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On Selfishness

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The concept of selfishness has such a wide variety of meanings and contradictory nuances that it is almost impossible to disentangle them all. Selfishness has been lauded as a virtue and castigated as a vice. Some have even attributed selfishness to objects that have no ‘self’: most notably to genes and memes. So let’s start with a definition:

Selfishness: the pursuit of one’s own happiness.

This is a very simple definition, but I think it helps us disentangle some of the contradictions bound up in the concept of selfishness. Pascal, in a famous passage from his Penseés says,

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Selfishness, by this definition is both universal and indispensable. In fact, despite Christian diatribes against selfishness, the Bible says almost nothing against it. Quite the contrary. The Bible assumes that people are selfish and addresses them accordingly with appeals to their happiness and self interest. You won’t find God encouraging self sacrifice for it’s own sake. If there is no vice in selfishness, there is certainly no virtue in unselfishness. There is nothing to be gained by harsh treatment of oneself. When Peter, apparently seeking commendation, tells Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you!” Jesus replies,

“I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.”

The implication is clear. “You got a bargain, Peter. Whatever you gave up, you get back in spades, and to top it all off, you get eternal life.” In giving everything up to follow Jesus, Peter had only acted with intelligent self interest. Even Jesus pursued his own happiness, for the writer of Hebrews tells us that “for the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame.”

If selfishness is universal and indispensable, why is it considered such a vice? Why do we teach children not to be selfish? Why do we revile the titans of industry who put their own interests ahead of their companies’?

That last question contains a clue. Hardly anyone objects to corporate executives reaping rewards for their diligent efforts as long as those rewards do not come at the expense of their employees or their customers or of taxpayers. When your pursuit of happiness infringes on mine, then I’m perfectly willing to denounce your selfishness. The idea is that in pursuing our own happiness we ought to take care not to obstruct others’ pursuit of their happiness. Selfishness becomes most selfish not when it is concerned with self but when it is unconcerned with others. This leads to a second definition.

Selfishness: indifference to others.

It’s not necessary to reconcile these two definitions; words can have more than one meaning. We just need to be clear what meaning we are using. The first definition leads us to a universal, essential characteristic of humans. But indifference to others need not be universal nor essential. In fact, taken to an extreme, indifference to others thwarts our pursuit of happiness.

Of course, some level of indifference is essential to our health and happiness. If I were really concerned about the plight of everyone in need, whether AIDS victims in Africa, child prostitutes in Southeast Asia, or poor people driven from their homes right here in America, I would be paralyzed by the magnitude of raw need. I can only be really concerned about those who come within my purview, those who are my neighbors.

This neighborly concern is not in conflict with my self interest. By showing kindness to my neighbors, I am making my neighborhood more civil, more charitable. If I have mercy on them, someone may have mercy on me when I am in need. Real kindness, however, does not spring from such enlightened self interest. It springs from genuine affection for others.

When Jesus wanted to illustrate neighborly love, he told the story of the good Samaritan. In the story, the religious “good guys” concerned with their position and reputation, do not see a fellow sufferer. They see an annoyance. The Samaritan, however, has compassion on him. When he sees the man bloodied and hurt, he hurts too. He is motivated not by self interest but by spontaneous affection for another human being. He suffers with him, envisioning himself in the same predicament. This upwelling of compassion compels him to tend the man’s wounds, take him to Urgent Care, and pay for his treatment.

Does the Samaritan act unselfishly? Yes and no. Certainly he was not indifferent to the wounded man. Love, by its very nature, is other centered. Love takes pleasure in serving the one loved. The Samaritan was not annoyed at having to stop. He was not grudging in his efforts to help. He gave freely and unconstrainedly. It was his pleasure to serve. In serving, he pursued his own happiness and no doubt found greater fulfillment than the priest and Levite who had each passed by the man and left him to die.

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Guns in Church

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Pastor Ken Pagano’s invitation to his congregation to bring their guns to church made the New York Times. It apparently made the news in other countries as well. Great. Conservative Christians are gun-toting sociopaths. Liberal Christians are peace-loving and reasonable, like Jesus.

Only Jesus wasn’t. He told his followers that they would have enemies everywhere. He told them he came to bring division and strife. “A man’s enemies,” he said, “will be members of his own household.” He told his followers to bring swords for protection, even though he planned to give himself up. He deliberately broke the law to call attention to its oppressiveness, and he openly challenged the authorities of his day. He died a convicted felon.

If you want to invoke a role-model for peace and respectability, Jesus is not your best bet.

I think Pastor Pagano’s stunt is ill-advised and unwise but Constitutionally protected. Minnesota had a law for a while requiring businesses and institutions to post a sign if they banned guns. Our church dutifully complied: “The Harbor Church bans guns on these premises.” So did our local YMCA and several community colleges. It sort of made sense in the Twin Cities. The law eventually fell to legal challenges.

(When I was teaching at a local community college, I was told first that I could not carry a gun anywhere on school property,  even if I had a permit. A few weeks later, the policy was amended. I could bring a gun to school as long as it remained unloaded and locked away in my car. I own an ancient shotgun that my dad gave me years ago to hunt pheasant. I don’t consider a gun my best protection against armed criminals or an overreaching government, but that could be because I am not very proficient with a gun and can’t imagine actually shooting someone with one.)

But rural Minnesota is famed for its prime hunting lands. I’ve heard of places where the kids bring their guns to school so they don’t have to go home before going out to hunt. Of course, the guns are hunting rifles, and they are locked up during the day, and the kids are all well-versed in gun safety. But I can’t imagine a school in the Cities giving the go-ahead for such a scheme.

The Constitutional right to bear arms is based on the premise that arming our government without retaining the right of the citizens to arm themselves could lead to the collapse of our democracy. Armed citizens are a check on overreaching government. The history of the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s demonstrates the limitations of pitting armed citizens against an armed government. While the federal government effectively demonstrated its authority, the army was unable to enforce the whiskey tax, and it was repealed in 1803. Both sides could claim a victory.

A lot of NRA members and other gun enthusiasts still consider the right of citizens to bear arms as a protection against the government. That’s why they don’t want a ban on assault weapons. A group of guys with shotguns and hunting rifles would not last long against a trained military force armed with M1s and 50-caliber machine guns. It’s not that they expect the government to turn on them any time soon; it’s a matter of principle. They want to be ready if the government gets out of hand.

For a lot of Democrats the NRA stance borders on insanity. Not only does the NRA oppose restrictions on gun ownership, but they regard the government as a potential enemy. For those accustomed to thinking of the government as the solution to their problems, it’s hard to conceive of people who consider the government to be the source of theirs.

I doubt Jesus would advocate on either side of the gun debate. He always seemed more interested in personal responsibility than in questions of policy, unless the policies were unjust to the poor. When his critics tried to embroil him in the hot-button issues of his day, he always refocused on our obligations before God: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” He would remind gun advocates that God told us not to kill but to lay down our lives. He would also call the gun opponents to repentance.

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Jesus Weeps

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Jesus wept at the grave of his friend, Lazarus. Those who were present thought he wept for Lazarus’ death. But how could that be so since he knew he was about to restore Lazarus to life? What was it that made Jesus weep?

I’m not sure what it was, though I have some ideas.

Actor Heath Ledger died recently. He was only 28. As is bound to happen in our celebrity-obsessed culture, his untimely death has become round-the-clock news. I feel a touch of vertigo when I consider the unknown but no less loved men, women, and children who die every day—some from malnutrition, some from preventable disease, some from violence and war. All untimely deaths are tragic, and I am glad, really, that I don’t have to read or know about them all. I would be overwhelmed by death.

Still, Mr. Ledger’s death is likewise tragic. Even if Jesus welcomed him into heaven, it is tragic for the family and friends he has left behind. I think Jesus would weep with them for their grief, for their loss. He would want to comfort and encourage them, show them kindness and love, send them flowers and bake them cookies, eat with them, grieve with them, weep with them.

Not so some who have taken his name. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, plan to picket Mr. Ledger’s funeral. They plan to spread hatred and lies in Jesus’ name. They plan to disdain the grief of Mr. Ledger’s family and friends, denounce his life, and callously make use of his death as an occasion for furthering their own perverse agenda. Nothing could be further from the love of Jesus Christ.

Let no one dare consider their actions Christian; they are wicked and hypocritical. By their actions, they exchange the glory of the one they call their Lord for fleeting infamy and self-martyrdom. Jesus spoke of such people when he said, “They have their reward.” Perhaps for them, too, he weeps.

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