And now the axe is laid to the root of the trees, so every tree that does not produce good
fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
We would like a better world. Since the end off World War II, we had thought that the
Soviet Union was the villain of the piece. Now with the breakup of that Union, we find
ourselves not all that much better off. It is as though the rules had changed--our place
in the world community no longer depends primarily on our military superiority. It seems
now to depend largely on our economy, and specifically on our balance of trade.
It seems to, but the trade numbers do not tell the whole story. Eric Allison visited with
us the other evening, after having spend a year as visiting minister on Mauritius. This is
an island some nine hundred miles east of Africa and over a thousand miles west of India,
and on television there you can see second-rate American sitcoms. Eric said that in some
countries there are laws limiting the percentage of air time that can be given to American
programs, and mentioned the figure of seventy percent. This would not be true in countries
like England or Germany or France, but even there American movies are a major presence.
Like it or not, the "balance of entertainment" is heavily in our favor, and we ought not
to take it lightly.
This is where third world countries get their images of high-rise condominiums and stretch
limos and penthouse suites--and of supermarkets full of food and all-electric kitchens and
shady lawns and afternoons at the beach. We may have some cause to complain that our
exports, being focused on drama, overstress violence and immorality, but in one sad
respect, we have little cause for complaint. They send a message that is widely believed
in this country, a message of the success of materialism.
All the time we were fighting a conscious propaganda war with the Soviet Union and feeling
as though we were losing it, something else was going on under the surface. With the
beginning of glasnost, as soon as the lid was off, it turned out that we were the country
Russia wanted to emulate. At a conference on the renewal of Russian spiritual life at
Dartmouth in the summer of 1992, several of the American speakers raised warning flags
about a clear tendency to idealize the American system. One mentioned a Russian
theologian's characterization of American Christianity as "transcendental egoism," and
hoped that we could learn from the Russian emphasis on community. In response, a Russian
Orthodox priest asked how it was that this supposedly self-centered American attitude had
produced one of the most prosperous and free societies ever known, while the Russian
emphasis on community had produced one of the most destructive and oppressive.
Our entertainment exports seem to be sending out two messages. The obvious one, the one we
object to, is that gunfire and sexual license are everywhere. The more subliminal one is
that we have achieved a state of unprecedented freedom and prosperity, a society in which
the average family can hop into the car and drive anywhere they wish. The subliminal
message may seem closer to the truth than the obvious one, but I believe it is seriously
flawed: and the obvious one is not entirely baseless. We have good reason to be alarmed
about the prevalence of violence in our country.
As far as I know, the average movie or television program is not designed primarily for
export. It is aimed first and foremost at an American audience. This means that what we
export shows us talking to ourselves and may be more revealing that we might wish. We are
ruminating about our fears and our fantasies, which tends to ignore a lot of the substance
of everyday living. We do not fantasize about showing up for work every day on time or
about all the routine things we do at home. We do not fantasize about making the grocery
list or balancing the checkbook.
Yet the prosperity whose image we project around the world depends on countless instances
of this kind of routine reliability. Every box on the supermarket shelves had to be
manufactured. Its contents had to be grown and harvested and processed. It had to be
shipped, unpacked, priced, and shelved. And for that matter, the supermarket itself had to
be built and maintained and heated and cleaned and managed.
In other words, if we want to look for the root of our prosperity, we must look deeper
than the "system." We must look to the attitudes of heart and mind that get things done.
The Japanese were scolding us not long ago for blaming them for our own laziness. That now
appears to have been slightly off the mark, but it remains true that prosperity depends
not just on how much is produced but on how efficiently it is produced. The magic of
"productivity" comes from people doing their jobs reliably and well.
Our movies show the results but not the process that has yielded the results. The effect
of this is to give the impression that all these good things somehow just appear whenever
we want them. We go out to the garage and there is a car in it--no monthly payments, no
worries about insurance costs, no trying to find time for servicing. Similarly, the food
appears on the supermarket shelves, and the money is ready at the checkout counter. The
subliminal message can be seriously misleading.
So much for the flaws in the subliminal message. The obvious one, the message of violence
and immorality, also needs closer examination. There have been more violent societies.
There were centuries where everyone who could afford it carried a sword as a matter of
course. There were millennia when war was taken wholly for granted. Then there were
decades when physical violence was thought of as characteristic only of "the lower
classes." Some people felt that nothing could be done about this. Those with more
sensitive consciences tried to do something about the economic conditions they saw as the
primary causes of crime.
That mentality is still with us. A century ago, thoughtful Americans believed that the
discovery of electricity would mean the end of hardship for the poor and the redemption of
society. It hasn't happened. In some ways, it seems that the free flow of information
through electronic media and the free flow of individuals through the transportation
network have heightened a sense of inequity and opened avenues for the spread of violence.
We may well wonder how much the restiveness of third world countries has been fueled by
images of our affluent society.
In other words, economic growth has not led to a reduction in crime. If our forebears were
hard-working, it was in part because their lives depended on it. They did not have time to
hang around on street corners. In fact, they thought that, to quote an eighteenth-century
hymn, "Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do" (Isaac Watts). In this mood
at least, they did not believe that leisure time would be a social blessing.
If the subliminal message does not convey the roots of prosperity, the obvious message
does not convey the roots of violence. I am fond of the image of our Old Testament lesson.
Israel, fresh from an effortless triumph at Jericho, has attacked the much lesser village
of Ai, and has suffered a bewildering defeat. Joshua is told by the Lord that the cause
lies in some particular sin, and sets out to identify the sinner. We are not told the
exact means, but the Lord identifies first the tribe of Judah, then the clan of the
Zarhites, then the family of Zabdi, and finally the guilty individual, Achan. It is an
image of searching out the exact cause, not resting content with a general attribution of
guilt. Perhaps this is where sociological explanations of crime break down--they may
accurately explain general trends without offering any precision about individual cases.
When we get down to individual cases, we find the roots of crime and violence in the same
place as the roots of prosperity--in attitudes of mind and heart. Jesus said it: "For out
of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false
witness, blasphemies . . . ." Our circumstances do determine what options are open to us.
The values instilled in us affect what options we will be sensitive to. But neither our
circumstances nor our past training makes our choices within that range of options. That
is our responsibility. We contribute to "the statistics," but they do not control or
predict anyone's individual behavior.
One of the most obvious illustrations of this principle comes from the world of life
insurance. The rate I pay depends on the insurance company's very accurate knowledge not
of when I will die, but of when people like me will die. I may get hit by a truck tomorrow
or live to a hundred and ten. I will still fit their general profile, which recognizes
this range of variation. And while I do not have total control over the length of my
earthly life, I do certainly affect it by the way I take care of myself. In this sense, I
bear a measure of responsibility for the date of my death.
There can be no question that circumstances do need to be addressed. We need to be
constantly at work for more just laws and for a sounder and more equitable economy. The
point I would stress, though, is that we also and especially need to be working at the
root of the problem. We will never invent a system so perfect that it cannot be abused by
people who want to abuse it. We will have a decrease in crime and violence only as
attitudes change. No measure of prosperity will solve the problem.
And now the axe is laid to the root of the trees . . . . This is what the Lord's life was
all about--getting to the root of the problem. Surely he was concerned about the great
political issues of the times, for they had an immense impact on the people he cared
about. But he had only so much time, and had to focus on what mattered most. There was no
leisure to tinker with the symptoms; he had to strike directly at the disease itself.
This may account for the violence of some of his hard sayings. He spoke of cutting off the
hand or plucking out the eye that offended. He addressed the prosperous as a "generation
of vipers" and compared them to whitewashed tombs, elegant on the outside but full of
decay within. Far from advocating revolution, he commanded us to love our enemies and to
pray for those who persecute us. These are not the words of some other-worldly soul who is
avoiding the real social issues. These are the words of someone intensely concerned,
wholly devoted, and with no time to waste.
The root of the matter is in each of us. It is in our own resentments, love of shortcuts,
self-indulgence, and self-deception. It is in those very attitudes that are most directly
addressed by the Gospels. As we take our Lord's words to heart and discipline ourselves to
lives of integrity and generosity, we make a very direct and very significant, though not
very conspicuous, contribution to the health and welfare of our society. If we do so
cheerfully and without self-righteousness, we send a message that this kind of life is not
just good for "others," but good for us. We are not "sacrificing ourselves" at all. The
road is not easy, as the Lord made clear, but it is profoundly rewarding. If we have the
courage to let the Lord strike at the roots of our own discontent, to search our own
hearts in his light, then and only then do we begin to be worthy citizens, true
contributors to a generous and a just society.