The Sound of Silence

Quite the testimonial that there appears to be a higher degree of moral outrage among corporate CEOs than religious “leaders.”

This is just one of many statements I’ve read the past week about what many see as the transition of moral leadership in America away from religion to corporate leaders.

I’m not so sure I buy it — the second part, that is. I certainly buy the first part: the churches are largely silent. But I question whether it’s moral leadership that’s coming from corporate America. Rather, I suspect it’s calculated HR strategy by and large.

There are exceptions, of course — instances where a few corporate leaders are primary voices of morality. But they’re the rare exception.

The churches, on the other hand, are either relatively silent, at least beyond their hallowed walls or, worse yet, voices that stand in opposition to justice. Indeed, the evangelical wing of the Christian Protestant tradition doesn’t even pretend. It’s been nearly entirely co-opted by secular ideology and has become more Right than Gospel.

They don’t concede that of course. But it’s obvious, at least to anyone with a modicum of objectivity left in their bones.

As for the remainder of the religious traditions in America, prophetic voices of justice and compassion are undoubtedly still raised here and there in local congregations and, to some extent, in local communities. But the voices are either too few or too timid to join together in a way that resounds through larger communities or on regional or national stages.

But perhaps things aren’t all that different from what they’ve always been. I recall in the ’60s that most religious folk were status quo kind of people. The ones who stood with Martin Luther King, Jr. were relatively few in number. In that era, the kids and relatively few allies of Dr. King were the dominant voices of morality.

It’s been over 1,700 years now since Emperor Constantine supposedly converted to Christianity and the faith became a legitimate part of the power structure. One could argue that’s when the Christian faith embraced power and privilege over morality and sacrifice. If you ever visit the Vatican, you will understand what I mean.

There have been exceptions along the way of course. Quite notable ones. But exceptions nonetheless.

I’m not sure the situation is all that different among the Jews in our country today. Indeed, some notable people of the Jewish tradition occupy positions of power within our national government. Apparently, the faith doesn’t impede their work or trouble them enough to break their silence.

Muslims understandably are loath to speak out in our society. Our government bans many from even traveling here, and our leader constantly fuels fear and hatred that intimidates. That’s not an excuse; it’s just the way it is.

One thing has been clear for me for a very long time: given the choice of following Caesar or some other patriarch who relies on instruments of war and death, or a poor, seemingly weak teacher/preacher or tradition that inhibits the acquisition of wealth and power, the kind of person our president would ┬ácall a “loser,” the vast majority of people choose the former, even if they pretend not to. And who can blame them?

That doesn’t mean the voice of morality is silent, of course. Indeed, courageous compassion and moral people — both religious and secular — can be found in any era. Yet sometimes their voices are few in number and hard to hear.

I speak not out of a sense of condemnation for I am no better than anyone else. And I fall well short of the example of many.

The point isn’t that people are bad or complicit (although perhaps some are). Rather, the point is this thing we call morality, justice and compassion is no easy thing at all.

Risking everything — indeed, risking anything — for the sake of a stranger requires compassion and courage beyond the capacity of most of us.

At certain points in history, someone rises from our midst to provide moral leadership — a person with extraordinary abilities and courage. But most of the time, there is no such person. Most of the time, we’re left to our own devices.

It’s folly to think that moral leadership will hail from the halls of corporate America. The dominant culture of business in America surrounds money. Some founders and leaders of business have broader concerns of course. Some promote equality and justice. To an extent. But these causes will never supersede their primary mission in any large-scale way. Their shareholders would replace them first.

Which leaves us with churches and congregations and people of faith traditions. And with individuals. It leaves us pretty much in the same position we’ve always been in.

It’s not a cause for despair or reason for elation in my opinion. It’s just the way it is.

Being an agent of justice in a world that pursues power and wealth — in a world that is governed more by the laws of the jungle than the laws of justice — is not an easy thing to be, Vera. In fact, it’s so hard and can be so costly that I wouldn’t push it on anyone. In any case, I suppose it’s not something that can be pushed on anyone. For it to be true and effective, it must come from within. It must come from a heart that is different from the norm.

People will argue whether there is an external force or power that produces such hearts, or whether they’re merely a product of happenstance. You can decide for yourself when the time is right.

In the meantime, I must focus on myself and my own actions and be less concerned with the words and actions of others. For my entire life I have tried to heed the voices of both accumulation and morality. It has almost torn me apart at times.

You notice I didn’t suggest the choice was between morality and immorality. That would suggest the wrong thing as we have defined immorality more narrowly and salaciously in our culture.

I also think concepts of morality are a bit misleading. In my way of thinking, it’s more an issue of compassion.

Compassion is much easier to exhibit in private or in small groups of like-minded people. On a grander scale, in the public forum, it’s a much different matter, for there it confronts other forces, ones that are weaponized and punitive.

Sometimes, the sound of silence can be deafening.

What To Do When Confronted by Bad Behavior

Everyone is confronted (aka victimized) by bad behavior from time to time. Sometimes it comes at the hands of a boss. Or spouse. Or friend. Or customer service rep. Or fellow driver. Or any number of other people whose paths cross ours.

It was tempting to write bad “people” versus bad “behavior.” But that would be an overreach. I used to think there were bad people. And perhaps there are. But I now try to distinguish people from their behavior, recognizing that all (or at least the vast majority of us) do some bad things at times. Moreover, I’m weary of the demonization of people, which seems to be a national pastime among certain groups. So I’ll focus on behavior.

All of us are imperfect of course. All of us wear gray hats. When we think our hat is pure white, or others’ hats are pure black, we delude ourselves, not in a benign way, but in a toxic way. Unfortunately, it’s a story that sells, particularly in times such as this. But it’s based in something other than reality.

In any case, no matter where people land on the morality and ethics continuum, people are capable of behaviors that can fairly be described as bad — at least from our perspective. Basically, it means it’s hurtful to us. Or disadvantages us or others in a way that seems unfair to us. You’ll know it when you see it, Vera. And when you feel it. And I guarantee you, you will see and feel it in your life. Perhaps many times.

I’m writing about this because I haven’t been very good at dealing with bad behavior, at least not in my personal life. I’m better at it in my professional life, that is, when representing people or organizations as their lawyer. I suppose it’s easier in that context because it’s not personal with me and, therefore, I’m not emotionally invested. In one’s personal life, it’s hard not to react emotionally.

So what have I learned over the years about reacting to bad behavior? Continue reading