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.

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Who Deserves What?

While on the topic of justice, forgiveness and consequences deserved, and on this Day of Atonement with it’s Closing of the Gates imagery, I’d like to ponder how dwelling on deserving drags our discourse down.  Because it is election season, let’s pick a political example.  The flap over Romney’s secretly recorded 47% statement seems to be timely fodder.  While I’m uninterested in speculating about Romney’s intention, I am interested in the question his words beg of us all.  Here’s what Romney said:

“All right — there are 47 percent [of US citizens] who are with him [Obama], who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing.”

Lingering over the last few words, I can’t help noticing we’re talking the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, here.  I posed this question on Twitter:

What do social justice Jews and brother’s keeper Christians think of folks feeling “entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing?”

Jews view the question through the lens of tzedakah.  Often translated “charity,” tzedakah is actually the opposite of charity in important respects.  Whereas nobody is compelled to give charity, tzedakah is commanded.  Recipients aren’t entitled to charity, but tzedakah recipients are entitled to what’s fair.  Mainomides organized tzedakah into priorities and levels of giving.  Tzedakah priorities are like concentric circles around the giver, obligating the giver first and foremost to be responsible for himself and his immediate family before seeing to the needs of his more extended family, his religious community, his community at large, his fellow countrymen and, ultimately, people in dire straits across the globe.  The lowest level of giving is to give grudgingly.  Higher levels are defined by whether one gives after being asked or before, whether recipients are known or strangers, and whether a donor receives recognition or gives anonymously.  The highest level of all is giving someone a way to become self-sufficient.

Jews are nothing if not pragmatic, and the tzedakah tradition does require the giver to give responsibly, but it is important to note the emphasis on the giver’s obligation, not what the recipient deserves.

What does Christian teaching have to say?  Jesus left a pretty robust bread crumb trail on this one.  We have the socially despised Samaritan who saved a stranger’s life and paid his hotel bill, no less.  We’re told much will be required from everyone to whom much has been given.  And perhaps most germane to this topic is the admonishment to pay your taxes AND to give charitably.  Here again, the Christian tradition emphasizes doing the right thing for the sake of righteousness, not based on the merits of the guy lying in the ditch.

What happens to the conversation when we focus on the guy in the ditch?  Ponder this:

To blame the poor for subsisting on welfare has no justice unless we are also willing to judge every rich member of society by how productive he or she is.  Taken individual by individual, it is likely that there’s more idleness and abuse of government favors among the economically privileged than among the ranks of the disadvantaged.
~ Norman Mailer (1923-2007)

No one deserved to be born on 3rd base.  Self-made millionaires didn’t deserve to be born in the land of opportunity instead of in an oppressive regime.  If you want to focus on who deserves what, I would make a case for the hard working immigrants who came to the USA with nothing and made the most of opportunities that came their way, not unlike our nation’s founders, but the current prevailing view is that immigrants aren’t deserving if their parents broke the law to get here.

No matter where you stand in the political spectrum, dwelling on deserving leaves us wanting to take something away.  Tax wealthy estates.  Deport the high school valedictorian.  Let poor kids go hungry.  They didn’t earn it.  We sit in the judge’s seat when we focus on deserving.  When we focus on human dignity and human potential instead, we are reminded of ourselves.  When we do so with gratitude, we realize our cup is running over and we lift others up out of the abundance of our blessings.  The twitter question was not rhetorical.

Join the conversation.  Is healthcare, food and housing too much to require from those to whom much has been given?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.