Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Walking away from Omelas

Recently I read a short story by Le Guin entitled walking away from Omelas.  In this story there is a community where everything is perfect, where people are happy and have learned how to reject things destructive, to accept the things that are different but not destructive, and to celebrate joy.  There's only one problem.  For some cultural reason, the whole community is certain that its well being, happiness, and prosperity all come from allowing one child to be neglected and abused.  They all know this child exists and all feel bad about it.  But since allowing that one child to suffer is what keeps the society working properly they feel that there is a terrible justice about it and will refuse to speak even a kind word to this child and find ways to rationalize that nothing could be done about it anyways because the child has become almost inhuman as the result of long mistreatment.  In general people accept it as an unfortunate but necessary reality.  But there are some in the community who reject this devil's bargain of prosperity at the price of anyone's pain.  They simply leave.

Probably one of my weaknesses in life is a tendency to self indulge in certainty.  This is of course a rather human trait.  Most people would probably prefer certainty to pleasure or goodness in most areas of life.  Fighting someone can feel more certain and more empowered than asking for forgiveness.  Ending relationships can be more certain and empowered than holding out to see if they can be repaired.  A war can be simpler than negotiations.  There is nothing unique about being addicted to certainty.

But over the last few years I've noticed that my certainties put me at odd with any kind of sense of right and wrong that I could understand.  I found that I had been, without allowing myself to notice it, justifying other people's pain in favor of my own certainties.  I had allowed myself to believe that other people must have moral defects in their character if they didn't agree with me, had allowed myself to believe only one side of the story in conflicts where human passions and weaknesses leave no one unscathed, or was convinced that my own sense of contentment with my own internal convictions about the world was more important than other people.  Innocent real people were getting hurt, I knew it, but I thought that their getting hurt was somehow the expression of some bigger divine truth where if I didn't accept their hurt as necessary and unimportant it would disrupt my own certainties and perceived harmonies with the world around me.

So I decided to defend people rather than a sense of certainty.  It's not that I want to question "right and wrong" or overturn all values or anything like that.  It's that now I believe in right and wrong, but disbelieve that somehow the stars are aligned in some magic way so that my own cultural attitudes and presumptions invariably declare for right and cast down wrong.  Culture is about the history of good and bad intentioned decisions and attitudes that were made for reasons that were compelling at the time, but it lacks the stamp of eternity.

So where does that leave me now?  When I hear of a dispute between historical figures in the past of my cultural baggage, I stop assuming that the winners writing history means they were right.  Might doesn't equal right in wars, politics, or ethics.  I feel a need to seek out both sides of an issue.  I'm somewhat compulsive about it now.  Instead of cultivating certainty I want to cultivate Christlike love.  Instead of telling people that I understand them and then telling them that their pain is their fault because I imagine them to be someone other than who they are, I want to listen.

Just because someone is hurting doesn't make them "right" anymore than being powerful makes you right.  But listening with compassion keeps me from assuming either one to be completely true.

So where does this leave my certainty about life?  Well, one might say that in part I am walking away from Omelas.  To the extent that my certainty gave me an excuse to be unchristlike, its time to change that.  Losing certainty hurts, but losing my humanity should hurt me more.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Under which do the poor give more?

I had a thought experiment that occurred to me recently, showing how silly our insistance on rules can be.  Before I get to the thought experiment- lets cover a little bit of definition grounds.  In the LDS church there have been two systems of financially giving to the church.  There is tithing where you give 10% of, well, nobody really wants to define it.  The word is increase, but whether that means of gross or net, gross receipts or net revenue, or simply cash flow is at times left to the individual sometimes to the over anxious leader.  All those definitions of increase are ones I have heard people use and which definition is in vouge sometimes just depends on which general authorities are around.  But the one thing everyone agrees on is you give 10% and that you give it before you feed yourself or your children and before you keep a shelter over your head.  If paying it makes your children go without necessary nutrition its praised in meetings as if you did something really awesome.  We are taught that this really is a lower law.

The higher law and second form of financial giving to the church is the law of consecration.  It has been suggested that we still live this by creating so much work for ourselves through callings etc that we are essentially giving all of our time to the church.  I've even heard a quote from an Apostle suggesting that members who really want to live this law should donate all their excess cash to the fast offering fund.  Sometimes it is taught that we simply don't live this law in practice right now, but will again later.  But the basic point of this law is that everyone only keeps private ownership of what is directly within their immediate use and that all other excess financial resources should go to a general fund to evenly provide for the need of all members less fortunate.  If I recall later in church history this was expanded into a drive for total community efficiency with communal ownership and production of as much as was possible.  Perhaps it could be argued that this didn't have as much to do with "consecration" per se, but was simply a form of economic/cultural isolationism and independence.  But whatever it was at different times, it is supposed to be higher than tithing.

The though experiment is this, under which system would an impoverished member of the LDS church in Africa give more to the church?  Tithing, or consecration?

Under tithing, whatever that family earns, however they calculate it, is given to the church and under current teachings if that means that their children are perpetually going to bed without food that is a noble sacrifice for the Lord which we should all look up to as an example of exemplary righteousness.  I'm not joking about that there was a conference talk within the last few years that praised just such an example.

But say things switched up to being the law of consecration.  This poor family that can hardly afford food even without paying tithing is now part of a big "take care of your neighbor" process by which their personal finances and way of life are supposed to be equalized with the way of life of the wealthiest church members.  So instead of giving anything, a huge amount of foreign aid comes into her land from church members who might make a lot of money but are spending their money at a rate which makes them look impoverished by local standards in Europe or North America.  We can't just give individual church members clean water and food without fixing entire communities, so suddenly entire communities are given clean water and money starts flowing to be able to buy more expensive food in the community.  The African saints are blessed by an enormous influx in their standard of living as circumstances permit.  Chances are they don't give anything to the church at all, but maybe later in life when they've put their kids through college and they have jobs, maybe they will.  Under the lower law of tithing they make sacrifices far in excess of what should happen under the higher law.

But what about the general authorities of the church some might ask?  Obviously they live the law of consecration yet don't live in hovels while they donate their excess money to poor starving Africans. Ok, so maybe the church will give up on the idea of economic inequality meaning that the whole world is groaning in sin.  We can disregard that part of the D&C.  Maybe the law of consecration only should apply within national boundaries and not across them.  This doesn't really change the terms of the thought experiment, it just shifts it to a different places within each country.

So imagine back here in the US say you have a poor member who is having trouble affording their mortgate on their tiny home because they just lost one of their two jobs and things are about to fall apart for them?  How much do they give vs receive under tithing vs the law of consecration?  Under tithing they keep paying their tithing till their house is repossessed by the bank and they go into a homeless shelter.  Maybe their bishop helps them out, maybe not.  If things are really this bad for them there is a strong chance they work Sunday's and the bishop is under some kind of injunction not to give them financial assistance because they don't attend church.  Its possible that isn't really the way it works, but I've heard lots of people who are pretty sure that is how it works because they are full of stories about the unworthy poor who attend church the minimum necessary to get their church welfare money from the bishop.  In any case, they might or might not get church welfare based on the the rules that administer that program.  Even if they are eligible it might not be enough to save their house.  So under tithing they stand a very strong chance of losing their house.

Take that same family living in that tiny house where dad just lost his second job.  Under consecration adjusted to only withing national boundaries, Dad probably only works one job and is probably getting church financial assistance not only to help make ends meet but also financial assistance completing his degree so that he can get a better job and be more independent and give back to the community.  Or maybe if he's permanently disabled the church might give him money to make sure he doesn't live with any less conveniences than any other member of his nation in his church.

No matter how you define tithing or consecration, the basic point is that under the lower law the poor are requested to make much larger sacrifices than they are under consecration.  Under consecration the poor receive an abundance of help and there is no thought that they will need to contribute under after they've gotten back on their feet.  If they never do get back on their feet they may never have to financially contribute to the church again.  They might still donate their time and talents, but no money.  Under tithing the poor are expected to pay tithing even if it means not feeding their family or keeping their house or paying other honest and legal obligations.

This focus on a legalistic interpretation of 10% that intensifies the pain of poverty instead of alleviates it brings to mind Matthew 23:23-

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

Also Matthew 23:17

 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?

 Note that Christ didn't say that tithing shouldn't be done, but said that if focusing on tithing eclipsed things like mercy then it becomes just hypocrisy.  The glory of God isn't made up of the money we give to the church.  Our love of God isn't made up of the money we give.  Our love of God and each other is what makes us disciples.  As lovers of God it makes sense to give as we can to build up our community of worship by tithing.  But the money we give isn't really the point, its the sacred spaces created by our mutual support that allow for greater and more joyful worship.  If we build up temples by demanding sacrifices whereby the poorest are denied food and shelter, I propose that this is guilt money.  Even the Pharisee's understood that the money paid to Judas to allow Jesus to be killed was unworthy of the temple.  Similarly, food taken out of the mouth of a malnourished child in Africa is not fit to be given to God.  I think this is one place where LDS church leaders have made a well intentioned mistake.  We should take instruction from the Book of Mormon in Mosiah 4:26-27 where we are commanded to give to the poor, but not faster than we have strength.  In Mosiah 2:17 we are taught that "... that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God."  Since serving our fellowman is serving God, then the same principles should apply to each, and to neither should we sacrifice so much that we "run faster than we have strength."  If we are truly striving to live closer to the highest laws of heaven, then our understanding of tithing needs to be subject to the weightier matters of the Law.  The widows mite may have been more than all the donations of the rich, but our merciful God would not have demanded the woman to neglect feeding her children to give it.