Losing Moses on the Freeway: An Interview with Chris Hedges
By John W. Whitehead
June 23, 2005
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them, or serve them.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.—The Ten Commandments
The posting of the Ten Commandments in public places and buildings has been a decades long cultural and legal battle in the United States. No doubt important to religious groups, the question has always been the Commandments’ relevance outside strictly religious confines.
The Commandments are essentially a list of religious edicts, according to passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy, given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. The first four are designed to guide the believer toward a proper relationship with God. The remaining six deal with our relationships with one another. Protestants, Catholics and Jews have compiled slightly different lists, but the core of the Commandments remains the same. Muslims, while they do not list the Commandments in the Koran, do honor the laws of Moses, whom they see as a prophet.
The Commandments, however, are not simply rules. “The commandments,” writes Chris Hedges in Losing Moses on the Freeway (Free Press, 2005), “are one of the earliest attempts to lay down rules and guidelines to sustain community. The commandments include the most severe violations and moral dilemmas in human life, although these violations often lie beyond the scope of the law. They were for the ancients, and are for us, the rules that, when honored, hold us together and when dishonored lead to alienation, discord and violence.”
Chris Hedges was a foreign correspondent for nearly two decades for The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio. He was a member of the team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for The New York Times’ coverage of global terrorism, and he received the 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. Hedges is the author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning—a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction—and What Every Person Should Know About War. A Senior Fellow at The Nation Institute, he teaches in the Program for American Studies at Princeton University in New Jersey where he also lives. oldSpeak recently sat down with Chris Hedges to discuss his book on the Ten Commandments.
John Whitehead: In your book, you argue that the Ten Commandments hold us together as a community. Why?
Chris Hedges: I think that is exactly why they were designed—to create, foster and protect the community. The Commandments deal with probably the most profound violations and relationships in human life. That is why they are so interesting, and that is why they have held up for 6,000 years. I see them as guideposts. They lead away from the kind of society we live in and toward a society built more on self-sacrifice, concern for our neighbors and others and for how we live our lives. For example, I have lived in countries at war, such as the former Yugoslavia, where essentially everything happening around you is a violation of almost every single Commandment—from honoring your father and mother to worshipping the idols of war and power to, of course, murder. Thus, I believe the Commandments have something to say for those of us that care about human communities.
JW: The posting of the Ten Commandments is a huge issue with many evangelical Christians.
CH: I believe the Christian right has completely perverted the Ten Commandments. What they say they want to do is use the Ten Commandments as the basis for biblical law. I don’t know how you can do that. First of all, the first four Commandments are designed to guide the believer toward a proper relationship with God. It’s only the remaining six that deal with our relationship with others. These are the ones that begin, “You shall not.”
JW: What you seem to be saying is that you cannot force people to have a proper relationship with God.
CH: I don’t see how you can because that immediately results in forcing people to have the relationship you defined as proper. Only two of the Commandments are incorporated into our legal system—the prohibition against theft or stealing and the prohibition against murder. Adultery used to be, but in most states it no longer is. I think the power of the Commandments is that they deal with violations or dilemmas that are beyond the scope of law. That is why they resonate for me. Coveting, for instance, or keeping the Sabbath or not taking the name of the Lord your God in vain is deeply ethical. These deal with values, which is why the Bible is a powerful and important document. It helps us determine how we should live our lives.
JW: Are you saying that American society should not in any way legislate the Bible?
CH: How can it? People who claim that the Bible is the literal truth of God are selective literalists. They pick out what they want, and they ignore all sorts of other stuff. Besides, God is unknowable. That’s the power of the Bible.
JW: What do you mean by that?
CH: God is completely unknowable. That concept comes out of the Ten Commandments. I use that verse at the beginning of my book, the powerful quote from Exodus which reads, “And the people stood afar off while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” God is unknowable. God is a mystery, and it is how we respond to that mystery.
JW: Did Moses know God?
CH: Supposedly Moses had a relationship with God that was beyond the relationship that the people of Israel had. But remember that when God is asked for his name, he answers, “I am who I am.” In other words, you will know me when you experience me. I think that no human being knows God. That is certainly my reading of the Bible.
JW: The First Commandment states that we should have no other god before the Creator. Is it not inescapable that human beings will always be pursuing other gods?
CH: Martin Luther said that we all have gods; it just depends on which one.
JW: Can the Ten Commandments become a god?
CH: Anything can become a god. Religion can, but not a god so much as it can become an idol. It can become our god, but then it becomes idolatry. This is what the Commandments warn us is an idolatrous life.
JW: How do we avoid breaking the First Commandment?
CH: Augustine wrote in The City of God that there are only two forms of worship— worship of God and worship of the self. When we worship idols, power, our own virtue or goodness, we are worshipping the self. When we worship our nation as somehow transcendent and able to express the will of the divine, our career or money, then ultimately we are worshipping the self. This is exceedingly dangerous. The far Christian right, for example, has created an idol in the form of the nation. Ultimately, it is self-exaltation, which runs completely contrary to the message of the Bible and certainly the message of the Ten Commandments. Moreover, the agenda of the radical Christian right is to empower themselves. They call it creating a Christian nation, but let’s be frank. It’s about giving them absolute power.
JW: To counter that, what they seem to be saying is that they are reaffirming the original Christian nation—the one created by the founders who wrote the Constitution.
CH: That’s the excuse they use, that this was the original intent of the founding fathers. This is a complete perversion of American history, as anyone who has sat and read the Federalist Papers knows. What they want is to create a system by which they are empowered and all other forces, both political and social, are neutered and disempowered. That comes out of their rhetoric where they delegitimize everybody who is against them, not just because they don’t recognize the validity of their opinion. It’s worse than that, however. They even demonize people like me and condemn me by calling me a nominal Christian or part of the forces of secular humanism—forces, of course, that are propelled by Satan. This is a Manichaean view of the world, which is very frightening and dangerous. Many well-meaning evangelicals, such as those within my own family, are just trying to live decent, good lives.
JW: I’m sure you’re familiar with the Left Behind novels and movies, which promote the apocalyptic thought form. Are they an extension of Manichaean thought?
CH: Yes, of course. But it is even worse than that because the final aesthetic of this movement is violence, which the Left Behind series exemplifies. It is this obsession with apocalyptic destruction, which is deeply disturbing. It is an element of most totalitarian movements where tremendous violence is spoken of in a kind of clinical way, as if it is a purging of our society.
JW: A good thing?
CH: A good thing, of course.
JW: You mean that it promotes the return of Christ?
CH: Yes, but it is really self-destruction. If you strip down their ideology, it is really about hatred and fear. If you strip down their apocalyptic vision, it is about self-annihilation. In a classical sense, it can be called idolatry. That is what idols do. They destroy others and ultimately destroy those that worship them.
JW: The Second Commandment specifically concerns idols. It is inevitable that people will always worship some form of idol. Moses walked down from the mountain with the tablets—the Ten Commandments. Was he not carrying an idol?
CH: No. He was carrying a contract. In ancient society, contracts for Hittite society, Mesopotamian society and certainly the society built by the people of Israel were written down. According to the Bible, the Ten Commandments were a contract between God and his people. And the juxtaposition of the Commandments with the golden calf is the story of honoring the covenant that one makes with others with the divine versus honoring the physical object which in this case, of course, was the golden calf itself.
JW: Something made by man’s hands.
JW: You write that we can depend on our idols to give us order and meaning. What do you mean by that?
CH: Ultimately, belief means embracing a kind of uncertainty and unknowability, and that is frightening. Tillich said that you can find out what someone’s god is by asking them about their ultimate concern, their most important concern in life.
JW: The United States Supreme Court took Tillich’s definition and enshrined it as a definition of religious belief in constitutional terms in Pete Seeger’s case in 1965.
CH: That concept comes closest to helping us discover what it is we worship, what it is we care most about and what we are willing to sacrifice everything else for. It is somehow easy to see everyone else’s gods and difficult for us to see our own. It is an interesting phenomenon.
JW: You write that idols free us from moral choices and that idols lead us to follow and conform to the dictates of society.
CH: Take, for example, institutions. In an extreme situation, you join the military. They order you into a neighborhood and tell you to fire at the enemy. In this instance, the military makes the moral choice for the soldier. Or take the right-to- life movement. It is so narrowly focused that we forget that the call of the Gospels is for the responsibility for all of life. That is certainly the story of the Good Samaritan in the tenth chapter of Luke. The two men who passed by, the priest and the Levite, were very important figures within religious institutions. But the third person who passed by, the one who stopped, was the one who showed mercy and compassion on the bloody man lying on the side of the road. The compassionate man was considered a heretic by these same religious figures. The message of the Gospels is that when we see people who are naked, when we see people who are starving, when we see people who are mentally ill, when we see people who are unable to care for themselves and we walk by and do nothing, we are responsible for their plight. And if they die, perhaps we are even culpable in their death. The ethic for me of the Gospels is about responsibility for life, for all life. And that has been completely perverted by many in the Christian right where they give these extremely narrow definitions of what it is to attain personal piety; these kinds of litmus tests.
JW: What is called legalism?
CH: Yes, which misses the whole point. The message of the New Testament is really a battle against religious legalism.
JW: A recent study shows that even so-called leftist churches make few statements on human rights. They don’t seem to be all that concerned about it. Thus, it isn’t just the Christian right that seems to be walking by people and not caring about them.
CH: That is a very good point. In my book, I talk about my experiences living in the ghetto of Roxbury in Boston for two and a half years. It was the time of my life. I learned to dislike liberals. I commuted from the ghetto into Seminary at Harvard Divinity School, where everybody purported to speak on behalf of the poor and oppressed, whom they never met or had any dealings with. When the Sandinistas held power, they would all run down to Nicaragua to pick coffee for a week or two and come back credentialed as revolutionaries and social progressives. But they would never get on the subway and go over and look at the human misery that is taking place in our urban ghettos. I had a real disgust for that. Liberals have completely failed us. I think their hypocrisy stinks. They walked out on the poor and the working class and suffering a long time ago. Yet they still have this self righteousness that they can somehow speak for these people. The other problem with liberals is they don’t stand for anything. Everything is acceptable. Everything is okay. On the other side, the far Christian right is calling for our destruction and calling us satanic. The sad thing is that we all need to dialogue on these issues. But any dialogue begins with mutual respect.
JW: Your recent article in Harper’s (May 30, 2005) discusses your attendance at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention. Part of your focus is on the fusing of religion and nationalism in the form of the Christian right. You also discuss the rise of Dominionism, which is the idea that Christians will eventually succeed in taking over or assuming control of America. You seem to infer that this raises the specter of a Nazi-like religious state.
CH: I don’t know that I go that far. The core ideology of the movement bears a lot of similarity to movements we would define as fascism. Fascism has many faces. Italian fascism and German fascism appear to be very different entities, as did Franco’s fascist state or Pinochet’s fascist Chile. All fascist movements build themselves by adapting and co-opting national symbols. The swastika and jack boots would never have gone over well in Italy. In his book The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton writes that if fascism arises in America, it will come by people carrying Christian crosses, waving flags and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
JW: Hitler posed himself as a Christian, and it worked.
CH: There was a huge effort by Hitler to co-opt the so-called German Christian church, which was pro-Nazi. This worked a little better with Protestants than it did with Catholics. The churches were, at best, complacent for the most part and oftentimes supportive of the Nazi agenda. This is something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the leaders of the so-called confessing church, wrote about. Bonhoeffer was greatly frustrated by how the institutional church was very quick to support this racist totalitarian movement. He despaired that there was a lack of any real Christian witness coming out of the institutional church. So yes, there is a precedent for this. Religious institutions, certainly in every war I have covered, are easily co-opted by nationalists.
JW: What do you think of Dominionism?
CH: Dominionism is a good term because it allows us to see how this movement is different from previous evangelical movements. We have a series of Christian revivals and Christian awakenings throughout out history. However, every single one has called on believers to remove themselves from the contaminants of secular society and lead a more godly life. But this movement is different.
JW: Why is Dominionism a good term?
CH: Because these people want to take power, and that is new. That is a break even with people like Billy Graham or Louis Palau—the last generation of evangelicals. It has swept up a lot of traditional evangelicals in the movement, and they don’t quite realize how radical Dominionism is.
JW: Many evangelicals see George W. Bush as the president who might help Christians triumph.
CH: This may be true, but there is also a frustration with Bush. We saw that after the reelection with the letters and responses by Bob Jones III and James Dobson, who put Bush on notice. They essentially said to Bush, “You know what, you talked the talk but you have yet to walk the walk. You have to begin to implement our agenda. For instance, abortion has to begin to become murder. You have to push through some of the core issues or core concerns, such as opposition to gays and lesbians.” Of course, this is a very frightening form of homophobia. The point is that the jury is out. The far Christian right moguls are waiting to see whether Bush will deliver or not. Much of this is spearheaded by James Dobson, who is obviously one of the most important figures in the movement.
JW: Why is that?
CH: Because of his reach. Dobson manages to speak on a daily basis to several million hardcore followers of the movement about his own radicalism. He is a deeply intolerant man. For example, recently Dobson spoke about how the abortion decision in Roe v. Wade was the biggest holocaust in human history. However, is it really a more important holocaust in his eyes than the murder of six million Jews or twelve million people by the Nazis? I find that kind of rhetoric very frightening. And, of course, there is Dobson’s condemning of the judicial authorities who make the court decisions as murderers.
JW: As you write, idols, not God, require sacrifice. This country is now subsumed in a series of wars that seem to have no end. You argue that to put one’s faith in the idol of war is to put oneself in the service of death. As you write, “It is, perhaps, the most common and destructive form of idolatry, one that has left most religious institutions morally bankrupt.” There has been very little comment from evangelical churches in this country that raise any questions about the current president’s wars. Is this what you’re talking about?
CH: There are religious figures that have moral courage. And in my twenty years as a war correspondent, I have seen amazing acts of physical courage on the battlefield. One very rarely sees moral courage, such as the courage to stand up to the crowd or to the intoxication of violence. Within religious institutions, those who have courage are certainly marginalized, even within those institutions. One thinks of the Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero. That would be a very good example. But religious institutions or religious leaders do not have a particularly laudable record in war time.
JW: A few of the well-known evangelicals have essentially said that they will support George W. Bush, no matter what.
CH: What they have done is suspend moral conscience.
JW: For what reason?
CH: Power. Political power is attractive. Not having to make moral choice frees you from a great deal of anxiety. It frees you from responsibility. And it assures that you will always be wrapped in the embrace of the powerful as long as, of course, you will do or dance to the tune the powers play. There is also an emotional appeal, an emotional attraction to that above and beyond all else.
JW: The Third Commandment deals with taking God’s name in vain. You make this Commandment synonymous with lying. Then you write, “War entails the greatest deception, the greatest lie.” Next, you discuss how our leaders must convince us to face death while promoting the fiction that they, too, are willing to sacrifice themselves. But as we have seen, that is not true. They don’t fight in the wars; neither do their children. And as wars inevitably grind down and the body bags proliferate, governments become shrouded in secrecy and their lies grow bigger and bigger. Do you believe this is what we’re presently experiencing with the Bush Administration?
CH: When the poor kids find themselves in the military in Iraq, it probably only takes them a few minutes to figure out that they have been sold a bill of goods. War is not about myth, glory, honor and all that other stuff. War is dirty, venal and horrible. And the kind of movements epitomized by the far Christian right are riven with hypocrisy as well. Consider the homophobia itself. The most viral forms of it often come from people who struggle with those impulses themselves and lash out with a kind of fury. What they are doing is externalizing evil, which is frightening, for the simple reason that these people are not dealing with the sinfulness or the capacity for evil that all of us carry within ourselves. Instead, they are projecting it outward on others and then trying to destroy it. And although one can understand the psychological attraction of that, it does create a very frightening scenario.
JW: Even though some of the evangelical Christian right have held Bush’s feet to the fire, the average layman strongly supports him. In part, this comes from the projection by many evangelical leaders that Bush is the Christian candidate. In a sense, many believe Bush can do no wrong.
CH: The master manipulators of information who dominate the airwaves of this country do a good job of creating that impression. That is what they do, and they do it really well. They know what makes us respond.
JW: In your chapter on the family, which deals with the Fifth Commandment to honor our fathers and mothers, you write, “None of the commandments were written for children. They were written for adults. The commandment to honor your parents is a commandment to honor yourself, honor the life force that created you, the good and the bad mingled within us, but not to honor abuse.” How can we do this?
CH: I grappled with that Commandment on how to honor a parent that has been abusive and has not been a good parent. You can’t ask a child to honor the memory of abuse. How do we honor our fathers and mothers? It is by honoring life. It is by honoring the forces that gave us life—that allowed us to be created. One finally honors the force of life itself by protecting, conserving and preserving life so that one may come out of an abusive relationship. The best response is to live a life that is able to negate what the abuser did. You see that, for instance, with women who have been victims of domestic abuse, incest or whatever who go on to help others who also struggle. That would be a perfect example of honoring family. In my own case, my father was a Presbyterian minister who was very involved in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. My father taught me a really important lesson. We grew up in a small rural agricultural town in upstate New York where to take such stances was highly unpopular, and it subjected my father to a certain amount of ridicule. It was a very good lesson in that it taught me that when you do what is right, you often have to understand that you are not going to be lauded and praised for it. Making a moral decision always entails risks, certainly to one’s career and to one’s standing in the community. When the buildup to this war in Iraq was happening, because of my book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, I was out speaking frequently. I speak Arabic and spent seven years in the Middle East, with much of that time spent in Iraq. I was in the first Gulf War and stayed in Iraq afterwards. I covered the inspection teams while they were destroying far more stockpiles of weapons than the coalition forces ever destroyed in a war. Not to speak out about the folly of American military engagement in Iraq, the absurd notions that the Iraqis would greet us as liberators or that the Iraqi military—which I knew to be impotent because I covered what the inspection teams had done—somehow posed a threat, would be a moral failing. But it would be more than that. It would be dishonoring my father. For example, I gave the commencement address at Rockford College in May 2003, where I was booed off the stage because I spoke against the war. Rush Limbaugh turned this into a national story.
JW: Were there other reactions?
CH: I was given a formal reprimand by my then employer, The New York Times. I remember being called in by my boss. Certainly, nobody likes to lose their job, and I am not going to pretend that I found this a pleasant experience. However, as I sat in that office, I had a choice. I could be silent, which was what the institution demanded of me. This would have been good for my career. But to do so would be to betray my father, and I am incapable of doing that. As I walked out the door of the Times, I realized that what my father had given me, above and beyond all else, was freedom. That was my inheritance. And that is probably the greatest gift a parent can give to a child.
JW: The gay issue is central among many evangelical Christians. Many are truly concerned that gay rights and the act of advancing gay rights will destroy the traditional family. Gay marriage is one example.
CH: That’s ridiculous.
CH: There are so many more destructive forces that are working to destroy the traditional family that have nothing to do with homosexuality.
JW: Like what?
CH: Adultery, careerism, the consumer society and economic policies that disenfranchise the working class. That is probably the biggest destroyer of families. Alcoholism is another. There are many destructive forces. The whole gay and lesbian issue has nothing to do with the family. It has to do with what the idol demands, which is fear. This gets back to my point. The far Christian right is a movement that is driven forward primarily on fear. Many societies struggle with the gay issue. What eventually happens is that there is an acquiescence to repression against gays and lesbians. These campaigns of homophobia are essentially allowed by totalitarian movements to put into place mechanisms to destroy social deviance. History, however, has taught us that once those social deviances are destroyed, we’re next. The next group of social deviants will be checked off the list. The first edict that the Nazis passed after they took power in January of 1933 forbade congregating places for gays and lesbian clubs and the like. The first book burning took place in May of that year. The Nazis burned the library of Berlin Scientific Sexual Institute, which had done a lot of research on homosexuality. It was led by a well-known homosexual intellectual. Of course, the Nazis were applauded for the most part by the German churches and by the middle-class community in Germany. But the point is that targeting of gays and lesbians had much more to do with the imposition of a totalitarian state than it did with protecting the family.
JW: Concerning the Seventh Commandment, you argue that adultery is one of the great demoralizing forces on families and on those who have adulterous relationships outside the family. If this is true, why is it that we hear so much from many of the Christian churches on the gay issue but very little about adultery?
CH: The gay and lesbian issue targets a small, weak minority that can be destroyed. With adultery, it is difficult to create a group that can be silenced and repressed. So I think there is a difference. Adultery is a complex issue. Many of the followers of the Christian right who talk a lot about families do not have traditional families themselves. They may be on a second marriage. Divorce is a huge problem within the evangelical community. That is why Tony Perkins and others are pushing for the covenant marriage law, which essentially makes divorce almost impossible. Adultery is an issue that the Christian right struggles with, and they don’t know how to deal with it. Adultery is not mentioned much in such churches because they don’t know how to cope with it. And the only way they can cope with it is to make it extremely hard for women to divorce. So it comes down to controlling women. That is a huge element, as we saw with Promise Keepers and other movements. The goal is to create a patriarchal system where the woman’s will and desires are quashed. A woman’s ability to express herself in just about every way is quashed and made subservient to the will of the man. However, they want to not only replicate that patriarchal structure in the family, they also want to replicate it in the political system itself. Never forget that the Christian right is a male-dominated patriarchal movement where women have a very subordinate role.
JW: In terms of the Seventh Commandment, you argue that love is the most powerful force in human history, love is the only force powerful enough to pull us away from idolatry and that it is a threat to those who are in power.
CH: It is the love we have for another, which when it is deep enough and strong enough, saves us from the call of the idol. For instance, in the wars that I covered, I think the people who were most immune to the nationalist fervor were usually couples who had a deep and a loving relationship. They found the kind of fulfillment or wholeness in that relationship which freed them from the need to find fulfillment outside the relationship in the form of war-mongering, nationalism or blind patriotism. These are all about exaltation and creation of a false community. I also found it interesting that the people who often exercised the most moral courage by standing up for oppressed members of their own communities—Serbs who would protect a Muslim family that was in a Serbian community or vice versa—were often couples that could sustain each other through love. Love is a powerful force. In my book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, I write about a Muslim farmer. When an ethnic Serb couple in a Muslim enclave gave birth to a little girl and the dying mother couldn’t breastfeed her, the Muslim farmer brought milk for many days to keep the baby alive. He had to milk his cow at night for fear of a sniper shooting. And he was reviled within the housing apartment building they lived in, where people would taunt him as he delivered the milk. They were saying that he should give the milk to Muslim kids and let the Serbian baby die. That is a powerful witness of what love can do. I heard that story from the Serb family. As much as they hated Muslims, they had to admit they couldn’t collectively throw guilt on all Muslims. They had to admit that some were good. That little girl will grow up and know that she has been given life by an illiterate Muslim farmer whom she may never meet. So love, which is not sentimental but is a drive to preserve, protect, conserve and nurture life, is a powerful force. But in extreme situations, it becomes dangerous to express.
JW: You deal with theft in the Eighth Commandment’s admonition against stealing. Your primary focus seems to be on government theft, by which you target America’s new oligarchy of business interests, which is possibly epitomized by people such as Vice President Dick Cheney. As you note, there has been a swirling controversy over Cheney and his position as the former CEO of Halliburton and the Bush Administration’s close ties to and rewarding of exorbitant contracts to oil companies. In connection with this, you note that war in Iraq has been a boom for the defense and oil companies financially. In this respect, I sense a growing split, even maybe an extreme one, in the American population in terms of how they view their government. As you write in your book, there is an erosion of public trust. Do you believe this could lead us into a cultural and societal firestorm where we may end up in a totally statist environment?
CH: Open societies and good relationships are built on trust. When that trust is destroyed, community, of course, disintegrates. Cynicism creeps in. Passivity creeps in. There are millions of Americans in this country who lost their retirement savings and the money they had put aside for their children’s education because of corporate theft. This, in part, is because the big financiers of this country managed to get together under the Reagan Administration and destroy the government institutions that were supposed to regulate their behavior. Once those institutions were destroyed and there was no oversight or intervention, they stole. This is certainly going on today. There was a series of articles in the New York Times recently about how roughly one percent of the highest elite are amassing huge amounts of money and the rest of us are just dropping like flies. We are recreating an age of robber barons. White collar crime is not benign. Millions of families are being drastically hurt. Our government is allowing that to take place. We are destroying the very delicate fabric that makes the open society, democracy and community possible.
JW: In your discussion of the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, you focus on envy and greed. You write that these impulses are fueled by the curse that has plagued us since the Enlightenment. “This curse places humankind at the center of creation,” you write. “It feeds us the impossible belief that there are no limits to what we can achieve.” The idea that is promoted is that somehow we have God-given destinies where we can achieve glory and greatness. But, as you point out, we are just people and we fail. And the more we fail, the more we end up hating ourselves for failing. We become unhappy, and we seek refuge in mind-numbing entertainment and anti-depressants. This is the sickness of our age. You write that only if we can accept our failures and our ordinariness, only if we have the courage to face the wounding pain of failure, can we find sustaining joy and happiness. Is this really possible in a culture where the advertising industry continually bombards us with the idea that we can all succeed and there are no limits—as long as we buy their products?
CH: The hardest thing for all of us to deal with is acceptance of our ordinariness. Every force in society is calling us to be extraordinary; that is, to exalt and promote ourselves. It is the promotion of self above everything and above others. This is tearing apart the fabric of American society and our own communities. What self-exaltation tells us is that we don’t have to make sacrifices for others and that we should learn how to manipulate others. By doing this, we can push ourselves ahead or above others. This is all coming at us through the advertising industry, self-help gurus, psychobabble and various spirituality movements. Plain and simple, it is narcissism.
JW: Again, the concept is that as long as we buy their products, we can succeed. There are no limits.
CH: We are being pushed onto a never-ending treadmill. This is because in buying all the products, we are told they will make us popular, hip, powerful and happy. But it doesn’t work. So we keep seeking a new product, a new form of status or a new position. But we never cope with the hollowness and emptiness of it all. There is a deep hollowness, a deep spiritual void that is gripping American society. This is something that the far religious right is responding to. They are not wrong about it. The problem is that what they are offering is worse than what we already have.
JW: Jesus Christ said to his disciples that if they loved him, they would do his Commandments. But he clarified this when he was asked what was the greatest Commandment. Christ said that we are to love God with all of our essence; that this was the first and greatest Commandment. But then he went on to say that part and parcel to this is that we should love our fellow human beings as we love ourselves. In other words, we love God by loving those around us. The basic Christian message, I believe, emphasizes the theme of non-self-centered otherness. It seems that you’re writing about the same thing when you say that love means living for others.
CH: Exactly. Or it is that wonderful quote from St. Paul. Paul says that of faith, hope, love, the greatest of these is love. The next sentence is the most important, which is make love your aim. Many in the religious right have made faith their primary aim. They falsely believe the greatest of these is faith; defining faith, of course, as an infallible doctrine. And this dogmatism creates a belief system that is exclusive. It is intolerant, and it shuts out the inclusiveness of love.
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN OLDSPEAK ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE.