On Digging Holes and Defeating Darkness

My mother used to love to tell the stories about how I behaved when I was little.  She would laugh when she related that I never played like other children.  She even used to tell people that I was “born old.”  She told about how one place we lived in Greensburg, KY, there was a huge pile of dirt in the backyard, but I wouldn’t use the collection of Tonka trucks to play in it.  Rather, I would run into the house frequently and ask if I was dirty, apparently preferring not to soil my clothes with that red clay dirt. 

But I just made a connection that may provide a clue as to why I was such a juvenile clean-freak.  I remember one time actually digging in the dirt in that very backyard, and I uncovered a rock with a sharp point on it.  I was convinced that I had dug my way to hell, and that was the horn of old Lucifer himself, as depicted in so many images, mostly cartoons, but which still were quite suggestive and influential to a very young boy.  That’s probably why I didn’t like the dirt so much.

I knew little of religion and Heaven and hell at the time, but since my dad was a preacher, I had heard plenty about such things, usually while sitting on unpadded church pews, and sometimes during marathon sermons brought by some visiting preacher at what I’m sure I felt were all too frequent “gospel meetings,” as they are called in the churches of Christ, or known in other denominations as “revivals.”  The longest sermon I can remember was by a legendary preacher (although I forget his name) in a little country church on a hot summer night in a building where there was no air conditioning.  The benches were narrow boards for a seat with a narrow board for a back rest, with a huge space in between.  That sermon felt like it went on for three hours or more, although I’m quite sure it probably wasn’t a minute over two and a half.

Nearly half a century later, I understand that hell is not under my feet, and not every pointy rock is a devil’s horn.  But I have come to realize that we can do things that degrade what God said was a “very good” creation.  I have come to believe that each of our thoughtless or premeditated, selfishly motivated actions (theologically referred to as “sins”) can allow a little bit of the darkness of hell to break through into this once-bright realm, making the world a little less welcoming, a little less comfortable, a little less safe, a little less “very good.”

So many of the ills of the modern world are tied not to a single proximate source, but to a complex nest of interwoven malevolent threads, all spun from the same selfish source, twisted into a cord that binds us.  One thread is money.  Another is power.  Another is indifference to suffering.  Every one of those coarse or silky fibers is twisted into a rope that owes its existence to that single, seemingly innocuous quality of self-determination masquerading as self-preservation: selfishness.  If we are not careful, however, that twisted cable may bind us hand and foot, preventing us from breaking free to return to the care-free freedom of grace.

Consider the three avenues of temptation as catalogued in I John 2.16: “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.”  All of these forms of temptation point directly back to selfishness.  When we desire power over another, it is for selfish gain.  When money becomes our sole motivation, its purpose is usually to elevate and enrich the self.  When we drink too much or eat too much or focus too much on sex, it is most likely for selfish gratification, although these may be forms of self-medication to make some kind of hurt—often brought on by conflict with another exercising some attitude and action of selfishness—go away.

We can see such things being painted in broad strokes on a daily basis.  Politicians, motivated more often by a lust for power than a desire to serve, sell themselves to the highest corporate bidders, supporting initiatives that degrade the environment to make another banner quarterly earnings statement.  We see those same politicians refuse to consider raising the minimum wage to a level that might allow a person the dignity of rising above the poverty level because it would cut down on corporate profits.  We see politicians in one moment seek to limit or ban abortions, but then actively campaign to reduce funding for programs to feed and care for children that have already been born. 

At the heart of all of these issues is some manifestation of selfishness:  whether money or power or some warped concept of self-sufficiency or self-determination, I assert that the malevolent root is the same.

When I awoke to this realization, I saw that much of the political ideology that I had supported for years was degenerating into a miasma that elevates selfish ambition and actively discourages any corporate expression of the focal Christian directive to “love thy neighbor.”  This has largely been influenced by the economic philosophies of people such as the Ayn Rand, whose “objectivism” has shaped the thinking of numerous members of an elite cadre of the super-wealthy.  Politicians have extolled the virtues of Rand’s philosophy, but when it is examined closely, it is the very antithesis of Christianity.       

Consider just two quotes from Ayn Rand’s massive novel, Atlas Shrugged:

“If I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above and against my own—I would refuse, I would reject it as the most contemptible evil.” 

 “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

According to James 2, Christians have responsibilities to help others as we can.  I have frequently been reminded of what James says about words without action.  In James 2.15-16, he pointedly addresses the idea of essentially wishing the needy well, but doing nothing to see to it.  “15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

Someone will undoubtedly say that James 2 deals with individual responsibility, and some would go so far as to say that not even churches should be involved in such activity corporately, but that every person has the responsibility to do his or her part.  I agree that it is an individual responsibility.  But the need is so great across a massive country that individual efforts barely make a dent in the problem.  By supporting government initiatives that effectively pool our resources, we can be far more effective. 

The first of Rand’s quotes above is a complete rejection of loving one’s neighbor and seeing to his or her physical needs.  Government, in a time of tremendous economic upheaval (The Great Depression of the 1930’s), stepped in to help support the elderly and the poor.  Many see these as good things, others condemn them as contemptible because of abuses and excesses perpetrated by dishonest people seeking gain at the public expense.  Of course there are abuses of the system.  We’re dealing with humans, who at their natural cores tend toward selfishness, and money.  Does the system need review and revision?  Constantly.

One argument from many who would dismantle government aid programs is that such should be locally driven, if not turned over to the private sector.  This idea is flawed, however, because it suggests that poorer regions with a higher proportion of the population in poverty can provide for their own poor.  The truth is that wealth is not uniformly distributed across the geographic map.  A starving child in Mississippi is as much my responsibility as a starving child in Tennessee or Illinois or New York or Oregon.  Furthermore, this fails to account for a very notable human failing: for most people, if we are not pushed to put money into such programs, we are likely not to do it—it’s that tendency toward selfishness. Oh, it may be that such inactivity is not malicious, but the effect is the same: hungry children will go unfed, the elderly, poor, and disabled will lack medical care, the poor will be exposed to pollution and poor working conditions—if working at all.  The fact of the matter is that government is the only organization large enough and with enough infrastructure and resources to deal with the problems of a nation of more than 320 million people.

But back to the point of the clash of philosophies and to draw another conclusion: You cannot accept the selfishness of Randian Individualist/Objectivist position and still hold to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  Remember the story of Satan’s temptation of Eve?  He simply said, “You will NOT surely die.”  A simple negation to plant doubt.  Rand does the same thing: “Money is the root of all good.”  Rand says, “You have no duty to anyone but yourself.” But in Ecclesiastes  12.13, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”  So, anyone espousing a Christian faith has duty to God, who commands that we love and care for each other. 

Someone may say that we are talking about politics and economics, not religion, so these arguments have no merit.  Well, I cannot separate my faith from my life, which includes my political ideologies and economic doctrines and beliefs.  My faith informs me.  If I now embrace the objectivist teaching in whole or in part, I have achieved nothing but dissonance with the principles of my faith.  As Jesus said, no one can serve two masters.

Many people will try to cast this variant of rugged individualism as the ultimate expression of American patriotism.  They will say that we are taking back our country if we follow the Rand-inspired Pathway to Prosperity.  They will praise those who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps (even though it is hard to do that when you don’t have a boot to begin with).  They will turn every bit of vice in the Randian “scriptures” into virtues.  But in the Old Testament, Isaiah (5.20-21) raised an alarm that is as true today as when it was penned:   

20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!        

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  It is time that we realize that money is not indeed power: it is only a tool.  It is time we turn our attention away from just getting and keeping more and more wealth, but focus on how we can alleviate suffering and reverse the situations of lives trapped by a rigged game on an un-level playing field toward greater opportunity. Like Dr. King, so many other people have observed that love is power, but not the kind of power that corrupts.  The power of love that drives me to see to the needs of my neighbor here in Tennessee should also drive me to care for my neighbor 2,000 miles away in California, or half a world away in Nepal.  The closing of the heart, whether by conscious measures to actively harm or to passively withhold aid by the exercise of indifference are elements of the power that corrupts.

Someone may say that paying taxes is not an expression of loving our neighbors.  Doing so cheerfully and without complaint is, especially when we know that those funds will be used for good.  Supporting initiatives that bring opportunity, that promote human dignity and celebrate the value of each human life is loving our neighbors.  Trying to keep people in economic servitude is not.

Whatever we can do to make the world better, improve the environment, and help people who are hurting and vulnerable will push back the darkness of corruption that has plagued humankind since we were tempted to follow our selfish tendencies.   We must suppress greed and the lust for power, and close down the cries of those who remain driven by them.  It will never be easy, but the benefits will be greater than gold.

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