Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Community of Jesus

I had an interesting conversation with Sarah, one of the missionaries at Turtle Shores in Belize.  She told me that she had been doing a lot of reading in the Bible about the poor and asked me about my understanding of what the Bible says about our obligations to the poor.  She said that she knew that we were supposed to help the poor, but wondered if the Bible set limits as to how much we were supposed to help them.
Normally when someone asks me a question like that they are trying to figure out the bare minimum they have to do to be biblical and yet still keep as much of their own wealth as possible, but that wasn’t the case here.  Sarah and her husband Mark had already given up much in order to come to Belize and serve the poor—more than most would be willing to give up.  Rather, I sensed two things.
First, she has seen first-hand how just giving money to the poor can actually do them harm.  The help has to be strategic, it has to be respectful of the dignity of the poor, and it cannot foster dependency.  Second, there was a recognition of the magnitude of the task.  Sarah and Mark had already given up so much, and yet the village of Gales Point was still beset with a deep poverty.  (At least in terms of material wealth; they are rich in some significant ways, but that’s the topic for another article.)  If she and Mark gave up much more they would be as poor as the rest of the village and would require the very help that they came to render.
I told her that part of the problem was how we think and talk about the poor—specifically, how we keep calling them “the poor.”  By doing so we define them as “not-us.”  They are the “other” and we are the “us”, they are “the poor” and we are the “not-poor”.  However you define those people who are part of your “us,” we always take care of “us”.  My wife Pam is part of my “us”, as is my daughter Angela and my son Austin.  I can’t imagine putting a limit on how much I am willing to come to the aid of any of them.  If they need me, I'm there.
Not so for anyone who is not a part of my “us”.  I’ve always felt it was my obligation to provide for my children’s education to the best of my ability, but I don’t feel the same obligation to someone else’s children.  While most of us are willing to help someone who is not part of our “us”, there is a limit.  There is a limit to how much we feel obligated to help someone who is “other” that does not exist when it comes to our “us”.
In other words, it comes down to community—who is part of our community and who is not.  The poor referred to in the Old Testament were almost all Israelites, and the prophetic condemnation we read is toward rich and/or powerful Israelites.  They were condemned for not taking care of some of their own community, for treating their fellow Israelites as “others”.   Israelites were supposed to take care of each other, yet these were exploiting other Israelites.
Then Jesus takes the concept of community  up a notch.  In Jesus’ view, there are no “others”, only “us’s”.  So he tells the story of two Israelites to treat their fellow Israelite, robbed and lying unconscious on the side of the road, as an “other” toward whom there are limits to their willingness to give aid, and the ultimate “other”, a Samaritan, who treats the beaten Israelite as an “us”.  And he asked, “Who is my mother and my brothers” i.e. who is my “us”, and he said that everyone who does the will of God is part of his “us”.   In another parable Jesus said that when you’ve helped “the poor”, “the sick”, “the imprisoned”—all terms of “otherness”,  you’ve helped Jesus himself.  And since we all want Jesus to be part of our “us”, he’s declared that all these are part of our community of “us’s” as well.
In the Kingdom of God, there are no “others” only “us’s”—and we all know enough to take care of everyone who is an “us”.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Survival of the Friendliest

Theological insight can come from many places, but I didn’t expect it from a dog book.
The book is The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods.  A couple of the early chapters talk about the domestication of dogs from wolves, which occurred between 12,000 and 40,000 years ago.  At some point, it has been assumed, humans adopted wolf puppies, tamed them, bred them, and over time they became what we now know as dogs.  This was demonstrated in the mid-1900’s in Siberia with silver foxes.  Foxes, like wolves, have a natural fear of humans; they will run away at any contact with them.  A Russian scientist, working at a farm that raised silver foxes for the fur industry, began breeding those foxes that showed the least fear of and aggression toward humans.  After many generations he had a population of silver foxes that were friendly toward humans.  They would approach handlers, wag their tails, and allow themselves to be held and petted.  They also developed an ability to understand and respond to human gestures, something wild foxes, wolves, and even chimpanzees are unable to do.  In addition, they showed certain physical changes—spotted fur, curled tails, floppy ears—associated with domesticated dogs.
So it is assumed that something similar happened years ago with wolves, but Hare and Woods write that this really doesn’t make sense.  As mentioned, wolves are shy around humans—they will run at any contact.  In captivity, they are hostile and aggressive toward humans, and this is true even for generations bred in captivity.  They never lose their aversion to or hostility toward humans.
And humans return the favor.  Back when we were hunter/gatherers, we competed with wolves for prey, and when we began to herd sheep, goats, and cattle, wolves would attack our livestock, so from the beginning humans have sought to exterminate wolves.  And we have done a great job; by the 1930’s there wasn’t a single wolf left in the 48 states of the U.S.  Even when they were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho, residents sought permission to hunt them because they attacked livestock.  Humans have long had a strong antipathy toward wolves—so why would we try to domesticate them?  There was no advantage to it.
      Hare and Woods convincingly make the argument that in fact humans didn’t domesticate the wolf, but it was the other way around.  Once humans began to become more sedentary, settling in the same place rather than roaming, we inadvertently provided a food source for wolves in the form of garbage and human waste, but most wolves, being shy and wary of humans, would not take advantage of this new food source.  Only those very few who were less shy and less wary would approach the garbage on the outer edges of human settlements, undoubtedly under cover of night.  As these wolves bred with each other, the genetic predisposition to be less shy and less wary was passed on and amplified.
Like with the foxes, there came some physical changes—splotchy coats, curly tails, floppy ears, and an ability to interpret human gestures.  Over the course of many generations, these wolves did not look or act like most wolves.  Another change occurred as well.  Wolves, like most wild animals, have a breeding season, but with domesticated animals the breeding season is longer and the litters are larger.  Modern dogs breed year-round, an obvious advantage to survival.
      Initially the humans would not have welcomed these new wolves.  They undoubtedly would chase them off, harass them, and kill them when they could, but the advantages to this new and abundant food source far outweighed the disadvantages.  And after a long enough time, when these animals didn’t look or act like wolves, humans became more tolerant of them, eventually accepting them into their villages—and eventually their homes.
      What does this have to do with theology?  Well, it is accepted wisdom that strength, power, aggression, and even a certain level of hostility--all the things that go into being an alpha-male--give an individual, group, nation or empire and survival advantage, and in a survival of the fittest world, that's a good thing.  But proto-dogs were those few wolves who were just a little less wary of humans, which allowed them to forage in the garbage of some of the first human settlements, and this less aggressive posture toward humans gave them a survival advantage.  The largest killer of predators is starvation.  When drought or extreme cold reduces the amount of vegetation in an area, it also reduces the number of prey in an area.  But wolves who were less aggressive could take advantage of the refuse of humans, who were the supreme predator and also skillful gatherers.  As these less-aggressive wolves survived and were more successful at reproducing, they passed their less-aggressive genes down generation after generation—and eventually we got dogs. 
 And when it comes to survival, the dog is unparalleled.  He gets fed twice a day, lives in a climate controlled environment, sleeps on a human bed, gets excellent medical care and chases squirrels and rabbits for recreation, not out of necessity.  And why do I provide all of these things for him?  Because he isn’t aggressive—just the opposite.  He is friendly, playful, and a constant companion.  He is also a good watchdog; he barks anytime someone approaches the house, and goes nuts when the doorbell rings.  Thus my house is far less likely to be burglarized.We have a relationship, and it works for both of us. 
Hare and Woods call this “survival of the friendliest.”  In the wild, aggressiveness may be advantageous for survival in the short run, but in a world dominated by humans, aggressiveness doesn’t make an animal more fit to survive, but less.  Friendliness, the ability to be a part of and contribute to a peaceful society, is the greatest advantage.
This is not what we are told or taught.  When we think of survival of the fittest, we think this means that the biggest, strongest, meanest and most likely to win a fight is the one who has the survival advantage.  Top dog wins in a dog-eat-dog world, but in fact dog-eat-dog is a lie.  Dogs survived not because they fought each other but because they form community with each other—and with humans.  Peaceful community.
We think that turn-the-other-cheek is unrealistic in the real world, that it only works in a perfect world, that it is only possible in the future Kingdom of God, but in the meantime, in the face of evil, you have to be willing to fight, to kill, to be aggressive.  Sure, non-violence sometimes works as a strategy for change, but in the face of a Hitler, Stalin, or Al-Qaeda, you gotta gun up!  But nature teaches us different.  Predators struggle to survive.  Those that learn to live peacefully with each other and with humans thrive.  Yes, nature teaches us different.
And so does Jesus.  Understand, we are the supreme predator; we need to be domesticated, and that is what Jesus came to teach us.  Aggressiveness doesn’t lead to survival—it will in fact lead to extinction.  So he tells us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, pray for our enemies, make peace with them, have supper with them.  And he didn’t tell us to do this only when the Kingdom of God finally arrives in full.  He said these things to people surrounded by Roman soldiers, people who wanted God’s blessing to go to raise an army, go to war, and kill the Romans.  It was into this hostile setting that Jesus said these things. 
If it sounds unrealistic now, it really sounded unrealistic then.  It wasn’t that Jesus’ fellow Israelites, including his disciples, didn’t understand what he was telling him—they just didn’t want to do it.  They didn’t believe it—didn’t believe him. 
And we still don’t.  We understand what he is saying, we just won’t listen. 
So maybe we’ll listen to our dogs.  They get what Jesus is saying.  Will we?