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

Hard Hearted Is not a Virtue
distributed 8/5/16 - ©2016

A sermon by a wise theologian reminded me of a scathing biblical term that should be invoked more often: "hard hearted".

The Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite preached in Denver recently, and used as one of her texts Mark 3:1-3, where Jesus heals a man's withered hand on the Sabbath. Jesus asks the synagogue scholars, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" But, the text tells us, "they were silent", refusing to give Jesus an opening to challenge their orthodoxy. This makes Jesus angry (anger was the theme of Susan's sermon), because "he was grieved at their hardness of heart."

In scripture, a hard heart is not a good thing to have. The phrasing is used most often to describe the Pharaoh -- it shows up19 times in the book of Exodus. Over and over again, God hardens the heart of Egypt's ruler, so that Pharaoh will not listen to Moses, and he will not set the slaves free.

Hard hearted: placing self-interest above decency, justice and compassion. Hard hearted: so wrapped up in conventional matters of power and order that one is oblivious to the needs of those on the fringes.

Pope Francis doesn't use the term hard hearted in last year's encyclical, Laudato Si', but he describes the condition accurately (in paragraph 49):

there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet's population, billions of people. ... one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. [The opinion maker's lack of direct contact with the poor] can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality.

A hard heart treats great human need as collateral damage, as an unfortunate but necessary by-product of business as usual. A hard heart involves a numbing of conscience, and requires an active neglect of what should be compelling reality. The Pope celebrates the opposite attitude in Saint Francis: "He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness." (paragraph 10)

Within our faith tradition, hardness of heart is never a virtue. Whether in individuals or embedded in social policies, hardness of heart should stir us to anger and action against that hurtful attitude. I'm grateful to Dr. Thistlethwaite for reawakening me to this ethically powerful phrase.

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The polarity between hard and open hearts is a bit too simplistic. This week, I've gone back to a book that has been on my shelves for close to 30 years. "Hard Heads, Soft Hearts: Tough-Minded Economics for a Just Society" helped to shape my first thinking about the complexities of environmental economics, and turned around my initial distaste of policies like cap-and-trade to control pollution.

Writing in the late 1980s, Alan Blinder describes a polarized political setting that still sounds familiar. "Too often, the electorate is presented with a choice between Republican policies that are hard-headed but hard-hearted and Democratic policies that are soft-hearted but soft-headed."

The Republicans, he said, "know their economics better than do Democrats; they more keenly appreciate the delicate workings of the free-market system and all that it can accomplish. But they manifest pitifully little pity for the unfortunate and sometimes are all too willing to tread on the downtrodden."

Traditional Democratic policies, he said, "are not better, just different. Sympathy for the underdog is in abundant supply among Democrats and is not misplaced." But, "the requisite economic calculations and respect for markets were too often lacking. ... Unfortunately, throwing money with good will does not guarantee that the money will do good."

Reflecting on the still-running tenure of President Reagan, Blinder comments, "Where once we got cool-headed rationality, sharp-penciled calculations, and fiscal rectitude, we started getting wishful thinking, rosy scenarios, and unbounded deficits. Thus did Reaganomics offer up the worst of both worlds: a soft head and a hard heart." It seems to me, in this election year of 2016, that we are again facing the great danger of a soft-headed candidate who is out of touch with facts and who disdains careful analysis, and who is motivated by a hard-hearted spirit.

The hopeful combination that shapes Blinder's book is the best of both worlds -- a hard head and a soft heart. "We need more clear thinking and less ideological sloganeering. We must start thinking with our minds and feeling with our hearts, rather than the other way around." Yes, hard heads and open hearts are both essential qualities.

From my perspective of theological ethics, informed by the biblical descriptions of Pharaoh and those who opposed Jesus, I will place the primacy on the open heart. That is the essential starting place. The open heart is what engages us with the broadest realities of the world. The open heart gives us a "clear awareness of problems", and reveals that we're all in this together (the ethical principle of solidarity). An open heart illuminates the problems and crises of our day, and motivates us toward compassion and justice.

The passions and concerns that are rooted in an open heart, then, do need to be subjected to rigorous analysis. Causes and consequences need to be taken seriously, so that we can be effective (or even, in Blinder's economic view, "efficient") in the work of liberation, healing and justice. A hard head is a good complement to an open heart.

But, as we make our case for change, we must begin with the open heart, with the suffering neighbor, and with the billions of people who are excluded from justice and opportunity, with a planet damaged and destabilized. As pope Francis reminds us, a true ecological approach "must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor."

At all times -- not only during election seasons -- may we have our hearts open to the great needs and great disruptions of the world. And then may we be tough and rigorous as we plan for how to embody justice and love for all parts of Earth community.

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I want to offer a slight clarification or elaboration on last week's Notes. I affirmed that churches (and other non-profits) in the US "cannot and should not endorse candidates, but we can and must provide witness about the issues at stake." I called on religious leaders to offer "clear guidance on the religious and moral questions that are central to this election", and quoted from Christian Century with some examples of strong statements.

This week, though, I was part of a conversation with Susan Stephenson, the executive director of Interfaith Power and Light. She offered a word of caution from their lawyers about the issue that is central to IP&L's work. Climate change, she said, is such a polarized issue these days that a public statement about the need for strong climate action might be seen as a de facto endorsement of one candidate. So IP&L suggests that any published voter guides look at a variety of issues and principles; don't do a comparison of candidates on any one issue alone.

That's some hard-headed advice about how to act on our open-hearted commitments for a just and sustainable society.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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