The Iroquois Confederacy was founded in 1142, and is the oldest living participatory democracy on earth. The confederation of the original 13 colonies into one Republic was deeply influenced by the Iroquois, as were many of the democratic principles of the Constitution. We Americans know the things that make for peace and the common good in our world. But so often we have chosen the opposite. Why is that? Why are we the way we are?
Those deep questions about what it means to be human, about human nature, are at the heart of religious teaching everywhere. In our tradition, Christ is our great teacher. His stories, like the Generous Landowner, tell us “This is what humans are like” and “This is what God is like.” “What do you think?” The Generous Landowner hires people he finds looking for work at four different times in the day: Nine o’clock, Noon, 3 o’clock, and 5 o’clock. And at the end of the day, he gives everyone the same wage.
Very generous, right? Full of grace and compassion. Every household of every worker has enough to eat that day. But not the end of the story! What do the human beings do? They resent the divine, gracious, compassionate generosity. “Why aren’t we given more? Why are they given the same as us?” “Aren’t we more deserving? Aren’t we the favorites?” And then the punch line comes: “The first get paid last, and the last get paid first.” “But everyone gets the same.”
That’s what the reign of God is like, Jesus says. That’s what God’s order is like. Pure, gracious, compassionate generosity. And we’re left saying, “Well that’s nothing like the way it is in The Real World!” Shouldn’t everything be based on merit? Won’t everyone stop working hard if that’s the New Order? We need competition! We need motivation! We need a carrot, or a stick, if we want anything to get done!
That’s works pretty well for some. We have lots of gadgets and pretty things, and nice cars and conveniences. But fewer and fewer people who can afford all those things. We have wonderful medicines, and testing equipment, and treatments. But fewer and fewer people who can afford the co-pay. This seems to me like kind of a trade-off: fast, convenient, and sexy things that move a lot of money around; but incredible amounts of human misery as a result.
The problem with competition as motivation for individual reward as I see it is that not everyone in this society had the same starting point. If it’s a race to see who should get the most, everyone should have the same starting point. But with institutionalized racism that’s not the case. One type of human gets a head start; inherits a starting point farther down the track than all the other types of humans. And so there are disproportionate rewards not based on performance, or merit, but on the color of our skin. And everyone is scrambling over each other to get the carrot, stepping on anyone who gets in the way. That makes for a lot of hurt people. Physically, emotionally, culturally, and financially.
I think human nature wants to keep whatever inherent advantage it possesses in a Darwinian world. That drive is the same as any other animal: survival of my offspring at the expense of any other; give each of them the same competitive advantage over everyone else, to ensure their success; and thereby, the genes of that family tree. Sounds pretty “Law of the Jungle”, doesn’t it? And yet that’s what we seem to have. That’s the game we’ve been playing. For generations.
With the story of the Generous Landowner, Christ our great teacher gives us a different vision: from each according to their time and ability; to each according to their need. Not want. Need. The kingdom of God always addresses the big picture, not the individual wants and motivations but the collective need. The common good. I think we’re seeing the alternative today in America: Violence and uprising in the streets. An “every person for themselves” approach to public health. And a completely utilitarian, “throw away” approach to our eco-system.
Can’t we at least find a way to meet in the middle? Between the utopia of God’s New Order and the current Old Order of the modern empire? Wouldn’t that be a good starting point? It seems to me the way we’ve been doing things up to now is creating a whole lot of collateral damage to our neighbors, our fellow citizens and our environment. Can’t we at least look at alternatives?
Christ’s teachings, like the Generous Landowner today, are thousands of years old , and still amazingly relevant for human society today. Human nature still resents equality that’s not based on merit. Human nature still wants to keep score against the other, whomever the “other” may be. After two thousand years, we still have a deep insecurity about there being enough if we share equally and generously. We still have a deep fear that if we help those most in need, our descendants will suffer. And yet that’s not what Christ our Lords teaches us. That’s not what the reign of God promises. God’s New Order is based completely in the common good. Our nation’s most deeply cherished values are based in the same. Must we continue in envy of the other, whomever we pin that on, because the Creator of all Things is so generous?
Must we keep thinking the vision and ethics of Christ don’t apply to the Real World? We proclaim that God in Christ lived in the Real World we think we own. And died for speaking out, and loving it so deeply as to suggest change. We believe in the incarnation of the living God in the life, death, and resurrection of the Teaching Christ. And we are invited to envision ourselves today, in the New Order of God.