Does it bother you that 47 million of our fellow citizens live in poverty in the richest country in the world? It bothers me. It bothers me a lot.
As a pastor, I preach and teach a lot about why this bothers me, and why it should bother all of us who have enough.
You know what I sometimes hear people say in return?
They say versions of, “Well, it’s a dog eat dog world,” and “It’s self-preservation,” and even “The survival of the fittest.”
Really? Is that what Jesus of Nazareth taught, “Survival of the fittest?”
No. When Jesus was asked what was most important, he said, “Love God with your whole heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12: 30-31)
What should matter to people of faith is what Jesus taught, not a superficial version of evolutionary theory. But what is even more amazing to me is that the teachings of Jesus are more in line with human evolution than many people realize.
For 90% of human history, we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. And you know what? We shared with each other back then.
Anthropologist Richard Lee maintains that an egalitarian lifestyle was essential to hunting and gathering societies. People in these societies “had an ethic of sharing that was central to their way of life,” Lee notes. (http://www.sciencemag.org/site/special/inequality/index.xhtml)
A study of the 330 nomadic foraging societies that currently exist backs up his statement: for all but the last 10,000 years of our existence, we shunned hierarchies. We shared what we had. We favored cooperation over competition. Some of us still do.
But why? We are born unequal. Some of us have always been bigger, brainier, stronger and more aggressive than the rest of us. So why weren’t we all cut-throat from the get-go?
Apparently, key to equality among humans is scarcity and a nomadic lifestyle. When food is scarce and people are on the move, no one accumulates a surplus of goods. Cooperative hunting results in more food for the entire group; sharing food between members ensures the strength of the entire band. What is more, sharing promotes more sharing. It’s an altruistic cascade that works to maintain harmony in the group.
And harmony has to be worked for. The existing hunter-gatherer communities deliberately use humor, humility, self-deprecation, collective shunning of too violent or too aggressive individuals, and strict protocols regulating meat distribution to keep dangerous hierarchies from developing.
These lessons on how to sustain harmony in human communities in the face of scarcity, are increasingly relevant in an era of climate change and planetary shortages of food, water and even shelter.
What is crucial, however, is to realize that loving the neighbor as yourself, as Jesus taught, is not exactly selfless. It is the way many selves can survive together.
That’s a message I can preach and teach with joy, especially these days when it seems like “dog eat dog” is the highest value.