The Rough Zones of the Ten Commandments

Lex’s link to Robert Fogel reinforces much that is said – and said often – on this blog. It doesn’t seem to me particularly good if we have a wide divergence in wealth and some is back scratching. Nonetheless, I’d worry more if all incomes were the same – for all the reasons mentioned here so often. It isn’t just, or even mainly, productivity that is gauged by differing wages. Our desires are different; so are our priorities. Someone who spends twenty hours a week reading to and playing with her child may not expect to be as compensated in money as if she were working a 60-hour executive week; she is, however, richly rewarded in other ways. As Fogel observes, the differences between the way we can live is not all that dramatic and many differences are driven by choice. As the comments indicate, discussions of poverty are often snapshots in time. My children should not be making the wage that their parents, after forty years of work experience and three degrees do; my husband’s mother deserves comfort but is not, at 88, a wage earner nor is she building capital but rather spending it.

Ours is not the world of Dickens; it is a world when the greatest injustices are done by people to themselves: staying in school, staying married, staying employed – these are choices. The fate that buffets us may be a culture that undervalues learning and undervalues renunciation of the sensual present for the well-prepared future, but it is diverse and the choices ours. Our schools may be lousy, but we have the internet and libraries. Waiting to marry and staying married is likely to be better for us, better for our children – to pretend that this gap is not one of choice is to infantilize us.

My mind has been roiling lately as I’ve considered the arguments of a couple of weeks ago. Such arguments have long been ones that bothered me – perhaps because I can see within my own family that different paths have been taken with different levels of apparent success because, well, we all prized different ways of living our days. In Austin in the seventies, my neighbor complained that she wanted her husband to work fewer hours so they could spend more time on their sex life. I looked at him with a certain awe – unlike the men I dated, he had no apparent career in mind, was doing a simple 40-hour shift at the local mental hospital (why do these keep popping up in my memories?), and had rather inchoate ambitions. Of course, that was the seventies and that was Austin. On the one hand, he must have been damn good in bed, but on the other, her priorities were not mine and I couldn’t imagine a world in which they would be. Of course, if he went to a 30-hour week, she (and apparently he) felt that they would be compensated in ways other than money.

The attitude Fogel argues comes from a position not unlike that of the founders. Winthrop begins his “Christian Charity” sermon (to which I return time and again) with a caution that men will not all be of the same “station.” This has little to do with the soul but much to do with the variety of the world that is reflected in the variety that is humanity. Indeed, he further argues these differences arise: “that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knitt more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection. From hence it appears plainly that noe man is made more honourable than another or more wealthy &c., out of any particular and singular respect to himselfe, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man.” Indeed, if we were all alike, would we truly “need” one another in the same way we do when our full complexity is allowed to develop? When he concludes with an argument to “choose life,” he expects us to nurture that complexity, that diversity both in our society and in ourselves. The immense variety of man is emphasized again and again in the Federalist Papers – a society that respects all and makes room for those great differences is one that allows the richness and virtue of human nature to grow.

These are words I return to often, but that is because they are wise. Lately, I’ve been in the midst of conversations that seemed to me considerably less so, but which, unarmed with economics and restrained by a minimal civility, I was not able to speak as clearly or forcefully as I would like. I always figured that’s what blogs are for: this post is about nothing new but as each of our experiences reinforce those old truths we can hope, someday, to stop rediscovering the wheel (or, in this case, human nature).
I often speak of my Sunday School class. That is because I admire many of its members and especially its teacher very much. They have lived rich and thoughtful lives. They do good; they are active in the world. Many of them are retired and spend their days teaching reading at grade schools, building houses for Habitat for Humanity, preparing food and baskets for the needy of our town. Their actions seem derived from a real warmth and an active charity. I appreciate this – it was characteristic of the village in which I grew up and even my remarkably sharp tongued mother saw her responsibility as helping those worse off. I do not act in that tradition – I’m willing to give my money to church but even that is limited: we split our gifts among some eccentric charities and the church my husband attends. Generally, I’m a pretty cold and self-absorbed type. As you read the rest, you should not forget that however harmful their speculations may be, their actions are often warm, generous, loving. And I can assure you, in a time of spiritual or even material need, you would be better off turning to them than to me.

A remarkable number have parents or children who are ministers as well as a remarkable number were and their children are in the armed services. These are people that take their Bible seriously; they are in the Presbyterian tradition of the word. I suspect that their beliefs vary a good deal, but the teacher tactfully steers discussion back to the text. He reads the Bible as my old English teachers taught poetry – representative of a congruent & wise reality itself. So, we’ve been going through Deteronomy and we’ve reached the Ten Commandments. For most, unlike me, this journey has been traveled often; I belatedly entered the class, have still not joined the church.

The first commandments were interpreted in a general way. I suspect that the ready belief that material goods was what was meant by putting no other gods before God is pretty common; I also suspect those weren’t the way they were meant originally, directed to people who might, indeed, be seduced by other “gods.” I’ve known people worried that their first love had too much priority. I suspect we are better off if we don’t just bang the materialist drum, but certainly it is important. Anyway, I wondered when our more metaphoric interpretation began. I’m still curious, though a visiting minister pointed out a useful understanding might come from art history. (Of course some side tracks took place when the ex-Catholics explained to the ex-Baptists that no, Catholics do not worship Mary as another God and those trying to be sympathetic to Muslims noted the similarity of our church’s rather unattractive history of icon-destruction with theirs.)

Thou shalt not kill seemed mined ground (an excursion into just war theory, with which our social science members are concerned, for instance.) But the teacher led us carefully. My limited contribution came from the tragic and ennobling story Michael Yon told of the Iraqi stepping forward to embrace and throw to the ground a suicide bomber, clothed in a woman’s burkha and headed toward a mosque filled with women and children, some of them his. Choosing death for life versus choosing death for death seemed to me a large distinction that we might remember. (Those who died at the Alamo, for instance, were able to hold off Santa Anna sufficiently to make final victory possible.) Of course, that was hardly controversial, but was a point I enjoyed making.

I figured that one was going to be tough; it seemed to me many were biting their tongues, but we got through it. What I had not thought would be controversial was the command not to steal. Of course, we may at some point wander into gray zones, but we are embarrassed by our rationalizations when we voice them – I didn’t intend to discuss some arguments of the late sixties, which I now see as hopelessly foolish. But I was ill prepared for the way the argument went that day in class. The conclusion was that private property was theft – not theft from the workers, of course, but theft from God. (And you might suspect that the last stronghold of Communism is not just the English departments of America but also the mainline churches. I do.)

Some were once teachers of agriculture or researchers in the extension services. I respect and admire the strength with which they argued for tending our gardens, replacing what we’ve taken, nurturing the plot we’ve been given in this life time so we leave it as rich a soil – or preferably better – than we when were first given it. Even I, who tend to let the grass die whenever my husband leaves for a summer abroad, can understand that and, yes, appreciate it. The belief that the land goes on – we die, our children die, but the land remains – well, yes, that’s important.

But frankly, I have great difficulty thinking that this interpretation, as enlarged and made more forcefully and literally by those from social science backgrounds, was what the Bible means by theft. Private property, one seemed to imply, had caused the pain so many of us knew as small family farms died. Yes, I said, I knew those who had been hurt. But that was modernization. How, indeed, would common ownership change that? I’m not sure that being a Luddite really makes for happier people. Besides, those families survived, if a few of them were drawn to bizarre conspiracy theories. And in the end, which was worse? Forced collectivization, the gulags, starvations through disastrous farming or life as it has been, even in the slowly dying communities I, too, love. The result is a world in which food is a small portion of our budgets and our lives easier, full of more choices than our grandparents, supervising and cooking for threshing crews, income wiped out by a hail storm or a drought knew. Then one of the oldest gentlemen (one enamored of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth) took another angle: theft is filling in wetlands on our property. Now, I don’t really want a multi-family apartment complex on the next lot, so I can’t say that I won’t go a ways with him. But noting his bumper stickers, I suspect I wouldn’t want to go all that far.

What is more important, of course, is that some (how many?) in my Sunday School class, looking at one of the great testaments and histories of our people as well as of our faith, a book that holds within it the wisdom of observed human nature over centuries, can, with what seems to me a remarkable arrogance, assume they know better. When we came to coveting, they had little to say. But, of course, desiring other’s land and desiring authority over it seems to me both arrogant and covetous. The Bible tells us that it is human nature to want other’s possessions, to covet, to steal. A society that recognizes that in our human nature and constrains it, leading us to respect other’s property, wives, incomes, and even pleasures is one that is going to help us live with one another in peace, relative happiness, and certainly greater productivity. Accepting those boundaries, we are less likely to be roiled by what others possess. Our responsibility, our joy, our satisfaction comes from what we make of what we have, what we do with the abilities we have, how we improve our own houses rather than covet those of others. We may prefer a more leisurely life with more time for books; we may prefer seeing our child’s first steps; we may prefer one hell of a sex life. Whatever – those choices are ours.

All we have to do is look at that horrible bar graph of the twentieth century and see the levels of democide – almost all were an abrogation first of property rights, then of civil ones. Some coveted, believed they had authority over the lives and property of their neighbors. Property rights are the foundation of a society of laws; they are not the result of greed but the power that restrains greed and turns it from a sullen pout to ambition and drive. Such a society is one in which we are less likely to be murdered for the land on which we squat, the gold with which we decorate ourselves. And, following that, if our property is ours, we can stand on it, feeling more free to speak as we wish and worship as we wish. Did they believe that a church like ours, one defined by dissenting, would not feel the lash of arbitrary whims in a society without property rights? We know how the pattern goes and when my classmates speculate in such a way they are being (unconsciously of course) ruthlessly cruel: they credit the lies that Chavez and Castro, Mugabe and Mao have used to destroy land ownership, crops, and, following quickly, the rights of freedom of speech and religion, press and assembly. These are lies that imprison a people. And they let these great lies not only stand, undisputed and even supported by their interpretations, but, in their voices in this setting, they see them supported by the church itself.

My classmate had argued in earlier classes that Christ could not have meant he was “the” way – that he would never be that arrogant. He also saw Whitman’s belief that his enemy was a man as divine as himself that of a hypocrite if Whitman actually also believed (which without doubt he did) that the Civil War should be fought. Whitman was not a fool; he understood the necessity of ridding our country of slavery and reuniting that whole. He also understood that divinity was in all of us, was, indeed, part of our human nature, innate, given by God. Flattening and simplifying his beliefs undermines the very complexity of both man and the world in which he lives.

Indeed, it seemed to me, with my classmates’ wholesale rejection of the core commandments our religious history reached – whether we assume they were the revealed word of God or the rules a thoughtful people slowly came to through the hard trial and experience of centuries of living together – supremely and even destructively arrogant. If our missionaries are armed with such arrogance and self-righteousness, such blindness to history and human nature, then they are, indeed, the worst of colonialists.

But, of course, the ancients and the founders knew – abiding by such laws as those enables us to be free. That paradox may not be the greatest one of our faith, but it is powerful – the Puritans return to it, as does Donne. Winthrop’s journals argue it, but without the wit & beauty of Donne’s “Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I / Except you’ enthrall mee, never shall be free, / Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.” We understand, we, too, possess that prideful “I” that stubbornly resists being subsumed in that rhyme scheme. But we also understand the freedom the speaker aches for – the one that comes from such imprisonment. In submission to those laws lies a freedom unknown to us when we pridefully, arrogantly assert our own rights, our own desires, our authority over others as they assert their authority over us. Whether our faith is weak or strong, literalist or figurative – we all accept that these core commandments enable us to live with respect for one another, with freedom and in the kind of peace that comes from accepting boundaries and growing within them. This the ag guys may know best – some of whom seemed quite quiet. But our class, seeing the good as rejecting the material, were willing to go along with the more speculative; most are academics who enjoyed spinning a vision that rejects the bourgeois, the material, the tainted world; of course, what such a theory really rejects is the greatest and messiest of our virtues – our complexity. And ignores that great old Puritan dictate, that we should live in this world.

Last week, I gave my students a Frost poem to explicate at the end of the poetry section. I’ve always liked it, though I suspect that the older acolyte of Gore might have a different interpretation of man’s willfulness, but we can agree that man, that we, often refuse to even acknowledge, let alone accept, the rough zones in which we can live productive, loving, virtuous lives. And I would agree, sometimes we can and should transcend our human nature. But we are not likely to do much transcending if we don’t recognize the powerful pull against which we strain. Ignoring our history, ignoring the words that lie before us means we have to learn over and over again those same old truths by harsh experience. And, those of us in that room, older and often retired academics, are not the ones likely to be hurt by the loss of those institutions of law and of property. We’ve got ours. We live comfortably – order a part of our lives since birth. It’s the next generation and those in the third world where we send out missionaries that are more likely to suffer from our arrogance.

Frost (including a reading):

“There Are Roughly Zones”

We sit indoors and talk of the cold outside.

And every gust that gathers strength and heaves

Is a threat to the house. But the house has long been tried.

We think of the tree. If it never again has leaves,

We’ll know, we say, that this was the night it died.

It is very far north, we admit, to have brought the peach.

What comes over a man, is it soul or mind—

That to no limits and bounds he can stay confined?

You would say his ambition was to extend the reach

Clear to the Artic of every living kind.

Why is his nature forever so hard to teach

That though there is no fixed line between wrong and right,

There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed?

There is nothing much we can do for the tree tonight,

But we can’t help feeling more than a little betrayed

That the northwest wind should rise to such a height

Just when the cold went down so many below.

The tree has no leaves and may never have them again.

We must wait till some months hence in the spring to know.

But if it is destined never again to grow,

It can blame this limitless trait in the hearts of men.