Banality of Evil: Take Two

let them eat cakeThe “Let them eat cake” celebration by House Republicans marking today’s passage of yet another bill to defund healthcare for the uninsured and continuing the sequester is unseemly.  The New York Times called their glee “grotesque.”  Having just separated millions of people from public housing subsidies, Head Start, and unemployment  benefits, and coming as it did on the heels of ending food stamps for almost 4 million people, one might expect a somber tone.  Celebrating the sequester… who wudda thunk?

Rather comically, the Majority Whip took pains to emphasize, repeatedly, the vote was bipartisan.  Perhaps being math challenged is part of the House’s problem.  Two of 190 Democrats voted for it.  I would call that 99% along party lines, but, hey, that’s just me.   Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who pushed yesterday’s food stamps vote, shared the podium.  The provisions of that bill would impact those with an average yearly income of $2,500 or less, truly the poorest of the poor. One commenter poignantly wondered what Cantor prayed for on Yom Kippur.  Could it have been to take even more away from those at the bottom?

The juxtaposition of such harsh treatment of the poor happening the week following the highest Holy Day of the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement, is difficult to reconcile, even for non-Jews like me.  The Jewish path to Atonement with God requires t’fillah, teshuvah, and tzedakah.  These translate roughly to prayer, repentance for wrongs, and the charity that justice demands.  Charity is a particularly bad translation for tzedakah.  In many ways, they’re opposites.  Charity is optional, at the discretion of the giver, and something to which the recipient is not entitled.  Tzedakah is commanded of each and every individual, regardless of wealth, and in the Jewish tradition, recipients are entitled to tzedakah.

The Jewish tradition doesn’t try to equalize income or wealth.  While it t recognizes vast gulfs between the haves and have-nots, it also recognizes a sense of fairness.  Food, clean drinking water, a safe place to sleep and other essentials for survival are things every human is entitled to, for the sake of social justice.  Even those who receive tzedakah are required to give it.  They may render aid rather than material provision.  The Jewish way of engaging with those in need is full of dignity, on all sides.  Dignity is what seems to be sorely lacking in the US House of Representatives this week, but today especially.

The specter of powerful politicians usurping the powerless is not the worst of it.  What gives me greater pause are the millions of Americans drinking the Kool-Aid and voting against their own economic interest.  It calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s landmark book chronicling the trial of a Nazi war criminal.  In it she coins the term “banality of evil” and argues the Holocaust (and indeed, all the great evils in history) resulted not so much from the actions of evil people as from ordinary people blindly accepting and participating in evil behaviors promoted as “normal” by the state.  About the criminal she concludes, “…everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.”

While it may be tempting to describe our elected representatives as clowns this week, the consequences of their clownery is costing real people real lives.  Who represents them?

Join the conversation.  Why do so many Americans participate in the anti-healthcare, anti-poor rhetoric?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Making God’s Will Personal: Step Three-Examine Compassion

In a quest for intimacy with God, we have been discerning the will of God by accepting the talents he has entrusted to us and putting them to bold use.  Just any use won’t do, however.  We can use our gifts boldly to lift others up or to cut them down.  By what rubric can we measure how a bold use aligns to God’s will?

Escalating Judaism’s teaching of justice and fair treatment of fellow man, Jesus preached and practiced radical egalitarianism.  If Jesus was only starting a new religion, the Romans would have left him alone.  Rome tolerated religions.  What Rome did not tolerate was challenge to the authority status quo.  His “kingdom of God” language was an affront to the power holders of Jesus’ day.  Threats to the social pecking order are uncomfortable for those at the top of the power structure.  It might be worthwhile to pause here to consider where you sit in the social pecking order of the world today.

Jesus used numerous parables to describe the revolutionary rearranging of power that he called the kingdom of God.  Historical Jesus scholar and Jesus Seminar fellow John Dominic Crossan summarizes Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom in two points: free healing and open table.  The Greco-Roman system of patronage served the powerful by giving them a means to influence and to control the peasant class.  By complying, peasants averted social ostracism wrought by no association with a patron.  Against the backdrop of the Greco-Roman system of patronage, Jesus’s offer of free healing disrupted the status quo.  It offered the peasant class something radically better than patronage.  Not only that, Jesus welcomed the despised and outcast, including women, to his table.  As dining customs echoed in miniature the social pecking order in the culture at large, Jesus’ open table symbolized a flagrant challenge to deeply held Mediterranean cultural values concerning status, honor and shame.

One way to examine how we use our gifts is in this context of open table and free healing.  Another way to examine them is in the context of tzedakah.  The Hebrew
word tzedakah is often translated “charity,” but the Jewish concept of tzedakah
is the opposite of charity in many ways.  Whereas charity is at the discretion of the giver, tzedakah is the giver’s obligation.  Whereas recipients have no claim to charity, recipients are entitled to tzedakah.  Tzedakah is more accurately translated as the giving that fairness and social justice demand, and it is commanded of all people (including those in need of tzedakah).

Am I going about my daily life and work in a way that promotes egalitarianism or in a way that excludes?  Does my daily life and work contribute to the well-being of others or only to my own well-being?  Do my actions promote God’s glory and the welfare of my fellow man?  Or do they garner earthly possessions for me?  Do I focus on safety
for my inner circle or peace and security for all?

Join the conversation.  What are the questions you ask yourself to measure your actions?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.