Well, big money wins again! Once again, the the wealthy are prospering and the rest of us are fighting over the crumbs. I read a disheartening statement in the news today. The article, by Geoff Mulvihill is called “Anger brews over government workers’ benefits” reports, among other things, that government employees actually do have a slightly better economic deal than private sector workers. Here’s what the article says:
National data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that public-sector workers do better when it comes to pensions and benefits.
As of last September, professional and management workers in the private sector were making $34.91 in hourly salary; public sector professionals made $33.17 an hour.
The government entities spent 1.7 times as much on health care per employee-hour worked and nearly twice as much on retirement costs. Public-sector workers — who are more often represented by unions — are far more likely to have defined-benefit pensions with promises to pay for the retirees’ whole lives.

So, here’s the deal: private sector workers make slightly more and public sector workers have better benefits. If we look exclusively at this data, we might be able to make a case for some adjustment. But first, let’s put these figures into some perspective.

Consider this: The richest 400 people in the country have a combined worth of about 1.37 Trillion dollars. That deserves a WOW, but there is an even more significant figure than that. Between 2009 and 2010 the net worth of our 400 wealthiest increased by 8%. First of all, who among the private or public sectors got an 8% raise between 2009 and 2010? In order to put the middle class wage struggle in perspective, let’s assume that 8% is the income for a year of the wealthiest 400.
An 8% increase from $1.27 trillion of $1.37 trillion is about $101.5 billion. That’s about $254 million for each of them.

There are 52 40-hour weeks in a year. So $254 million divided by 2080 hours per year shows us that each of our 400 wealthiest people made $121,995 per hour!!!!!!!!!!

(Someone might argue that the wealthy work hard for their money, so let’s assume, again for the sake of perspective that they work every available hour, never sleeping or taking any kind of a break from work. There are 24 hours times 365 days in a year, or 8760 hours. This means that this group makes $28967 per hour for every hour of the year! If the average worker’s whole economic package is about $50 per hour for 2080 hours per year, consider that the wealthy make more than 2400 times the amount the rest of us make in the same number of hours! (Try putting your own economic numbers into the calculation and see how you fare.)

Now, I ask you, given this obscene disparity, why should the $33 and $34 dollar per hour workers be encouraged to fight with each other about who has the better deal.

So Wayne, you might ask, what does this have to do with community? Well, in the political arena, it appears that the wealthy retain their power in part by fomenting a political situation that makes the rest of us enemies of each other as we fight over the economic crumbs. How can we ever build community when we are manipulated into such an adversarial relationship with the very people who should be our allies against a grossly unjust system? As long as we maintain our narrow focus on the tiny differences between the public and private sector, we will never even see the much more significant elements of systemic injustice.

That’s how I see it. What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
 

I think everyone would agree that the news stories around the world are pretty startling. The battle over union rights in Wisconsin and the challenge to despotic governments in the Middle East and Northern Africa lead the list. While there are many perspectives that people use to understand and comment on these events, my perspective is that of healthy community. Very often political conflicts get framed as a battle between factions over the distribution of the economic pie. Clearly, that is a significant factor in Wisconsin as well as in Egypt, Libya, and other nations and states that find themselves in turmoil and upheaval. I certainly agree that economic distribution is a vital topic and a meaningful perspective, but it is not the only one, and ultimately it might not be the most important factor to consider as we try to figure out a healthy response to present conflicts.

Given the scope of this essay, I will confine my remarks to the situation in America (presently being played out on the Wisconsin political stage), although some of what I have to say may translate into other arenas as well. The distribution of wealth is important, but it sometimes causes people to confuse “standard of living” with “quality of life.” Quality of life requires healthy community and ample tolerance, if not respect, for the diversity within that community. I think that the rise of the American middle class has promoted healthier community and diversity, but their contribution to community has been far more than just their increased power as consumers. They have promoted creativity and myriad opportunities for people to be creative and relate to one another.. When we focus too much on economics and not enough on the elements of healthy community, we lose our most potent motivating force, and our lives become impoverished in every way. But let’s talk first about the economic situation.

My particular bias is that the economic disparity has swung way too far in the direction of corporations and the super wealthy, but even if political pressure eventually results in swinging the pendulum back towards the people, we are still left with a highly adversarial situation. If power to get one’s way is the only consideration, then the “other side” will always be preparing to push back. I think it is fair to say that since Franklin Roosevelt responded to the Depression by enabling the populous to get an economic foothold, thereby allowing the rise and empowerment of the middle class, the corporate wealthy have been pushing back. Certainly since the Reagan era, the middle class has consistently had its economic foundation undermined. And now, the economic right wing is planning to put the final “nail in the coffin” of middle class power by destroying the unions. If that is successful, then all the power will be with the corporate interests of the wealthy. It seems likely that those who are impoverished by the unrelenting tyranny of the wealthy will probably be motivated to respond in some way. Remember, push-back can go in both directions, but I question if the push for economic fairness alone is enough to restore a healthier community.

While I think the complete victory of corporate interests would be a dire outcome, most obviously in economic terms, my greater concern is that it virtually eliminates the possibility of having a healthy community. It makes ordinary working families, the ones that used to make up an educated and engaged segment of the community, into mere cogs in the corporate machine, with the benefits accruing only the wealthiest people. As bad as impoverishment is (and it is very bad, indeed,) it seems to me that dehumanizing and mechanizing people is much worse and can only act like a cancer, destroying the very body that is necessary for survival.

In Northern Africa and the Middle East, the political upheaval is fueled by people who have been systematically mechanized by their despotic leaders. I am embarrassed to say that America has benefited economically from our support of those despotic governments. (It’s about the oil, remember.) And, now the cancer of economic despotism is targeting us as well. Unless we can restore the sense of community and mutuality than any healthy body needs, we are doomed. Already, money has turned a large proportion of the political world against the very people they are presumably elected to serve. How long can it be before the “community’s immune system” reacts or even over-reacts. Violence is often the last resort of those who have no power and no hope. Please don’t interpret my last remark as promoting or justifying violence. In my opinion violence seldom if ever helps. Usually it makes matters worse. But if you remove all other means for people to survive, violence may be the only response left.

Given this scenario, do you think we will be able to go back to treating one another with the respect that is appropriate for fellow human beings, or are we doomed to be mechanized economic consumers whose only fate is ultimately to be consumed?

I am worried. What about you?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

 

I have found Family Systems Theory (FST) provides a most useful frame of reference for many of life’s dynamic and perhaps confusing situations. FST makes particular use of the function of anxiety in a system, demonstrating that the level of dysfunction in a system is directly related to its level of unprocessed anxiety. In my opinion, anxiety flooded systems have a hard time making wise decisions.

While the timing of dynamics may vary with the size of the system, the basic principles still apply. Anxiety has the same function in a whole country or culture as it does in a nuclear family. We live in a culture that is flooded with anxiety from a variety of sources. Some of it comes from the fundamentally dangerous nature of our current world. Danger from violence is the most easily identified source of our collective anxiety, but financial uncertainties and the cultural value of rugged individualism adds considerably to the mix. Furthermore, our arbitrary standards of “excellence” and productivity cause everything, and everyone, to be measured and compared. Can anything create any more systematic anxiety than that?

We can ask a couple of important questions about the anxiety problem:

  1. Who benefits from the prevalence of high levels of anxiety in our communities? And
  2. Is anxiety simply a natural consequence of our economic and cultural structure, or is it purposefully generated for unethical purposes?

For starters, it is apparent that anxiety generates lots of revenue. People don’t like to be anxious, so they will buy whatever product or service promises to reduce it. On the surface, it seems perfectly legitimate for a business to address such social distress, but of course, we need to ask whether the preferred remedy addresses the source of the anxiety or simply its symptomatic expression. Many remedies that work primarily at the symptomatic level can be addictive, physically, emotionally, or both. In that case, the remedy succeeds in creating more anxiety-based demand for the product or service. It is conceivable that some business interests might do this “in good faith,” honestly believing that what they sell is only valuable to consumers and is in no way dangerous to them. It also appears true that the more money is on the line, the greater the temptation to keep levels of anxiety artificially high.

While the above may be interesting, what does it have to do with the problem of the political divide?

It would be simple to conclude that the political right, with its obvious bias toward corporate interests, would have the greatest motivation to keep anxiety high. While the political left seems to champion the well-being of the people, it is unclear to me whether the left really addresses anxiety’s source, or if it, too, offers superficial, symptom-oriented solutions to troubled people, albeit unintentional.

What is crystal clear to me is that the two sides spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and money railing at each other about the shortcomings of the “enemy” position. Unless both sides can look more deeply at the sources of anxiety and not just symptomatic expressions and remedies, we will get nowhere. Of course, in the meantime, lots of money is still being made on goods and services. Hmmm?

That’s the dilemma as I see it. What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

 

There is no question that the human mind is capable of astounding levels of growth and development, particularly in the realm of the intellect and the exercise of ingenuity. Since the beginning of the industrial age, the advances in technology to create tools for living demonstrates just how clever we can be. Today, I want to consider if we are capable of a comparable development in our moral/ethical foundations

In my opinion, moral and ethical development has lagged so far behind our intellectual development that we risk becoming overwhelmed, if not controlled, by our creations. (I am reminded of the popular sci-fi theme about robots taking over the world and destroying or enslaving their creators.) In some ways, Western culture’s mad pursuit of the latest gadget has distracted us and has tied up the energy necessary for the development of a healthier moral/ethical structure.

Before going any further with this thought, I want to clarify what I mean by moral/ethical. Too often, the idea of morality is used in a superficially judgmental way, resulting in what could be called “moralism.” Moralistic judgments are usually pointed at someone else’s behavior without benefit of sufficient context or experience. For example: It is being moralistic when a heterosexual person proclaims that homosexuality is wrong (or right, for that matter) without any knowledge about what it is like to experience same gender sexual orientation. There are even cases where people point moralistic judgments at themselves based on an arbitrary code of behavior without taking their own inner experience into proper account.

While moralistic codes may have the power to enforce behavioral compliance in a group, they do not build community. In my judgment, moralistic judgments actually undermine community. Clearly these last two statements reveal my bias: that building healthy community is a more worthwhile goal for humanity than enforcing behavioral compliance to arbitrary rules. A significant part of building healthy community involves the creation of a moral/ethical foundation that can grow as needed to balance our technological advances and to feed our souls and communities in ways that are impossible for technology. There’s that word “moral” again. Healthy morality is not the same as being moralistically judgmental. Healthy morality must be based on something other than rigid lists of dos and don’ts. Healthy morality, just like healthy community, must find a foundation in compassion and connection. Healthy morality is fundamentally relational.

The central question in this essay involves whether or not humanity is capable of growing and developing beyond moralism. I am particularly interested in how the development of a healthy morality is necessary to mitigate the excesses of the present world of politics. I am aware of two factors, at least, that can promote moral development. The first is time. Often the adolescent world view is relatively amoral, but people grow out of that view and into adulthood. The same process happens in groups, but the larger the group, the slower the process. Also, some people do not make it out of adolescence for a variety of reasons, and it is still not certain whether we will have time to outgrow our cultural adolescence. The second factor that can promote moral development is having to face consequences. The world is filled with challenges, and it could be argued that much of what we face is due to our cultural adolescent reactivity and lack of foresight. As we learn to deal with the effects of global warming, of the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and the fragility of the world economy and delivery systems for food and other necessities, we may discover a deeper moral foundation that demonstrates how connected we all are to each other and to the planet.

Clearly, we cannot simply wait for the “culture” to grow up. Healthy systems to some degree are products of healthy individuals who are capable of mutuality and non-coerciveness in their relationships. While I do not promote individualism (any more than moralism), individuals are still capable of maturing themselves. I would suggest that we each take responsibility for our ongoing moral development (none of us have yet arrived at full development because it is a lifelong process). I suggest that we develop the courage and ability not to be reactive to the reactivity around us. And finally, I suggest that we resist the temptation to think in a one-sided way about the political issues that have become so divisive.

I suggest a book that, while written for religious congregations, helps to define healthy, morally developed leadership: Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Remaining Calm and Courageous, No Matter What by Peter Steinke and also, A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman.

Among other things, these books remind us that we need not be alone when we assume our responsibility as individuals to grow into adulthood.

This is how I see it. What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

 

Theological reflection can be used in a wide variety of ways. In many quarters it has gotten a bad name because of the way it sometimes makes apparently authoritative statements about the meaning of life’s events and its constituent parts (people, for example). The use of theology in this essay does not travel the authoritarian road, although I may imply something about the nature of that road. I am suggesting that how we see (or image) “God” has a direct influence on how we “do” politics.

Let me begin by articulating a few common images of God. The first one I call the “Santa Claus God.” According to this image, God is “making a list and checking it twice, going to find out who’s naughty and nice.” Furthermore, God brings good things to those who are deserving and visits lumps of coal (pollution and all) on those who are not deserving. To this “God,” obedience and good behavior are the highest values.

The second image of God is the “Genie in the Lamp (or Bottle).” According to this image, God’s role is to respond to direct requests, perhaps even orders, for whoever has the ability to rub the lamp properly. If you are among the uneducated or unskilled in “lamp rubbing,” or don’t have enough faith, then too bad for you.

A third image of God is an image most often described by the biblical prophets: God is like a nurturing mother who cares deeply for all “her” children. This “God” demands that her more affluent children carry out their responsibility to help the poorer ones.

A fourth image (that’s enough for now) sees God, not in human terms at all. This God is love, connection, relationship itself. The very principle of connectedness is divine.

Now that we have these four very different ways of conceptualizing or imaging God, lets return to Paul Krugman’s articulation of the “Two Moralities”(the full article can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/14/opinion/14krugman.html)
Once again, here is how Krugman defines our present political split:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state – a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net – morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

So, which of the images of God would you say is embodied in each “morality?”

Rather that answering the question myself, I invite you to try it yourselves. Use the comment button below to give your answer. Let’s begin a discussion about the possibilities. Our sharing should prove to be rich and informative.

You might be wondering about the purpose of this exercise. It is my hope that we can use conversations like these to get underneath the divide and develop a clearer understanding of the more obvious and often intransigent positions. There is much on the line in our political world today. And money is only one measure of our stake. Our very ability to continue to live and thrive on the planet is at risk and is in no way guaranteed. It may be that quality of life becomes a more useful measure than standard of living as we assess the success or failure of our grand political experiment.

Let the conversation begin!

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

 

As I promised last week, here is the next in a series of essays that attempt to identify ways to dialogue creatively about the present political divide. I will make use of several perspectives over the next few weeks to help us excavate a deeper and hopefully more comprehensive understanding of this intractable issue. I begin with an “archetypal” perspective in this essay.

No theorist is ever completely “right.” Inevitably, gaps in understanding a theory will exist and some speculations will turn out to be flat out wrong. Given that disclaimer, I want to credit Carl Jung for shining a useful light onto much of human experience, both on the experience of the individual and on the nature of relationship, when he wrote about the archetypal nature of reality.

An archetype can be seen as a symbol that carries a more complete meaning for human experiences and interactions than is easily seen. An archetype always represents a kind of wholeness, at least theoretically. But in actual practice, we tend to notice only the parts of an experience that we like, and we ignore (meaning, remain unconscious of) the parts that we do not like and do not want to accept as belonging to our personal being or experience. (Of course, there are some people who always notice the bad parts and leave the more pleasant parts in the unconscious realm.) Either way, the wholeness of reality always includes that which is conscious and that which remains unconscious.

So, what does this archetypal perspective have to do with the political divide? The answer becomes evident when we look at what happens to the unconscious part of the archetypal experience. According to Jung’s understanding, the unconscious part (the part of the experience we don’t want to own) still belongs to our reality whether we accept it or not. Jung referred to those unconscious contents of the archetype as its shadow – or I could call it “our” individual or collective shadow. Because all parts of the archetype will necessarily manifest in some way eventually, we need to identify where and how the shadow shows itself. Jung demonstrated that we tend to “project” parts of ourselves and our experience that we do not “own” onto other people. Think of an old movie projector. The film is in the projector; the light shows through it, but the picture is seen out on the screen, perhaps quite far away from the projector. If we simply conclude that the picture exists “out there” we typically do not imagine that what we see actually comes from us. We human beings function as the “screens” for one another’s projections – at least for the ones that loosely resemble similar characteristics in ourselves.

Assuming that Jung’s archetypal theory is true enough, let’s look once again at Paul Krugman’s articulation of the “Two Moralities”(the full article can be found here)
He defines the political split in this way:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state – a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net – morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

Now, here is where this process gets difficult. Our job is to see the shadow side of each of these statements and see how that shadow is then “projected” onto the other. (This does not mean that all statements have equal value, either practically or morally. It is only to say that conversation is more useful if we can see the potential short-comings of our own position and the potential benefits of the other. Without such an admission, there can be no conversation at all.) By the way, it is always easier to see our adversary’s shadow than it is to see our own.

When we look at the shadow side of Krugman’s first statement, we might see that the practice of “welfare” can deal with material needs without ever promoting the growth, healing, or motivation of the recipient. Welfare, as helpful as it might be, also brings with it the danger of fostering more dependency. When that shadow is projected, it looks like the position of the other side hurts the very people who need help. It can objectify them and inadvertently restrict their freedom.

The second statement has a shadow side, too. Whatever that side “earns” in an atmosphere of “freedom” has to come from somewhere, and often the laws that support that kind of earning give a disproportional advantage to those who already have money. Said differently, laws always help some people and restrict the freedom of others So, that side can accuse the other of restricting their freedom while ignoring how much their freedom restricts the freedom of others.

These shadow statements are just examples. We could find other manifestations of the shadow in each of the statements.

The archetypal perspective implies that the only power we have to bring more health and well being to our discourse comes from looking honestly at our own shadow side, dealing with those realities humbly, so we can see reality more fully. I believe, and archetype theory implies, that every good plan comes with a cost. Our ability to make good choices depends on keeping those costs in our conscious awareness. If, however, we remain unconscious of the costs, surely our adversaries will throw them in our collective faces, but not in a way that we can own and integrate them into our decisions.

Jung once wrote that the most important thing anyone could do to promote world peace was for each individual to deal with the personal shadow. This approach requires us to have some appropriate humility, but perhaps the gain in community health turns out to make it a good deal for all.

We find lots of resistance to looking at the shadow side or our own position, perhaps because so much energy goes into vilifying the adversary’s shadow and denying the value of the adversary’s stated position. If winning the next election and remaining in power is the only value driving the process, the possibility of identifying and integrating the shadow is practically impossible. It is even more impossible if each side is waiting for the other to make the first overture towards wholeness.

I don’t know how to foster the archetypal perspective in current political discourse, but we can all start with ourselves. We’re not talking about nuclear disarmament here, but the stakes are almost as high. Let’s get to work. Withdraw those projections and integrate them into your wholeness.

You may think there are shadowy implications in this essay, but it represents the way I see things.
How about you?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

 

Any culture (ours included) sets the stage for what people learn to expect from their communities. In our culture, we hear about the importance of volunteerism, civic duty, charitable giving, and patriotism all the time. What we don’t hear enough about (in my not so humble opinion) is relationship. I have come to believe that our most common (and not sufficiently explored) cultural value is individualism, and, further, that even all our talk about community ultimately rests on the spirit of (rugged?) individualism. I understand individualism to mean that individuals shouldn’t need anyone, and we certainly shouldn’t have to worry about the well being of anyone beyond our own small group (if even that far). It could be argued that our individualism has brought us to the extreme political divide that has hamstrung our political process. Even the groups with which we affiliate are energized by the spirit of individualism in the sense that only one group can be “right” or “powerful,” so the strategy for survival necessarily devolves into the elimination of “the other.” Clearly, such a strategy leaves no room for relationship. Even compromise is not about relationship. Compromise is a political strategy designed to get the best possible deal for “our side.” That the other side might get something out of the process of compromise is simply a distasteful political reality – a necessary loss, if you will. In no way does political compromise imply any concern for the well being of the other side.

Upon that foundation, I plan to write a series of essays on the foundational issues in our culture, beginning with the existing political divide. I found Paul Krugman’s editorial, “A Tale of Two Moralities,” published on January 13, 2011 to be a useful entry point. (click here for the full article)
He defines the political split in this way:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state – a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net – morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

It seems to me he has described the divide clearly and succinctly. If we continue the discussion at that level, however, there can be no resolution because the positions appear to be mutually exclusive. All that is left, then, is a political tug of war between pretty even sides where the slightest majority translates into winner takes all.
If we move down a level and look at the foundational ideas underneath the divide, we might find some possible ways through the apparent stand-off. The interplay between individualism and relationship as mentioned above can be useful. Along with that, several other perspectives could help us. So over the next couple of months, I will write at least some of my posts on the issue of the American Political Divide. I will look at the foundational issues from perspectives like The Archetype Theory of Carl Jung (particularly with reference to the projection of the shadow onto one’s adversaries), Moral Development Theory, Practical Theology, and Family Systems Theory.
If you think this sounds too academic, dry, and yes, boring, I will try to connect each of these perspectives with human experiences that you can relate to. My purpose is empowerment, not simply academic interest.
Remember, this blog’s purpose is to address issues related to healthy community. I hope to identify some useful and manageable approaches to our current political and cultural dilemmas. I plan to learn a lot and I hope you will join me.

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

 

I’ve been reading a lot in the last few days as politicians, pundits, and most of the rest of us try to make sense of the senseless shootings in Tuscon last Saturday. Writers from the “left” vilify the incendiary language of the “far right” (including their talk-radio spokespersons). Writers from the right vilify the “left’s” exploitation of the tragedy for political ends.

You can probably guess how easy it would be for me to jump on the bandwagon, and fueled by my own political leanings and perspectives, add my angry reactions to the boiling pot of public discourse. I would have no trouble finding enough angry energy to sharpen my words and aim them at what I perceive as the vulnerable places in my adversaries. While such an approach might feel satisfying in some personal way, I choose to address the issue from a very different foundation.

No, I’m not going to say that all sides are equally to blame and that everyone should just cool the rhetoric – at least while we are still grieving. Rather, I want to challenge the very idea of rhetoric’s practical persuasive purpose – to “induce belief or action” in others. The operative word here is “induce.” Let’s remember that induction is not designed to help people connect with their deepest values so that their behavior expresses their integrity. Nor does it invite people into a conversation or dialogue to help them learn, grow, or explore the depth of truth collaboratively.

No, induction’s purpose is to replace “your” integrity with “my” idea of what you should believe and how you should behave. Induction is the exercise of power over others so that their beliefs and actions will conform to the standard I (the powerful one) set for you. As I see it, rhetoric (as it is commonly employed), persuasion, and induction are fundamentally abusive and violent!

Do you think I’m overstating the case? Perhaps so, but not according to my general definition of abuse: “treating persons as objects.” It’s not hard to see plenty of that going on around us all the time, in families, schools, churches, businesses, the media, and certainly in the political arena. Words like “democrat,” “republican,” “liberal,” “conservative,” and particularly, “enemy,” and “terrorist” are used as “object designators,” not as terms of respect between persons. And we could add “consumer” and “potential vote” to the list of objectifying terms.

In my counseling practice I have learned that not only can people be taught to think of themselves as objects, but, it seems to me, most people in our culture are taught to see themselves as objects. If what I have said is accurate, then rhetoric helps create objects and it helps support a system where abusive treatment is the coin of the realm.

I suppose you are wondering what the connection is between the uses and purposes of rhetoric and my stated objective to write about community in this blog.

Consider this: communities cannot be made up of objects; they can only be populated by people! Persons! Souls! And to use more overtly theological language, communities are populated by unique expressions of the divine image! It troubles me deeply that our culture has made people into objects and has made corporations into people.

What do you think our so-called communities would look like if we saw others (and our own selves, for that matter) as persons, not objects? Perhaps this is our generation’s most challenging task:

to believe in the inherent worth of persons (whether we like their politics or not);
to respect persons (whether we think they deserve our respect or not);
to look for divinity in everyone we encounter (including enemies and other “despicable types”);
and to use our “power” in the service of a healthy whole rather than objectifying and abusing people with it. (See Bernard Loomer’s article, “Two Conceptions of Power”)

As I see it, healthy spirituality attends respectfully to connection and mutuality while rhetoric, persuasion, and induction are fundamentally violent because they are objectifying. There is no question in my mind that our culture teaches us to solve our problems either by overt violence or by more subtle induction. It is no surprise to me when overt violence bursts out of a culture that teaches violent communication.

If you’re interested in pursuing this idea further, I recommend the book “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” by Marshall Rosenberg. A lot of work is needed to create healthier communities. Using more life-affirming language in place of rhetoric can only help.

This is how I see it, what about you?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

 

I have been writing in this blog about community from a variety of perspectives. It is a complex, broad, and interesting topic. While community can be examined as a sociological phenomenon or as simply a practical survival technique, it is so much more than that. Any explorations into the foundations and motivations for community demonstrate both its complexity and its elegance. Such deep reflection on community unavoidably exposes its theological dimensions and moves the discussion beyond socio­economic principles like the generally practiced belief that individuals, acting in their own self-interest, will somehow create a fair and just society for everyone.

That approach reminds me of the scientific understanding of matter that held sway during the Enlightenment: small but discrete billiard balls that interact with each other according to the laws of motion and that combine with one another according to strict chemical laws. From Einstein on, modern science, including nuclear physics, has shown us that such a simplistic understanding is inadequate. There are no discrete “atomic” particles, and furthermore, the smaller an observed particle is, the more indistinguishable it is from energy. Additionally, particles seem to “relate” to one another, almost as if they “mattered” to one another. Quite a few “field theories” have emerged from these scientific observations. Field theories point to the depth of connection and influence we have with one another, no matter how unseen or unconscious.

I contend that a similar broadening of our thinking will be necessary for us to understand the nature of community, and to develop in our ability to embody healthier communities. For the sake of this essay, I will assume that the quality of “mattering” is akin to divine presence. (Just to be clear, I am not assuming the divine to mean some other worldly “person” who lives in “heaven” and who intervenes in life in response to human petition.) I am looking from the other way around. This concept of interaction and mutual influence that goes far beyond the mindless smashing of billiard balls is both mysterious and awe-inspiring. How mutual “mattering” plays out can also be paradoxical, like the concept of “enlightened self-interest” where the activity of doing good for “the collective” is ultimately good for the individual.

One way to think about what I have referred to as “mattering” is by clarifying the idea of compassion. Jesus says: “Be compassionate as your God is compassionate.” While this may be a stretch, I read this to mean that compassion is “divine.”

My question I am working on is two-fold: What does compassion mean? And can it be fostered in individuals and communities?

In many sacred texts, compassion goes together with love and mercy. One could say that “Agape (one of the Greek words for love is “an attitude of unconditional good will towards others,” Compassion is “the inner experience of that attitude,” and Mercy is “the outward expression of love/compassion”. As I think about it, Compassion might be the “animating force” that manifests the idea of love into acts of mercy. Compassion is the means by which agape lives in us and from which it is expressed. So, I wonder how can we increase our capacity to experience and embody divine compassion?

If we simply employ “rational self-interest,” we jump from the idea of a caring community directly to the “good” acts that we believe create that community’s environment. While this equation may make logical sense, I think it is hard to sustain in practice. The development of compassion may provide the inner motivation, the energy if you will, so that we will be able to create and nurture ever healthier communities.

It seems to me, also, that compassion is a necessary foundation for the development of a deeply ethical culture, one that is not motivated by survival-based fears. Fear has held sway too long in human history, including business, politics, and religion. I hope that the time for us to develop our deeper capacity for compassion, because Love/Compassion/Mercy is the only antidote for fear.

I had planned to write more about the process for nurturing compassion, but I’ve written enough for this post, so the process discussion will have to wait.

So, this is how I see things today. What do you see?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

 

I am a believer. I believe that the created universe contains in its very essence a tendency towards development. One might call it something like a life force. The challenge to a “believer” of any stripe is to resist the temptation to be one-sided or superficial. You see, I could easily write about modern understandings of “progress.” Or I could wax poetic about the beauty of flowers or children growing into their magnificent fullness. But if I succumb to the temptation to simplify in either of those directions, then any counter-perspectives can be oversimplified, too.

Let me give an example. The will to survive is one foundational element we consider in trying to understand life. But, does the desire for survival in each element of a hostile or competitive system qualify as a comprehensive ethical foundation for life? And is the potential or actual destruction of one’s “enemies” in the service of survival then automatically justified? Sometimes this particular foundation for human behavior is put like this: “Do unto others before they have a chance to do unto you.”

While this “ethic” may make sense and be defensible from some perspectives, it seems to me that human and even biological history provide ample evidence for its ultimate, and perhaps inevitable, failure. Within that framework, all victories remain temporary. And they are always accompanied by a deep fear that sooner or later the same or another enemy will arise. Have you noticed lately how the list of potential enemies keeps growing? Not only must we contend with other human groups, but the climate, the toxic environment, and even the potential breakdown of economies and delivery systems for food and other necessities have been added to our awareness of potentially threatening forces. Seeing other people and even natural forces primarily as enemies tempts us to hunker down into survival mode. Of course, from a narrow perspective, such a position seems to make perfect sense. Still, I have the uneasy feeling that while survivalism appears defensible, it is not necessarily the best approach we have available to us.

To identify what might be a better approach, we cannot just oversimplify in some other direction, like: Don’t worry; be happy; love conquers all” for example. We can, however, look to our available sources of deep wisdom. Both Jesus and Buddha, albeit in somewhat different ways, teach that personal survival is not one of the central values or features of their approach to life. Personal life is always seen in a broader context of meaning. They imply, and we can see from history, that many of our human efforts towards survival can result in massive levels of destruction.

If we study carefully, we see that the spiritual mystics all invite us to broaden our perspectives so that we can see ourselves as participants in a larger reality. Sadly, the temptation to reduce these big ideas back down to a more individualistic perspective never seems to go away. And the anxieties we carry about survival as individuals grease the skids of that regression.

There is nothing I can say, no matter how compelling I believe my argument to be, that will preclude the oversimplification of our sometimes perilous situation. I will, however, continue to make the invitation that people experiment with the features of a broader and more profound view of creation and its potential meaning. The individualistic perspective will certainly remain with us, because it is sometimes valuable and necessary, though it is not always the most useful perspective at our disposal.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I believe that creation carries, in its essence, the potential for continued development. What I hope for, and what I will continue to work towards in this new year is the implementation of a more universal perspective in politics, business, neighborhood relations, and religion. I invite you to join me.

Please add your comments and perspectives.

Happy New Year
Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise