Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why live simply? Does it make any difference?

I've just finished re-reading an article by Derrick Jensen called Forget Shorter Showers in Orion Magazine (see http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4801/). In this article Derrick argues that defining the global problems in terms of the individual, or positing that individual actions can really make a difference, is naive and misguided. He says, for instance:

I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.

So - I've wrestled with this myself - for months. And I think I've come to a slightly different conclusion. I agree with Derrick that individual acts of kindness, simplicity, generosity, justice, etc. aren't going to fix a broken economy or suddenly resolve the moral confusion that has us so befuddled, or reverse the ravages of climate change, or even feed the hungry or cure the ill. Kindness, simplicity, generosity, and justice are NOT a sufficient response to the ills of humanity and our collective home. They are not, in themselves, political ENOUGH. But they are a first step - an important - no, more than that, a critical step. And I would argue that even if they do not lead to a second step of strategic political activism, they have inestimable value.

Here's the bottom line: we should ALWAYS live the life that God calls us to, no matter what it's outcome in human terms. We should NEVER live selfishly, greedily, wastefully, rapaciously - even when we can. Even when we have enough to waste - food, water, money, time, people - just because we CAN does not mean that we SHOULD!

I know that Derrick Jensen is not suggesting that we NOT live simply - he says so quite clearly. It's just that we're kidding ourselves if we think that this is a sufficient response. But I guess that depends on what our fundamental purpose is. He's right if our purpose is to "save the world" but if our purpose is simply to please God, maybe we're making it too complicated. I know that may sound like an over-spiritualization and a cop out. But let's leave room for God to act. I'm thinking of a quote by Abraham Lincoln that says "Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed." You see, we can invest our time and energy into all manner of political activism. We can attack shoddy public policy and pester politicians to enact legislation that is more humane, more fair, more responsible. But the places where opinions are formed - at the coffee shops, over dinner tables, on facebook, in class, through the media, in our places of worship - that's where the real work is to be done. Bob Briner says that "when we try to change the world using the ways of the world, we will always fail."

Definitely, BE POLITICALLY ACTIVE! But don't make the mistake of thinking that politics - or any strictly human response - is going to make everything right. Can we be content to do our part - to take shorter showers and drive less and give more and consume less and invest in people rather than profits, and encourage others in our sphere of influence to do the same? Can we be responsible citizens - being and staying informed about the issues which are before our legislatures and parliaments and working with and through our elected officials to make good policy decisions? And then - when we're doing our part - can we leave room for God to use our obedience - as small as it may seem in the scheme of things - and take those small acts of kindness, simplicity, generosity and justice - and perform the miracle of transformation... again and again...?

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