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Sunday, July 31, 2005

Religious Wisdom And Unwisdom

This morning I would like to ask you to read two articles. One is by William Raspberry, discussing the plight of the black family in the US. The other is a post by The Quietist on his blog discussing the plight of families in the Brazilian favela. First, I would like to point out that both of these people CARE. They are not political praters. Anyone who reads William Raspberry knows that he has been working on the problems that affect black families, and Pedro the Quietist cared enough to go to Brazil and work in the favela in an attempt to help.

What is interesting about these two articles is that both focus on the role of moral culture in society and the church's role in generating that moral culture. Pedro writes:
It is important to remember that NOBODY in the favela has any money. If they had money, they wouldn't live in a favela; they would move to some of Brazil's small-yet-copious poor neighborhoods that actually have streets, plumbing, and aren't controlled by criminals and drug-traffickers. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw that there existed a HUGE gap in the standards of living and quality of life even within the favela. You would go into one family's house and they would have a concrete floor, a water tank for "showering" (that is, pouring over yourself with a plastic pitcher), a small stove, and perhaps a few pieces of furniture. Everything would be spotless, and while it isn't like living in Malibu, one can live a healthy, happy existence within those walls.

Then you might walk next door, and be shocked at the sight. The floor would be spotty cardboard and ratty rugs scavenged from a trash heap on top of the mud. The place would be crawling with cockroaches and spiders. The kids would be running around without shoes on top of trash, and whatever furniture was there would be eaten through and unhealthy....

n contrast, those living in the nice homes ALWAYS were intact families, with a mother AND a father (and the kids all belonged to the same father). The home was SPOTLESS. In most of the US, we can be slobs in our homes and not really threaten our health; in many parts of Brazil, the INSTANT you drop food on the floor you are infested with ants and other vermin. If you aren't careful and dilligent with your trash, you inevitably get infected with dengue fever from the mosquitos that breed in trash-water. Therefore, cleanliness is ABSOLUTELY connected with health and the quality of life....

The main thing I found was that the families that functioned were ALWAYS religious, either committed to the Catholic Church or one of the newer Protestant churches that are becoming extremely successful in the favelas. I found that the sense of purpose and the community support received in a religious community gave one the will and the desire to, for example, sweep their homes even though it would just get dirty again later, or work for pennies even though these families, in Brazil's messed-up economic system, will NEVER "get rich." But there were very real and direct benefits to this religious spirit; your family was happier, intact, and healthier. These families, unlike the others I dealt with, were not the ones who would get stinking drunk and then complain to me that the "government" hadn't "given" them a job, as if government officials were supposed to walk through the favelas and entrust public money to any domino-playing drunk they happened to run across.
So, we have hope, a sense of purpose and the ability to direct that sense of purpose into action. I think everyone should read Pedro's post and contemplate his observations. Next, William Raspberry:
What is happening to the black family in America is the sociological equivalent of global warming: easier to document than to reverse, inconsistent in its near-term effect -- and disastrous in the long run.

Father absence is the bane of the black community, predisposing its children (boys especially, but increasingly girls as well) to school failure, criminal behavior and economic hardship, and to an intergenerational repetition of the grim cycle. The culprit, the ministers (led by the Rev. Eugene Rivers III of Boston, president of the Seymour Institute) agreed, is the decline of marriage....

As the ministers were at pains to say last week, it isn't the incompetence of mothers that is at issue but the absence of half of the adult support needed for families to be most effective.

Interestingly, they blamed the black church for abetting the decline of the black family -- by moderating virtually out of existence its once stern sanctions against extramarital sex and childbirth and by accepting the present trends as more or less inevitable.

They didn't say -- but might have -- that black America's almost reflexive search for outside explanations for our internal problems delayed the introspective examination that might have slowed the trend. What we have now is a changed culture -- a culture whose worst aspects are reinforced by oversexualized popular entertainment and that places a reduced value on the things that produced nearly a century of socioeconomic improvement. For the first time since slavery, it is no longer possible to say with assurance that things are getting better.
So William Raspberry's comments reinforce Pedro's observations about the importance of a strong and self-denying value system for those who live on the margin:
In the US, we live in such a wealthy society that one can lead a nihilistic, cynical, angry life, rejecting "socially-constructed" standards of behavior and cleanliness and still be somewhat comfortable and not starve to death or die of malaria. But in the favela, they are living at the margins of survivability, and nobody has any room to act that way without consequences. Though I am not very religious (yet), my experience volunteering in the favela taught me that religious wisdom is infinitely superior to trendy theories recently dreamed up in an air-conditioned academic department somewhere when it comes to prescriptions for social and public policy.
But not forever. We can't live a nihilistic life that rejects all social standards forever and not see the results of our failure to take care of what is within our control slowly accumulate into a mountain of despair. Note the role and the blame that the gathering of ministers in the US placed upon the failures of the teaching in their churches. In other words, they had not taught that sin has consequences, and it does.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition "sin" means an act or practice forbidden by God. If you read the Old and the New Testament, you understand that sins are identified as sins because they are naturally attractive actions that cause future damage. In other words, what seems good at the time you do it turns out to be extremely damaging. All societies form rules that are designed to deal with the reality that sin has consequences extending beyond one's own lifetime, as stated in the Ten Commandments:
5. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6. And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
God doesn't create these consequences; life does. But God can only negate the consequences of sin for those who will ask for mercy and join that with action. Nor is this concept restricted to the Judeo-Christian religion; in one form or another, every religion demands that the individual deny his own impulses to serve a greater good, or, to put this in another form, to stop the promulgation of evil.

Can you imagine a functional society that doesn't require self-restriction and self-denial from its members? I can't. This is the "religious wisdom" of which Pedro writes.

Wow. Great stuff.
Religious wisdom? It sure is.
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