Generally I try to resist Black/White dualities in my thinking and speaking. I’ve discovered that endless greys (or maybe a rainbow pallet) is a much better way to paint our human family.
That said, we humans do tend to think in Light/Dark, Good/Bad, Up/Down, In/Out categories; they are convenient handles that help us conceptualize the Big Picture of our world.
When President Obama spoke at the centennial celebration of Nelson Mandela in 2018, he talked about “two different visions, two different stories, two different narratives;” two broad approaches to understanding – and living in – the world.
We now stand at a crossroads – a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world.
Two different stories, two different narratives about who we are and who we should be.
Different ideas about “who we are and who we should be.”
For Mr. Obama, one well-known narrative is the “inevitable cycle of history – where might makes right, and politics is a hostile competition between tribes and races and religions, and nations compete in a zero-sum game, constantly teetering on the edge of conflict until full-blown war breaks out…”
A familiar narrative where “certain races, certain nations, certain groups were inherently superior, and that violence and coercion is the primary basis for governance, that the strong necessarily exploit the weak, that wealth is determined primarily by conquest…”
In sharp contrast to these sad historical cycles is his alternative vision of optimism and hope; an interruption in history by surprising grace, as when Mandela was released from prison and the Berlin Wall came down.
“I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision” he said. “I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln.”
This alternative vision, Obama claims, is a “basic truth” around the world.
Basic truths do not change … It is a truth that lies at the heart of every world religion – that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
That we see ourselves in other people. That we can recognize common hopes and common dreams.
And it is a truth that is incompatible with any form of discrimination based on race or religion or gender or sexual orientation.
And it is a truth that, by the way, when embraced, actually delivers practical benefits, since it ensures that a society can draw upon the talents and energy and skill of all its people.
Two opposing economies
Other thinkers frame the either/or choices with similar concepts. For example, Father Richard Rohr speaks about two competing economic systems.
Capitalism is a “meritocracy” based on quid pro quo, punishment/reward and a retributive notion of justice.
This much service or this much product requires this much payment or this much reward. It soon becomes the entire frame for all of life, our fundamental relationships, and our basic self-image (“I deserve; you owe me…)
We in the United States, he points out, drink in this kind of capitalism “with our mother’s milk.”
Like President Obama, Father Richard chooses an alternative vision, different from meritocracy. He calls “a gift economy” where “there is no equivalence between what we give and how much we get.“
Living within a gift economy is immensely uncomfortable for many of us. Rohr says this discomfort explains why so many Americans resist health care for all or free education.
“WE don’t want to pay for THEIR education or health care. It’s not fair.”
The economy of the gospel
As a Christian and a priest within the tradition of St. Francis, Father Richard offers a bold challenge to those of us who claim to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Basically, to understand the Gospel in its purity and in its transformative power, we have to stop counting, measuring, and weighing. We have to stop saying “I deserve” and deciding who does not deserve.
None of us “deserve”!
Can we do that? It’s pretty hard …. unless we’ve experienced infinite mercy and realize that it’s all a gift.
Rohr is spot on here. I too, throughout my life and ministry, have seen that too many Christians do not like grace. Meritocracy has become our default expectation.
Like Sinatra, our favorite hymn is: I Do It My Way. Surrendering outselves to Love seems weak, foolish and naive.
The question remains: what story will we choose?
- Grace or Reward?
- Gift or Meritocracy?
- Love or Disdain?
- Greed, violence, tribalism, and privilege?
- Or generosity, peacemaking, kindness and self-sacrifice?
Two fundamental visions of who we are. Of who we should be.
We must choose one story or the other; we can’t have it both ways.
And we must realize that either our personal values align with our public values or they don’t. Either our spiritual values are in sync with our political values or they’re not.
Either we give in to the same old narrative that is the “inevitable cycle of history.” Or we live into hope and work together to create a new vision of love, grace and peace for our world.
Which story will we choose?
Read Richard Rohr’s essay: