Sunday, February 2, 1994

Location - Newtonville
Bible Verses - Joshua 7:1-18
Matthew 7:1-12

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.

Matthew 3:10

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.


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