Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Beliefs (Or, the Ghost of Christmas Present)

cross-posted at Dagblog

So, in my last post, I talked more specifically about my Christian beliefs than is my blogging habit. I doubt I'll do it more often; I don't think that you should believe something just because I do, and so I try to write from the assumption that you don't. But I did mention my own beliefs, and it's Christmas, so let me come clean a bit, because it's an important holiday for me, and because it's such a bitter season:

I believe in the basic dignity of human being. I believe that other people's suffering is real, and deserves our attention. I believe that everyone deserves protection from hunger, illness, and the killing December cold.

To make it more doctrinally specific, I was raised to believe that everyone is Jesus, and should be treated accordingly. Throw a homeless person off a steam grate, throw Jesus off that steam grate. Give a homeless man a blanket, give Jesus a blanket. The Gospels are very specific about this point; these are Jesus's explicit instructions to his followers.

This is a belief: it is not testable. It cannot be confirmed or debunked. It is a basic set of assumptions about the world. And it should not be vulgarized into a belief that all people are nice, or friendly and kind. That is obviously not true. But Christianity does not teach me that my fellow human beings deserve food, shelter, medicine and human comfort as a reward for good behavior. It teaches me that they deserve those things, period. The question isn't whether that homeless man is personally virtuous, any more than the question was whether the Prodigal Son was personally virtuous. The point is that he might starve or freeze in the streets. How could there be any other questions?

But I freely admit that this is simply my belief. "Everyone must be treated as if they were Jesus," is not the kind of thing you can prove. It is my starting place for every question of public policy, but I understand that not everyone else starts there, or even accepts my proposition. That's okay.

But while I'm willing to accept that my beliefs are just beliefs, I insist that other people's beliefs, whether religious or secular, be treated in the same way. There are many popular beliefs in our country that have nothing to do with reality, and obviously contradict it, but masquerade as "realism." They are not. I refuse to give them that undeserved credit, or to accept the human suffering inflicted because of them.

The belief that the free market always provides the best possible result is only a belief. It purports not to be a religious belief, because if it were actually a religion it would be mocked and reviled almost as widely as it deserves. But it does posit an implacable omnipotent god who demands sacrifices. Indeed, some its loudest proponents are publicly calling for "sacrifice," by which they mean increased human suffering by the poor. This is how the worst of religions operate. And the "free market knows best" belief has no grounding in reality.

My belief cannot be proved or disproved. The beliefs that excuse the abuse of America's poor not only cannot be proved; they persist in the face of contradictory evidence that should be obvious to every rational adult.

The idea that the poor in America are poor primarily (or, to certain narrow-minded fanatics, solely) because of their own behavior is merely a belief. It is a fairy tale that people tell themselves to reconcile themselves to the unnecessary ugliness of our world. Believing that the distribution of wealth in our scoiety is primarily correlated with merit, effort, or "hard work" requires more than an act of faith. It requires strenuous acts of self-delusion. The belief that the poor are poor because they don't work hard enough, or because they lack "character," demands that the believer work hard every day to avoid obvious facts about how the world operates. That is not realism. That is a bedtime story for mean-spirited children.

There is absolutely no reason to condone human misery out of deference to anyone's belief in the Free Market Fairy. Nor should the believers who demand such misery and sacrifice be accorded any respect. The notion that such believers somehow have the moral authority to declare someone else unworthy of food, shelter, or basic dignity is also just a belief, irrational and ugly. No one has such authority, and anyone who claims to do so should be taken seriously. Such beliefs are the rankest of superstitions: justifying real suffering in the name of imaginary entities, even when the evidence of our daily life demonstrates that those entities are not real.

If you start with a belief in Jesus, our world appears much as it is: manifestly flawed and full of flagrant injustice. From the viewpoint of the Wall Street Journal and the Federal Reserve and Goldman Sachs and CNBC, it looks like the best of the possible worlds. All I can say in response is: Pollyannas. Why not throw in Santa Claus, too?

My beliefs cannot be proved, but they could never be as silly as the primitive superstitions and delusions that govern the minds of the great and powerful. And my beliefs, whatever their source, attempt to move the world toward kindness and mercy. That's all I can say on my own account this December.

Merry Christmas, all. And let's try to keep it through the coming year.

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