Nobody Is Pure: Aligning My Actions with My Ethics

How do you live completely harm-free in a world as complex and interconnected as ours?

You don’t.

Even if you focus on present, ongoing harm and ignore past historical harms – a completely arbitrary decision – you still can’t find or fix everything.

We pay taxes to a government that does a host of bad things (anyone reading this, regardless of political leanings, can probably agree to that). Christians have instructions from the Master Himself to do so (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” – Mark 12:17). We all have a gun literally pointed at our heads to make us pay.

We can’t even know the origins of all the things we put on or into our bodies or our vehicles.

What do we do? Well, we can vote, if we can find someone worth voting for. We can sign petitions and write letters to our representatives in state, local, and national government. We can protest and make our voices known.

And we can educate ourselves on the issues.

But is that enough? My taxes are still paying for drone strikes against civilians, and indefinite detention without trial (both happening on the CIA’s word, with nominal executive oversight and no due process), and so are yours, if you live in the U.S.

“As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:” (Romans 3:10 KJV)

But that doesn’t mean we can’t push back. It doesn’t mean we can’t find one little corner of our lives and push back against the cruelty, violence, and exploitation that have been baked into our governmental and economic systems, and the deception that hides them.

It just means that nobody, vegan, vegetarian, meat-eater, tax-dodge, pacifist, or soldier, can ever fully claim the moral high ground.

I know I surely can’t.

And I know that when I try to, I can end up hurting people I never intended to.

A wise long-term vegan told me that you can only go where your consciousness leads you. And that we should not be “holier than thou” with people whose consciousness (and consciences) aren’t leading them the same direction ours are.

And experience leads me to understand that nobody can care about everything at once. A single human being just doesn’t have the energy.

So, I’ll say this. Try some vegan dishes – some are very yummy – and see if you’d like to add them to your weekly meal rotation.
But beyond that, whatever your conscience is leading you to care about, care deeply, and act wisely.

And if I ever start acting holier-than-thou, let me know.

First, Do No Harm: Aligning My Ethics and My Actions in a Disconnected World

I posted a few Mondays ago that I’d mostly moved on from theological blog posts … well, it turns out I was wrong.

Sure, a lot of the questions I was asking back then are things I’ve settled now, but one big one has arisen: How do I be moral and righteous within an economic and industrial system that is heavily built upon cruelty, exploitation, and oppression?

I’m still wrestling, just with slightly different angels.

I’m struggling to figure out how to align my actions with my ethics in modern America. Most of the things we do to survive, or at least live, seem to be built upon the suffering of others. And that suffering is deliberately concealed from those of us on the consuming end of the equation.

I’m not talking about historical injustices or atrocities, but  ongoing suffering and death, here and now. The kind I can either contribute to or help alleviate.

  • The meat, dairy and egg industries are horrific for the animals and (to a lesser extent) the workers.
  • Overfishing has put the health of entire oceans at risk.
  • Global warming is real. The oil companies and their pet politicians and pundits have spent a lot of money convincing people it isn’t, but I trust actual climate scientists more than lobbyists.
  • Hunger is still an issue around the world, and drinking water is an even bigger issue (even here in the U.S.)
  • Worst of all, a large but hard to determine, number of everyday items include components that were made by literal slaves.

The food in my belly, the clothes on my back, the shoes on my feet … someone suffered for all that. It’s easy to ignore. It’s easier to ignore than it is to learn about, because the men with the money want it that way.

As the old song says, they “you can throw that rock, and hide your hand … but what’s done in the dark will be brought to the light.”

So now that I’ve seen this particular light, what can I do?

I really want to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. How can I passively inflict this kind of damage? How can I cynically make this kind of mess for other, poorer people to clean up? Or for my daughter and her future children to clean up?

Out of sight, out of mind.

Jesus always sided with the underdogs, the outsiders in society (“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”).

When he railed against sin, he was always speaking to the powerful, whose sin was oppressing and exploiting others, usually by making them into outsiders and declaring them unclean.

He never accepted second-hand cruelty. When the system was cruel, he rebuked the system. When the respectable, “moral” people were callous, he called them out.

He called me out.

We’re good at being good, when that just means being nice to the people in front of our faces, paying our taxes, and giving some money to charity from time to time. But I have a hard time believing that that is all that matters.

No matter what you believe religiously, we all stand under judgement. We can’t escape the things we do. Even if there were nothing beyond our mortal material existence, our actions still exist. They are as inescapable as gravity and entropy.

If my lifestyle is having real consequences on other people, don’t I need to change it?

Yes, I do.

Yes, I will.

And I hope that maybe I’ll inspire a few more people to join me. Over the next couple of days, I’ll be following this post up with more detail on the harm that we do, harm that is being hidden from us, and with what I’m personally doing to try to eliminate, or at least ameliorate, this in my life.

I hope you’ll join me.

Saint Max, The Mad (Ethics of Disaster Preparedness, Part 2)

American MRE's, picture by Christopher Lin, Creative Commons

American MRE’s distributed after Hurricane Katrina, picture by Christopher Lin, Creative Commons

As Christians, our philosophy if disaster preparedness should align with our philosophy of life: living out the kingdom of God “on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” [Matthew 6:9-13]  Needless to say, this means we can’t just ‘take care of our own,’ even in a disaster.  This contrasts markedly with both the extreme survivalist mindset and with the prevailing, semi-mainstream “prepper” mindset.

“Okay,” you may be thinking, “what is he talking about?  Survivalist?  Prepper?  Come on, now, throw me a bone.  Don’t just toss out these terms without defining them.”

[[I realize that some of you may not care about this topic, but it’s one that I feel strongly about addressing, partly because of my own interests, and partly because of my experiences, and those of my family, immediately following Hurricane Katrina.  Everybody faces the possibility of natural disasters of some sort, and everybody needs to take responsibility for being prepared.  And since one of my goals is to be as honest as possible, I’m going to have to write about this.]]

The survivalist expects (and often focuses on) the PAW, or Post-Apocalyptic World (sometimes called TEOTWAWKI: The End Of The World As We Know It).  They fear and prepare for a semi-permanent interruption of common services (like electricity, government, and law itself) and a breakdown of social order and morality.

What will cause the PAW?  The list of possible causes is as varied as the survivalists are: economic depression, pandemic, sunspots causing a massive EMP (it happened in 1859), government corruption leading to totalitarianism, or even, in the most extreme cases, violent racial conflict.  Unfortunately, white supremacists are often attracted to the survivalist mindset.

To survive in the PAW, the survivalist often prepares elaborate and remote “bug out locations” (BOL), complete with stored food and supplies, methods of long-term food production, significant caches of ammunition, and back-up copies of his preferred firearms (a phrase that preppers and survivalists alike use is “two is one, and one is none,” which is supposedly borrowed from the U.S. Special Forces). You can see the survivalist  mindset in interviews and reality shows as well as discussion forums.

The main problem with the survivalist mindset is that they sacrifice so much of the present life for the sake of the apocalyptic world to come that some of them even hope for the chaos, thinking they’ll come out on top in the coming world, that their place in the social order will be overturned, that their vigilance and sacrifice will finally be vindicated.  It’s a lot like Left Behind that way…

Preppers, on the other hand, focus on realistic, likely disasters.  They tend to be more level-headed, often with practical backgrounds or occupations: current or former military, farmers, mechanics, gunsmiths, etc.  While they often share the survivalists’ lack of faith in the government, they keep it within functional bounds.

They focus on preparing (“prepping”) for things like economic hard times, relevant natural disasters, extended losses of public services (like losing power and water for 3-4 weeks following Hurricane Katrina), and even limited civil unrest (like the violence that happened in New Orleans following Katrina).

Obviously, preppers are easier to relate to than full-on survivalists.  They don’t want any of these things to happen.  They talk about how their “preps” help them in everyday life.  For example, one got laid off and used emergency food stores to cut down his grocery bill and emergency savings to cover his other bills until he got a new job.  Nothing apocalyptic about that.

The prepper mindset can be a little harder to find in the media, but there is one discussion forum that exemplifies it:  despite its frivolous name, Zombie Squad keeps its focus by banning political discussion, religious debates, and any kind of racism.  You’ll find a few survivalists there, but they’re the sane type, so to speak.  Nobody there talks about race wars or rants about how Bush is Hitler and Obama the Antichrist.

The problem that often underlies both outlooks is, to some degree, the problem I addressed when I wrote about Atlas Shrugged.  It’s akin to the spiritual problems so many Pharisees in Jesus’s day and Christians today suffer from.

It’s the self-righteous sense than since I did the right thing, and you didn’t, so you don’t deserve much sympathy or any help.  In other cases, it’s Christians saying on Sunday “oh, everything I own belongs to God,” and on Monday saying “I can’t stand that the government’s taking MY money to pay a bunch of welfare queens and drug addicts!”  In this case, it’s the sense that “my preps will take care of me and mine, and anyone who comes to my door had better step off!”

This isn’t a sentiment that we, as Christians, should be getting behind.  Partly because it’s very possessive and antithetical to the commands Jesus gave us when he was here among us.  Partly because it’s NOT how people actually survive and thrive during natural disasters.

I’m out of space for now, but I’ll talk about that later.  In my next post on this topic, I will tell the story of how my hometown dealt with the aftermath of Katrina.  It didn’t involve massive rioting and gunfights with police, so it didn’t get on the national news, but it is a more important story than what happened in New Orleans.