While we were on vacation, I took my family to the Exploratorium. They have an exhibit currently on social dilemmas in which people are invited to look at times when they choose for themselves and their own best interests, vs times when they choose for the good of everyone, the common good, the highest good for others. The exhibit entrance starts with a look at what was originally called the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons describes a situation of cattle herders sharing a common parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze, (this used to be the way it was done in English villages). If a herder puts more than his allotted number of cattle on the common, overgrazing may result. For each additional animal that a herder adds to the common, that individual herder will benefit, but the whole group will suffer from the damage to the commons. If all herders were to make this individually rational economic decision, the common would be depleted or even destroyed, which would harm every herder there, including the one seeking self-betterment by putting more than his fair share of animals on the land.
The tragedy of the commons has been used to study many things including sustainability, care for the environment, economic systems and human psychology. And, depending on who does the study and how the study is done, the results vary between communities where people put their own self-interest above others and communities where people truly work together for everyone’s best interest. In the United States, the study tended to show people to be more selfish and self-oriented, taking advantage of what was common to serve themselves above others, and only really understanding, too late that what was harmful for others, also was harmful to themselves.
Another part of the exhibit explored a study called the Career criminal dilemma: The scenario is as follows: Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the main charge. They hope to get both sentenced to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:
If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)
Obviously the best self-interest of each alone is to betray the other, though if they have a bigger view of connection or care for the other, then neither will betray the other. Interestingly, usually in this situation, neither does betray the other.
I’ve shared with you before one other example of this. I have a family member who was a psychology professor at Cal State East Bay. Every semester for his many years of teaching he used to do an experiment with his psychology class. He would tell the class that everyone would have a choice about how many points they would get for attending class that day. They could choose to get 5 points or 25 points. However, if more than 15% of the class were to ask for 25 points, everyone in the class would get zero. What do you think the results were? Always the entire class would receive no points. Every single time it was almost exactly 70% of the people in the class who would ask for the 25 points for themselves. Even when they knew the results of other classes in which Gene had offered the test, the percentage was the same. There was, however, one thing that could change that percentage. If the professor told the class that those students who asked for the 25 points for themselves would have their names read aloud, the effect went away. The fear of loss of social status was the only thing he found that was greater than the fear of not getting ahead in points. That fits in with our other two examples. In the prison dilemma, both would have been aware of what the other had chosen, so the pressure to act in a way which benefits the other is strong. This is opposed to the tragedy of the commons in which people could probably find reasons to justify and ways to hide the choice to be more selfish. These experiments also show us that much of the issue here has to do with personal connections. People act and vote and generally choose behaviors that benefit those of their own community – their own family, their own economic class, their own race… people generally act in the best interests of people they understand, can relate to, who look like them and share cultural commonalities.
My children recently found and purchased a book entitled Hyperbole and a Half (Simon and Schuster, Oct 29, 2013). In one section, author Allie Brosh wrote,
“I like to believe that I would behave heroically in a disaster situation. I like to think this because it makes me feel good about myself. Conveniently it is very unlikely that I will ever actually have to do anything to prove it. As long as I never encounter a disaster situation, I can keep believing I’m a hero indefinitely. Similarly, I can safely believe that I am the type of person who would donate a kidney to a loved one, give a million dollars to help save the animals, and survive a biological disaster due to my superior immune system and overwhelming specialness. As long as no one I love ever needs a kidney, I don’t become a millionaire, and my immune system is never put to the test by an antibiotic-resistant super flu, these are just things I can believe for free.
It gets a bit trickier when I want to believe a thing about myself that actually requires me to do or think something. The things I am naturally inclined to do and think are not the same as the things I want to believe I would do and think. And I’m not even slightly realistic about what I want to be. …I desperately want to believe I would seize the opportunity to help a loved one without a second thought for my own well-being but I’m almost certain it wouldn’t play out like that. … What I am is constantly thrust into my face while I’m trying to be better than I am. Even if I’m actively doing all the right things, I can’t escape the fact that my internal reactions are those of a fundamentally horrible person. I don’t just want to do the right thing. I want to WANT to do the right thing. … being aware of not wanting to do the right thing ruins my ability to enjoy doing the right thing after I’m forced into doing it through shame.“
The point is that these feelings are pretty normal, I think. If you realize that 70% of us, at least in the United States, choose selfishly for themselves in a class room of highly educated people, that means that probably 70% of folk struggle with that sense of wanting more for ourselves and focusing predominantly on caring for ourselves and our loved ones rather than for the “least” of these. I say in the United States because we know there are other cultures that do not behave this way. For example in South Africa, there is a word they use: Ubuntu. It means, “I am because we are.” The belief behind it is that they understand that each person does not and cannot exist in isolation. How this manifests in South Africa: if someone asks for something, they are given it because you exist together and what serves one serves all. An anthropologist had been studying the habits and customs of this tribe, and when he finished his work, had to wait for transportation that would take him to the airport to return home. He’d always been surrounded by the children of the tribe, so to help pass the time before he left, he proposed a game for the children to play. He’d bought lots of candy and sweets in the city, so he put everything in a basket with a beautiful ribbon attached. He placed it under a solitary tree, and then he called the kids together. He drew a line on the ground and explained that they should wait behind the line for his signal. And that when he said “Go!” they should rush over to the basket, and the first to arrive there would win all the candies. When he said “Go!” they all unexpectedly held each other’s hands and ran off towards the tree as a group. Once there, they simply shared the candy with each other and happily ate it. The anthropologist was very surprised. He asked them why they had all gone together, especially if the first one to arrive at the tree could have won everything in the basket – all the sweets. A young girl simply replied: “How can one of us be happy if all the others are sad?”
But in the United States, we are a culture that is more focused on individualism. As a result, it is harder for us to remember that we truly are all connected and that what hurts you hurts me. One of my favorite quotes as a result is: a good person fights for themself and their own. A Great person fights for everyone else.
What does all of this have to do with our faith? Today we heard two stories. The first was about Moses who was called to set the people of Israel free from their enslavement. It is important for us to remember the context of who Moses was, because although he himself was born of an Israelite mother, he was raised by the Pharoah’s daughter. He was brought up with all privileges and advantages of being in the royal palace with those in charge. But from that place of privilege, he gave up all he had to fight those who had raised him, those who had loved him, those who had cared for him in order to set free the people of Israel. Moses gave up his security, his privilege, his house and wealth and riches and travelled in the desert for 40 years. He died there, following God’s call, after having given up everything to help lead people out of slavery.
Then we have Jesus. Jesus gave up his life loving us, caring for us. But he also told us that we are called to follow. In this passage he is very, very clear. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
When we are willing to die caring for Jesus, caring for God, caring for the ones God loves, caring for God’s children, we will find our lives. When we put our own self-interests first, we will lose our lives. We will be lost. The tragedy of the commons says the same thing: when we put our self-interest above the self-interest of others, all of us lose out. ALL of us. We go down as well. According to the experiment that my brother and law always did, only about 30% of folk get that. The rest? Not so much. But our faith calls us to act on behalf of the least of these, the poorest, the most oppressed, the most displaced, as Moses did, as Jesus did, even when we don’t feel like it, even when we want to do only what is best for ourselves and those closest to us, even when we are afraid.
This desire to care for others should affect every single decision that we make. How do we spend our money? Where do we shop? Does the places we shop and the things we buy use child labor? Do they damage or harm others? How do we vote? Do we vote in ways that lift up the poor, the oppressed, those suffering? How do we decide what to do with the money we “earn” that has been entrusted to us by God to use for the glory of God? How do we treat the “least of these” – those who are poor or oppressed or struggling? How do we treat those who make us uneasy, those who are cruel, those who are mean, those with whom we disagree? How do we behave in our cars towards others who are unkind or who make mistakes? How do we behave even when we are afraid? Do we take from others to save ourselves? Or do we willingly put ourselves at risk in order to care for God’s “least of these” in whom, we are told, we will find Jesus?
As I was working on this sermon, a praise song came to mind, written by Matthew West, “My Own Little World”:
In my own little worls, it harldy ever rains
I’ve never gone hungry, I’ve always felt safe.
I got some money in my pocket, shoes on my feet
In my own little world: population me.
I try to stay awake thru Sunday morning church
I throw a twenty in the plate but I never give ‘til it hurts
And I turn off the news when I don’t like what I see
Yeah, it’s easy to do when it’s population me.
What if there’s a bigger picture
What if I’m missing out
What if there’s a greater purpose
I could be living right now
Outside my own little world.
Stopped at a red light, looked out the window
I saw a cardboard sign that said, “help this homeless widow”
Just above this sign was the face of a human
I thought to myself, “God, what have I been doing?”
So I rolled down the window and I looked her in the eye
Oh how many times have I just passed her by
I gave her some money then I drove on through
In my own little world there’s population two.
I’m going to break my heart for what breaks Yours
Give me open hands and open doors
Put Your light in my eyes and let me see
That my own little world is not about me…
Jesus is clear: we must be willing to lose our very lives for our enemies as well as those we love if we want to find them. That is what it means to follow in the way, to follow the call of Jesus, to follow the God of Love. It isn’t easy, but when we practice what is hard, it does become easier, it does become clearer. The call is for all of us. Amen.