Americans face another presidential election in 2012. This confronts people of conscience and compassion with difficult decisions.
We are told that we must choose the lesser of two evil candidates in order to avoid the greater of two bad consequences to the citizenry of our country and the world.
But what if this move demonstrably and inevitably strangles the motive and energy to take up the necessary struggle to find the practices which would achieve minimally acceptable and sustainable consequences for the citizenry and world? We are seeing that in one election after another, damage control replaces global sustainability.
We face a recurring flood situation. There is a big dam on the river. Year after year the local residents struggle to plug breaks in the dam by throwing truckloads of construction debris, refrigerators and tv’s, logs and cement into the breaches, but every year the breach is bigger. Meanwhile, none of the citizens are building the twenty to fifty small dams upstream which would actually work to prevent the flooding of the one big dam.
But, make no mistake, the citizens think that their frantic struggle to hold the big dam is important and urgent, and essential proof that they really care about the fate of the people downstream. Oh yes, they believe that with all their hearts.
Then it came to pass in the 2012 presidential election year in the United States that certain people asked what mature human behavior would look like in the midst of crises of violence, capitalism and degradation of the environment. Prospects for the next 50 years of human existence looked grim, and beyond that time frame, grim seemed willfully deceptive as a description of what could be expected.
Two men running for president of the empire which claimed the right to global domination enforced by the violence of nuclear weapons, drones and foreign military occupations each claimed that their program was best for their nation and the world (although in truth neither said much about what would be best for the world as a whole).
Millions, no billions, of people in the world struggled for survival while another handful of uber-rich showed no shame in claiming that the capitalist system and the way they ran it was the best possible of all economic systems. Massive evidence of global heating, dead zones in the oceans and toxic pollution resulting from heedless greed in human consumption and production was routinely denied by those who claimed the right to determine the destiny of humanity and the planet itself.
In this situation a few people in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA, asked what should or could be done–as indeed common people across the globe were asking.
In particular, they asked whether either of the two candidates for president of the United States of America deserved the attention they were getting or the support and vote of people who cared for the future of planet earth. They asked whether the military, economic and environmental policies of either of these two men and the political parties they represented offered enough good, proposed enough change, and engendered enough hope for the human spirit to deserve or demand the faith of good people.
In the most focused and narrow terms, they asked whether voting for either Obama or Romney was a meaningful exercise of human dignity, spiritual maturity and democratic action, or might such a vote betray a serious, or should we say probably fatal, lack of imagination, courage and determination to do something more bold, costly and hopeful.
It is fair to say that at that moment in history millions of Americans wanted to do something, anything–at least something–to make the world a little better rather than a little worse. And as things were, or at least as they looked, the best way they had to do something was to vote for one of those two candidates. But were things actually as they looked?
Vaguely or clearly, who knows which, those few people in Lancaster County remembered earlier times of crises in human history. They
reviewed tiimes when human options seemed frighteningly constricted, the choices narrowed to the bad and the worse–times when people of conscience earnestly wanted to do at least something for the good of all, but felt constrained to choose the lesser of two evils, or have no choice at all.
They remembered one such time when a new voice entered the scene–one strange and lacking any party endorsement–a voice saying with astonishing boldness, “beware the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod” (Mark 8).
Oops! He said, you’ve got two choices. Neither one of them is good. Neither one is good enough. Beware of them.
Jesus is the one who said that.
But wait, the Pharisees and Herod represented the distilled wisdom of two great systems, of Israel and Rome. A great and powerful religious system and a great and powerful political system. Surely one of them was better than the other. Neither was perfect, but surely the fate of the average person was in better hands with one than with the other. If you had to choose, and surely you did, you had to choose the one that was less evil.
In that situation Jesus said that the people were like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9).
Oops again! Without a shepherd? Is that any way to describe the great shepherding systems of Rome and of Israel? It seems that Jesus thought so. Looking at his historical situation, Jesus said that a slightly more judicious implementation of profoundly mistaken ideologies will not be good enough. And hoping it is so will not make it so. That was
clear to Jesus–is it clear to us?
Profoundly mistaken ideologies are not side issues in national elections. Where ever there is the opportunity for truly democratic elections (and not just a charade and pretense of such), the voting public has a duty to implement a sustainable ideology and worldview. And if nobody knows exactly what that is (and they don’t), they still have a duty to do the best they know and not sell out to false alternatives which are profoundly mistaken.
Which brings us to the particulars–three of them–in which Obama and Romney (and the one toxic worldview and empire both represent) are profoundly mistaken. Their wrong answers to these fundamental questions of human existence and humanity’s future are not good enough.
First, there is the question of what to do about enemies. Or, less ultimately, what to do about human differences and conflicts. Here, as usual if not always, we can be both simple and clear. The choice is between violence and nonviolence. It is between homicidal violence, the willingness to kill people to improve the world (“redemptive violence” in Walter Wink’s words) and creative nonviolence, or compassion.
Obama, Romney, the dominant ideology and the empire believe deeply and ultimately in the efficacy of violence to improve the world. In this they are profoundly wrong. As Martin Luther King said: the choice is between nonviolence and nonexistence. This is because violence, and most specifically justified homicidal violence, is ineffective, and ultimately suicidal. The not-so-infrequent eruptions of multiple shootings in the schools, theaters and temples of America are catastrophic but predictable enough eruptions of this national ideology of “redemptive” violence.
The only way that can succeed in the end is compassion, the “feeling with the other” that recognizes the interconnectedness of all humanity and creation, and finds the ways to sustain rather than breach and destroy those connections. Humanity and its governments will learn this truth or perish. That is the crossroads of violence at which we stand.
Second, there is the question of what to do about bread. Bread, in the language of Jesus in his day, is about all that sustains life, including earth’s fecundity and the economic and financial systems which try to manage the distribution of earth’s goods. Obama and Romney think that Wall Street is too big to fail, but it is not. Capitalism as it is being practiced is a profoundly mistaken ideology, a sure path to destruction. Are we seeing the warning signs?
When Jesus said that he is the bread of life, he was claiming that he knew how to manage the earth’s goods. What to do about bread? Share it! Any approach to the earth’s fecundity and running an economy which is not fundamentally committed to the implementation of sharing in a just manner will not work in the long run.
Third, there is the question of what to do about the earth itself. Is the earth an endless resource arbitrarily sustained and renewed by God, or a system as fragile and vulnerable as the human body itself, easily destroyed but sustained only by diligence and care? Romney and Obama present no bold plan to teach humans to “live lightly” on the earth, restraining their consumption and bringing their behavior into a sustainable relationship with the unyielding realities of this one green planet.
Jesus announced the reign (kingdom) of God, which was the language of his day for replacing the domination ideology reign of kings with the compassion- guided interrelationship of all things as originally created by God.
Does this leave us without a choice in a U.S. presidential election? It well may, and what if it does? It does not leave us without a voice, unless we deliberately and lazily choose the fiction that “voting” is the beginning and end of public voice.
We are looking at presidential candidates and a total system which will leave us totally and abjectly without a voice sooner than we think if we continue to buy their deceptions and compromise with their evils. These people and this system will not ask us if they can take our voice from us, they will just do it. There is a certain implacability about historical forces which is not as genteel as we would like our options to be. And if we have not already seen those forces at work in the crises of violence, economic oppression and ecological disaster which are upon us, we may well be beyond hope in our blindness.
This essay is not, however, about giving up hope, but about how to sustain it and act upon it. The message here is that our hope cannot be in a blind, blinding and corrupt system which destroys all in its way, but must be in the power of the people to do the right thing, overcoming evil not with evil, but with good.
Finally it must be said, there is more pride, dignity and hope in dying with and for that compassionate people than there is in joining the train toward destruction, no matter how distanced from its worst features we may imagine ourselves to be. To “lose” in the short term with the tools of compassion is worth more than to “win” in the long term with the tools of destruction.