it would necessarily be viewed as stealing from God Himself.
I have enough problems with the things I’m going to have to explain to God when my time comes. I’d really rather not be in the position of explaining how I justified (or carried out) a program which stole either God’s gift of life to people or, worse, that which belonged solely to Him. I wonder how all of these people who seem to have no problem with it plan to handle that meeting. But mostly, I’m just glad I’m not them.