“Words that point to the Way seem monotonous and without flavor.” – The Tao Te Ching
Last night I watched a local production of George Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You. There was a scene where Grandpa used his simple common-sense to object to sending taxes in to Washington. After all, he didn’t want to be the one paying the Congress! The entirety of the Midwestern audience shared in his sentiment with laughter and heads bobbing up and down. Suffice it to say, one thing we in the States can agree on in these deeply polarizing days is that we are not happy with the state of affairs.
From both sides, I have heard a good deal of moralizing and ideological rhetoric. It’s our moral duty to do this or that, our ethical obligation to pass such and such legislation. There is also a good deal of lofty ideals being paraded across the air waves proclaiming the virtues of various “isms,” most notable among these is “capitalism” and the free market. As the conflict increased, and continues to increase, sides become further entrenched in their moral and ideological positions, taking pride in being defenders of their truth. To me, however, these are sounding more and more like a cacophony of demagoguery, a bluster of sound and fury which is increasingly signifying less and less.
I’d be interested in seeing the statistics, but I’d wager this is largely a Baby Boomer war of words. I know that there are those of the younger set who are joining this political fracas, but the tone and nature of the debate is clearly that of the prior generation. They’ve decided the terms and drawn the battlelines.
So, here’s a question I’ve been asking myself. What is the role of religion, theology, or spirituality in all this? One might expect the answer to be obvious: A theological and religious response would help to set the moral terms of the debate. Or, perhaps we might add that a spiritual approach might set a tone for positive and constructive dialog. That might get a bit closer. But I’ve got something else in mind. What if the most spiritual thing to do right now is to ditch the high-handed moralizing and just talk numbers? Perhaps the most moral thing to do is to put an end to the moral platitudes that are ratcheting up the tension in the debate. Religion that is worth its salt is that which is most firmly planted on the ground. As such, during these times, perhaps the most moral way is to be amoral.
I say this because it is increasingly becoming obvious that the world that my generation is being handed is severely broken and might completely come apart at the seams. I don’t mean to be excessively pessimistic or apocalyptic, but here are my concerns.
- First and most concretely, we have a large segment of our country approaching retirement who will be expecting social security benefits, but they haven’t really left the money to pay for it.
- Second, despite mounting evidence of climate change, Boomers have done nothing here in the States to address the possibility of a real ecological crisis in the coming years. What will we do if floods, droughts, and other extreme weather patterns become norm?
- Third, there has been little done to address the concerns of economic and racial inequality in our nation. Our prisons are packed out with poor people (many black) to the point where it is costing as much to incarcerate as it is costing us to educate.
- Our economy is weak and in no condition to address these issues.
So, what would happen if we left the holier-than-thou political rhetoric behind? To me, this seems like both the most sensible and the most spiritual course. I’d like to see us discuss the amount of carbon that is in the atmosphere and ask what kind of damage this has done and will do in the future. What about the fact that the temperature has risen almost an entire degree (Fahrenheit) in the last 25 years or so. Let’s talk about how much it costs to incarcerate someone for an entire year (the range is $20,000 to $40,000) and ask if there isn’t a better way to spend the money. The problem is, talking about boring numbers doesn’t rally the masses. Facts won’t raise big campaign bucks, and numbers don’t get the super high ratings.
To change the political climate in Washington in time to address the real threats facing us seems to me to require some sort of spiritual change, a willingness to discuss the situation-on-the-ground, reality as it is, without the blinders of moralizing and ideology that tend to filter out all data that doesn’t fit the conclusions that we have already reached.
How do we change this state of affairs? Honestly, I haven’t got a clue. The one possible positive outcome that might emerge from the degree of polarization that we are now seeing is that we the children might learn from the mistakes of our parents and try a new approach. But, heck, you never know what’s going to happen. History is full of surprises.