Friday, March 14, 2014

Zero Sum

My oldest son, Tony, was diagnosed with autism nearly 17 years ago.  My family found ourselves reaching out to other families affected by autism and organizations for support.  We became very involved in autism outreach efforts and fundraising.  There is one particular fundraiser that stands out in my mind and makes me laugh out loud each time I recall it.  Richard, our two sons, then eight and seven, and I were participating in a walk-a-thon benefiting our local autism resource center.  We were three quarters of the way finished with the walk when my youngest son, Robert, piped up and exclaimed “I’m hot, I’m tired, and I’m thirsty.” Despite my disapproving glances he continued “Why do we have to do this walk anyway?” “Why does Tony get to have a walk?” To this Richard, shall I say, lovingly replied “Robert, when they have a walk for complainers we will be sure to support you and walk that day too.” We finished the walk in silence.
I was once reminded of this funny incident because of a post I received on my Facebook page regarding the devastation in Haiti after the earthquakes and the relief efforts. The post read:
Shame on you America: the only country where we have homeless without shelter, children going to bed without eating, elderly going without needed meds, and mentally ill without treatment -- yet we have a benefit for the people of Haiti on 12 TV stations. 99% of people won't have the guts to copy and repost this!
My initial response was less than pastoral and I hit the delete button. Once calm I chose not to copy and repost, not because I didn’t have the guts, but because the issues raised needed to be unpacked a bit more before I could wrap my head around them.  I asked myself if this person lived under a rock. Could America seriously claim to be the only country struggling with justice for the homeless, the hungry, children, and people struggling with mental illness? Foreign aid or is often regarded as being too much, or wasted on corrupt recipient governments despite any good intentions from donor countries. In reality, both the quantity and quality of aid have been poor and donor nations have not been held to account. I eventually came to the conclusion that the person who made this Facebook post was asking, not unlike Robert, “Where is my walk-a-thon?” “Why do they get a walk-a-thon and I don’t?” That is, why does Haiti get relief while Americans continue to suffer?
The competition for resources became glaringly evident. There are neither guts nor glory in pitting human beings against one another in a battle for empathy, kindness, concern, and resources. Darwin theorized that if animals -- that would be us -- must compete to survive, then the winners would be those with the strongest traits and those with weaker traits would lose. Those are the theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Remember this later today at the auction. The natural desire to compete for resources or to be the strongest has been planted within us. That natural desire becomes stronger, more urgent, and manipulated by being bombarded with fear and the threat of scarcity at the hands of modern technology and the media.  Listen to the examples that I easily plucked from recent newspaper articles, blogs, and other media sources:
Illegal aliens have made America the dumping ground for all their illegal alien children, then we have to school them and give them free medical care.
How long before we are paying for all her babies’ kids? [Speaking of a mother receiving public benefits] Sterilize the whole family — I’ll pay.
Why are women and blacks always getting jobs instead of white men? Women and blacks never give jobs to white men. Yet if a woman or a black does not get the job, women sexist groups and blacks racist groups cry like terrorist Negroes and FemiNazis? Why not send American women and American blacks to the South Pole?
And finally:
At some point compassion has to be limited in order to take care of our own.
Where is the holy in these statements? How do we decide who gets help, and who doesn’t? How do we decide which cause gets the media blitz and the celebrities and which do not? The more important question is: How do we transcend our natural desire for competition and fear of scarcity and move to a place where fear and competition are overcome with compassion and love?
I wish I had a single and easy answer. The notion of transcending our natural desire for competition is ancient and can be found in every religious tradition. Hebrew scriptures warn us by telling us the story of brothers Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy over God’s approval of his brother’s sacrifice over his leads him from anger to murder. Brothers Jacob and Esau become victims of competition for their father’s blessing, which leads Esau to plan Jacob’s death, and Jacob fleeing from his family. These stories have been used to modify behaviors for thousands of years.
The Islamic tradition has built in a framework for Muslim life that ensures such transcendence -- the five pillars of Islam. The third pillar being zakat, a tax levied as almsgiving for the relief of the poor. The Quran teaches us that the Prophet Mohammed said “Charity is a necessity for every Muslim.” Charity in Islam is not simply a handout it is bringing justice to the community.
Christian scriptures remind us of the work of the Apostles. They all worked for God's purposes — one of the most important being providing for the entire community and not just one. The Book of Acts tells us “Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the Apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need." Those with money and possessions distributed their wealth to provide for those in need. They did not compete against one another but served one another.
I particularly treasure the words of Hiawatha of the Onondaga tradition. Hiawatha tells his people “My children, war, fear, and disunity have brought you from your villages to this sacred council fire. Facing a common danger, and fearing for the lives of your families, you have yet drifted apart, each tribe thinking and acting only for itself. Remember how I took you from one small band and nursed you into many nations. You must reunite now and act as one. Remember that you are brothers [and sisters], that the downfall of one means the downfall of all. You must have one fire, one pipe.”
What we glean from all of this is the idea of uniting, sharing our physical, spiritual, emotional, and financial resources to benefit not just ourselves or our own, but all. We are reminded that we are connected. Our world truly is one world. What touches one does affect us all. Since receiving the Facebook post in question I solicited opinions from co-workers, family members, and others about the idea of competition. One theory that kept surfacing was the zero-sum theory. In game theory and economic theory, zero-sum describes a situation in which a person's gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of another. If the total gains are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. Basically, this theory says it all evens out in the end.
So if this is true then we shouldn’t worry about who gets what resources. Sounds good, right? Look closer at this argument.  Author Julian Edney explains “If we have an exchange between two people: if you and I compete, and what you win is exactly what I lose, the sum is zero. This is the zero-sum exchange, and it results in pure inequality. It creates the ‘have’ over the ‘have-not’.” It produces a winner and a loser. But if in the exchange we both gain something, or if you gain, while I suffer some loss and some gain, then the sum is not zero. It looks like we both gain, at least something.
Now in English. If two people are competing for a dollar, one will get it and one won’t. A zero-sum outcome will occur, but it is not serious. But if two people are competing for food, shelter, or medicine that will save their child’s life the outcome is quite serious and can produce emotion, perhaps panic or fury — maybe even a Facebook post! Edney tells us “It gets a little more realistic if that exchange is played over and over. Day after day, a person has to compete just to survive. Every time a person tries, they lose to another person. Dog-eat-dog competition is an example of zero-sum. Only one is going to win. When the stakes are high, zero-sum can be exciting (ball games) or humiliating and despairing (two transplant patients waiting, but there is only one liver). In theory we also start with the assumption all parties are equal. But in the real world one party often starts with an advantage: larger physical size, or extra wealth.” He says the “win/loss can be predicted ahead, which breeds cynicism (contests between rich and poor) and over time these contests are degrading. In the long run, zero-sum exchanges are toxic because they prevent future cooperation. They lead to worsening divisions.”
I’ve abandoned the zero-sum theory that I spent so much time considering. I now am opting for the “ants and bees” theory. This theory breeds (not literally) compassion, cooperation, creates win/win situations, and is grounded in good old fashioned Unitarian Universalist principles. I recently read an article that presented ants and bees as a metaphor for world community (author unknown). When we see ants and bees out in the world, we often see just one, but this gives a false impression of the reality of their situation. More than any other species, ants and bees function as parts of a whole. They cannot survive as individuals; they survive as members of a group, and the group’s survival is the absolute goal of each individual’s life. Often we, as humans, value individualism and often negatively associate ants and bees with a lack of autonomy. If we take a closer look at ants and bees, we can learn valuable lessons about how much we can achieve when we band together with others to work for a higher purpose. The article tells us “In many ways, they are like the individual cells of one body, living and dying as necessary to preserve the integrity of the whole body, not to protect themselves as individuals. In this way, ants personify the ability to see beyond one’s small self to one’s place within the greater whole, and the ability to serve this whole.” Ants and bees can inspire us to fully own what we have to offer and to put it to use in the quest of a goal that will benefit all of us, whether it be responding to local or world crisis, feeding the hungry, or caring for the environment. “When we realize we are one part of a greater organism working to better the whole world, we honor and implement the wisdom of ants and bees.”
Unitarian minister Theodore Parker once said “The miser, starving his brother's body, starves also his own soul, and at death shall creep out of his great estate of injustice, poor and naked and miserable” Parker isn’t talking  about giving more or being selfless. It’s about recognizing that we are one. There is not an us and them. We do not deserve more than others. Our commitment to justice, equity, and compassion as well as our goal of world community calls us to transcend our urges to guard what we perceive to be ours, protect our own, and retreat into isolated groups. We do this by simply responding. Respond to inequity, intolerance, and injustice with all your might — no matter where or to whom it happens; respond when a people are faced with major disaster AND when your neighbor is struggling day to day. Respond by creating a world where our brothers and sisters need not compete for justice and compassion; respond with love ensuring dignity for everyone. Respond by honoring the wisdom of ants and bees.
May it be so.

Zero Sum, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Mar 9, 2014.

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