Like much of the Western world, I’ve watched the coverage of the uprisings in the Arab world with a mixture of awe and trepidation. Despite lingering questions about Egypt’s leadership, our hearts go out to common people around the world who assert that self-governance is a basic human right—particularly when they do so in a peaceful manner. The people have discovered the ability to see beyond the horizons of their present reality, and have taken a stand.
By contrast, I thought of a John Mayer song that I recently downloaded, “Waiting on the World to Change”:
Me and all my friends, we’re all misunderstood
They say we stand for nothing and there’s no way we ever could
Now we see everything that’s going wrong with the world and those who lead it
We just feel like we don’t have the means to rise above and beat it
…It’s not that we don’t care, we just know that the fight ain’t fair
So we keep on waiting—waiting on the world to change.
“Waiting” has been called the anthem for a generation, but crystallized within its pretty melodies is a sad and mysterious impotence. The American young adult is powerless while the average Egyptian’s salary is roughly $2000 per year? The Egyptian educational system is far less developed than America’s, and the opportunities for young people are far less numerous. So for young Egyptians fighting Mubarak’s rule, the fight really wasn’t fair. But Mayer and his friends “don’t have the means” to rise above? It seems to me that the song’s one false statement is that they “see everything that’s going wrong.” Either they don’t see, or they don’t honestly think the problems in America are worth challenging.
America has some serious problems; a recent study of developed nations by the International Monetary Fund ranked America near the bottom in income inequality, food security, life expectancy at birth, and level of incarcerated population; all of which reflect the scandalous lot of the poor. Yet the reaction to the recent economic crises from many quarters has been to slash the safety net that keeps such inequalities from being even worse.
Any American could worry about these problems, but being the parent of two preschool-age children brings the questions home in a special way: How is America really doing? And specifically, how are we doing at raising generations who see problems clearly and have the guts to take a stand? Kids are growing up in schools so concerned about their self esteem that they cannot set meaningful standards. They have easy access to more information than any generation has even dreamed of but it swirls around them so thickly that they can hardly sift it, and their endless “entertainment” options allow them to ignore it all anyway.
Even as I start my daughter in a public kindergarten next year, I’m troubled by what I see as a lack of deeper purpose in our country’s education systems. Obama says that we have a mandate to “win the future,” which apparently means beating China or whatever the next great power may be. We have a national fixation on China; it’s not a coincidence that the scolding of Amy Chua, the self-professed “Chinese Tiger Mom,” about the weak parenting philosophy of middle-class Western parents, touched off waves of self-flagellation on the one hand and defensive rage on the other. Our national results might be interpreted to indicate that our parents and schools don’t know what they’re doing or that we’re inferior to the Chinese; if so, that judgment would be a knife twisting in our sides.
However, there’s an odd emptiness at the center of both Obama’s and Chua’s exhortations. What Chua’s philosophy boiled down to is: Be the best, kick all those lazy kids’ butts. But if winning itself is not enough motivation (if the answer to life is not being honored by playing Carnegie Hall and getting the high-paying, prestigious job), it’s not clear what sort of motivation there would be. Similarly, if you’re not innately inspired to want to kick China’s butt, if you ask why?, you are likely to be met with blank stares at best, and accusations of insufficient patriotism at worst.
Let me tip my hand. As someone who has lived and traveled all over the world, I find jingoistic calls to defeat other countries (whether militarily or economically) to ring very hollow. My wife is Chinese; if China conquers America, we’ll make our way in the new order. I teach Semitic languages; if some Middle Eastern country won the “culture war,” I’d work on my Arabic. I like America and wouldn’t choose to live elsewhere permanently, but I’m a human being and a Christian before I’m an American.
Since I teach biblical studies, I began musing: What does the Bible say about formation of character, whether national or personal? It says rather a lot of things, of course, but these recent events got me thinking specifically about the formation of community and ethics in Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy is, among other things, a book about national formation through covenant with God—not only a one-time covenant, but a covenant that is to be remembered and renewed so that it can continue to shape the people. The idea of remembrance is central to the book’s message, and there is an educational aspect to that: The one who shares in the covenant is supposed to make known the ways and ordinances of God to later generations so that they remember as well.
One striking thing about the content of the tradition is its humility. We might expect a nation’s founding stories to be of glory and victory, but Deuteronomy wants the people to remember something different: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…” The focus isn’t just that the Lord rescued them, but that the experience of slavery itself is supposed to affect the way they treat the less powerful among them. For example, they are to give children, slaves, foreigners, and even livestock each their sabbath rest.
For the same reason, they are not to oppress the widow and the orphan, and they are to leave them the gleanings. Even a garment fairly taken as a pledge has to be returned by sunset so that the neighbor can rest comfortably. The parallels with ancient Near-Eastern laws show that these are common concerns, but in Israel such commandments were narrativized in a way that they were not, elsewhere: the exhortations carry motive clauses that appeal to the Israelites’ own experience of hardship.
Some of the politicians who advocate for slashing the safety net came from poor backgrounds themselves, John Boehner being the most visible example. Do they remember that their parents were little better than “slaves in America”? The disparity between Deuteronomy’s commandments and those that one might extract from their policies could scarcely be more stark. The new right-wing bible reads, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of America, so be sure to extract every dollar from your operations so that you don’t end up as one again.”
At a personal level, the Bible warns that this sort of gain is short-lived—a “greed bubble,” if you will: “One who augments wealth by exorbitant interest gathers it for another who is kind to the poor.” And: “the good leave an inheritance to their children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.”
But the warnings to the whole nation are similarly stern: The people are told to “put these words of mine in your heart and soul… and teach them to your children… so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land.” If not, “curses will come upon you,” and the rest of ch. 28 graphically describes them. Essentially, the Bible advocates that Israel must embrace a moral sustainability akin to the ecological sustainability to that we moderns think more about.
Could Americans wake up and embrace this kind of moral sustainability? It may be that the news will overtake this column before it ever appears. As I write this, demonstrators are jamming public buildings in Wisconsin much as Egyptians did Tahrir Square. There’s room to disagree about what would constitute justice in American economics—perhaps public servants will need to reduce their expectations in a period of national austerity—but it was good to see Americans doing something other than waiting for the world to change.
It’s only a start, but if we can also remember, as we set national policy, that we were once religious refugees, hardscrabble pioneers, and many waves of tired, poor, huddled masses—that would be something to celebrate. And it would require a revolution only in the heart and mind, not in the streets.