Monday, March 05, 2007

God's Soup Kitchen

A friend recently told about her gratifying time working in a soup kitchen. A former student just wrote that she is going to spend her spring break helping to build housing in New Orleans. These are wonderful and rewarding deeds that bring joy and happiness to both the giver and the recipient. But should there be a need for them in the first place, in a rich country such as ours?

Someone commented, not long ago, that in his opinion, based on my writings I don’t really understand the American way. Quite the contrary, I understand it all too well after living here for over 30 years. When I criticize something in our society, it is because I also know how other Western countries have handled these issues, as I have lived there and continue to follow this progress. No system is perfect, and due to human nature, there will unfortunately always be people ready to cheat the system, at the expense of others.

Every human life should be equally important, and I'm not expressing communist ideas when I feel that the system should take care of the less fortunate. Bad luck or an illness without health insurance can put almost anyone in a terrible position. Today’s New York Times tells about the growing middle class of uninsured. As an example a 50-year-old real estate agent is interviewed. She has had breast cancer and can’t find affordable insurance for herself, unless you consider over $27,000 per year with a $5,000 deductible as such. Many people are stuck in jobs they hate simply because of the fear of losing benefits, mainly health insurance. As I know from experience, a sadistic employer can use this as a threat against an employee, or as a punishment for speaking out. This is especially effective if the person’s health is failing, perhaps as a result of working too hard for too long, or in a dangerous environment such as a mine or factory.

There is no denying that many people are addicted to drugs, but why are alcoholics free to run for president and smokers able to sue tobacco companies, yet other ‘users’ are sent to jail? There have been times during the last century when today’s ‘recreational’ drugs have been legal and other periods when alcohol was prohibited. Nobody can deny that tobacco kills, even inhaling second-hand smoke, yet no politician is suggesting laws to make smoking or selling cigarettes a punishable offence. If drug addiction was seen as an illness instead of crime, our prison population, the world’s highest, would plummet. If the government would help these people with their problem, perhaps the need for supporting a habit with criminal activities wouldn’t exist, at least in today’s magnitude. Take care of people’s mental health needs and you’d be surprised how the number of homeless will shrink, and also add to the decline of our inmate population.

A few nights ago I watched a disturbing Anderson Cooper/CNN special on Christianity. The program focused on some rather extreme evangelical movements where people are divided simply into believers (of their kind) and non-believers (everyone else). Many of these people blindly support Israel and want to destroy its neighbors. Is this done for the love of the Jewish people? Not really. They interpret the Bible in such a way that Jerusalem has to be in hands of Israelites, God’s chosen people, in preparation for Christ’s second coming and the end of this world as we know it. Do the Jews get to enter heaven with these righteous Christians? Of course not, unless they have converted.

When a person is born Muslim, he or she will most likely remain as one, and often obey God’s will in the way their religion teaches. The same is true with every faith. Many people from the Far East have become devout Christians in recent decades, but one must remember that their heritage has taught them a form of life philosophy in Buddhism, Confucianism and other such religions. Having a God to worship is new for many of them, and perhaps an easier way of life than their inheritance would demand. And there is nothing forbidding them to mix both the newly discovered faith with the old philosophy of living ethically.

Yesterday’s NY Times Magazine has a fascinating cover story by Robin Marantz Henig, titled “Darwin’s God” or “Why Do We Believe? – How evolutionary science explains the faith in God.” The article goes back in time and tries to come up with explanations to why humans developed this need in the first place, a belief in a Supreme Being. Why do we worry so much about an afterlife? There is an interesting comment by Jesse Bering, a psychologist who conducted studies on how children’s view of God changes with age: “A large part of any relationship takes place in our minds, so it’s natural for it to continue much as before after the other person’s death. It is easy to forget that your sister is dead when you reach for the phone to call her, since your relationship was based so much on memory and imagined conversations even when she was alive.”

Back to the issue of taking care of our brothers and sisters, whatever ethnicity and religion they may be. Six billion humans is a large number, yet shouldn’t every one of them be entitled to the same fundamental right of a good or decent life as a son or daughter of today’s American socialite? For the time being, relying on volunteers in soup kitchens may be necessary for our society to survive, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could dedicate our time for more meaningful dialogue between people, instead of just feeding the hungry and yet avoiding their eyes on the sidewalk the next day?