Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Civilized Society

"Blue Skies"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

As the presidential election campaigns now go into “full swing” in America we have been hearing a great deal about caucuses in Iowa and upcoming primaries – all the various candidates are carefully tailoring their messages designed to play to their political base.

It seems as if most of the country is now in one “camp” or another: the “Clinton Camp” and the Sander’s Camp, “Trump Disciples,” and “Cruz Believers.”  I think that these political base camps are actually quite iconic of what is happening across a large swath of American culture nowadays. So many people are all huddled together into their various “righteous camps” of like-minded individuals - conservatives and progressives, atheists and believers, citizens and foreigners, rich and poor. 

At times these camps are more like armed-fortresses and many times those who are “inside” the camp are quite convinced and certain that those outside have it wrong and those on the inside have it right, those on the outside deserve less and those on the inside deserve more.

A civilization is marked by the degree to which members of the society are all willing to work together for the common good. When any nation turns away from this ideal and becomes a collective of individuals with their own personal agendas who ban together into opposing camps of like-minded others, it becomes a nation of barbarians rather than a civilization.  I wonder if we are well on our way to becoming barbarians nowadays, and we all know the lesson of history regarding the ultimate fate of barbaric cultures.  

Wendell Berry once wrote.

‘Every man for himself’ is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy
or for a panic in a burning nightclub,
appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings.
A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking,
kindness, neighborliness and peace.

I recently came across a wonderful story about a group of “White European” missionaries who had traveled to Africa in order to convert the primitive, pagan tribes to the true Christian religion.  One of the missionaries decided to play a little game with a group of native children by placing a bowl of fruit under a tree, challenging them to a race - whoever got to the tree first would win all the fruit in the bowl.

As the race began, instead of running to the goal, the children mysteriously all joined hands with one another and together gathered around the tree sharing the bowl of fruit. They simply had no idea of what it might mean to run against one another, no concept of how or why only one person would have it all while others looked on. In fact, the very way in which these children defined and understood themselves was not as competing individuals but as a sharing community.


The African word for “I am” is ubuntu. Actually in the Zulu language there is no word for “I am,” the word ubuntu is best translated as:

I am because you are

So many people in America today have fallen into the trap of deceiving themselves into thinking that we are such an advanced and sophisticated civilization and that everyone else wants what we have. But, as I see it, when we withdraw into isolated camps and think we are better than others we are in fact very unsophisticated and “less than civilized,” in fact we are less than human.

A civilized society and a fully human person understands something about Ubuntu – “I am because you are.”

This morning I woke up to another beautiful desert day- the skies are blue, the air is crystal clear, everything seems to belong to everything else. It reminds me of one of my favorite Zen wisdom sayings:

The true person is not anyone in particular,
But like the deep blue color of the limitless sky,
it is everyone – everyone in the world.

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