By Donella Meadows
–December 24, 1998–
So strange, this orgy of political retribution, coming to a climax at Christmastime.
It’s the time when I go back and read not only the story of the birth of the great teacher, but also the teachings. The amazing teachings. Two thousand years old and they still ring like bells in the soul.
He taught in simple language (even in the antiquated King James translation). But the teachings are not simple. Nor easy to hear, not in their entirety. (I doubt that he meant for us to pick out our favorite parts and ignore the rest.) Especially not easy to hear in the present political context.
For example: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart…. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”
No legal quibbling there. No arguments about what the meaning of “is” is. But then, in the same great sermon, comes: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? …. Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye.”
I could go into a rant about how steadfastly our politicians are ignoring one or the other of those linked lessons, but what most strikes me is how steadfastly our citizens understand and embrace both of them. The opinion polls have been consistent for almost a year now — yes, the president did wrong, and no, those with motes in their eyes are not called upon to judge and humiliate him. The people disprove both the cynics who believe the masses can be tricked into anything and the moralists who fear that the old teachings are forgotten.
The people are not stupid. They know right from wrong. That’s why democracy is a good idea. Whatever is happening in Washington these days, despite all the sanctimonious appeals to the Constitution, is not democracy.
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.”
Whatever is happening in Washington these days, despite all the sanctimonious statements about voting one’s conscience, is not morality.
Whatever it is, it is out of control, forcing men and women who represent us, people who DO have consciences, who DO believe in democracy, to get sucked into a vortex of hate and lies and vengeance and self-protection. It is ugly. It shames us before our children and before the other nations of the world.
When people collectively start producing a result that no one wants, that offends everyone’s conscience, that hurts individuals and the collective, then there is a system problem. Somehow rules or procedures have gone wrong. Important feedbacks have been broken. Crucial balances have been upset.
We know perfectly well what has gone wrong with our government system, and it’s not the despicable behavior of this particular president, special prosecutor, or Congress. This sordid affair is just one symptom of much larger structural problems. The politicians no longer believe they are beholden to the people; they are beholden to people with money. The media that carry information from people to government and vice versa are devoted not to their democratic function but to money. The politicians speak to the people through cynics who believe the masses can be tricked into anything. The privileged play the game of government almost entirely for the purpose of protecting and expanding their privilege.
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
It’s a system that brings out the worst in our leaders. No matter how pure their consciences or their original desire to serve, the system demands of them small or large corruptions. The good news is that so many of the people are still in touch with the teachings. The bad news is that the people are so disgusted that they turn their backs on the government, feeling powerless in an arena where there seems to be no room for truth or love or generosity or forgiveness.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
I turn off the self-serving speeches emanating from the capital city of the sick system and go back to the teachings, to remind myself of the principles by which I want to be governed. Please, folks, let’s not turn our backs; let’s insist that our system be fixed, so that it does not make us ashamed, so that it brings out the best in us, so that it is worthy of us.
All the passages quoted here are from a single teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5,6, and 7. Excellent reading for the season and for all seasons.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998