Jared Witt - June 20, 2019
It’s a little bit sad—and grant you, I’ve done it too—when people push buttons on microwaves, not knowing how microwaves work, or send texts on phones that they could never build, and then thump their thumbs into their own chests and say “Look at how advanced I am as a human.”
We presume some sort of amazing progress as a species, as if our early bipedal ancestry could not have also pushed buttons on strange machines that would have otherwise utterly baffled them.
But as Martin Luther King Jr. says way back in the early 60s, in his essay, Paul’s letter to American Christians, “I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress,” or are these just (he quotes Thoreau) “improved means to an unimproved end.”
The word “progress” has become almost synonymous with the advancement of technology. But if all our technologies don’t ultimately lead us to a freer, happier, less divided humanity, are we not just monkeys with more complicated clubs?
In both his teaching and his actions, Jesus repeatedly indicates that the main human problem is not that we don’t already have the means for happy healthy lives (this already being the case two thousand years ago). The main human problem is how those means are distributed (btw, if just raising the question of distribution of wealth makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, Jesus probably isn’t for you; this is pretty much consistent on every page).
In the four Gospels, we don’t have a collection of random healings simply because healing people is a nice thing to do. Rather Jesus seems to be specifically targeting (and/or the Gospel writers seem to be emphasizing the lasting importance of) those healings which specifically made certain parties uncomfortable because they challenged a socio-cultural prejudice of some sort.
It’s ironic, when people reduce Jesus’ teaching to “love people.” From the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard to the one about the Good Samaritan, almost everything he teaches begins with some kind of concession like “now, grant you, everyone already loves others, right? Their friends, family, et cetera?”
I’m convinced that the main problem for Jesus is not how we treat people but rather who counts as people—who do we fit within our circle of moral obligation?
If that sounds to you like a different way of saying the same thing, let’s keep the emphasis for now. In the calm, neutral setting of reading a blog post, it’s easy to say, “But of course, I count all people as people.” But as the Parable of the Good Samaritan suggests, the rubber doesn’t really hit the road, until the suffering of a potential neighbor obliges us to action.
If you want to see how people really feel, follow the money. For instance, if a hurricane were to devastate both Puerto Rico and Houston in the same year, where do you suppose the resources will go? If a little white girl and a little black girl are kidnapped in the same month, who will get the 24 hour media coverage (you may have nothing to compare unless you do some real digging to find out about the latter kidnapping in the first place). And all of this from a thoroughly progressed and verbally Christian country.
In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari does a brief survey of a few remaining tribes that have resisted modernization and points out something interesting that is imbedded in their language. To the Dinka people of the Sudan, “dinka” simply means “people.” Their tribal nemeses are called the Nuer, which tellingly, in that language, means “original people.” According to the Yupik of northeastern Siberia, “yupik” means “real people.” These tribes literally don’t have a word for “people,” who are not part of their own tribe, which also validates that they are still in fact persons.
“How benighted they are,” we say. Except that we, in 2019, still live in a tribe the half of which is actively shouting to keep another tribe off our hunting grounds by building a wall—a solution so modern and advanced it’s just a shade removed from moats and alligators.
“Not me though,” I protest, as a thoughtful and educated person who abhors such things. But again, follow the money. How much of my resources go to organizations like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service or the ACLU, that work to resettle immigrants or challenge the constitutionality of what’s happening on our border? Have I opened my own home to a refugee yet?
So unless the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a story that commends the thoughts of a Samaritan who thinks about helping someone who is hurting on the side of the road, in what sense, exactly, am I so very enlightened? More than that, in what sense am I Christian?
There were already a few comfortable people and a lot of struggling people in the first century. Until we figure out what to do with that, the “advancements” we’ve made are nothing all that impressive—just some shinier clubs.
There is grace in all things, and none of us are doing enough. But we can all do more. So forgo the Apple Watch another year, if you can, and let’s see what we can do to really advance the species.
Cheers and Peace,
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