What Makes This News Good?


In this Aug. 19, 2009, file photo, a shopper leaves a Gap store in Palo Alto, Calif. Gap will open 100 of its stores nationwide on Thanksgiving Day rather than waiting for Black Friday. Paul Sakuma/AP/file

The Christian Science Monitor reports that more stores are opening “on Thanksgiving Day, rather than waiting for Black Friday.” So let me get this straight: the day that we have set aside to remember what we have received, is now becoming just another day to see what we can get?

I’m exaggerating, of course. But still, I am prompted to wonder: where, in our society, do we reflect on our values and test, critically, our assumptions and standard operating procedures? Where do we ask, “What are we missing here?”

Shared Sacrifice in an Age of Anxiety– Part 2

The alternative to government-led, coercive shared sacrifice in order to reduce the national debt, is voluntary shared sacrifice. Given the limitations and frailties of human nature, such altruism is rare even in the best of times. Another factor is that the national debt is impersonal– it’s hard for you and me to directly experience, let alone imagine, both its cost, and the benefit resulting from its reduction. It’s a little bit like global warming: I don’t know about you, but on this raw November day, I’m feeling a little chilly. Global warming? Right now I’m more interested in being close to the wood stove.

It’s hard, in general, for us to imagine there’s a problem when we don’t have the immediate experience of it. If it’s difficult to imagine there’s a problem, all the more difficult, then, to move toward a solution (why move toward a solution if the problem can’t be imagined?)– and all the more difficult still, if that solution calls for sacrifice.

As an anxious society operates increasingly in survival mode, voluntary shared sacrifice becomes less of an option. Voluntary shared sacrifice requires capacities of reflection and deferred pleasure– adaptive responses to a challenging environment. Survival mode is non-reflective and immediate, with little choice and no creativity: fight, flight, or freeze. When we’re reacting rather than responding, shared sacrifice is impossible.

The most pressing religious questions of our age have to do with anxiety, and how we will manage that anxiety– both privately and publicly.

Shared Sacrifice in an Age of Anxiety

President Obama’s bipartisan debt commission has employed the phrase “shared sacrifice” as part of its recommendation on how to reduce the national debt.

Is shared sacrifice possible? How?

At one level, shared sacrifice might happen through governmental action. I am thinking about the rationing of gasoline during wartime, or the ban on watering lawns during a drought: in both instances, the centralized power of government organizes the shared sacrifice, and is available to compel– through sanction or force– those who do not co-operate. In these situations, the threat is broadly recognized throughout the society (the enemy is clear in wartime; the lack of rain is clear in drought), and so the social cohesion necessary for shared sacrifice is relatively high. While the power of government to coerce is present, it’s (mostly) not needed (except for your neighbor who turns on his sprinkler at 3am).

The problem with the national debt today is, the enemy is not clearly in our consciousness: the threat is not broadly recognized. Pain in our society is either blamed on someone else (scapegoating), or it is numbed (denial). In fact, in an eventually self-defeating feedback loop, the national debt serves to mask present pain, by borrowing from the future. An organism that masks pain is vulnerable to disease and injury, because pain is the signal of imbalance, and the need to adjust.

Shared Sacrifice

President Obama’s debt commission is calling for shared sacrifice. We all know that’s what it’s going to take, in order to reduce our collective debt– and it’s refreshing to hear Bowles and Simpson say so.

“Shared sacrifice,” while not explicitly religious, is certainly a moral good. For a family, community, or nation to share sacrifice means that individuals give up something for themselves as individuals, in order to benefit the larger whole. If the definition of evil is “to be turned back on oneself,” then the definition of goodness is something like shared sacrifice: to be turned outward, toward the well-being of others.

The question that I want to explore more fully in an upcoming post is: do we, as a culture, still have what it takes to “share sacrifice?”

The Christian Science Monitor’s report:

The Democrat and Republican who cochair President Obama’s debt commission haven’t offered a magic fix for federal deficits, but they’ve tried to make one point loud and clear: Answers to America’s fiscal challenges will involve “shared sacrifice.”

Erskine Bowles (D) and Alan Simpson (R) outlined a plan this week designed to keep US public debt from growing out of control. It’s also designed to show that major progress is possible if Americans agree to make tough compromises.Yes, this means things like paying more in taxes and working longer before becoming eligible for Social Security checks.

“Throughout our history, Americans have always been willing to sacrifice to make our nation stronger over the long haul,” former White House Chief of Staff Bowles and former Senator Simpson write in their report. “That’s the promise of America: to give our children and grandchildren a better life.”

via To reduce national debt, ‘shared sacrifice’ necessary, deficit chairs say – CSMonitor.com.

Let’s Drink a Toast to Old Cyrus (sorry, 2549 years and a couple weeks late…)

I can’t believe no one reminded me about this:

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies reminds us that yesterday [October 29th] was the International Day of Cyrus the Great. On October 29, 539 BCE, the Persian king, Cyrus, ordered what some have called the first human rights decree to be inscribed on a clay cylinder. The Cyrus Cylinder describes the king’s policy of allowing local cults to return their gods to their shrines. It also makes specific reference to the Jews who Cyrus encouraged to return from their exile in Babylon to Judea to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

from Howard Friedman via Religion Clause.

Pagans and Christians, Unite!

For all who enjoy dressing in costumes and eating candy, and who think Halloween is a jolly good time: good for you! Have fun! God knows we all need more fun. Halloween’s not my favorite, but by the same token there’s a lot of things I like that would make others cringe (Lent, for example). Far be it from me to dampen anyone’s harmless pleasure.

The usual, tired “Christian” (note the quotation marks) criticism of Halloween is that it is a pagan holiday. That was not the point of my Halloween rant; my point was: if it’s to have meaning beyond simple fun (and it’s okay if it doesn’t), would that it WERE a pagan holiday; would that it DID, somehow, express our connection to the forces of life and death; as a reader writes, would that it WERE a night:

[of] remembrance of the dead –those who have gone before us, out of this earthly life…; [and a time to recall] the importance death plays in life here on Earth.

The balance that religion can provide our culture is not the balance that comes from My Religion’s Right And Yours Is Wrong: Follow My Way Or Else, but rather the balance that comes from a spiritually grounded insistence upon certain truths about human nature and the span of our time alive. For a culture perilously disconnected from mud, life, and death, pagans and Christians share a common interest in reminding us that we are not exempt from re-joining the Earth.