Love and War, Poetry & Politics

Monday, July 30, 2007

Who are the least among us?

July 30, 2007


By Bruce Allen Morris

In a recent discussion with my arch conservative son-in-law, whom I love dearly, he defended his argument for racially profiled secret surveillence, summary imprisonment, and torture of Americans and legal and illegal aliens suspected of being terrorists with this little gem: "let's face it, Bruce, you and I and people like us will never be suspected of terrorism, so why should we care if the government spies on Muslims to protect us?" Miraculously stifling a primal scream, I began, in a later quiet time to meditate on that question and seek an answer based in his ideology that addresses his self-interest.

It caused me to remember another conversation with a young, idealistic homeless and hunger activist a few years earlier. As I was awakening from years of suppressing my liberal background and nature in a conservative job, I lamented to her my shame that our society, with so much wealth, treats low-income people so poorly. She replied: "our society does not treat anyone well, its just that some people have the money to take better care of themselves than others."

Then in the last few days, our President announced he would veto a proposed law to increase funding to the State Children's Health Insurance Program, thereby denying health care to millions of low-income children to save less money per year than we spend in Iraq each month. Denying health care to poor children while pushing for permanent tax cuts for the richest people in the history of the world. Then another shameful development. I just read a the most graphic story yet about the Bush Administration's refusal to help the Iraqi refugees Bush's own war is creating. "Bush Administration Utterly Callous Toward Iraqi Refugees"

Adding this conversation and these recent events to my meditation on how we treat each other and why those of us who can take care of ourselves should care deeply about those who cannot, I naturally found my way to Jesus and his most beautiful words on right human action.

Jesus And The Least Among Us

In its grand depiction of the scene when Jesus returns to earth as The King and judges his professed followers, the Book of Matthew accounts the ultimate test Jesus will use to decide who joins him in the Kingdom of Heaven and who will burn in eternal fire. And Jesus declares that those will join him in heaven who fed him when hungry, gave him drink when thirsty, clothed him when naked, visited him when sick, came to him in prison, and invited him in as a stranger. When they ask when they did these things for Jesus, he replies, "to the extent that you did it to one of your brothers, even to the least among you, you did it to me."

To those who would burn in eternity, Jesus explained:

"Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me." They also will answer, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?" He will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least among you, you did not do for me."

Matthew, 45, 31-46 (42-46 quoted in full) (emphasis added).

Now, you may or may not believe in the concept of judgment day, or Jesus or even God, but that is not needed to understand the basic moral principle announced. In a more universally accessible spiritual, secular moral, or ethical sense, Jesus is announcing the only reliable test of a person's basic humanity: how that person treats the least among his or her society.

Action Toward The Least Among Us As An Essential Political Assessment

This most fundamental moral principle of right behavior and action is as important a political assessment as it is an assessment of humanity. Of course, the Bible and the words of Jesus are the sources of the radical Christian right's claim to political and legal superiority. But it is also incredibly important in a world with huge movements setting up Jesus's or Allah's or whoever's criteria for judgment day as the basis for legal and governmental systems to understand that Jesus's ultimate assessment of his followers was not how well they followed the Ten Commandments, whether they were for or against abortion or gay marriage or war against infidels, had sex outside marriage, or went to church every Sunday. No, the ultimate measure was whether they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited the imprisoned, invited in strangers. And if they denied this even to the least among them, they also denied it to Jesus himself! But if they did this to all including the least among them, they also did it to Jesus himself! In short, God said through Jesus, how we treat each other is the single most important measure of our lives

More specifically, how we treat the least among us is the one and only truly reliable assessment of our genuine humanity and the only way to know how we can truly count on our political leaders to treat all members of society, including ourselves. To expand on that concept politically, let me first delve in to who are the least among us.

Who Are The Least Among Us?

The obvious groups are the ones Jesus listed: the poor, hungry, homeless, sick, mentally ill, imprisoned, strange, alien. Minorities, women and children are often among the least in societies. Native Americans have always been among the least here. But these listings are neither exhaustive nor exclusive. Numerous times in history wealth or familiarity did not protect certain groups or persons from becoming "least". Wealth did not protect Jews in Europe, nor Palestinians in either Palestine or Israel. In America, minorities would generally be included, but wealth has protected certain minorities from oppression or even bought them the same apparent exceptions from the rules applying to the non-wealthy long experienced by wealthy whites. Illegal aliens are certainly the least among us, but some are considered lower than others depending on their skin color and religion-Latinos and Persian, Arabic and Asian Muslims are considered much lower than Canadians or Europeans or even Indians.

Neither wealth nor legal status nor innocence protected the thousands of Muslims rounded up in the United States after September 11, 2001 and hounded, followed, spied-on and suspected ever since for the crime only of being Muslim and having brown skin. Children, of course represent the least among us in stature and political right, but children of successful parents are seldom considered among the leastwhile children of the poor most certainly are. To expand the definition even further beyond easy categories, think of those suddenly and unexpectedly oppressed for their political beliefs in the McCarthy era, or for their ancestral home in the Japanese internment.

The bottom line here is that no listing or categorization can tell us who are the least among us. So what is the answer?

I believe the answer is functional. The answer best illuminating the critical importance of this measure of humanity is this: the least among us are the least able to resist the treatment given to, denied or imposed on them; least able to retaliate for negative treatment; or least able to reciprocate for positive treatment. The least among us are those who can neither resist, retaliate nor reciprocate.

Why is the inability to resist, retaliate or reciprocate the most functional and meaningful definition of the least among us? Because the way we treat someone who can resist or retaliate for negative treatment only reliably shows how we act in the face of fear or expedience. The way we treat someone who can reciprocate for positive treatment only reliably shows how we act when we expect or are hoping for something in return. The key word here is "reliably." We may very well act with love and respect to the richest person in town out of genuine humanity, but an outside observer cannot be sure we are not simply ingratiating ourselves in hopes of future favor. Only by seeing how we treat those who cannot resist, retaliate or reciprocate can we know how a person acts based purely on his or her own humanity, love, or morality.

Why Should The Mainstream Observe and Care How The Least Are Treated?

Politically the way the least among us are treated is crucial because, as we have seen many times throughout history, the categories included in those who cannot resist, retaliate or reciprocate can change, and sometimes rapidly. Who would have thought in the 1940's that successful, famous and wealthy movie directors and writers only a few year later would be rendered penniless untouchables just because of a rumor that they once belonged to a hated (least) political party?

But perhaps the best illustration of this principle is the famous poem written by Martin Niemoller, a Nazi concentration camp survivor. One popular version (of many) recites:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Viewed in Matthew's framing of the risen Jesus on judgment day, Neimoller informs us that the least among us can not only change with shifting political tides, but can grow and evolve as tyrants learn they must expand the circle of those they oppress to prolong and tighten their dominance of society and hasten their appropriation of its wealth and resources.

He instructs us not only that we must remain ever vigilant of the rights of temporally demonized, suspected, or scapegoated-lesser- groups to ensure the protection of our own rights. Niemoller also warns us to remain ever observant of how our leaders treat the least among us, for that shows us the true face of their humanity and teaches us how they will treat all others who find themselves for whatever reason unable to resist, retaliate or reciprocate. In short, how our leaders treat the least among us shows us how we will be treated if we become one of least. Few in history have ever known this reality better than Niemoller and his contemporaries who found themselves in German concentration camps after no one was left to speak for them. After, in other words, they could no longer resist or retaliate.

So the answer to my son-in-law and all other conservatives is that we must care how our government treats Muslims today because we may ourselves be among the hated and therefore least group one day in the future. Sometime in the next fifty years, whites will nolonger be a majority. What if all minorities cooperate and decide to oppress white people? What if you were a high-flying corporate CEO and suddenly found yourself in prison for fraud? How would you like the way we treat prisoners then? More importantly and probably, with our society's abject refusal to take care of the least among us economically, what if we are hit by an uninsured driver in a crosswalk and end up with a brain injury leaving us unable to earn a living and our savings are not sufficient to sustain us? Without a doubt in American today the unemployed and mentally challenged are clearly among our least. How will we want our society to treat us when we are forced to join their number?

Not to go all metaphysical on you, but if we are all one ignored red light away from becoming the least among us, we are all, in effect, among the least right now. Nothing actualizes that was not potential and potentiality is just latent reality. So we should pay attention to how our leaders and our society treat the least among us because we are, in fact, all the least among us.

Authors Website:

Authors Bio: Bruce is 46 year-old father of one, stepfather of three and grandfather of two, who left a lucrative law practice at a large national law firm to work, advocate and write for social justice and equality and find a way to incorporate a spiritual life into the material world. He now struggles along to make a decent living while holding true to his deepest principles in Portland Oregon.



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