Lots of people apparently still believe that our society is subject to the Platonic notion that all we have to do is rationally show people the right thing to do, and they’ll do it. That what people are really experiencing is a lack of good, well-reasoned information. I think that people aren’t always that rational. For us to really change our behavior, something more is necessary.
A few examples: Is there anyone left on Earth who doesn’t know that smoking is bad for you? Even the executives of the tobacco companies have mostly given up that pretense. The effects of smoking are very well documented, and for years have been clearly, and unambiguously presented to the public. Its printed right on the cigarette package. But not only do people already addicted continue to smoke, but new people start smoking all the time.
Another example: Did you wear your seatbelt when you drove here this morning? I’ll bet that not everyone did. If you didn’t, is that because you didn’t know that seat belts can save your life? Did you not know that seat belt use is required by law, with a $50 penalty for non-compliance?
Last example: If, like me, you’re carrying a few extra pounds, you probably know that ultimately the only way to change that is to eat less and exercise more. Every fitness or weight-loss plan is just a variation on eating less and exercising more. So why do we spend billions of dollars on dubious diets and magical machines that promise some miraculous cure to our expanding waistlines?
The biggest problem with human behavior is not lack of information. It is not our lack of reasoning ability, in general. The problem, I’m afraid, is sin.
In fact, some times, all the information and reasoning we do leads us to rationalization. Look at today’s first reasoning. The prophet Amos is denouncing his own people, because they have become effete degenerates. They have been told for generations that they are God’s chosen people. Life is good. The economy is going great. They squander their wealth on empty entertainment that only leaves them more cynical and debased, while their society is headed for ruin. And they have forgotten the poor. This is ancient Israel, remember, even if it’s starting to sound familiar. But their information says that they are Gods chosen, so, God must be all right with this. Right?
Let’s look at the parable in the Gospel. We’re given a stark picture of God’s ultimate justice, where the poor Lazarus is comforted in God’s embrace, while the rich man is in torment. And the rich man pleads for God to send his family another messenger. Send them more information, more proof. And God’s response is, they have enough information. They got the memo. Lack of knowledge isn’t their problem, and more information isn’t going to change their behavior. Not even if the information is as compelling as someone rising from the dead.
The big problem with human behavior isn’t lack of knowledge, or an inability to think. The problem is sin. This guy refused to acknowledge the existence of poverty when it was literally on his doorstep. Don’t miss the contrast between the proximity of Lazarus and the rich man in this life, and the chasm that separates them in the next. On earth, Lazarus cries out and the Rich Man is silent; in the afterlife, Lazarus is quiet, and the Rich Man cries out for relief.
The often-overlooked wisdom in this parable is that on this earth we are literally all in this together. Experts have been telling us for 30 years that the world produces enough food to feed every living person. But our system of distributing that food produces both starvation and waste. Did you know that Americans throw out 200 pounds of food a year, per person on average? These scraps from our tables go in the trash, while the poor are on our doorsteps. There is waste and sin built into the system.
So, how do we change? I think we start with an appeal to the heart, and not the head. We need to develop enough personal courage to change our own behavior, even if it won’t solve all the world’s problems. Sure, sure, “the poor will be with you always.” That doesn’t give us an excuse to ignore them. If the poor will be with us always, we will need to feed them and lift them out of poverty– always. If we believe it when we sing or say, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” then we’d better make sure the poor aren’t crying out against us.
We change behavior– turn away from sin, if you like that language better– by reaching people’s hearts. You may start wearing your seatbelt when someone you love is injured in a car wreck. You’ll treat the poor differently when they are real people living next door, instead of just unemployment statistics on the evening news. You’ll learn about fidelity in relationships when it’s apparent that your lack of fidelity is going to wound someone you love.
And hearts are changed, we believe, by an encounter with Christ. People are going to have that encounter with Christ through you. The love and compassion that you show people is a pre-emptive strike against sin. It speaks to people’s hearts about the relationship you have with the Savior, and offers them that same relationship. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (whom Pope Benedict elevated to Blessed status on his way to sainthood) had a motto: Cor ad cor loquitur, heart speaks to heart. Rich or poor, saint or sinner, we each have the ability– and the responsibility– to be Christ’s presence in the world, by living with compassion, and working for justice.
So don’t be discouraged by people’s apparent ignorance and irrationality or sinfulness– even your own. What the world needs most isn’t necessarily more information or better reasoning. The world needs something you already have to give in abundance. What the world needs now, is love: Christ’s love for everyone.
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