is a thoughtful article by Quaker Eileen Flanagan on how our perception of a compassionate or authoritative universe/divinity colors our politics. "Authoritative" isn't quite right, since it carries a negative connotation in this context. My brain couldn't come up with a more neutral word. Flanagan is using George Lakoff's terms: George Lakoff, a Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics who has written for Tikkun about the importance of "framing" issues, has described "the politics of authority" and "the politics of empathy" as competing moral systems that co-exist within most of us, though we may tend toward one or another. An authority mindset values self-discipline, obedience, and personal responsibility, while an empathy mindset values caring for one's neighbor, whether through personal charity or government programs. A sick woman without a green card is an "illegal alien" who deserves what she gets, or she is the very "least of these" that Jesus instructed his followers to care for, depending on how you think about morality.
What strikes me is the merit in both viewpoints. Personal responsibility and initiative (hence, valuing government letting people make their own choices) can be a very good thing. I think there are areas -- like relationships, sexual conduct, speech -- where government has no business. Where does 'caring for one's neighbor' stop and managing that person's life begin?
I notice my own reactions when a street person asks me for money. Part of me says, "Don't give him cash, he might spend it on drugs." Another part says, "Accord him the dignity of making his own decisions." Then the first part says, "I don't want to contribute to behavior that might kill him." "Who are you to judge? Maybe this is just what he needs to 'hit bottom' and turn his life around. And maybe he really is just hungry or in need of bus fare."
Some thoughts that help me through this: one is that a kind word and direct eye contact, while perhaps more difficult than simply shoving a dollar into his hand, are more meaningful. This is a human being, to be treated with respect and compassion. If I cannot "spare" some change, I can give him a minute of my undivided attention, to be as present and caring as I can. This demands that I tell the truth, especially about my own boundaries.
Another response is to say, "I'm not comfortable giving you money, but I can buy you a meal." And then let him select what he wants. Obviously, there needs to be a restaurant or food cart nearby, and there usually is, and a minimum amount of time. But if I'm feeling rushed or late, maybe I need to examine my priorities. My day may be filled with chores to be done, none of them very consequential, but only one opportunity such as this.
Eileen's article was published in the magazine Tikkun
, from the Hebrew "tikkun olam"
-- "repairing the world." Repairing, one little bit at a time, sorrow and want, injustice and despair. I
get to do that? What a gift.