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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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.

in the name of god?

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch teaches his daughter one of the most critical lessons any of us could ever hope to master.

If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

I don’t claim to have mastered this simple trick, but two movies I saw in the past two days have forced me into making some progress.

For My Father (2008) is set in Tel Aviv. Terek, a young Palestinian man, is a suicide bomber with a mission to detonate in a crowded marketplace to restore his father’s honor. Before seeing this film, I could never have condoned such an act of destruction. After seeing this film, I still cannot. But I do have a little better understanding of the Palestinian “point of view.” I also have a little better understanding of the Israeli “point of view.” For My Father does an excellent job of helping us see through the eyes of real people on both sides of this horrible conflict.

The War Within (2005) is set mainly in New York City. Hassan, a Pakistani student, is mistakenly arrested (and tortured) because he is suspected of being a terrorist. Burning with anger over the injustice, Hassan becomes deeply devoted to his religious faith and joins a New York-based terrorist cell intent on detonating bombs in Manhattan. Before seeing this film, I could never have condoned such an act of destruction. After seeing this film, I still cannot. But I do have a little better understanding of the radical Islamist “point of view.” I also have a little better understanding of the U.S. government’s “point of view.” The War Within does an excellent job of helping us see through the eyes of real people.

What disturbs me the most, however, is the way we humans commit so much violence and killing with divine approval.

In God We Trust
Insha’Allah
In Jesus’ Name

Violence will always be with us. We will never cease hurting one another. But I cannot accept our killing each other and bringing pain into others’ lives in the name of God. I cannot bring myself to honor and worship a God who promotes our destroying one another.

It seems to me that none of us have a monopoly on violence (just as none of us have a monopoly on non-violence and compassion).

  • How many Muslims did the Christians kill in the Crusades?
  • Did the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire really massacre 1.5 million Armenian Christians in the early 1900s?
  • Did 200,000 Muslims really die at the hands of Christian Serbs and Croats in the 1990s?
  • Is it true that the Nazis (mostly Christian) exterminated 6 million Jews in the 20th century?
  • Did Christian churches in the U.S. and Germany actually bless the bombs (and the soldiers) that killed their fellow Christians?

Just a sampling. Enough to know that we all have blood on our hands.

The forecast is not good. Doesn’t look like things will be clearing up in the foreseeable future.

Maybe we can’t stop it, but just maybe we can slow things down just a little by applying Atticus’ “simple trick”  in our own little, insignificant, individual lives. Just maybe. A little.

© panthera2, 2012.