Monday, January 16, 2006

Approaching Spiritual Death?

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

I guess we're in trouble then.

But seriously, let's explore this statement. Depending on how you define social uplift and whose social uplift you're concerned with, we do spend more on military defense and war than we do on social uplift. Sitting here pre-coffee, I can think of two explanations that could justify that. Let's see if they work.

The first is that I have a long-standing ideological and practical aversion to large-scale federal interventions for people who are poor or in need in some other way. Other countries seem to be able to do it, yet I can't think of very many examples where we've done it well. We can't -surely, we can't- let people starve to death. So we created food stamps, etc, surely one of the most punitive and demeaning programs ever devised by well-meaning humans. I used to have students go apply for Public Aid, to get a feel for how clients are actually treated. I stopped, not because they weren't learning anything, but because it wasn't fair to clients who were waiting in line for services. We can't let children be unsafe in their own homes. That's unspeakable. But the second you start to define child abuse and create an agency to protect them, the waters become muddy indeed.

I'm a much bigger fan of small not-for-profits doing locally appropriate work. (I do understand that these agencies are not always the right answer, but as a first thought, that's where my allegiances would be.) And, if my theoretical preferences were national policy (as if!), we would rightly be spending more on defense than on social services.

However, it doesn't take long to come up with exceptions to either side of this argument. Head Start is a federal program that works very well, indeed. Small, locally-appropriate anti-abortion agencies, just as one example, can cause huge amounts of havoc in very little time. So, apparently the problem isn't "federally funded or not". The problem is size and versatility and the methodology for tweaking service arrays over time. We could create effective and efficient services at the federal level, if the political will were there.

Secondly....Maybe it's not the job of the federal government to attend to our spiritual health. Perhaps we hire pastors for that. Or we go meditate on the mountain top. Or whatever we do. Except.... There are two immediate problems with that kind of argument. First, it implies that spirituality is the purview of experts. Experts we, for the most part, only come into contact with one day a week. Yet, most people these days have come around to the thinking that some kind of spiritual attention is necessary to be a vibrantly healthy person. The form the spirituality takes matters less (a lot less) than the fact of its existence in a person's life. So, the compartmentalizing argument won't work.

Moreover, in my particular version of spirituality -not for everyone, I grant you- spirituality only makes sense if it expresses itself in the world somehow. It's ludicrous to say that, say, some Biblical story or some saint's life or an encounter with a deeply spiritual person moved you, and then not move. You have to do something for the spirituality to be authentic. In my little world view, anyway. But from that argument, it naturally follows that somehow or another, we have to tend to the needs of people in emergencies and we have to tend to society to ensure that fewer and fewer emergencies occur. Failing to act is a kind of spiritual death.

So, where have we gotten in this argument? I think we've worked our way around to
1) It at least could be the role of the federal government to provide services for the citizens of the country and the population of the world, for that matter, and
2) Helping others, at the federal level or not, is an expression of spiritual health.

So, if we're doing neither one -or doing neither one well or with enough political commitment- then I'm afraid that Martin Luther King was right. We're approaching spiritual death. Perhaps we could use this commemorative day to re-commit ourselves to a just world, for our own sakes as much as for anyone else's.

And I'll go get some coffee now. Perhaps none of this makes sense.

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