On Beginning

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“This isn’t working. We need to start over.” Virtually nobody ever wants to hear that. Our natural tendency is to protect our accomplishments and hang onto what we’ve got, even if that might not be good for us. Our brains are not designed to assess risk accurately. We underrate the risks of the mundane (cars, bathrooms) and overrate the risks of the dramatic (airplanes, tornadoes). The Known typically appears safer than The Unknown.

Americans are no more likely to be killed by terrorists than by unstable pieces of furniture falling over and crushing them. Even so, “a bomb-wielding terrorist” is an idea that triggers fear in our brains more readily than the idea of “global wealth disparity.” Specific images of violence tend to rivet our attention. The sort of violence dealt by abstract social arrangements seems peripheral, unless you happen to be a direct victim. Global wealth disparity actually kills 21,000 people a day by starvation. Oxfam reported last year that the world’s 62 richest billionaires owned as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population (3.6 billion people). Five years earlier, 388 billionaires shared that wealth. Oxfam largely attributes this escalating concentration in wealth to corporate and individual abuses of tax law. Such abuses could be reigned in if governments somehow developed the will to do so, thus freeing up wealth for programs for the common good. Like feeding the hungry.

But to most Americans, terrorism feels like a more urgent threat than death by starvation. Most seem to find comfort in the rituals of “homeland security,” despite its curtailment of civil liberties and its scapegoating of immigrants and the poor.

We have been commanded to “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). This leaves us no option to stand frozen in fear. Fear of the stranger is no excuse; fear of the unknown is no excuse; fear of failure is no excuse. The halting progress of justice throughout human history proves that courageous acts of love do matter. At least 25% of the population of Ancient Rome was enslaved; the United States Census of 1860 showed that 12.6% of the U.S. population was enslaved; and in 2013, the United Nations estimated that 0.4% of the world’s population was enslaved. Because of human population growth, this 0.4% represents more people enslaved in our world today than at any time in human history – roughly 27 to 30 million people. So even though the trend gives hope, the shameful reality challenges us to care.

And it takes courage to care. Many real threats in our world today are too overwhelming to think about for long. We can even feel tempted to block them out of our minds altogether. But the spirit of life and love that flows through all time and space is a spirit of healing. It doesn’t especially matter what we think about the world and all its troubles, it matters that we care to discover what our own roles are in the healing. If we sometimes feel frantic or disheartened or paralyzed, we can turn to each other for help.

“. . . in all your men’s and women’s meetings, see that virtue flows, and see that all your words be gracious, and see that love flows, which bears all things, that kindness, tenderness, and gentleness be among you . . . For you have the light to see all evil, and the power to withstand it, and to see that nothing be lacking.” – George Fox (1671)

Like frozen water, our frozen hearts need an extra dose of warmth to boost them through that reluctant “phase change” and melt them into the flowing waters of life that can heal. Every new day, let us start a new fire in every Quaker meeting, to provide the warmth that courage needs to find a better way.