Friday, October 22, 2010

The Genovese Effect

On March 13, 1964 29 year old Catherine (Kitty) Genovese was raped and stabbed to death in the parking lot of her New York City apartment. Details are sketchy but it is widely believed that up to 38 people saw or heard at least part of the attack, which occurred over the course of half an hour, and did nothing. One neighbour is reported to have turned up his radio so he couldn’t hear her screams; another was later quoted in the New York Times as saying “I just didn’t want to get involved.” All 38 witnesses expected someone else to do something and by the time someone finally did, Kitty Genovese was dead.

This event was one of the first of its kind, at least the first to be widely documented, and the public outcry prompted a lot of research into was has been called “diffusion of responsibility” or “the Genovese bystander effect”. Simply put, contrary to popular expectation, the more people that witness an event the less likely anyone is to step forward and intervene.

It’s been almost 47 years since the murder of Kitty Genovese. Our world is more interconnected than ever before. Events that occur on the other side of the world are beamed into our homes in real-time. We are bystanders to literally everything that is happening at every minute of every day. And yet when tragedy strikes many of us still do nothing.

Whenever I talk to people about investing in the lives of our less fortunate neighbours whether through planned financial giving, donation of surplus goods or simply giving of your time, I often receive the same kind of response.

- Isn’t organization a, b, or c already doing that? Why duplicate efforts?
- How do I know that I’m not supporting corruption?
- What makes you think this is going to make any difference at all?
- I’ve got enough problems of my own. I have to take care of myself and my own family first.

I must admit, at one time or another, I’ve used all of these arguments myself. But the fact of the matter is, if you see suffering and convince yourself to do nothing you have contributed to the diffusion of responsibility and people will die.

It is a sad reality that much of the donor funds given to worthy causes are wasted but that is not a reason to stop giving. Demand accountability, do your homework but please for the Love of God, do not allow suffering to continue when it is in your power to stop.

I can hear some of you already; “But it is not in my power.” Yes it most certainly is!

Helping people is almost always uncomfortable. It requires sacrifice. Perhaps going without a luxury item that you feel you deserve or taking time away from a favourite leisure activity. But when it comes to human beings, isn’t it worth it?

My friend Rick Tobias is the director of the Yonge Street Mission in downtown Toronto. He puts it this way, “The greatest lie ever told is that some people are worth more than others, not that it places certain people on a pedestal but that if some people are worth more it stands to reason that others are worth less. When you give yourself permission to think of others as worthless it opens up all manner of abuse and neglect.”

The next time you’re confronted with the suffering of a fellow human being remember Kitty Genovese and ask yourself; "how much is a life worth?"

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Use of Money

The Protestant ethic as undermined not by modernism but by capitalism itself. The greatest single engine in the destruction of the Protestant ethic was the invention of the instalment plan, or instant credit. – Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

When I was a young boy my father was a Baptist minister. My sisters and I used to laugh when he would “recycle” his sermons. He would never preach the same sermon to the same congregation mind you, but from time to time when he was asked to be a guest at a different church, rather than write a whole new sermon he would go back into his archives and find something that applied, update it a bit and presto! The only people that had any clue were my sisters, my mother and me.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with recycling sermons. All the great preachers have done it. If you weren’t in the original audience it’s new to you right? Even the great John Wesley (1703-1791) an itinerant preacher who travelled all over England and the New World recycled his sermons. According to most accounts one of Wesley’s most preached sermons was called The Use of Money.

A complete transcript of the sermon is available here
If you can get past the archaic language, it was the 18th century after all it’s well worth the read.

Wesley makes three points on the Use of Money; Gain all you can, Save all you can, and Give all you can. To me this is the very essence of the protestant work ethic. I touched in this back in February in a post called “How to Get Rich (or at least not go broke)” but it bears some repeating, in a way I guess I’m recycling my message too, just like my dad and John Wesley.

As the first decade of the new millennium draws to a close I’m sad to say the protestant work ethic is dead.

It started in the 60s when big government started offering big plans supported through big taxes that took away the incentive and much of the ability of individuals to give on their own. Big organizations are nowhere near as efficient as individuals at getting support to those who need it. By one account $2.3 trillion has been given through government supported institutional aid to the poorest nations of Africa since 1949 with little measurable increase in per-capita income for individuals over that time. By contrast there is a mounting body of evidence that suggest countries that have shunned aid, or more accurately been shunned by aid, have actually fared better. (William Easterly – The White Man’s Burden)

The damage caused to the protest work ethic by taxpayer support aid has come by removing individuals from the process. The thinking follows that since government is going to take the money from me in the form of taxes anyway why should I give more or get involved? Without direct engagement of the donors however, in this case taxpayers, accountability suffers and corruption takes over, hence the aforementioned $2.3 trillion that has largely gone to waste.

By the mid 80s a new cancer had emerged in the protest work ethic. Easy credit in the form of lower interest rates and multiple credit cards made it possible to finance the purchase of everything from cars to home furnishings, clothing and even everyday items like food. With easy credit the notion of saving and delayed gratification gave way to buy now and pay later. The worst part was (and still is) that society became addicted to the free flow of cash and rather than put the brakes on by raising interest rates, which has the dual effect of discouraging borrowing while encouraging saving, governments kept the rates low. It’s a dirty little secret that government and big business don’t actually want you to save. Saved money is money that is taken out of circulation and not contributing to the economy.

For more on the savings verse the free flow of capital debate check this out this video; The Story of Stuff.

In recent years we have begun to see the last nail in the coffin of the protestant work ethic. The drive to gain all you can, indeed any desire to work for anything, has died. In this era of high taxation, easy credit and billion dollar bail outs, many are asking, “why bother?” Why bother, when the government is going to tax me into the ground and waste my hard earned money on inefficient programs that I don’t want? Why bother when I can finance my life on easy credit and consume all I want, now?

Why indeed?

I am calling for nothing less than a complete return to the protestant work ethic. Work hard (gain all you can), resist the temptation to spend on easy credit (save all you can) and support those in need (give all you can). Anglo-Saxon western society, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and Canada were built on this. The foundation of our great society is crumbling but it’s not too late to fix it. Government isn’t going to change its policy overnight. Taxes will stay high and interest rates will stay low but if enough of us buck the trend we just might turn this thing around.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Asleep in The Light

Keith Green was quite possibly one of the most influential of the contemporary Gospel singers of the late 1970s. He was originally signed to Decca Records in 1965, at the age of 12, with the hope of making him a teen idol but as he matured his strong Christian faith caused him to balk at most of the lyrics to the songs he sang. By the mid 70s Decca had given up on him and released him from his contract.

In 1976 Green, now 23, signed a new contract with contemporary Gospel label Sparrow records and his first album was released in 1977. By the time of his tragic death in a plane crash in 1982 Green had release 4 more albums of praise and worship songs, with a few well timed barbs at the established church thrown in for good measure.

What follows are the lyrics to my personal favourite of his works. Asleep in The Light first appeared in 1978 on the album No Compromise. In it Green pulls no punches, pleading with the Christian church to put faith into action. This past week I’ve been meditating on Matthew 25, whenever I think of Jesus words about caring for the weak or the needy I think of this song.

I challenge you to read these lyrics and not feel a little uncomfortable about what you’re doing for the “least of these”;

Do you see, do you see
All the people sinking down
Don't you care, don't you care
Are you gonna let them drown

How can you be so numb
Not to care if they come
You close your eyes
And pretend the job's done

"Oh bless me Lord, bless me Lord"
You know it's all I ever hear
No one aches, no one hurts
No one even sheds one tear

But He cries, He weeps, He bleeds
And He cares for your needs
And you just lay back
And keep soaking it in,
Oh, can't you see it's such a sin?

Cause He brings people to your door,
And you turn them away
As you smile and say,
"God bless you, be at peace"
And all heaven just weeps
Cause Jesus came to your door
You've left him out on the streets

Open up open up
And give yourself away
You see the need, you hear the cries
So how can you delay

God's calling and you're the one
But like Jonah you run
He's told you to speak
But you keep holding it in,
Oh can't you see it's such a sin?

The world is sleeping in the dark
That the church just can't fight
Cause it's asleep in the light
How can you be so dead
When you've been so well fed
Jesus rose from the grave
And you, you can't even get out of bed

Oh, Jesus rose from the dead
Come on, get out of your bed

How can you be so numb
Not to care if they come
You close your eyes
And pretend the job's done
You close your eyes
And pretend the job's done

Don't close your eyes
Don't pretend the jobs done
Come away, come away, come away with Me my love,
Come away, from this mess, come away with Me, my love.

Of course just reading the lyrics doesn’t give the emotion of them justice, so if you aren’t uncomfortable yet watch this concert footage and listen to the emotion. There’s some cheesy 1970s editing going on and he goes flat a few times but I dare you not weep!

What’s God calling for you? Don’t close your eyes!

Checking out the Believer’s Trust page for more information on God’s calling for me and to join the movement.