Thursday, October 29, 2009

Monsters in Recovery

Radovan Karadzic was a genocidal mass murderer. But, as Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić chillingly points out, he was also a physician, psychiatrist, and accomplished poet. Which leads me to ask: If being cultured and creative and, to all appearances, an all-around cool guy, is not enough to keep one from murdering 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, what is? Certainly becoming devoutly religious is not the cure - it can make matters worse. So what does it take?

"You must be born again," says the Jesus of John 3. This phrase that no doubt hit the original readers with the confounding force of a Zen koan has in our day been reduced to religious marketing, emptied of meaning, and filled with ideological implications and cultural associations that would have felt alien to the original audience. But in an ancient community of slaves and poor peasants, sharing food and possessions, encouraging one another in resisting the spiritual forces they believed animated Roman oppression - as they unfolded the scroll that had just arrived from their beloved teacher and read these words aloud for the first time in their sacred gathering, it must have meant something awfully powerful.

What did it mean? I suspect that deep down we all know. We get more in touch with the answer the more we are truly willing to ask the question, and vice versa. We "get it," not so much as individual seekers, but - as the early followers of Jesus knew so well - as a community of resistance seeking strength from the Spirit that we find in one another to swim against the tide.

The question of spiritual transformation is not distant or theoretical; it is intensely personal, practical, and urgent. For are we really less "monstrous" than Radovan Karadzic if, faced with ecological perils that jeopardize not only an ethnic group but the living systems of the entire planet, we remain paralyzed into inaction or impotent half-measures by the seduction of special interests, the anesthetic of air conditioning, and the blind darkness of our own apathy?

The practical paths love requires in our current circumstances can seem so onerously uncharted, is it any wonder we shy away from looking at the problems of our society and planet honestly? And yet Jesus said his yoke is easy and his burden light. And, note well, the extortionist tax collector we meet in Luke 19, who gave away possessions and resolved to repay his victims four-fold, was not glum but exuberant. In taking what seemed to be the most burdensome step, he found liberating lightness. I'm looking for, longing for that lightness, for practical ways to put my life in alignment with justice and peace. Is that your longing? Write me. Leave a comment below. Maybe we can help one another chart a practical course, and step into a lighter and less monstrous way of life together!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Books Guiding an Urgent Journey

Here are a few books I have found very worthwhile of late....

The Clashing Worlds of Economics and Faith, by James Halteman.
This book by a veteran professor of economics and Mennonite leader outlines a practical vision of Christian economic lifestyle today, and argues that the best that the world's economic systems offer is none too good.

Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts, by Reta Halteman Finger.
This work of historical investigation and biblical interpretation by a noted feminist scholar applies social science insights to uncover the robust lifestyle of economic sharing that the author believes early Christian communities practiced, as well as the socially and historically conditioned biases that she believes have prevented much past scholarship from recognizing this.

Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, by Lester R. Brown.
This book, published in 2001, details the ecological perils we are facing and outlines practical steps to take. I plan to order his 2009 book Plan B 4.0 which covers the same ground in the light of updated research. One chapter subheading in the 2009 work, I think, says it so well: "Our Global Ponzi Economy." Brown is wonderfully specific in his ecological claims and remedies. If you want to take issue, take issue with the specifics. Or perhaps you will, like me, find the facts and arguments Brown presents convincing, realize that the dream of unrestrained economic expansion as usual is neither desirable nor possible, and resolve to join hands with others in forging a more responsible path.

These matters are so urgent, I believe we need all hands on deck: Everybody, on your block and mine, should be reading, debating, discussing, and working to implement practical changes to build a sustainable and livable future. "Everybody" includes persons of pro-life convictions, who will be unavoidably disturbed by Brown's advocacy of abortion. However, while Brown himself might consider the point non-negotiable, it is by no means the centerpiece of his agenda, and the otherwise strong case he makes for the urgent necessity of ethically reducing human population should not be thrown out on this account.

Herman Daly, Robin Hahnel, Michael Albert, and Bryant L. Myers are among other authors who have been part of this conversation for me. I have just begun to dip into Vandana Shiva, whom I think I will find rewarding, though my initial impression is that her work may be aimed more at rallying troops than winning converts. What can one put in the hands of conservatives and libertarians who are captivated by the promise and compelling internal logic of infinite capitalist expansion, to open their eyes to the larger limiting ecological parameters? Herman Daly and Lester Brown effectively engage the categories of traditional neoclassical economics, and make a case that is hard to refute. At least they worked with me. And, difficult as it may be, I think generating genuine dialog with the unconvinced is the only way we will ever get past current impasses and move the project of saving the planet forward.

What readings have helped guide your journey of late?