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My Declaration of Interdependence

Learning to Say "We" and "I" or Perish

A 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.

During 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.

Voices 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 claims:

"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."

Many 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.

Throughout 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 really is.

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 people.)
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 greatest commandment?" 

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 shall live."

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. 

Finally, along 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.

I 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.

Many, 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.

No 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.

If our 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."

Here 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 percent.

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 pyramid.

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."

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.

I 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."

—Titus 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.