Monday, October 22, 2007

The Common Good?

Winston Churchill once said that "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

Hm. Not very flattering. But I think there's a disturbing kernel of truth in the statement. A definition of democracy that I must have learned somewhere along the way is "government of the people, by the people and for the people."

I've actually just googled that phrase and it turns out that it was part of American President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 when he said:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (

[I LOVE google by the way. I'm so happy to know - finally - the source of that phrase!] Sounds impressive and even empowering. We make the decisions about what to do and how to do it. It's all about freedom and there seems to be an implicit assumption that we are both free AND noble. That we are up to the challenge of governance. That, because we are all equal, we can all have a say and every voice will be listened to and respected. It's a vision worth fighting for and maybe even dying for. From our vantage point in the early years of the 21st Century, it's even something that we have the luxury of taking for granted - at least in Canada, right?

Yet, are we up for it? If we don't have either the time or the interest to find out what's going on around us and around the world and how one decision affects another, are we really responsible enough to be in the driver's seat?

A wise older man who was my mentor for several years before his death was fond of saying that "the leaders are following the followers and no one knows where they're going." Then, he'd add: "it's no wonder we're in such a mess!"

So what are our options? There are those who are valiantly trying to turn humanity around - to put on the brakes and change the course of history. There are anti-globalization activists, anti-poverty activists, anti-climate change activists, etc. etc. Then there are those who are perhaps less ardent but who believe that they can make a difference by attaining positions of power and influence. They run for political office or become business elites in a global economy. Some of them maintain their integrity and their vision for a better future - many do not. Then there are those - the average voter - who try to keep up with current events so that they can be informed and responsible citizens who can use their vote to put in the people and the party who will do the "right thing". But it's hard not to get discouraged when we get a glimpse of our own powerlessness in the face of global political and economic forces. Some of these people eventually fall off the treadmill and join those who are either so busy simply trying to survive that they have no time or energy for the world beyond themselves or who have opted out of genuine participation. The news is too depressing so they don't bother with it. They have a job to do and bills to pay and kids to raise. Nose to the grindstone. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Live and let live.

So who IS looking out for the common good and what is the common good any way? Is it wise to trust our elected officials to look out for our interests? What about any responsibility we might have for the interests of those on the margins of society - those who can't seem to find their voice? Do they fall under the umbrella of "the common good"? Somehow it sounds a little shallow to say that we are committed to the common good when the richest 1/5 of the world's population consumes 4/5ths of the world's resources? That doesn't sound like the common good to me! Who are we kidding?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"Wanting to JUSTIFY himself..."

There's a phrase that's been stuck in my mind for the past few weeks. But first, a little background. I heard someone talk about the parable of the good Samaritan - a story from the New Testament (Luke 10:25-37 to be exact) in which an expert in the Law (that would be a religious scholar who has studied the Judaic law, including especially the 10 Commandments) asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.

As Jesus often did, he answered a question with a question which the man apparently handled with ease, boiling the 10 commandments down to 2: "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all our soul and with all your strength and with all our mind" (from Deuteronomy 6:5) and "love your neighbor as yourself" (from Leviticus 19:18). Jesus himself later brought these two together in answer to the question from His disciples concerning which is the greatest commandment. So, all is well and good. Jesus tells the expert that he is, in fact, correct and that if he does what he knows to do, he's good to go. The conversation could have been over before it really began.

BUT, it seems, the man is not satisfied yet. The text says, "wanting to justify himself..."

That's it. That's the phrase that I can't get out of my mind. So - I've been thinking about it. When do I want to justify myself? How do I do it? It's been an interesting few weeks as I've become PAINFULLY aware of this tendency to want to justify myself. I'm certainly not done thinking about it yet but I've noticed that there are times when the desire to have others think well of me leads me to want to justify myself. It's almost instinctive - I slip in a bit of information that will help them see a situation from MY perspective and with me as the hero in the scenario. I've noticed that there's quite an art to this sort of impression management and I often do it almost without thinking - at a sub-conscious level. It's not like I'm investing a lot of time or energy into this sort of self-justification - it's subtle and clever and effective and the bonus is, I can do it and people will still think that I'm very genuine! Even as I write this, I'm conscious of the fact that I may be trying to manipulate you into thinking that I'm honest and authentic and transparent. And the more I protest that I'm really not, the more convinced you will be that I am!

Which reminds me of another bible verse that has been stuck in my mind for about 20 years now. It's Jeremiah 17:9 which I once memorized in the King James Version: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" Now that's uplifting isn't it? Someone should warn us when we memorize those verses that they may haunt us for years! But I've come to the point where I'm wary of my own heart for this very reason - it IS deceitful. It keeps wanting to justify me - to myself, to others, to God.

But wanting to justify myself is not just about personal credibility and reputation. It occurs to me that there are all kinds of levels to this justification project. We want to justify ourselves as families, communities, churches, organizations, societies, ethnic groups - this is BIG. Advertisers play on this when they pitch their products. Political parties rely on it when they formulate election platforms. Governments rely on it when they need support for a particular course of action. Churches use it when they come up with mission and vision statements and five year plans and building campaigns. In previous postings I've talked about the overwhelming evidence that the lifestyles we "enjoy" in North America are exploiting the scarce resources of the earth and are condemning billions of people around the globe to lives of incredible hardship and poverty. But we can look at the figures and carry on - maybe making minor adjustments or giving a bit more to charity - because we are so good at justifying ourselves.

Here's the thing. Just because we can convince ourselves and maybe even those around us that we really are very good people - or good Christians - or good atheists - or good Muslims - or good Canadians - or good Americans - or good Germans - or good Iranians - or good Brits - whatever we are - that doesn't make it so.

Abraham Lincoln said: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." Society does have a conscience - we need to learn to listen to the voices which question our justifications - we need eyes to see and ears to hear.

If you've got a minute, check out the Millennium Development Goals for a quick refresher on some of the big issues in our world which - if you're like me - can be too often "out of sight, out of mind". Go to: and open your heart, mind and soul to the big picture... let's not be fooled into thinking that everything's ok or that nothing can be done!