Saturday, November 28, 2015

Civilization's Reasonable Rise

Today's Masai of Kenya and Tanzania were
preceded by the Khoikhoi, peaceful
pastoralists in southern Africa
for thousands of years.
We rise up.  But is it a competition?
  • from simple existence ... with food and water, and maybe shelter 
  • we rise up to living as families and extended families 
    • and raising children.
We learn.  The good of one is the good of all.
  • then up to living as community groups ... working, sharing the load
  • and to complex relationships ... labor and service for mutual benefit, for good life.
From perhaps a few nomadic families, we grow into a community, into many communities spreading across the plains, along the rivers, and down to the sea.

Food and shelter, and skills for survival; unlike some in the animal realm, none of us survive without the help of others.  The years reveal our common values; there are just a few - a good and just life, healthy relationships, and a place.  These values are still cherished today.  We may not actually need emperors though.
Many nomadic groups today have no
collective name for themselves
beyond just family.  They
live the simplest of
lives in peace.

Centuries pass on the banks of the Niger river.  Cities appear, and the best archaeological evidence suggests there was not one monarch among them all.  There's a loose caste system that forms along with innovations like rice domestication and mud brick architectures.  There's work; some are fishermen, some farmers, some herders. There are artisan settlements for pottery, leather. and iron works. There's trade, buying and selling, but they share the burden of having enough among the communities; enough to eat, mostly.   Concessions are negotiated from year to year depending on varying productivity and need.  No emperors, no armies, no slave trade ...   The region was populated and well established for centuries before the Arab trans-African gold and slave trade arrived, and the culture survived beyond the fall of Axum and Meroë and the empire of Rome.

It was no pleasant Eden, perhaps, but the region was generally free from war, from serfdom, from deadly competition, for more than a thousand years.  A soft-edged capitalism of sorts.

The unique feature of the Niger Valley 'civilization' was that it had no state structure; instead of having a government, the people of these cities more or less governed themselves, almost a 'golden rule' sort of society. This led to a debate among historians as to whether or not it was a civilization at all.  You won't find the cities like Djenné-Djenno listed among the kingdoms and city-states of African history. No king, no kingdom ... at least not until traders from the north and east began contributing to their history.  

Restored buildings in Djenné-Djenno
"Remarkably similar settlement processes appear to have characterized the urbanization process at sites of similar age in China, suggesting that this alternative to the hierarchical social system and coercive centralized control strategy ... may have occurred worldwide." ~John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent

Elsewhere in Africa and the near East, communities become towns and trade venues, and competition begins to stratify the population.  A few rise to positions of greater influence over others. Wealth and rule run hand in hand through vast regions, and our common values are left behind.  'We' and 'they' are separated.  We rule, they obey, or we annihilate them.  It seemed reasonable, somehow, that we should take everything from them, their land and possessions, even their lives.

Thirty-nine men,
fifteen boys,
twenty-four women,
and sixteen girls.
They were sold.        
We don't know their names
or the families from which
they came or their stories
or the suffering they
experienced from
our selfish
Competition for wealth and rule brings trouble to tribes, to states, giving rise to kings and their warriors.  And to serfdom and slaves.  Death by conflict plagues the world, and civilizations are erased by conquerors.  Empires across the centuries, each is a competitive play for wealth and rule.  It seemed reasonable, somehow, that one should indeed rise above another and take their place in the world.

In the 20th century, it seemed reasonable to the cousin-kings of Europe to compete for empire as millions die and millions more flee their homelands.  The conflict spreads into the first world war.  A quick shuffle of the players, then repeat for the second world war; now tens of millions more die, and hundreds of millions have their lives and lands unrecoverably shattered by the conflict.  The world is arbitrarily reshaped by the winners.

The root of it all, starkly visible when compared to any alternative, is the willingness to have for ourselves by taking from others.  After years of propagandized justification, such competition may seem reasonable, but in reality it is perhaps only one step removed from being a murderer and thief or slave trader.  It is neither Christian nor of any other religion.

One among hundreds of such observations.
Humorous perhaps, but not inaccurate.

This so-called reasonable stance persists today in large-scale business and international relations.  And what of those values we all recognized as necessary?  Of a good and just life, healthy relationships, and a place for all?  They're often reduced to 'when convenient' by-products and are not broadly visible in larger business or trans-national contexts.

It's difficult finding an ethical balance between business with innovation and entrepreneurship on one side and social good on the other.  Good business has been redefined; now it's just profitability that matters.  Such thinking is perhaps most visible among multinational corporations; most, at least, but perhaps not all.  The decline seems to be occasioned by values and principles now absent from the boardroom.

There's nothing wrong with work and trade and profit, of course; only with the extremes.

Accurate and not at all humorous.
The multinational corporations now openly operate
for their own benefit, their own competitive edge
in the world marketplace rather than for the
good of humanity.  It's just business,
competition to win over others,
and bottom-line only.

The cousin-king mentality is deeply embedded in modern finance and the marketplace, in NAFTA, in the TPP, and TTIP.   Today's rapacious competition isn't related to reasonable human or Christian values. It makes you wonder if there is a path of good conscience that you might walk as an individual.  Or as a family.

The good news; there is such a path, but it is perhaps somewhat narrow and difficult to find, at least at first.  And, it is unlikely to be an easy path, but rather one full of difficulties.

So, there is this narrow gate.

“Always do for other people everything you want them to do for you. That's the heart of Moses’ teachings and all that the prophets have said."

“Make your way through that narrow gate because the road that leads to destruction is wide, and many go that way. But remember, the narrow gate and the road that leads to life is full of trouble. Only a few people find that narrow gate."

“Watch out for wicked leaders. They come to you disguised as pleasant and harmless, but in their hearts they are vicious wolves. You will know them by what they do and by the product of their work."

“You can't pick grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles, can you?  Good trees produce good fruit, but a rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can't produce bad fruit, and a rotten tree can't produce good fruit. Trees that fail to produce good fruit are cut down and thrown into a fire. So you will see the difference in what they produce."

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom, just the ones who do what my Father in heaven wants. Many will say, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we lead in your name? Didn’t we force out demons and do many miracles by the power and authority of your name?’ I will tell them publicly, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me.’"

“So, everyone who hears what I say and does it will be like a wise person who built a house on rock. Rain poured, and floods came. Winds blew and beat against that house, but it didn't fall, because its foundation was on rock."

“Everyone who hears what I say but doesn’t do it will be like a foolish person who built a house on sand. Rain poured, and floods came. Winds blew and struck that house. It fell, and the result was disaster.”

What we do matters.  What we do as a nation matters.  What we and our family do does not need to conform to the wider norm, and in fact, it probably shouldn't.