My Declaration of Interdependence
Learning to Say "We" and "I" or Perish
crescendo of voices throughout the United States declares,"We want our
freedom. Help us dismantle the power of government." These voices raise
an important issue. Many governments do oppress citizens who do not
have enough power to protect themselves. However, this is only one side
of the history of oppression.
Without appropriate limits set by
governments, those who are powerful can treat vulnerable people any way
they wish. Those with little power are reduced to begging for mercy or
turning to violence.
Since the 1980s the
economic distress for those at the bottom of the economic ladder has
steadily gotten worse. The economic health of our whole society is
intertwined. Eventually, if an increasing number of us fail
economically, under the pressure, everyone is in danger.
the past several years some political leaders have made efforts to
strengthen the "safety net" to increase the possibility for all
families in our country to meet the basic needs of their families:
food, a job, temporary protection for the unemployed, adequate health
care and an opportunity for an adequate education.
from the "right" have become organized and funded (frequently by people
with great wealth and power), to raise their voices against what they
call a "government takeover." Following are some of their familiar
"I have earned every penny of my wealth by hard work."
"Those who are most wealthy provide jobs for everyone."
"Thank God we are finally getting the government off our backs."
believe that all persons have the ethical right to make their own
decisions without considering the rights and needs of fellow human
beings. For me this is selfishness personified.
history humankind has struggled to discover the appropriate
relationship of the person to the institutional structures around us:
from family structures, to community structures, to state and national
governments, even to the level of the United Nations.
There are two "lenses" through which I search for answers: the lens of history and the lens of theology.
First, my view of history is shaped by writings of historians/social scientists such as Howard Zinn. In A People’s History of the United States
(Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), he interprets history from
the perspective of those left out and/or forced out, who learned to
wrestle back. He calls for people not to destroy institutions but to
recover some of their power from the institutions that have exercised
such control over them.
To me it seems clear
that, throughout the world, we cannot continue the path of uncontrolled
selfishness if we are to survive. Unless we turn back from the extent
to which we are abusing vulnerable people in America and throughout the
world, and the extent to which we are abusing our planet, both we and
our planet will self-destruct. (This could happen through global
warming, nuclear war, or some other kind of destruction brought on by
the selfishness of humankind.) That path is not inevitable if we learn
to say "We."
Second, for me the arena of
theology is important and problematic. When a person tells me, "I am a
Christian," that does not immediately inform me about whom she or he
It is possible to have a utilitarian
view of Jesus: "He saved my soul." For Jesus this was not enough. He
never permitted those who heard him to be aloof from the pain (and joy)
of those around them.
(Here I must make clear
that I know people from other faith traditions who practice principles
that are in harmony with principles of justice, mercy, and love for all
Theology that guides me takes the example of Jesus
seriously. Three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke include an
encounter with Jesus that goes to the heart of ethical questions. In
the Gospel of Luke starting at 10:25, a lawyer asked him, "What is the
Jesus turns around
the question: "What is written in the Law?" The answer comes quickly.
"Love God with all your heart" . . . "and love your neighbor as
yourself." Jesus replies, "You have answered right. Do this and you
Then another question from the
lawyer: "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus answers with a story. A man was
traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was attacked by thieves, was
robbed and injured. Two leaders from the religious establishment came
by and offered no help.
came a Samaritan. Samaritans were looked down on by the religious
establishment of that day. This Samaritan bound up the victim’s wounds,
put him on his own beast, and took him to an inn for care.
With ironic clarity Jesus’ story underscores that this "second class"
Samaritan is an example of how everyone should love each other as we
love ourselves (Luke 10:2-37).
If Jesus is
right, it is impossible to do God’s will without loving one’s fellow
human beings as we love ourselves. I recognize there are many in the
United States who adopt the following economic creed: If we each follow
our own dreams, by such action we will have done everything we can to
create a better world for those around us. This is an economic doctrine
espoused by Ayn Rand. It is well described by the title of one of her
books: The Virtue of Selfishness.
hear the following proclamation from a significant number of people:
Anyone who is not lazy can make a living. In the past three decades the
gap between the wealth of those at the top and those at the bottom has
widened. The misdeeds of some of the wealthiest caused the U.S. and the
whole world to teeter on the edge of an economic abyss in 2008. Many of
them are now working vigorously to weaken efforts to safeguard against
future misdeeds by these same very wealthy people on Wall Street. And
many of them point the finger of blame for the 2008 economic meltdown
at those who have tried to strengthen the safety net for people who
lost their jobs because of the meltdown.
claiming the mantle of Christianity, adamantly oppose efforts to
develop public policies that increase the possibility for everyone in
this country to meet their families’ basic needs. To me, that is like
saying to Jesus of Nazareth, "Your command to love my neighbor as
myself makes a ‘feel good’ fairy tale, but in our capitalistic country,
it will never work."
I prefer the faith of the
biblical writer of 1 John, who tells us in 4:20 that "He who does not
love his brother [or sister], whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he
has not seen."
John Donne also speaks to and for me.
man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the
continent, a part of the main. . . . Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for
whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
capacity for independence is not tempered by our capacity for
inter-dependence we will experience shipwreck, personally and
collectively. We can and must discover how to connect with each other
and find ways that enable us to take appropriate responsibility for
each other. The beginning point is learning to say "We."
is a snapshot of the widening wealth gap. In 2007, just before the
current economic meltdown occurred, the top one percent in the U.S.
controlled 33.8 percent of our nation’s wealth. The poorest fifty
percent controlled only 2.5 percent of our nation’s wealth
see chart 2).
By way of comparison I invite
you to do the math: For Americans who are among the 50 percent with the
least wealth, the average person owns one dollar of wealth for every
676 dollars owned by the average person among the wealthiest one
A chorus of voices is demanding that
we tax the very wealthy even less. They say it would be good for the
economy. That would result in transferring some of the very small
amount of wealth from the poorest to those at the top of the wealth
Is such a transfer an option? Please
permit me one short paragraph of sarcasm: We could cancel the
Affordable Care Act (as indeed the Supreme Court may choose to do); cut
the food stamp program by half; and cut off all unemployment benefits
after three months of unemployment. I can think of one additional
suggestion. When more families fall under the load, and they will, we
might learn from Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. "Are there no workhouses? . . . "Let them go there."
are winds of hope in the air. I think of Chuck Collins and Bill Gates
Sr., to name two of those who have significant wealth. Concerned about
the ever-steeper wealth pyramid, they co-authored a book, Wealth and
Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes (Beacon
Press, 2004). I hear at least an echo of Jesus. It is clear they
believe that by sharing the wealth, up to a point, the lives of all of
us will be enriched. I hear echoes of "We."
Then there is Warren
Buffet, one of the wealthiest persons in our country, who expresses
concern that his secretary pays a higher percentage of her annual
income in income tax than he.
I think of St.
Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King
Jr., James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Vincent and
Rosemarie Harding, and a multitude of others. They learned to say "We"
at great sacrifice. Our family had the privilege of welcoming the last
three (Michael Schwerner, and Vincent and Rosemarie Harding) into our
home in Mississippi in 1964. They taught us to love more deeply, to
learn to say "We" more honestly.
I look back at
what I have written. Easter this year is especially poignant for me.
Just as spring follows the chill of winter, exciting as winter may be,
I am especially ready for the new life of spring! I look expectantly
for the gentle breezes of humanity that can turn us back from today's
tearing apart of the fabric of mutual concern in America. Hopefully we
will find new ways to look out for each other in our country.
I am reminded of John Steinbeck's final novel The Winter Of Our Discontent.
The key character, Ethan Allen Hawley, turned from his ideals of
integrity as he tried to recover his lost fortunes. In his mad dash for
success he left a number of people gravely wounded in spirit. In
despair he decided to take his own life. I will never forget my empathy
for Hawley as he tried to turn back from his attempted suicide, hoping
it was not too late to leave a legacy of integrity for his daughter.
refuse to give up hope that the United States can turn from our "Winter
of Discontent" toward integrity that believes in and practices the
spirit of "We" as well as "I."
Bender, Fort Defiance, Virginia, is Professor Emeritus from Eastern
Mennonite University. He and his family lived in Mississippi from 1958
to 1969. He and Ann led a voluntary service unit in Meridian during
which time he also served as Peace Representative in the South for MCC.
He received his Ph.D. in social Work from Tulane University and taught
at the University of Oklahoma before coming to EMU in 1976. His focus
springs from the conviction that all structures (religious and secular)
help build (or destroy) everyone around us.