Dear Fr. O’Shea, I am appalled at the world scene, I am an old man now and when I look at the declining standards in personal morality among the people I am angry and disillusioned. The Church seems to be unwilling or unable to stop the decline: those clergy who are willing are unable and those who are able are unwilling, that is my assessment. If people cannot take responsibility for their own lives should governments not intervene to insist on standards? In an earlier age they would not have hesitated to do so. What is your assessment? J. Lovegrove
Dear Mr Lovegrove, I don’t wish to disillusion you further, but I believe that governments are by and large more immoral than individuals. It’s not difficult to think of examples, but to recite them would be to get away from the general point you make. With your question in mind I looked back over some books I read years ago, and this is what I found.
The anthropologist Colin Turnbull lived for two years with a Ugandan tribe, the Iks, and described his experiences in a book called The Mountain People. They are seen as utterly brutish, selfish and loveless. They never sing, and they laugh only at one another’s misfortunes. They turn their children out to forage as soon as they can walk, and they abandon the old to starvation. They soil and destroy one another’s property. Presumably they were once a normal easy-going people, but the government took over their lands to create a national park, and these hunter-gatherers were reduced to farming the poor hillside soil, at which they failed miserably. Along with their way of life they lost their culture and even their humanity. It is a depressing picture.
The biologist Lewis Thomas, in The Lives of a Cell, sketched a theory about them - and about human beings in any society.
“The solitary Ik, isolated in the ruins of an exploded culture, has built a new defence for himself. If you live in an unworkable society you can make up one of your own, and this is what the Iks have done. Each Ik has become a group, a one-man tribe of its own, a constituency…. This is precisely the way groups of one size or another, ranging from committees to nations, behave. It is, of course, this aspect of humanity that has lagged behind the rest of evolution, and this is why the Ik seems so primitive. In his absolute selfishness, his incapacity to give anything away, no matter what, he is a successful committee. When he stands at the door of his hut, shouting insults at his neighbours in a loud harangue, he is a city addressing another city. Cities have all the Ik characteristics. They defecate on doorsteps, in rivers and lakes, their own or anyone else’s. They leave rubbish. They detest all neighbouring cities, give nothing away. They even build institutions for deserting elders out of sight. Nations are the most Ik-like of all…. For total greed, rapacity, heartlessness, and irresponsibility there is nothing to match a nation. Nations, by law, are solitary, self-centred, withdrawn into themselves…. They bawl insults from their doorsteps, defecate into whole oceans, snatch all the food, survive by detestation, take joy in the bad luck of others, celebrate the death of others, live for the death of others.”
He concludes, “We haven’t yet learned how to stay human when assembled in masses. The Ik, in his despair, is acting out this failure, and perhaps we should pay closer attention.”
Note that it was a government that plunged them into this condition, by stealing their land.
There are lessons here for Christian community too. Despite hearing the Gospel, times without number, we are capable of living instead by the gospel of greed. Society breaks down around us, and we fail to create Christian community, receding into ourselves and living out our lives, Ik-like, as solitary egos. Christian spirituality challenges us to be moral, but has not been offering much towards the systematic understanding of the root of immorality: the ego. The ego cannot love, though it can produce an imitation of love, for strategic purposes. Whenever it pretends to form community with others there is a built-in flaw. As W.H. Auden once said, we have to learn to love one another or die. I don’t think we can expect very much from governments - certainly not the reform of a people’s morals. It is when governments claim the high moral ground that we have to be particularly suspicious of them. I think it is by living a Christian life of love, rather than by requiring it of others, that we stand any chance of improving the world around us.