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THE GOOD OF THE GROUP
April 9, 2008
 
Here is a mystery. Several mysteries, actually.

1. Organizing your own closet is a chore. Helping someone else organize hers is fun.

2. It's hard to go to the gym alone, but fun to go with someone else.

3. Centering prayer, an enterprise conducted entirely in silence, is nonetheless easier done in a group.

4. Many people who can't carry a tune in a bucket on their own sing very well in church.

You know of similar mysteries besides these four, I'm sure. It is a fact: people will happily do in groups what you couldn't pay them to do alone, and they will do it better and more efficiently. Afterwards, they will say it was fun.

I guess many of us just like to be on teams, to be part of something larger than ourselves. We like to put forth a mighty effort, focusing on it together, and to feel the might of its spirit when we do so. We multiply ourselves when we work with others, and we savor the power of that.

This is so true of most people that it has created major moral problems, more than once. Rheinhold Neibuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society is about just this: the moral power of the individual to transcend himself for the sake of the whole becomes demonic when the values of the whole are demonic. Neibuhr adduced the figure of "the good German" to illustrate this: a patriot who follows orders and loves his country, carried, by the very fact of his devotion, into a perverse moral universe in which it becomes an act of righteousness to kill innocent people. We wonder, often, how so many ordinary people could have participated in the horror of the Holocaust. How did they get so unmoored from their own sense of good and evil? The question makes us uneasy; our moral sense may be a lot more community-relative than we like to think it is. It's not just ourselves that we must transcend. Sometimes we must transcend our whole world.

Our unease is well-founded. We see the Good German everywhere. He is not always German -- he never has been. He is in the terrible lightheartedness of the snapshots taken at Abu Ghraib. There he is, in a white hood with only his eyes showing, at a Klan meeting. She reads her Bible earnestly, and it proves to her that her gay brother is an abomination -- he must be, because she honors the Bible and it says so, right there in black and white, ad her church says so, too, and so she must not go to visit him in the hospital, now that he is ill, because that's his punishment.

An institution quickly adopts its own survival as its highest good. They function on the basis of their own interest. And they reward the individuals who will adopt their highest good as their own, who are willing to sacrifice their own good to it. They read the moral law in such a way as to support that highest good, and turn holy texts to that task as well. Thus, many church pulpits rang with defenses of chattel slavery before our Civil War, and did so on biblical gorunds. Thus, there were clergy in Rwanda who participated in the genocide themselves. Thus, many Americans are willing to countenance and to cause devastating climate change in the service of a questionable short-term economic analysis.

We do what we think is right. But we need always to question ourselves, to ask ourselves where we get our moral convictions. Where did they come from? And who is really served by them? Love of country, of tradition, love of church, of family, of scripture, love of any group, can never be an excuse for refusing to think. If I am to sacrifice myself for something, let me at least know for sure that it really merits my devotion.

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Love the theater? Love New York? Soak up some of both this July 10-13 with Barbara Crafton and Kate Malin.
Theater and Theology in New York City explores some of the theological and ethical assumptions in modern theatre with two priests who are also actors. Participants will attend three current New York productions and have opportunities to meet and share reflections with several current artists. For reservations and cost information, e-mail ccs@gts.edu or call 888-487-5649 x269
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AIDSWALKNY happens in New York on May 18th. Barbara Crafton will be the preacher at the Eucharist held by Episcopal Response to AIDS, which takes place in Central Park before the march every year. You can participate with ERA in person or online at www.erany.org. If you've never done the AIDSWALK, you've missed a wonderful, spirit-filled day. Barbara will also walk on the ERANY team -- her goal is $5,000. Think she can raise that much? We think she can raise at least twice that! Help her do it by donating online at www.aidswalk.net/newyork. ERA's team number is 7881. Or you can send a check made out to AIDSWALKNY to The Geranium Farm, 387 Middlesex Avenue, Metuchen, NJ 08840.
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