what’s your letter?

Poor Hester Prynne.

Like most American high school students, I struggled through Hawthorne’s classic, trying to understand the complexities of humanity, handicapped by my mere 16 years of life experience. And only now, with over 40 additional years to my credit, some of it’s beginning to make a little more sense.

Hester’s community responds to her adultery by forcing her to wear a scarlet A as a badge of shame, a symbol of her sin.

I’ve been wondering how it would be for all of us to wear placards advertising our flaws and secret sins.

  • E for Extortion. Taking advantage of anyone poorer or less powerful than ourselves.
  • D for Dishonesty. Deliberately deceiving another person for our own gain.
  • N for Neglect. Seeing hurt and needs in others and responding by looking the other way.
  • C for Control. Using power (financial or physical) to control other people.
  • G for Gluttony. Consuming more than our fair share of limited resources.
  • M for Murder. Destroying the life or reputation of another person.
  • T for Theft. Taking and/or possessing that which is not rightfully ours.

And, of course, A for Adultery. Unfaithfulness to one’s spouse in thought, word, or deed. (This is just a sampling. Feel free to add your own special sins. You know what they are.)

When I was just a child, someone explained to me that when you point your finger at another person, there are three fingers pointing back at yourself.

Recognizing our own sin increases our strength, our humility, and our empathy for others. A failure to recognize one’s own sin is living a lie.

Generally speaking, we’re far too busy shaking our heads and wagging our tongues over the sins of others. We convince ourselves that our sins are not nearly so egregious as are our neighbor’s.

And why do you behold the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but fail to consider the beam that is in your own eye? Or how will you say to your brother, Let me pull out the speck out of your eye; and, behold, a beam is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the speck out of your brother’s eye.

© panthera2, 2012.

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the value of one

It’s taken me many years and more pain and heartache than any one person should ever have to bear. But I think I have finally come to understand the value of one person, one friendship, one relationship. Over the past year, I can point to so many times when I would not or could not have gone on living had it not been for the intervention of one person.

Often, that intervention occurs in small ways. A glass of cold water. An invitation to lunch. A note of encouragement. Sometimes, it is as simple as an acknowledgement of my existence.

Fair weather friends are abundant and of questionable value. I think of the words of Jesus:

For if you love them which love you, what reward do you have? Can’t even tax collectors do that? And if you greet your brethren only, what are you doing more than others? Do not even the publicans so?

During the past year, I experienced a catastrophic life crisis. Before the crisis, I had more friends and acquaintances than I could have listed. Now, all but about a dozen have drifted away. It’s quite an awakening to find out that so much of my life was a delusion.

I’ve spent months licking my wounds, and perhaps that’s a necessary part of the process. But I sense that it’s now time to get up and be the kind of person that I think others should be.

It’s almost amusing to see the way people have twisted the teachings of Jesus to come up with a rigid code of behavior entailing countless “Thou shalt nots.” Clearly, Jesus himself had (has) much more interest in the “Thou shalts.”

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked Jesus a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

In one of the gospel accounts, the lawyer, still not satisfied, presses Jesus further, asking him to define what constitutes being a neighbor. In response to this query, Jesus tells the well-know story of the “Good Samaritan.”

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that love is the trump card.

And love is most clearly realized when it is intentional, active, and directed toward one.

My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.

© panthera2, 2012.

danger of assumptions

The assumptions that guide and control our everyday thinking and behaviors are generally helpful, saving us the trouble of having to consciously consider our every thought and movement.

Assumptions become dangerous and destructive, however, when they stand in the way of our progress and improvement as individuals and as a society.  We assumed our (flat) earth was at the center of the universe. We assumed that a particular ethnicity or gender was inferior to others.

A movie I recently saw reminded me of one of our contemporary, cherished assumptions. In K-Pax (2001), Prot is a character who claims to be visiting Earth from some distant planet. At one point, he describes the social structure of his home planet to his psychiatrist, Dr. Mark Powell. When Powell asks him about punishment on his planet, Prot responds as follows.

You humans, most of you, subscribe to this policy of an eye for an eye, a life for a life, which is known throughout the universe for its stupidity. Even your Buddha and your Christ had quite a different vision, but nobody’s paid much attention to them, not even the Buddhists or the Christians. You humans. It’s hard to imagine how you’ve made it this far.

Our assumption is that punishment and vengeance are necessary to keep individuals in society in check. We simply assume eye for eye and tooth for tooth. We assume that society has a right to its pound of flesh for every wrongdoing. We assume that vengeance is good and necessary, a God-ordained right. And it looks like the U.S. is very serious about this assumption. Consider the following.

  • The U.S. leads the world when it comes to prisoners per capita—730 incarcerated individuals for every 100,000 of the overall population. For comparison, we can look at some other countries: Russia (508), South Africa (310), Mexico (199), England and Wales (154), Canada (117), Italy (108), Germany (83), Switzerland (76), Japan (55).
  • The population of the U.S. is about 5% of the total world population. U.S. prison population is about 25% of the world prison population.
  • In 1980, about 350,000 people were incarcerated in the U.S. By the end of 2002, over 2 million people were incarcerated in the U.S. (at a cost of over $40 billion per year).
  • The majority of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. are people of color. The percentage of people of color is even higher on death row.
  • Prison sentences in the U.S. tend to be much longer than those in the rest of the world. The U.S. is one of only nine countries which has both the death penalty and life without parole. (The others are China, Comoros, Cuba, Israel, Kazakhstan, Lesotho, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe.

The purpose of this essay is to challenge the acceptance of our assumptions concerning equating punishment, retribution, vengeance, and getting even with justice. We need to think about alternatives, but that’s not the purpose of this particular essay.

When Dr. Powell asks Prot why he chooses to visit Earth, Prot says he likes to visit class BA-3 planets (early stage of evolution, future uncertain). He also really enjoys our fruits and vegetables.

For further reading on this subject, you may want to consider the following links. Much of the information listed above comes from these sources.

© panthera2, 2012.