From “Apostles of Growth” by Timothy Shenk in the Nov. 24 issue of The Nation: “From the aftermath of World War II through the 1970s, most of the total earnings from economic expansion flowed to the bottom 90 percent of Americans. That came to an abrupt end in the 1980s. Although the Clinton years posted marginally better tallies on this front than the Reagan era, the record since 2001 has been abysmal, and the worst has come under Obama. From 2009 to 2012, the last year with reliable data, incomes for the lower 90 percent have declined, while those for the top 10 percent have increased at a healthy clip, with the greatest gains accruing to the 1 percent and above. The tide still rises, but it lifts only yachts.”
We’ve heard these statistics before. The economy grows, but not for everyone. Any human being with a sense of fairness would judge such an economic system to be unjust. But for so many people, the “injustice” is also “unkindness.” It is hurting them. Injustice causes suffering.
In the face of suffering, followers of Jesus and Buddha feel compassion.
And in this case, compassion will insist that an economic system that is producing suffering must be fixed. Or it must be changed.
Some year back, when visiting Norway, a friend asked my wife Cathy and me a breath-stopping question: “Why don’t people in the United States want everyone to have health care?” We couldn’t give a clear, coherent answer to her, or to ourselves.
That question becomes all the more pressing in the midst of the discussions and debates about the Affordable Care Act. Again, my breath was taken away when I read this condensed summary of reality here in the United States (taken from an article in the June 12, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books):http: //bit.ly/NzjqVn
Except for the US, no rich nation in the world fails to provide comprehensive health care that is free or inexpensive to its entire population. Yet roughly 50 million Americans, 16 percent of the population, have no health insurance at all; most of them are relatively poor and nearly one third of them are age eighteen to thirty-four.
Research by the Kaiser Family Foundation and others finds that those without health insurance die younger, work less due to chronic health conditions, and face persistent personal financial problems brought on by illnesses. A Harvard Medical School study found that some 45,000 deaths a year are associated with lack of health insurance.
Despite the lack of coverage for one out of six citizens, Americans pay more than 17 percent of the Gross Domestic Product for their health care, more than any other rich nation by far. Yet American’s health care system is not measurably better and often considerably worse than that of other rich nations.
How can any member of a nation with such an unjust and death-dealing health care system not be ashamed? And how can any citizen who calls him or herself a follower of a Jesus, who called us to love our neighbor as ourselves, not feel an even deeper shame — and a call to do something as they consider their votes in the coming elections?
Those lines from West Side Story’s rollicking song, “Office Krupke” have come back to tease me over the decades since I first heard them.
Are we depraved because we’re deformed? Or because we’re deprived? Some Christians, given their understanding of original sin and our fallen nature, would hold to “deformed.” I suspect that that’s an incorrect reading of the myth of Adam and Eve, and certainly a misunderstanding of what Jesus had to say when he called people to work for the Reign of God here on earth. It is also squarely opposed to what Buddhists hold to be the “human condition.”
Both Buddhists and Christians can agree with another line of “Officer Krupke”: “Deep down inside us there is good….There is good, there is good, there is good, good, good.”
But that “good” has been stifled by our being deprived.
Buddhists would agree. We’ been deprived. But of what? Buddha’s answer: Of a correct understanding of who we really are. Ignorance, not deformity, is the fundamental problem.
Marx would agree with Buddhists that the fundamental problem is not deformity. But he differs in pinpointing what we’ve been deprived of. For Marx, and I believe for many Christians, the fundamental cause of the hatred, violence, and “depravity” affecting our world today is that so many humans have been deprived of the material conditions necessary to live a full human life.
Terry Eagleton, with his usual clarity and precision, makes this Marxist argument in a passage from his recently published Why Marx Was Right:
If history has been so bloody, it is not because most human beings are wicked. It is because of the material pressures to which they have been submitted. Marx can thus take a realistic measure of the past without succumbing to the myth of the darkness of men’s [sic] hearts. And this is one reason why he can retain faith in the future
It is his materialism which permits him that hope. If wars, famines and genocide really did spring simply from some unchanging human depravity, then there is not the slightest reason to believe that the future will fare any better. If, however, these things have been partly the effect of unjust social systems, of which individuals are sometimes little more than functions, then it is reasonable to expect that changing that system may make for a better world. (pp. 98-99)
So Marxists, and most Christian liberation theologians and activists, would hold that if we want to change the “depraved heart,” we first must change the “depriving system.”
Buddhists, in general, would see it differently: if you want to change the “depriving system,” you have to change the “deprived heart.”
Which comes first?
A few weeks ago I finally bought myself an iPhone. And since then, I’ve been playing with it and delighting in the expanse of freedom I have to access all kinds of information, instantly.
And then I read this paragraph in an article by Andrew J. Bacevich in a recent issue of Commonweal:
“The Information Age … displays in stark terms our propensity to bow down before freedom’s reputed source. Anyone who today works with or near young people cannot fail to see this: for members of the present generation, the smartphone has become an amulet. It is a sacred object to be held and caressed and constantly attended to. Previous generations fell in love with their cars or became addicted to TV, but this one elevates devotion to material objects to an altogether different level. In the guise of exercising freedom, its members engage in a form of idolatry. Small wonder that aficionados of Apple’s iPhone call it the Jesus Phone.”
This brought to mind something I read recently in the New York Times Sunday Review about how our modern information age has increased the amount of information we have but perhaps decreased the amount of knowledge we possess. As my teacher Bernard Lonergan, S.J. taught us, information is not knowledge. Information is data. Knowledge is the fruit of the effort to understand the data and then to judge whether our understanding is accurate or inaccurate, true or false. Knowledge – and that includes values – is the fruit of thinking and judging.
And to think or judge we need, I suggest, two things: silence and conversation.
- We need time to step back from the whirl of data and information and ponder, assess, compare, and venture judgments.
- But we can’t do this entirely on our own. We have to talk with, engage, others, especially others who are really different from us, so that we can hear their views and seek to come to share assessments. Only in that way can we act together to achieve the values we jointly affirm.
So before I start preaching to others, especially to the younger people of my Union Theological Seminary community, I have to preach to myself: put down your iPhone, Knitter. Find time to sit by yourself and also to talk, really talk, with others.
Every once in a while, as I go about the reading and research that are part of my job, I come across a statement or a passage that touches my Buddhist-Christian heart. Here’s one of them, from literary critic Terry Eagleton. It captures, at least for me, the unitive, non-dual understanding of God as “no-thing,” as the groundless Ground of everything:
“If God lies at the heart of all things; and if … he is no kind of entity at all but a sublime abyss of pure nothingness; then what sustains phenomena is a sort of néant or abyssal void. … To say that things lack substance is to say they are the eloquent discourse of the divine. God — sheer nothingness — is of their essence. The elusive object known as substance is simply a fantasy object filling out the void of the Real — which is to say … the unbearable presence of the Almighty. And since God would have no tangible presence on earth without the ceaseless deciphering of his discourse which is human perception, our own existence is necessary…”
Would Eagleton, who at his core is still a committed though critical Christian, be offended if I called him “an anonymous Buddhist”? I hope not. I think not.