Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sub-Human: A Justification of Exploitation (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics Blog on August 16, 2012, and can be found at: http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/08/16/sub-human-justification-exploitation

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness (The Declaration of Independence, 1776).

These words are some of the most familiar and beloved in the English language, as they offer a moral vision for humanity, and a standard to which the United States of America should strive. 

While such expressions of freedom should indeed be cherished, we often forget the harsh reality that many contributors of the Declaration of Independence were also active participants in the brutal act of slavery.  As the English abolitionist Thomas Day wrote in 1776: “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.” 

In addition to racial inequality, while Abigail Adams reminded her husband John to “remember the ladies” during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, her warnings were mostly disregarded, and as a result, women were also marginalized, and they were relegated as dependents of men, without the power to own property, make contracts, or vote.  In other words, John Adams’ reply to Abigail’s challenge was far from considerate: “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh…”

With these historical details in mind, one is motivated to wonder: How do we explain this contradiction of freedom for some and not others amongst our national founders?  How could our leaders “sign resolutions of independence” with one hand and “brandish a whip” with the other?  While some blame a combination of economic expediency, ignorance, and personal hypocrisy, perhaps their only way to justify such exploitation is to perceive others as less than human.  In other words, human beings were indeed seen to be created with certain unalienable rights, but slaves, women, and others – in the eyes of those in power – were not as human as white men, but rather, sub-human.  As a result, these so-called sub-humans could be humiliated, exploited, and if needed, eliminated by the powerful, who in turn could rationalize a free and clear conscious.  This phenomenon – a justification of exploitation – is often called dehumanization. 

According to David Livingstone Smith, in his text Less than Human:

Dehumanization isn’t a way of talking.  It’s a way of thinking – a way of thinking that – sadly, comes all too easy to us.  Dehumanization is a scourge, and has been so for millennia.  It acts as a psychological lubricant, dissolving our inhibitions and inflaming our destructive passions.  As such, it empowers us to perform acts that would, under other circumstances, be unthinkable.

While dehumanization is seen throughout our history books, it is not merely an epidemic of the past, for it takes place each day, here in the present, sometimes profound, and oftentimes quite subtle.  For example, while many would recognize slavery, genocide, and the Holocaust as forms of dehumanization, we often fail to observe the everyday actions and thoughts when we perceive others as less human than ourselves.  In other words, when we discriminate, prejudge, and/or take advantage of others for personal gain, we view and treat others as sub-human, and in doing so justify our behavior, for we value our own hopes, dreams, and aspirations as more important – or more human – than those of others.
In addition to serving as perpetrators of dehumanization, we are also frequent victims, oftentimes in ways we refuse to recognize.  For example, when corporations see humankind as mere objects of production and consumption, we are treated as less than human, for our identity is defined by purchasing power and/or an ability to raise the price of stockholder shares.  In addition, when media outlets affirm stereotypes and/or racial profiling, we witness humanity being stripped away, for people are labeled by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.  And of course, when political propaganda is used to demonize those who hold different views, instead of regarding others as valuable human beings with diverse opinions, the various partisan opponents are classified as ignorant animals that need to be educated and civilized. 

With the above thoughts in mind (and one could list countless more examples), we recognize that dehumanization is in our midst, for some in society are treated more humane than others, and at any given time we might be perpetrators, victims, or most likely, a combination of both.  And so, in contrast to this flood of dehumanization in our world, the theological understanding of Imago Dei, or “Image of God”, is a recognition that goes far beyond governmental declarations, but recognizes that all people – regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, political affiliation, and religious affirmation – are created, loved, and affirmed by the same God who created life as we know it.  As a result, the implication of Imago Dei is that, when humans love God, we therefore love all other humans that God has created, for all are an expression of God – all are human beings. 

All together, in the midst of political polarization, religious division, racial tension, and various levels of inequality and conflict throughout the United States and beyond, a key starting point for civil discourse and sustained cooperation is a recognition that there is no such thing as sub-human, for all human beings are created with the sacred identity offered by God our Creator, Savior, and Advocate.  We are not defined by the various labels that others place upon us, thus we should resist the temptation to deny the human identity and rights of others.  And so, as a result of these affirmations, the implication is that we are given the responsibility to ground our conversations, interactions, and relationships in the understanding that we are loved by God for who we are, and in response to this amazing grace, offer love for God and all that God has created.  While our views, cultures, and beliefs may indeed be diverse, our starting point is a common connectedness with God, and the result is a declaration of our interdependence with each other, and thus the need for respect, mutuality, and grace. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

An Olive Agenda: A Path toward Economic Opportunity and Environmental Sustainability (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics blog on August 14, 2012, and can be found at: http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/08/14/olive-agenda-our-path-economic-opportunity-and-environmental-sustainability

An examination of current public debate reveals a divide between the “brown agenda” of economic opportunity and the “green agenda” of environmental sustainability. 

On the one hand, a “brown agenda” concerns economic opportunity, or in other words, the alleviation of poverty. In light of ongoing distress surrounding malnutrition, infant mortality, and unemployment, the brown agenda is important, urgent, and worthy of support. On the other hand, a “green agenda” relates to environmental sustainability and care for the Earth. As scientific reports affirm the reality of climate change, and in recognition of decreased access to clean water and biodiversity around the world, the green agenda is also deeply important, urgent, and worthy of support.

With the above thoughts in mind, one recognizes that both brown and green agendas are essential for the promotion of life. However, the proponents of each agenda seem to be at odds with the adherents of the other. For example, far too many with a “brown agenda” believe that the best way to reduce poverty is to reduce environmental controls, and to the contrary, those engaged with the “green agenda” too often place the needs of the Earth before the livelihoods of the poor and marginalized. As a result of this persistent struggle between “brown” and “green," progress on both agendas is limited, and our path toward economic opportunity and environmental sustainability is severely off course. 

In recognition of the ongoing tussle between economic opportunity and environmental sustainability, people of faith can offer an alternative agenda, for ultimately we recognize that the brown agenda (economics) and green agenda (ecology) are connected; as they are both about the Earth, our Oikos, the home that God has provided. In specifics, ecology, as oikos-logos concerns the wisdom of how a home functions; and economy, as oikos-nomos, is about the rules that should govern the way we run a home. As a result, while economics and ecology often clash within contemporary conversation (especially during election season), the reality is that they are deeply related, or in others words, two sides of the same coin.

The late South African theologian Steve de Gruchy offered a theological metaphor – the olive – that transcends the duality between the “green” and “brown” agendas that has disabled dialogue for the past generation. As a result, an Olive Agenda – one that combines green and brown – provides a profound metaphor that, according to de Gruchy, “... holds together that which religious and political discourse rends apart: earth, land, climate, labor, time, family, food, nutrition, health, hunger, poverty, power and violence."

Among other things, an Olive Agenda is rooted in an understanding that although our current economic system – called the “Big Economy” by Larry Rasmussen – has provided a number of contributions to modern life, its logic of boundless production, over-consumption, and unlimited growth works against “the Great Economy," a term from Wendell Berry. In other words:
"Economic production and consumption, as well as human reproduction, are unsustainable when they no longer fall within the borders of nature’s regeneration.  So the Bottom Line below the Bottom Line is that if we don’t recognize that the laws of economics and the laws of ecology are finally the same laws, we are in deep doodoo.  Eco/nomics is the only way possible."
With these thoughts from Rasmussen in mind, de Gruchy states that, while both brown and green agendas are “fundamentally right” for people of faith, “... taken in isolation each is tragically wrong – and thus we must integrate economy as oikos-nomos, and ecology as oikos-logos in search of sustainable life on earth, the oikos that is our only home.”  As affirmed by the Diakonia Council of Churches (Durban, South Africa):
"This earth that God created, this sphere that spins through space, this globe, the household in which humanity lives and seeks meaning, our only home – this must be the place where we start to think theologically about economics ... For millions of years God has shepherded the earth into existence so that it can sustain life.  To do so requires a delicate balance between human life and other life; between life, death and rebirth; between production, consumption and waste; between the needs of the current generation and the needs of the many generations still to come; and between our creative ability to shape and reshape nature, and our sinful desire to do so for selfish ends."
All together, in response to the responsibility that God has placed upon humankind to serve as stewards of the Earth, and in light of Jesus’ proclamation to accompany the poor and marginalized, an Olive Agenda recognizes that matters of economics and ecology are not only connected, but they are matters of faith, for they touch the core of God’s will for all of creation.  And so, an Olive Agenda shows that a contest between economics and ecology ultimately has no winner, for both are placed under the same house – our Oikos, the Household of God.  As a result, as disciples of Jesus, recipients of God’s amazing grace, and participants in God’s mission, we are called to create economic opportunities and make opportunities for creation care, to promote fullness of life – for all that God has created – throughout the world.  An Olive Agenda is our path forward.

Monday, August 13, 2012

High Appreciation or Holy Adoration? The Slippery Slope of Sports (Brian E. Konkol)

The following reflection was published by the Sojourners God's Politics Blog on August 9, 2012, and can be found at: http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/08/09/high-appreciation-or-holy-adoration-slippery-slope-sports

I love sports.  During my childhood I spent countless hours with my older brother and cousins on our driveway basketball court.  In High School I participated in Cross-Country, Basketball, and Baseball, and in college I was fortunate to enjoy four years of basketball with great teammates and a fantastic coaching staff.  My first memories of meeting my wife were from a summer basketball pick-up game while we were teenagers (…she was much better than I, and would later earn a Division 1 scholarship).  During my first months as a parish pastor I helped build a basketball court next to the church building, and we started a league for area youth (…volleyball and tennis would come later).  In many ways, sports have been – and continue to be – a significant influence in my life, and I figure this trend will persist as long as my body and mind will allow.

While I strongly believe that physical activity and participation within sports can offer excellent avenues for education and wellness on an individual and community level, my role as a fan of sports has been significantly tested over recent years.  In other words, I have come to wonder whether or not something inherently good, such as sports, has reached excessive levels to the point of having far too many negative consequences in society.  For example, in North America we experience massive inequality and outcry surrounding government budget shortfalls, yet we seem to have more than enough funds for stadiums, tickets, TV packages, and team-related memorabilia.  In addition, while our public servants receive salary cuts and loss of jobs, millionaire professional athletes argue with billionaire owners over income distribution and so-called “fairness”.  And of course, while I hear countless people complain about how busy they are and how financial times are tough, those same individuals seem to have plenty of time to watch a few hours of sports on TV each night, and more than enough resources to support their favorite teams.  With all of this in mind (…and one could list countless more examples), we have to wonder whether or not our priorities have been distorted, as our collective love for sports may have crossed the line from entertainment to idolatry, or in other words, from being spectators and participators to devout worshippers.

While we should appreciate – and strive for – athletic achievement in its various forms, we can no longer ignore the various costs of a society that worships sport.  For example, we cannot disregard the sociological phenomenon that domestic abuse increases on the days after team losses.  We can no longer deny that people spend far too little time participating in sports and far too much time watching it from the couch or barstool.  We can no longer accept the onslaught of verbal and physical violence that is often directed toward referees and opposing fans.  We can no longer remain neutral when parents scream at their children and coaches from the sidelines.  We can no longer accept spoiled athletes and owners who fight why national unemployment rates remains steady.  We can no longer accept universities that profit off their student-athletes without seeking to educate them for the future.  All together, as we consider the faithful role of sports in North American life, we cannot accept a society that replaces high appreciation with holy adoration.

In no way does this all mean that sports are evil and should be avoided at all costs, for the lessons of teamwork and dedication are just a few of the many positive messages that can be received as a result of faithful participation and appreciation of sports.  As stated from the onset, I credit a great deal of my personal development (…and marriage!) to those who provided me with various opportunities through sports.  In addition, one can name a variety of ways that sports serve as a tool for community reconciliation and unity, as well as an instrument for crossing boundaries and building societal bridges.  With these thoughts in mind, I hope that we will continue to affirm the various athletic ventures throughout the world that provide empowerment and long-term wellness for athletes and supporters.  In addition, I wish for us to recognize that various aspects of life that are intended for good can become negative when taken to the extreme.  As a result, the time has come for us to take a step back, reflect, re-evaluate, and consider whether or not our priorities surrounding sports have been misplaced.   The differences between high appreciation and holy adoration are often subtle, yet they require our deep recognition, resilient consideration, and careful navigation. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Bread and Circus (Brian E. Konkol)

The following reflection was published by the Sojourners God's Politics Blog on August 3, 2012, and can be found at: http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/08/03/bread-and-circus

Near the turn of the second century, a poet named Juvenal published a collection of verses titled Satires.  Among other things, the text was intended to spark discussion on social norms at a time when the masses were increasingly withdrawn from civil engagement.  In specifics, Juvenal wrote:

…everything now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

According to Juvenal, the public of his day and age were growing less concerned about social responsibility due to personal pursuits of bread (comfort) and circus (entertainment).  In addition, he believed political leaders used the distribution of comfort and entertainment as a way to sedate the population, distract them, and open opportunities for systemic manipulation.  All together, Juvenal believed far too many citizens were far too willing to cooperate in their own exploitation.

What I find incredibly intriguing – and concerning – about Juvenal’s observations are that, numerous generations later, it can be argued that much of what he considered to be problematic in his era can now be found in North America.  For example: How many North Americans focus their time and resources primarily upon the pursuits of comfort and entertainment?  In addition, how many citizens disengage from public responsibility in order to seek personal pleasures?  All together, how does the addiction of comfort and entertainment – found so prevalently in North America – distance us from God’s dream for the world? 

Naturally, there is nothing inherently wrong and/or immoral with comfort and entertainment.  The enjoyment of “bread” and “circus” is to be received as God’s gracious gifts, for such moments provide rest, relaxation, and a joyful break from tensions and anxieties.  When our daily lives include arguments, concerns, pressures, and nervousness, a bit of comfort and entertainment is indeed worthwhile.  Nevertheless, like most anything in life, when something meant for good is used, pursued, and/or abused in excess, the overindulgence often leads to great harm – to ourselves, as well as those around us.  And so, comfort and entertainment are meant to serve as momentary retreats and/or releases from social engagement, yet we miss the mark when they become a permanent replacement. 

With all this being said, I wonder what would happen if we in North America allowed ourselves to be more uncomfortable and less entertained?  In other words, what would happen if faithfulness and participation in God’s mission of reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment replaced the personal pursuits of bread and circus as the primary goals of our existence? How would this alteration of priorities affect our lives?  How would it shape our local and global communities?  How would it energize the life of Christian Churches and spark our theological imaginations?  Instead of placing our hopes and dreams in the never-ending and unsustainable pursuit of bread and circus, how would our personal and public wellness be altered with Christ-like love, dignity, and compassion at the center of our beings?

While various currents of North American life try to seduce us into a rhythm of bread and circus, the consequences are indifference and ignorance, which in turn push our communities into sites of injustice and inequality.  And so, instead of “anxiously hoping” for bread and circus, as Juvenal lamented so many years ago, we are reminded that following Jesus leads to times, places, and people where comfort and entertainment are not immediately present.  As a result, instead of contributing toward the exploitation of others (and ourselves), people of faith are called to engage with the difficult realm of public life.  In response to God’s gracious love, we are claimed as agents of love and compassion, to be immersed in the civic pursuit of dignity and hope, and imbedded as advocates of peace for all people throughout the world.  These efforts may not be comfortable, nor are they entertaining, but they are indeed marks of faithfulness.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Election 2012: Concrete, Chameleons, and Clay (Brian E. Konkol)

The following reflection was published by the Sojourners God's Politics Blog on July 30, 2012, and can be found at: http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/07/30/election-2012-concrete-chameleons-and-clay

One of the common ditches that political candidates fall into is the temptation of a “concrete” character.  Among other things, one who is concrete holds to views that are supposedly unchanging and non-negotiable, and thus they possess an inability to compromise with those who may have diverse perspectives.  A concrete character is often grounded in the belief that she/he “knows” who she/he is, and because of these unbreakable principles will not waver in her/his understanding regardless of the setting and potential consequences.  In other words, a person with a concrete character is immovable, solid, and resolute, and as a result, nearly impossible to bend or twist.

While there is much to be admired in those who display the concrete character, there is also much to be criticized.  For example, while concrete may be strong and resolute, it is also fixed in time, stiff, and inflexible, and is thus unable to change regardless of conditions, societal advances, and circumstances.  In other words, concrete – sooner or later – will crack.  As the current generation experiences cultural and technological change at a rate far greater than any era before it, those who refuse to be changed by unfolding knowledge and wisdom allow life to pass by while remaining trapped in one place.  Therefore, while the concrete character may appear to be one of strength, it is ultimately weak, vulnerable, and unsustainable. 

In contrast to the concrete character is the opposite ditch, which is the “chameleon” character that changes colors based upon its particular setting.  In literal terms, a chameleon is adaptable, flexible, and because of its ability to assimilate quickly, it can survive situations that many larger and stronger beings cannot.  In metaphorical terms, a chameleon character is one that can alter quickly and dramatically based upon its conditions and observations.  As a result, such a person is nearly impossible to back into a corner, for she/he will likely find a way to change color and slide her/himself free.  In other words, it is difficult to discern where the chameleon character stands on particular issues, as she/he rarely seems to be in one ideological location for too long.

While there is a great deal to be affirmed surrounding those who exhibit the chameleon character, there is also a great deal to be rebuked, as those who continually change colors are – in many ways – unreliable and unable to face opposition.  In other words, the (literal) chameleon changes color primarily for survival, yet humans who display a chameleon character often do so in order to protect status and popularity, thus are often untrustworthy in times of conflict.  In the context of ongoing political campaigns, the chameleon characters are on full display in an unfortunately large number of candidates, thus these notions require a great deal of reflection. 

In order to move past the two opposing ditches of concrete and chameleon character, one is drawn toward Isaiah 64:8, which reads: “Yet you, LORD, are our Father.  We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  While a full biblical exegesis is not intended here, what is significant is the profound image of clay, for it can be firm when needed, but it can also be flexible and thus can be shaped when necessary.  In other words, a clay character can be both firm and flexible, and in light of the biblical image, it moves based upon the ways in which God seeks for it to be.  In contrast to the immovable and static nature of concrete and the inconsistent and wavering form of chameleons, humankind as a clay character and God as the potter is a refreshing concept for the pursuit of life in its fullness in our day and age. 

As various political elections loom on the horizon, my hope is that we refuse to accept leaders who exhibit concrete or chameleon characters.  We cannot support representatives who are unable to evolve and compromise based upon changing circumstances, yet we also must reject those who lack integrity and only adapt in order to gain voter support and personal influence.  While we often witness chameleon character during the period of political campaigns, we all too often see concrete character from the same people once they are placed into office.  As a result, with political campaigning set to increase in the weeks and months ahead, the time is upon us to demand both integrity and flexibility from our elected officials – and ourselves – in order to pursue life in its fullness, both locally and globally, for all of God’s creation.