Selfishness goes by many names. One of the strangest is “Christianity.” I wouldn’t presume to define a religion, but some time back my wife sent me a story about the prosperity gospel. Written by Michael Horton, himself an evangelical, the pre-greatest inauguration of all time piece is called “Evangelicals should be deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s attempt to mainstream heresy.” Horton goes on to describe the belief system of the prosperity gospel that includes people becoming gods and the idea of positive thoughts drawing good things to you. Quite apart from completely ignoring most of what Jesus is recorded to have taught, the prosperity folk tend to think the Almighty wants them to be, of all things that most shallow, wealthy. “More for me” also goes by many names. The most common is “selfish.”
I grew up evangelical as well. One of the messages drilled into my malleable head was that Jesus taught putting other people before yourself. “Do unto others” was the least you could get away with and still call yourself “Christian.” Part of the disconnect here is that nobody has the authority to define a religion. Not even the Pope can say unilaterally what Christianity is. Protestants aren’t obligated to agree. And with prosperity gospelers with their enormous cash flow telling us that it’s God’s will, well, heresy looks mighty attractive. We’ve come to see the error of heresy, however. Nobody can claim their brand alone has the answer. It’s a theological anything goes. I suggest we go old school and call a cad a cad. Selfishness by any other name would smell as bad.
It’s poor taste to claim your own self-gain as a benefit to society. I, of all people, would handle my wealth properly so that nobody suffers. Except those I don’t like. Doth not Scripture saith, “ I have said, Ye are gods”? Yet earlier in the same Psalm come those easily ignored words, “Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.” Missing are “build a wall across your southern border,” and “speak untruths when it is convenient to do so,” and “distrust those who speak a language not your own.” Oh what the Bible would say if only we could write it ourselves! But fear not, for we have many who believe the prosperity gospel. And they’ve already got the task well in hand. And their lexicon doesn’t even include the word “selfish,” so you need not worry about such uncomfortable thoughts. Get rich and all will be well.
He was a bearded young man, maybe in his twenties. He kind of reminded me of my own youth, only cooler. I was at a stop sign on a snow-covered hill with tires honestly a little more worn than they should’ve been. Three times I tried to get some traction only to have to reverse and give it just a touch more gas. He walked by and called out “On the count of three, okay?” I shouted my thanks. It took him a couple of minutes to get me moving and as much as I wanted to stop and give him something for his efforts I knew that if I did I’d be right back where we’d started. Once I got moving, I had to keep going. I’ve driven in snow since I earned my Pennsylvania license in the snow belt of Lake Erie and I’ve helped drivers stuck in snow a time or two, but I was touched by this young man helping an older guy in a neighborhood he didn’t know get out of a jamb. That’s what I think of Americans as being like.
Seeing the utter selfishness of those “elected” officials posturing over the last few days I say to myself they didn’t grow up in the snow and cold. Nothing compels a young man with better things to do to help a frazzled older guy except for common human decency. Those who grow up with hardship know the value of their fellow human beings. We help each other because that’s what people do. Those born to wealth and power help themselves and only themselves. They need to learn the message of snow. Nature is our most natural teacher.
I don’t know his name. He didn’t have any idea that I had four hours to drive through snow, sleet, and freezing rain, but he helped me despite that. He didn’t ask for any money and I’m sure he expected nothing so coarse. I’m old enough to miss such kindheartedness and to cherish it deeply when I encounter it. Snow and hills and bald tires aren’t a winning combination, but the human capacity for goodness mixes well with any conditions. On a cold winter’s day I encountered the warmth of human concern for a guy in trouble. I need to listen to what the weather is saying more closely. More than that, I need to step out of my car more often and throw my shoulder against a stranger’s hatchback. It’s what makes us human.
In a world with finite resources, many commodities are in short supply. One clear overabundance is that of ego. We’ve seen that clearly in the long, long months of this year’s political campaign and the single month since then. Running a nation is no longer to be a servant to the people but to the self. So it was while out on an errand I noticed a tract stuck in my car door handle. I’ve mentioned Tony Alamo before. This incarcerated evangelist has a disturbing number of supporters in New York City, at least to go by how prevalent his flyers are in Midtown. I’d never, in my suburban Jersey neighborhood, had my car violated by one before, so this was something new. What caught my eye was the grammatically inept headline: “Bill Clinton, The Pope, and I.” As a title it should have said “and Me.” Letting that foible pass, we’re still left with a religious zealot classifying himself with duly elected world leaders.
I know that the Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy, by the way. Popes, however, are elected from among their peers, and so it’s not purely a matter of one man putting himself forward as the people’s choice. Alamo’s headline screams of a wounded ego. Donald Trump’s famously thin skin does the same. Not that that makes me for one second sympathetic. I grew up with a religion that taught self-denial, self-abnegation, and putting others before oneself. Self, self, self. Selfishness used to be a sign of poor manners or bad breeding. Now it’s the way to the highest political office in the land. We clearly have a surfeit of ego. The same is true for the terrible plague of racism and sexism that have become the flavor of the day. Too much concern with self.
Not only is this a political aberration, it also goes against human nature. In the literal sense. Our species has thrived because of its sympathy for others. We see this is primate societies. When one individual, even—or especially—an alpha male, asserts himself beyond the good of the group, he is taken down. In addition to our opposable thumbs, we’re also endowed with a sense of fairness, of sharing. Call it the ethics of nature. Not only that, but most religions agree—the sign of a just society is one where everyone is cared for. So it may be that we don’t have enough coltan to make all the smart phones we need but we do have enough ego at the top to go around, and then some. Might I suggest it might be time for a fire sale?
Books don’t tell us what is true; books tell us what could be true. When I was growing up, under the influence of the Bible, I thought that non-fiction books were the truth. I came to understand that people disagreed about the truth, but it took a long time before I realized that books were merely the attempts of their writers to argue their version of the truth. If someone knew the actual truth that person would be a god. These thoughts came to me as I read the fascinating and mystical Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil, by Paul Levy. In many ways this is a mind-altering book. For one thing, Levy has made me reconsider how real evil is. Looking at what’s going on in the world it is increasingly difficult to deny the reality of objective evil. Levy’s book gives it a name and even attempts to analyze whence it comes. He calls it “wetiko.”
For several years now I have tried to find information on the monster known as the wendigo. Wetiko is a version of the same word, and it was this that drew me to Levy’s book. The wendigo is a shape-shifting creature that preys on humans. It is mentioned or featured in a few fictional books, and most recently featured in an episode of Sleepy Hollow. Since most academics don’t treat monsters seriously, it is difficult to find accounts of the beast. It is often discussed as a fictionalized version of cannibalism. It is a monster always hungry. The more it eats, the hungrier it becomes. It is this aspect that leads Levy to use it as his main metaphor for evil.
The evil that Dispelling Wetiko focuses on is the extreme selfishness our society has come to embrace. For example, our entire economic system is a fiction propagated by the ultra-wealthy. By defining a fiction as valuable and making it available to everyone else by a system of debt, the one-percenters keep everyone else, literally, in thrall to them. There is no gold to back up the fictional value they claim they have, and yet they consume others constantly in their evil greed. In a nuanced argument Levy suggests that this evil is real. Becoming conscious is the only way to combat it. There’s so much going on in this book that it has to be read several times, I’m sure, to get it all figured out. As I finished this one, however, I thought I had read a book that may actually be true.