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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

You Didn't Build That
distributed 8/10/12 - ©2012

A rabbi's non-political commentary on a routine Torah reading has given me insight into one of this summer's campaign fights. He has opened my eyes to much deeper themes that deal with matters of spirituality and ecology.

For too many weeks this summer, a less-than-perfectly phrased comment by President Obama has fueled an ongoing string of political ads and commentary. You know the one I'm talking about. Obama said, as part of a larger discussion, "If you've got a business -- you didn't build that." He was reminding his audience about the services provided by communities and government which support businesses. His "that" was a direct reference to "roads and bridges" in the sentence just before.

The Romney campaign took the quote out of context, and presented the words as an attack on the initiative of business owners. The heated debate about "you didn't build that" has kept the phrase and the philosophical conflict alive.

A fascinating article from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) takes the media to task on this one, saying that this is a clear case "when reporters suspend a minimal level of critical judgment in order to allow a political campaign to set a preferred storyline." The article does the required fact checking on the actual quote, and details how the prevailing style of reporting has focused on whether the attacks and counter-attacks have been politically effective, not whether they have been accurate.

Fed by poor reporting, the controversy has hooked into a powerful theme in our society. Are we members of a community, or are we self-sufficient individuals?

Mr. Obama could have spoken more precisely. Mr. Romney should have been more responsible in dealing with the quote. But the passion that has been generated by these comments shows that there really is a profound disagreement in our society about whether we do things on our own.

The owner of a chain of Georgia lumberyards picked up a lot of visibility when he added banners to his business signs saying (in part), "I built this business without gov't help." In an image that has gone viral, somebody added notations around the edge of a picture of Gaster by his sign, pointing to 15 ways that government has helped the business. (I have to say that some of 15 are quite a stretch. But, from my liberal perspective, it is a fun picture!) When people hang bold signs, and when others mock them, that's a sign that there are strong feelings and deep beliefs at play.

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I was inclined to stay out of this political scuffle, until a rabbi helped me to see that this summer's political issue is a very old matter of human nature and theology. It isn't just about government, but about God and nature, too.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer wrote a nice reflection on one of the passages from Deuteronomy that was read in many Jewish congregations earlier this month. I'm assuming that she drafted the piece before the presidential "gaffe" in July, because I don't see how she could have missed commenting on the connection.

According to my New Oxford Annotated Bible, the fifth book of the Bible, the last piece of the Pentateuch, "purports to be Moses' farewell address in which he rehearses the mighty acts of the Lord, solemnly warns of the temptations of the new ways of Canaan, and pleads for loyalty to and love of God as the condition for life in the promised land."

Rabbi Spitzer says that chapter 8 of Deuteronomy has "Great news! After 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites are about to enter into a veritable cornucopia of material blessing. But Moses immediately goes on to warn the people that in all this abundance there lurks a danger", and quotes from the text:

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery ... Do not say to yourself, 'My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.' (8:12-17)

The rabbi says, "The danger here is forgetting -- forgetting where we've come from (our own experience of poverty and oppression) and forgetting that no one person, or one community, creates wealth by themselves."

It is striking to me that Deuteronomy says that we are most inclined to be forgetful when we become wealthy. When times are hard and resources are scarce, when we face oppression instead of opportunity, then we're more likely to remember the source of our help, and to be grateful to God and the community. But when times are good, it is easier to forget the help that has come from God and from those around us.

Getting this theological perspective with roots going back 3,000 years helps me to see beyond opportunistic attack ads. This is a very old question. And Rabbi Spitzer led me to think more ecologically about our inclination to forget, and to think that we've done it on our own.

In our prosperous and technological age, when most of us have little connection to the sources of our food and fuel, it is easy for us to forget how utterly dependant we are on the biosphere that sustains us. We are inclined to say to ourselves, "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth."

But the coal and oil that have brought us to such affluence are not our doing. Our crops are pollinated by insects, and the soil is renewed by bacteria and worms. The fish that we harvest from the sea are part of a complex and fragile web of life. We are sustained by sun and rain, and even we of great wealth feel the threat when the climate is warped by our pollution into extreme heat and drought. We take for granted what the experts call "ecosystem services", services that we did not create, that we can't replace, and that are essential to our prosperity.

Our human arrogance -- which seems to spread across the whole range of the political spectrum -- finds it convenient to forget our relationship with the natural world, and to presume that we are entitled to the wealth that we have extracted from it. We deny that this is God's creation, and that we live within it through grace.

From my political perspective, I find the proposition that any of us can build any business or enterprise entirely on our own to be ludicrous and offensive. My biblical theological heritage takes it even deeper. The pride that says "I did it all on my own" is a rejection of God, a worshipping of false gods, and a path to disaster.

This isn't just a squabble between two political parties. At the core of this summer's political conversation is a matter of central theological and ecological significance. We can never, ever, be completely independent. We are always dependent on God, on the natural world, and on the human community.

When you hear the heresy of absolute independence being expressed, speak out with an affirmation of God and the community that sustains us.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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