Friday, August 14, 2009

Ownership or Stewardship

Human beings, more than any other creature on Earth, have been gifted with the power to create or destroy. By virtue of our brains and hands we can either build cathedrals or massacre millions with weapons of mass destruction. Which acts we choose seem in large part to be dependent upon our personal beliefs. Change our beliefs then, and our behaviors will naturally shift.

Ownership, which is a purely man-made concept, confers upon us the right to exploit this world for our personal ends. That was certainly true of slavery, which is why we've abandoned the practice. It may have taken us thousands of years, but eventually our values matured beyond the belief that any human being has the right to possess and exploit any other. Where once the ownership of people was commonplace, today it's considered shockingly immoral.

What then, of the right to own private property? Might that too be a practice humanity one day looks back upon with feelings of revulsion? While it may seem an impossible change given where we are at present, there are reasons for us to hope this may be the case.

The difference between land ownership and land stewardship is a profound one. Where property ownership conveys rights, property stewardship conveys responsibilities. Ownership declares this land is "mine" to do with as I choose, regardless of whether my choices do damage to my surrounding community. Stewardship, on the other hand, declares this land to be "ours." Therefore it must be tended with love for the benefit of all who share that space with us, including all other species. Stewardship means preserving and protecting the land for future generations, as well as maintaining awareness of our environmental impact beyond any man-made borders we may have drawn. It also means knowing how to gracefully let go of our hold on the land when we die, trusting in those still alive to decide the best usage for the space we once occupied.

A mere hundred years ago there still existed vast tracts of land to which the poor and downtrodden could freely migrate. People with nothing but hopes, dreams and a dash of courage could put down roots and provide for themselves and their families. Today, there isn't anywhere human beings can go that hasn't been sold or deeded over to someone already. A person who can't afford to buy land has no choice anymore but to become a vagabond, marginalized by society and forced to live in fear and perpetual lack. What does that say about us, and about our so-called spiritual values?

Take, for example, the inhabitants of the island nation of Tuvalu, whose very existence is now being threatened by rising ocean levels. These people are living in a waking nightmare, watching their country disappear more every day. Their peaceful fishing and farming lifestyles are not the cause of the climate change that threatens to sink their world, but theirs is a land that is suffering the most. Since they own nothing else will we allow them to sink beneath the sea?

It remains to be seen.

Despite America's fervent proclamations about the importance of the "right to life," there's nothing in our social system that guarantees anyone the right to space. That's a bizarre situation which pits our deeply held conceptual beliefs against an unforgiving reality; for without the right to actual space, of what value is our conceptual right to life?

For thousands of years property ownership has sliced and diced our world in a piecemeal fashion. It's created generations of a wealthy few and a far larger number of poor. It separates neighbor from neighbor, tribe from tribe and ultimately nation from nation. While the rules for human behavior differ widely from place to place, what happens in one locale has the power to cause lasting harm to others. One country's industrial productivity is another nation's acid rain.

The false separation of man-made boundaries and limited piecemeal thinking will no longer work in our global reality. Nor will the false belief that I can do whatever I want with "my" piece of land, despite the cost to our planet. Land isn't a toaster or car or television to be used and thrown away once we've sucked it dry; it's a complex living reality, replete with its natural rhythms and cooperative interspecies living arrangements. It doesn't recognize borders, dams, fences or walls; it doesn't acknowledge humanity's ownership rights. It breathes, grows, shifts, bends and folds according to its own geological pace and timescale, impervious to our selfish, self-serving beliefs.

To acknowledge that truth, to elevate the rights of land itself on par with the rights of humans, would empower us to be stewards instead of exploiters. It would free us to generously share our space with those less fortunate, granting them their divine rights as planetary citizens to occupy Earth's lands and to participate in her bounty. It would further encourage us to set aside our short-term interests for the sake of our higher collective and long term interests. Last but surely not least, it would render us thoughtful and moral ancestors for future generations to revere rather than abhor.

The choice is ours to make; the minds ours to change.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Asking the Question

The political spin and questionable rhetoric swirling around Washington these days has become downright dizzying. Depending on who we hear speaking on any given day, health care reform either offers salvation for the masses or represents the first step toward federal euthanasia of the elderly and infirm. When political opinion is that oppositional in nature, what in the world are we supposed to believe?

It's all too easy to simply attach ourselves to the opinions being spouted by the members of our own political party, absorb them and regurgitate them without giving them deeper thought. We must, however, remain cognizant of the fact that virtually all politicians direct their loyalty toward their campaign donors first, their party second and their local constituents third. Therefore, we musn't assume the language we're hearing on cable TV or reading in the newspapers is truly for our benefit - more likely it's meant to sway our opinions in support of the hidden agendas of politicians: getting reelected, supporting the corporations and individuals who fund their campaigns and ensuring their party will continue to back them for reelection in the future.

Take the case of Senator Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania. Because Senator Spector, being of high moral standing and independent mind, chose on multiple occasions to oppose his party's platform and instead vote in ways that seemed more in alignment with what made sense for his constituents, he lost the support of the Republican power machine. Ditto for Senator Joe Lieberman. These men, however we might feel about their "politics," exemplify what happens to men of conscience if they resist the machine that is their political party. What happened to them - stripped of their committee memberships, marginalized in Washington circles - stands as a "cautionary" tale for all other members of Congress. Dare to oppose your party's agenda and you risk losing the power to stand for anything.

What are we, the people, supposed to make of the political mess in Washington today? How can we know when our politicians are making decisions for the benefit of us, the regular people, or if they're merely supporting the dominator/power structure that enables them to hold power? When they're talking are they telling the truth, or saying what they want us to hear so we'll fall in line and support their hidden agendas?

There is a question we can ask ourselves to help us "cut through" all the rhetoric, politics and hidden agendas that obscure what's really best for regular people. Unfortunately, the question requires us to set aside our easy attachment to the words of partisan politicians and actually think for ourselves. I recognize that in these days of 24 hour cable news, thinking for ourselves has nearly become obsolete, and that highly paid pundits are willing and eager to do that hard work for us. We shouldn't let them. They too are motivated by money, power, fame and the support of the corporate establishment whose interests don't necessarily align with ours.

What is this question then, that enables us to dig down deep for truth? The question, should you choose to ask it, is this: Does this program/bill/law/idea being proposed support life in all its many and varied forms, or does it exploit life so a few individuals or corporations can profit?

Health care reform presents us with an embarrassingly easy answer. To bring millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans back into the health care fold supports life - particularly the lives of those least able to care for themselves. The wealthy will always be able to afford the best health care our system has to offer, so they're basically undamaged by the proposal. It may cost them a little more in the way of taxes, but they can afford it.

On the other hand, opposition to health care reform seems designed to incite fear and division among the American people. Who's funding it, and why? Of what benefit is it for us to oppose better health care for more people in support of life, with government managing the process to ensure nobody gets left behind? The answer is, it isn't to anyone's benefit - unless they're part of the pharmaceutical or medical insurance machinery. That machinery exploits the needs and fears of the ill and infirm...for money; not out of love and with reverence for life. If you're still unsure about the motives of the health care industry, consider the insurance company policy of rejecting the claims of those with "preexisting conditions." A lover of life would ignore such a label and treat the ill with compassion. A lover of profits rejects the person in favor of the bottom line.

We hear statements from the right these days implying the government is going to "ration" healthcare and people will be denied needed treatment. Laughable really, given the millions who are already being denied the most basic and decent of treatments due to their inability to pay or to their insurance company's greed. We also hear that our deficit will skyrocket if we try to take care of everyone; again laughable, given the many trillions we've just invested to keep the banking industry afloat - for whose benefit? Has your credit card rate declined or your mortgage gotten easier to pay since we gave the banks all that money? Last but not least, we hear that government can't do anything half as efficiently as can private corporations. I ask you this: have you tried to reach anyone in customer service at a private corporation lately? Have you managed to resolve a business dispute with ease, been treated kindly and humanely or been allowed to "work out" a reasonable payment plan if your life became upended by the bank-induced recession through which we're suffering?

It's a simple question really. Does what I'm looking at support life, or does it exploit life? The moment we drop our attachment to our conceptual ideologies and allow our hearts to feel, the truth comes easy. It's why the exploitive game is to generate fear and division; fearful hearts are too constricted to open enough to feel for the lives of others. They're too busy fearing for their own survival.

Don't be fooled by the "divide and conquer" game being played in the political arena. Morality - true morality - doesn't spring from our belief in a set of ideas. It springs from opening our hearts to love and knowing what feels right for us to do, then doing that.