What we believe influences what we do – yet do our beliefs align with those required to weave a society aligned with God's will?
People are interesting. While we are each a "human being," we are frequently a "human doing" – and occasionally a "human dreaming." We dream, and then we do, so that we can be.
Three Dreams – Different Times, Different Places ...
There have been many famous dreamers throughout the ages – let's focus on three in particular.
Around 700 BCE, there was a dreamer named Micah. A prophet of the Israelites, he relayed God's challenge to Israel:
And what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, NRSV)
Being just, kind, and humble – this seems like common courtesy, yet God felt the need to remind people about this.
About 2,000 years ago, another prophet was born, birthed and put to bed in a very humble setting. During his ministry, Jesus taught his disciples this prayer:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name, your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours,
now and forever. Amen.
(from ELCA.org – based on Matthew 6:9-15 and Luke 11:1-4, NRSV)
Doing God's will and building God's kingdom on earth, in the "here and now" – this is the essence of Jesus' mission and teachings, yet many Christians fail to grasp this concept.
Finally, some stirring words written in September 1787:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
In the Preamble to the Constitution, the Founders set forth their ideals for a new nation. The Founders did not know exactly how "a more perfect Union" would play out in the future, yet they entrusted us with the mission of establishing justice, insuring tranquility, promoting the welfare of our fellow citizens, securing liberty, and doing all this for "ourselves and our Posterity" – yet many Americans get so caught up in specific Articles or Amendments of the Constitution, they overlook these ideals.
... Yet Very Similar in Weaving People Together
Whether the goal is to challenge a religious community, communicate a goal while also teaching a key faith practice, or birth a new nation, all three dreams imply community, interdependence, respect, and dignity for all. Bringing forth ideals in a practical manner is the essence of these three dreams.
In a way, Micah, Jesus, and the Founders were all giving their listeners or readers instructions on how to create a better society, one where all people are woven together by a set of shared behaviors, a common vision, and a group of unifying goals.
We were created to live in community, and to weave ourselves together for the common good.
Rippers Versus Weavers
What happens when the notion of community is destroyed? In The New Cold War, a recent opinion column in The New York Times, columnist David Brooks reflected on the recent mass shooting in Pittsburgh, and on the role "protracted loneliness, loss of meaningful work, feeling pressured and stressed in the absence of community" have in increased levels of depression and mental health issues.
He then goes on to make a broader comment, saying:
... the chief struggle of the day is sociological and psychological, not ideological or economic. The substrate layer of American society — the network of relationships and connection and trust that everything else relies upon — is failing. And the results are as bloody as any war.
Maybe it’s time we began to see this as a war. On the one side are those forces that sow division, discord and isolation. On the other side there are all those forces in society that nurture attachment, connection and solidarity. It’s as if we’re witnessing this vast showdown between the rippers and weavers.
“Rippers and weavers” – or, as the article's subtitle terms these, "The forces of division and the forces of connection." – is a wonderful distillation of so many issues currently facing every level of our society, from the community, to the city or town, to the state, to the nation, and to the world as a whole.
What causes people to become rippers? Reasons listed include " ... a radical individualism ... a workaholic ethos ... and [living] in insular media and social bubbles ... "
Do Certain Beliefs Make Us "Inadvertent Rippers"?
Reflecting on this article led me to wonder whether some people might be ripping apart elements of our society, without even realizing it.
A person may not view himself as a radical individualist or a workaholic, or view herself living in a cocoon or echo chamber. Even so, certain beliefs do seem to have the – likely unintended – consequences of ripping things apart.
For example, someone who believes people should have the "freedom" to choose whether or not to buy health insurance is actually ripping apart the underpinnings of our healthcare system. How? Hospitals are, by law, required to provide care, even if they will not be paid for it. All hospitals – even not-for-profit hospitals – must operate profitably to remain viable. Thus, the costs of this unreimbursed care are borne by all of us, either through increased Medicare or Medicaid payments, or through higher health insurance premiums. Whether by higher taxes or higher premiums, we all end up paying for this type of "freedom."
Similarly, someone might believe employers should have the "liberty" to not pay a living wage – and doing so ends up ripping both individual lives and the community. How? Without earning a living wage, an employee hangs on paycheck to paycheck. What happens when that employee has an unexpected car repair, or has to buy medicine for his mother, or has to stay home with her sick child? That person then has to make an impossible choice. Do I repair my car so I can keep going to work, do I buy medicine so my mother can get better, do I stay home with my daughter – or do I pay my rent? Instead of an employer paying a living wage, society pays for the costs of homelessness and poverty. Whether by paying higher taxes or donating to not-for-profit agencies, the rest of us pick up the tab for such "liberty."
Finally, someone could believe those earning a higher income should keep a larger part of it by paying lower taxes because they "did it on their own.” How might this be harmful? This belief rips society's basic notion of fairness, because people don’t become wealthy entirely by themselves. We all buy goods and services, and we all pay taxes to build infrastructure and educate our citizens, so we have all contributed to a person's wealth. A progressive income tax system recognizes no one truly "did it on their own" and thus asks the wealthy to do more to restock the pond – since they have benefitted from our shared social investments more than most, they can afford to reinvest more in the community, state, and nation.
These notions of "freedom" and "liberty" and "did it on their own" are not only fallacious – they are also examples of what David Brooks calls "radical individualism."
My friends from First Lutheran and other faith communities who serve breakfast every Friday morning at Greensboro Urban Ministry (GUM) see the fallout of this "radical individualism" every week. In nearly 13 years of serving breakfast, we have seen tens of thousands of guests, and most are dressed for work. These are the working poor, people who do not receive a living wage and thus have NO savings and NO margin for error in their finances. Many times, our guests will wear part of their work uniform – a ball cap, a shirt, or a vest – frequently adorned with the logo of a Fortune 500 company. Surveys show the CEOs of such companies earn over 312 times what their average worker earns – and our guests earn less than the average worker.
Radical individualism is not new – it has been around in different forms for all of human history. In Jesus' time, the civil and religious rulers had money, power, and status – and the ordinary people had very little. Today, many forces are ripping apart social bonds designed to hold people together and to provide checks on excessive power, influence, income, and wealth.
A Reflection For This Holiday Season
Jesus criticized only one type of individual, the "rippers" – the ones preventing all people from enjoying the goodness and bounty of Creation.
Today, as in times gone by, we need a society of healthy people. We need a society providing dignity to all in the workplace by paying a living wage. We need a prudential society – one that has its priorities straight, works toward its ideals, invests for the future, and thinks about posterity.
Providing for all of these needs is entirely consistent with Jesus' mission as "weaver" – of working to bring forth God's kingdom, God's dream for humanity, here on Earth.
This holiday season, regardless of your faith background, I hope you examine your beliefs about how our society should work, and ask yourself whether you are a weaver, or whether you are – even inadvertently – a ripper. To me, only a weaver is truly living, loving, and serving as Jesus did.
Todd L. Herman