The Natural Origins of Evil

Arden Mahlberg

The human immune system keeps us healthy and alive through violence against intruders who would do us harm. “Natural killers,” aptly named, are one type of cells in our immune system. Without the benefit of any prior exposure, they naturally seek out and destroy harmful cells. We rely on such violence within our bodies to be healthy.

Externally, our ability to be alive and healthy also depends on us doing harm to other organisms. Invasive species can make other species extinct. Insects destroy trees. Beavers destroy habitat that some species depend on while their actions aid other species. It is the nature of the reality we are in on planet earth that doing harm frequently aids in survival, and thus is rewarded by evolution.

In competing for resources, those with greatest power, technology and material resources, tend to exploit those who have what they want. While we can fault greed, it is true that the accumulation of resources tends to reduce existential stress, benefit survival and reproduction. European colonization of lands previously home to indigenous peoples is a case in point. It is easier to acquire wealth when you are willing and able to exploit others and the environment. Many wonders of the world and many grand economies were built with slave labor, for example.

Reproduction benefits from aggression. Many human beings play with this in sex games that involve domination and sadism. Being aggressive and violent can be exciting and pleasurable, which reinforces those behaviors even beyond their effectiveness in getting what we want. Rape and sexualization of power are so effective that in 2003 a study estimated that 16 million males had DNA traced to Genghis Khan, who ruthlessly built a vast empire characterized by rape and pillage.

Because we participate in these dynamics, Christian ministers frequently refer to us as “fallen” or in a state of “brokenness.” The obvious implication is that human beings were once “whole.” The Garden of Eden explanation has us beginning in a state where all that we needed was supplied by the environment. As they myth goes, our ancestors were safe, with no predators. Food was plentiful and easy to obtain. But there is no evidence that our ancestors ever lived in such a state of safety, with all their needs met by the environment itself.

Most species on earth live under threat of predators and under conditions where they must devote much time and effort to meet their needs for food and shelter.  It is not just human beings that live in stressful conditions. There are, however, birds that live in such ideal circumstances in Papua New Guinea that they are called Birds-of-Paradise. They have plenty of food at all times of year and they have no natural predators or diseases, hence the reference to Paradise. Reproduction, however, is not guaranteed. To reproduce, males must put on elaborate displays for the females, who routinely reject more males than they agree to have sex with. But sometimes a rejected male will simply not take “no” for an answer and will hop on the female and quickly impregnate her. Rape in paradise.

For aggression to succeed, it must be paired with effective power. When it is, it goes a long way in determining which individuals and which species will live and reproduce and which will not.  Aggression has reproductive value, so many successful species exhibit adaptive aggression. Even in extremes, it can be rewarded by survival and reproduction. But things we regard as virtues can also have survival and reproductive value. While Genghis Khan’s method of control and expansion was noted for its brutality, rape, and pillage, after gaining domination over a population, he used tolerance and generosity to maintain control. Social intelligence also has survival and reproductive value.

While the ability and willingness to do harm are evolutionary adaptations to the stressful conditions of life on earth, when they are activated without being suppressed by compassion, individuals and groups can inflict harm that is not necessary for their survival, which is evil. Typical suppressors of doing harm can be overridden by fear, delusion, and seemingly benign social pressure. Social conformity is also important to survival and reproduction. When people expect us to do harm, we are likely to comply. This is how isolated groups, like corporate cultures, can spin off into doing evil, like predatory business practices. Whole societies can also, like Nazi Germany. Outsiders are more able to see the evil insiders are doing.

Evil is done from a state of moral imbalance. Self-interest is not counterbalanced with concern for others. Twenty-six centuries ago, the Jain religion was formed around the realization that we cannot survive on earth without doing harm. They vowed to live as well as they could while doing the least amount of harm possible. The motivation is compassion for all sentient beings, including themselves. With such compassionate awareness, there can be the recognition that even altering the environment to benefit ourselves can make it unsuitable for other life forms who previously thrived.

Psychologically, we are more likely to strengthen our compassionate awareness when we are not faulted for major things outside our control, namely that life on earth requires doing harm. The guilt imposed by the belief that humans are at such fault (original sin) tends to only motivate us to relieve that guilt and secure our good standing with divine beings. The concept of original sin is an example of blaming the victim in order to deflect responsibility from where it lies, the objective reality life on earth evolved from. The concept of original sin also provides a means for the church to control others. Original sin does not motivate us to increase compassionate awareness of other life forms with concern for their wellbeing. Better to simply recognize that the roots of evil are in what it takes to survive and reproduce in the environment of this earth. We have the option, though, to commit to doing the least amount of harm possible and learning the self-discipline to do so. By counteract destructive needs with compassionate awareness of other life forms and the earth itself, we are less likely to exploit or do harm. Then we are more likely to sacrifice some fulfillment of our own interests for the sake of others.


“We’re Good”: When Forgiving is Unnecessary

Arden Mahlberg

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also known as the Parable of the Forgiving Father, there is, curiously, no moment in the story when the father forgives his son. When taken as a parable of forgiveness, we may be seeing what we expect to see rather than something even harder to imagine – unwavering compassion, which is even more fundamental to the life of love.  

The purpose of forgiveness is to return us to a base of compassion when our bond with another has been damaged in response to an offense. Forgiveness allows us to return to full participation and collaboration with others in the work to be done, the work on the farm or the needs of love and justice. Because the father in this story is so consistently gracious toward his son, we assume it must be because he keeps forgiving him, offense after offense. We assume the father’s bond toward his son would be damaged by these offenses. But there is no evidence that it was.

When compassion does not waver, there is no need for the repair that forgiveness supplies even when an offense has taken place. One person’s bond with another can remain remarkably intact in circumstances where most people would experience great harm to their bond with the other. There are such events in this parable where we might expect the father’s bond with his son to falter or even break into disowning the son. but there is no actual evidence that it did. This points to a quality of love that results in more consistency in love of neighbor and love of self.

Let us explore the absence of forgiveness in the story and the unwavering compassion that it reveals. The son came to his father one day with the unusual request for his inheritance so he could pursue his own life rather than remain on the farm. There is no indication that the father was insulted or angry due to the request. The father simply carried out the son’s wishes. No emotions are conveyed in this exchange. No blessing and no curse, as there was with Noah toward Ham for a much lesser provocation.

It is commonly understood that the Prodigal Son’s request would have been insulting and hurtful to the father. He wanted his inheritance while his father was still alive. He wanted to leave his father, his father’s way of life and his father’s homeland. While most fathers might take this personally and be hurt, we see no evidence of that. The son’s decision would have brought shame to his father in the eyes of his community, but, again, while this may have occurred, there is no indication that the father internalized it.

Perhaps this is a father who knew his son very well and knew that he did not belong on the farm. Then the son’s request to have his financial resources and his freedom would have made sense to the father, and he would have responded empathically.

Compassion and joy are the only two feelings attributed to the father toward his younger son. When he saw his son coming home, he felt compassion and ran out to meet him. There was no barrier to overcome. This is not as remarkable as we might think. When a child brings harm to themselves and experiences failure, parents often respond compassionately. Their attention is focused on the feelings of the child. Their compassion helps the child recover and re-orient. Other parents respond with self-focused anger and shaming. “How could you do this to me! How dare you show your face!” Then the hole gets deeper for both child and parent.

In contrast, from seeing his son in the distance, the father’s compassion activated joy they could both experience when they met. When the son expressed how unworthy he felt, the father ordered the servants to clothe him in the finest clothing and shoes and even put a ring on his finger. From the point of view of unwavering compassion, worthiness and unworthiness are irrelevant, even meaningless. We are neither worthy nor unworthy of compassion.

The father’s actions conveyed to his son, “We’re good,” and moved the attention toward joy and celebration. Many of us have used this or similar expressions toward others when they expect our feelings toward them have been damaged by their actions. “We’re good,” relieves them of that concern, while “I forgive you,” tends to put attention back on the offense.

For the sake of completeness, the story also describes the effects of allowing our bond with others to be broken. This is when we need to engage forgiveness for the sake of repair. The setting of the story is a family farm with hired hands. Full functioning of the farm requires collaboration and cooperation among all involved. The older son must become able to work with his brother and his father. His inability to do so would be disruptive to accomplishing the work that needs to be done.

And so it is with God’s work. When a bond is damaged, we use forgiveness to return to being able to collaborate. Forgiveness, though, tends to be a transaction between apology and forgiveness. Worthiness easily comes into play, even when we believe it should not. Are you sufficiently remorseful? Do I deserve your forgiveness? We may even feel that with our apology the offended person is morally obligated to forgive us, and if they do not, we have the right to fault them for it. It is quid pro quo. While we may have been taught that forgiveness is a gift to be freely given, the ability to do so requires compassion. Even as a gift to oneself, forgiveness derives from the more fundamental quality of compassion.

From “We’re good,” it is much easier to avoid the quagmire of worthiness and unworthiness. “We’re good,” draws us away from self-focus. When someone tells us, “We’re good,” we experience it as a positive reflection on the other person, since they are focused on our wellbeing. It is easy to move on from there, in this story, to a grand celebration.

Relationships are not a two-way street. We each construct and alter our own street toward the other. Those constructions may have very different features. They may not be symmetrical. Love can be unrequited. Ill will may not be mutual. Parent’s often experience their child being upset with them, but they are not upset with the child.

Exceptions to symmetry are genuine mutuality, like mutual admiration, and mirroring. These have very different qualities. Mirroring can occur unconsciously, that we match how the other is treating us.  What is happening to one is also happening to the other. If you are upset, then I am upset. If you are not good with me, then I cannot be good with you.

As natural as mirroring is, it does not lead to living the life of love Jesus calls us to live. Many couples discover the helpful agreement that “only one of us can be upset at a time.” One must provide stability, preventing things from getting out of hand. Fortunately, when infused with the stable love of God, one person’s regard for the other becomes stabilized. And it can remain stable even when the other person’s interaction with them is agitated.

In this parable of unwavering love, we see both the benefits of it and the damage caused when good will wavers with conditions, as it did with the older son. He took his father’s joyful welcome and generosity toward his brother as an injustice to himself. He was unable to be happy for his father and his brother in their reunion. The father pleaded with him to join the celebration. This is a sensitive moment when we seek to share our joy with someone. This is when symmetry matters. When they do join in, it amplifies our joy. If they do not, our own joy is hard to sustain.

This story encourages us to be more like the father. It helps to recognize that we have the seeds of God’s unwavering compassion already within us. When we think we are lacking some quality, it is helpful to challenge ourselves to remember a time we did exhibit that quality, even to a small degree. In doing so, Wayne remembered his response to his daughter damaging the family car. After she got home, she went into the house, found her father, and told him she had done a bad thing. Tearful, she led him out into the garage to show him the wrinkled bumper. She was very upset with herself and expected her father to be disappointed with her, even angry. To her relief, he was neither. He was also relieved and grateful for his response.

Wayne’s gratitude immediately extended to his father, who had treated him with compassion when he was in his daughter’s shoes. He had once driven his father’s prize car home with a broken headlight and damage to the bumper and grill. Chagrined, he described to his father how, on a snow packed road on the edge of town, he had lost control and hit a rural mailbox and wooden fence. When the car slid on a curve, he hit the brakes rather than accelerating out of the slide as his father had taught him. He felt ashamed. He also felt sick as he looked at the damage to his father’s immaculate car, fully expecting his father to be angry. His father, however, was unphased and hugged Wayne, saying, “We’re good. We’re good. We’ll look at the damage together tomorrow and see what we can do. Let’s go have supper.”

Now, Wayne hugged his daughter the same way and told her the story of her grandfather’s compassion toward him. She was touched by how this compassion had moved from her grandfather down to her.

While damaging your parent’s car is trivial compared to what is described in our parable, it is important to recognize that human bonds remain unwavering more commonly than we might think. Harmful actions do not always alter how the injured person relates to the one who did the injury.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, there may also be some legacy effect for the younger son, having lived with his father for as long as he did. When asking for his inheritance and his freedom, the son shows no signs of ill will toward the father. When he returned having squandered his father’s wealth, he took full responsibility and had no expectations. When his father expressed joy in his presence, he was able to shift quickly from feeling unworthy to sharing in his father’s joy. He had either forgiven himself or his compassion toward himself was relatively stable.

Unwavering compassion can be cultivated. First, we must establish compassion as our base and then learn to keep it steady. I have helped many people connect with unwavering compassion through the following exercise. I begin by inviting the person to focus on the sense that they are loved, by the source of all love, fully and completely just as they are. When people object that they cannot sense it, I invite them to imagine what it would be like if they were experiencing it. Whatever little bit a person experiences it in this exercise, I encourage valuing it and enjoying how good it feels. This enhances the feeling. Then I have them notice where and how they sense this compassion in their bodies, their thoughts, and their feelings. Then I invite them to notice what this makes their bodies want to do. Very often, it is some joyful expression.

Then I encourage people to imagine doing ordinary things while in touch with this unwavering compassion, even just taking a walk, and noticing what is different about it. They usually report smiling, walking more relaxed and erect with more comfortable awareness of their surroundings, including other people.

This experience of compassion tends to generalize toward other people. We see them differently, through the eyes of compassion. A man with frequent road rage, for example, found that this spiritual practice changed his driving experience. Now, when other drivers disrupted his driving, he found himself making positive assumptions about them. When someone stopped quickly in front of him to turn left – “I guess she’s not familiar with this neighborhood.” To his surprise, the hostility was not there, nor was the need to forgive the other driver or forgive himself for his reactivity. Instead of the finger, now he gives them a wave and a nod: “We’re good.”

It is best to start this generalizing of compassion within easy situations and work up to the more challenging ones. When we get thrown off, as we will, it helps to take some time to explore your reaction with compassionate curiosity. One approach for digging down is to fill in the blanks: “When someone _____, I feel ______.” Say this aloud. Notice what happens inside yourself as you hear yourself and then adjust the statement accordingly. For a person with road rage, it might be, “When someone cuts me off, I feel like I have to teach them a lesson.” From speaking this aloud and hearing himself say it, one man noticed this come up: “When someone cuts me off, I remember how my dad ignored me when he came home from work.” Usually, going through this step five or six times brings a positive shift and makes it easier to sustain compassion in those situations in the future.

To live the life Jesus taught requires that this stable base of compassion be universally applied. We are not to approach people from a neutral stance. We are to welcome the stranger, without profiling, we might add. They should not need to earn our compassion. We are to sustain the base of compassion even when it is not reciprocated. Jesus taught such asymmetry when he said we should love our enemies, even when they are doing harm to us. This does not mean that we do not protect ourselves or that we tolerate ongoing harm. Far from it. The marriage vows do not read, “I will stay with you no matter how you treat me.” We can love and protect ourselves while having goodwill toward others, even toward our enemies. We can, as Karen Armstrong suggests, follow Jesus’ directive by vowing to not harm our enemies and to protect them from harm by others.

The suffering people Jesus cared for believed that their plight meant that God had turned against them. They did not believe there was unwavering compassion. Their suffering must mean that they were not in God’s good graces. It also meant that to others, who felt justified in mistreating them. Suffering people are easy targets for exploitation. They may not feel justified in standing up for themselves when they feel they do not deserve better. This is how being atheistic about unwavering compassion becomes a justice issue. Believing, experiencing, and participating in unwavering compassion leads to more just action toward ourselves and others.

In bringing his good news, Jesus campaigned to promote belief and participation in unwavering compassion. In his Sermon on the Mount, he informed suffering people that they were blessed by God, which would have been mind boggling. “God is good with you.” The Parable of Unwavering Compassion, as we might now call it, inspires us to learn greater constancy in our ability to live the life of love.


Conspiracy: Theory or Delusion?

Image credit: oonal | Getty Images

One person’s theory is another person’s delusion. Two people can falsely believe the same thing in very different ways. They diverge when faced with the facts. One will change their belief to fit the facts, which is the rational thing to do. The other will deny that the facts are real, even believing that someone has altered the facts to mislead people.

Very often, when people who hold a conviction are faced with contrary facts, they double down on their belief. If they believed something important would happen on a certain day, but it did not, like Donald Trump being restored to power, they just change the date, as evangelical Jeff Jansen has. Emotionally, there is too much at stake for them to be wrong. Despite relentless reality testing, 60% of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump. This is not a conspiracy theory; it is a shared delusion. It is not a theory because they will not allow reality to have any sway.

When fact finding and reality testing will not dissuade someone, it helps to follow these steps of inquiry:  1) What do you believe? 2) Why do you believe it? 3) How strongly do you believe it? 4) Why do you feel so strongly?

There are two types of ‘whys’ here. The first, why do you believe it, will consist of some facts or reasons. The last, why do you feel so strongly about this, will be more personal and emotional. There may even be an emotionally charged experience from the past that feeds it. When this is voice within a supportive context, the person may be willing to give up the false belief.

So why do so many Republicans still believe there was a conspiracy to steal the election from Donald Trump? It is deeper than the fact that he and media sources repeatedly pushed the claim. It is not just a lost election when you have demonized the other party and its leaders. Not when you have projected the worst you can imagine on them, like Trump was taken down by a secret ring of Satan worshipping pedophiles. Not when you believe that if he lost, you would lose your way of life. And since your way of life is what God wants, you believe, then the forces against you must be evil. Losing the election cannot happen, so it did not happen.

Social scientists have been reluctant to call conspiracy theories delusions because some conspiracies are true. But after the facts are in, VW conspiring to cheat emission standards has moved from being a theory to being verified. The claims that the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump has been tested and tested and tested. To hold it now is no longer a theory, it is delusional.

You support a delusion by invalidating any source of information that might contradict you. For Donald Trump and these conspiracy beliefs, that includes bashing science so science cannot contradict him. One of the problems with science for someone like Donald Trump is that they refuse to believe what they can’t understand. Years ago, he said he couldn’t understand how the chemical he sprayed out of a spray can could possibly damage the ozone layer because it was so far away. The chemical was invisible, and the ozone layer was invisible. To a narcissist, “If it doesn’t make sense to me, it can’t be true.” And with the assault on science, truth and facts, the narcissists feel free to define what is true or not as it suits them. This is characteristic of repressive regimes. Remember Richard Nixon? “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

Science and reality testing are exercises in humility. Believing what contradicts reality is narcissistic. To call such beliefs theories is to give them status they do not deserve.


Christian Justification for Racism: Cursing Messenger Ham

In Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson claims that Christianity and Hinduism both believe that social stratification by birth is divinely ordained. In Hinduism, social hierarchy is thought to have been structured into creation as the right order of things. While racism and caste are deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, in is not from creation itself. The Christian God did not create some people to be below others. In Christianity, the solidification of caste by inheritance came later. Oddly, it came from God’s chosen person Noah. While the Christian God had not created race and racism, Noah did. It is time to call him out as part of dismantling racism within Christianity.

The origin story of caste within Christianity is in Genesis 9, which begins by stating that God blessed Noah and his sons. This is important. No distinction is made among any of them by God. Then comes the account of how Noah came to create caste. Noah had planted a vineyard and made wine. One day he got so drunk he passed out naked in his room. His son Ham saw what had happened and went and told his two brothers. The brothers took a blanket to cover Noah, taking great care to not gaze upon his naked body. When Noah woke up, he got angry with Ham for seeing him naked and telling his brothers, thereby bringing shame to him. But Ham was only the messenger of Noah’s fallen state.

It is important to note that the story says nothing about Ham having any disrespect toward his father. It is simply assumed from Noah’s reaction that he must have. Ham’s reaction, however, may have been one of concern for his father’s state. How often was Noah getting drunk like that? Rather, it is assumed that Ham told his brothers for them to have some fun at Noah’s expense. But that is impure speculation. Speculation is unfair to people. The content of our speculation says more about us than about them. The story only states the facts. But somehow tradition has it that Ham deserved Noah’s wrath. No longer.

Now, we can see Noah’s reaction as being abusive. He got angry with Ham and put a curse on him as well as his son Canaan and all their descendants, forever. He condemns them to the lowliest status among humans. It is thought that Ham and Canaan, in their banishment, went to Africa and became dark-skinned.

Many Christians have taken this curse to be real, and even of divine origin, which is not in the story. While Wilkerson gives this story as an example of divinely ordained stratification of society, it is not. It was Noah, not God, who put a curse on Ham, Canaan, and their descendants. After that, Noah does invoke God to elevate the status of his other two sons. But they had already been blessed by God, so what Noah was asking for is for them to have power over others.

This incident is simply the punitive action of an abusive father diverting attention from his shameful drunkenness by spiritually attacking his son. When an alcoholic is exposed, watch where the attention goes from the drunk to the messenger. Noah disowns and condemns Ham in the strongest possible way, feeling justified in doing so. Also typical of an abusive attitude.

So why has Christianity been fooled by this misdirection? Why not rally to defend Ham, his son Canaan and all their offspring? Do we believe that Noah’s curse of Ham is greater than God’s blessing of Ham that preceded it? While this might all seem inconsequential today, it is not. As David M. Goldenberg points out in The Curse of Ham: Race Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this curse has been widely believed to be real and is still so by some white people today. The enslavement of people from Africa was justified by belief in this curse. Why believe it? When given the lamest of justifications, we will assume power over others.

Until 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not allow Blacks in positions of leadership because they believed Noah’s curse. Christian colonizers of Turtle Island equated the people here with descendants of Canaan, meaning it was right to take their land and treat them poorly, in the tradition of Joshua’s slaughter of the Canaanites that is celebrated in a children’s song.

This is all like some giant conspiracy theory that has somehow persisted for millennia. It has served to benefit masses of white Christians, after all. Drunk from being chosen by God, Noah may have believed he had the power to curse Ham, Canaan, and their descendants to be the ‘lowest of slaves.’ But why would anyone else believe it except that it serves their self-interest? The curse only has power if we buy into it.

It is time to call out Noah for the abuse of his precious son, Ham, who was blessed by God, and his son Canaan. If Ham were guilty of anything, of which there is no evidence, the punishment far exceeded the crime. For all we know, Ham went straightaway to his brothers out of concern for his father’s drinking. Rather than cover him up, and cover up the problem, Ham wanted his brothers to know how bad it was. As the righteous man he was supposed to be, Noah should have apologized to all of them for what he put them through and done what was needed to stay sober.

We should feel only compassion toward the descendants of Canaan, whoever they are. We should only feel compassion toward the people of African descent who have been and continue to be mistreated from the fallacy of the curse of Noah. With that curse exposed as a ruse, the last may finally become first.


In the Face of COVID Mutation, it is Time to Honor Chance

Arden Mahlberg

Randomness produces the beauty of the snowflake, the security of encryption, the method of evolution, and now, the deadly COVID variants. Randomness is both neutral and powerful. It shapes our universe, our lives, and our deaths.

Randomness threatens many parts of our lives. Fear of randomness is currently active in the collective mind due to the real possibility that random mutations of COVID-19 will not be controlled by the vaccines that have been created. Many individuals in cancer treatment live with the real possibility that at any moment random mutation will produce cancer cells that are not controlled by their treatment, killing them, and devastating their families. Some heavily populated parts of the world have been thrown into chaos from the increase in unpredictable and extremely destructive weather events that come with climate change.

It matters how we relate to chance and uncertainty. To start, we need to be able to simply tolerate the reality of chance and what it does, both to ourselves and to those we care about. Unfortunately, when people we care about respond to uncertainty with anxiety or anger, many people, including ministers, deflect attention away from it, trying to reduce the distress that came with misfortune rather than aiding in facing it. They deflect attention away from chance to what they believe to be certain. If that helps at all, the results are usually temporary and contingent upon how events proceed.

Some deny chance and randomness because they fear, wrongly, that chance makes things meaningless. But where does meaning reside? To look to external events for meaning makes us dependent on them. We do not need to believe that chance happenings are somehow purposeful, like “everything happens for a reason.” This is false attribution. Looking for reasons behind chance events can be painfully futile, as it was for Job. And failing in that search for a reason evokes feelings of inadequacy. Of course, it is adaptive to look for opportunity in any kind of situation. But finding one does not mean the event happened for that reason. That is reasoning backwards. Similarly, saying that God uses randomness in evolution disregards the overwhelming number of species that have gone extinct, due to no fault of their own.

Unhampered by the constraints of monotheism, the Greeks and Romans integrated chance by recognizing its importance and its integrity. This allows for correct attribution. Weather events are not acts of God. They even gave chance the status of a goddess, Fortuna to the Romans and Tyche to the Greeks. The importance of this is that it cuts down on false attribution, where we put blame or credit where they do not belong, on ourselves, others, and, frequently, God. This is a problem for both blame and credit.

Fortuna was closely tied to Virtus, the virtue of courage. Courage is the best way to face uncertainty, much better than hope. Hope is more fragile than courage, too easily shattered by external events. Courage connects us with strengths that are internal as well as beyond ourselves. Courage carries people who are in hopeless situations.

Chance, or probability, also provides a better explanation for some things than causal explanations do. This is the case for things like personal success or failure (right place, right time), which we prefer to take credit for. Randomness also is required to understand the behavior of subatomic particles.

But for all it helps to explain, chance is disturbing. We prefer certainty and predictability. “Leave nothing to chance,” as if that were possible. When Einstein’s colleagues were finding great value in developing probabilistic theories, he famously objected that God does not play dice with the universe. He was wrong about that and his analogy was biased. Chance is not a game, even though there are many games of chance. Chance is a method for how many things work, both in creation and destruction.

Chance is also morally disturbing. Chance violates our sense of fairness. Some depictions of Fortuna show her blindfolded. Her actions are not selective. We hate this! We prefer to believe that the universe is guided by merit, not neutrality. This gives us some semblance of control and deserving. We want good things to happen to good people and bad things to happen only to bad people. We protest when bad things happen to good people and when good things happen to bad people. As a result, many people all over the world believe in karma as a law of the universe. As commonly understood, karma includes the idea that people somehow deserve the circumstances they are in, even at birth, even genetically. This makes the denial of chance a justice issue.

In Jesus’ campaign for compassion, he had to contend with false attribution in the belief that fortune, and misfortune reflect merit. Life circumstances were thought to show how God regarded a person. Good fortune meant the person was blessed by God while misfortune meant the absence of God’s favor. When Jesus encountered a man blind from birth, for example, those with him asked whose sin he was suffering for. This was the worldview that threw Job and his friends into agonizing contortions. How can you explain his misfortune if not by faulting him or God? Chance, of course.

Jesus recognized this attitude toward chance happenings as a justice issue and addressed it. If he let it stand, people would continue to believe that those in power are so due to God’s blessing. The rich are blessed by God and the poor are somehow unworthy. This belief in life as a merit-based system directed by God results in widespread acceptance of injustice. Jesus countered this philosophy by proclaiming that the poor are blessed. This is incomprehensible without the acceptance of chance and the total independence of the consequences of chance from God’s love and blessing.

Jesus taught about Fortuna without naming her when he said of God, “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:45) Here he is saying that God is like Fortuna in not playing favorites.

We can also see Fortuna in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. In this parable, a farmer broadcasts seeds everywhere, regardless of where the seeds will land. Like the sun and the rain, this farmer is not selective. He did not choose to seed only fertile soil and avoid sending seeds to places where they would not germinate. What he was doing was random, like Fortuna blindfolded. The parable is is a demonstration of fairness based on chance, not merit. It is not the grace of God that keeps us from misfortune that is outside our control. It is luck.

The luck of the circumstances of our birth is not based on merit, nor is merit gained or lost from those circumstances alone. Which caste we are born into is not based on merit, nor should privilege be derived from it. The luck of our genetics, the supportiveness and connections of our families, the occurrence of trauma or unusual opportunity – none are based on merit nor is merit gained or lost because of them. We are all subject to falsely internalizing our life circumstances. If the victim of trauma, we feel unworthy. If the recipient of good fortune, we feel deserving. This creates and sustains injustice.

Acceptance of chance makes it easier to consistently love God, neighbor, and self. The distressing question of “Why?” that hampers recovery is not activated. Our relationship with God is not conditional, not conflicted by false attribution. There is no vacillating between blame and praise. Accepting chance also makes it easier to love neighbor and self, as blaming and shaming do not occur. Being a victim of something reasonably outside our control does not alter our sense of self or other, no damaged goods. It is easier to stay with compassion. And when good fortune is freed from judgments of worthy or unworthy, fair or unfair, it is easier to enjoy it ourselves and share in the joy of others.

With COVID mutating, the time is ripe for us to acknowledge the reality of chance and make our peace with it on its own terms.


Ted Cruz & the Moral Blinders of Power & Wealth

Arden Mahlberg

Let me be clear. As all of us gain wealth and power to any degree, we become less aware of and concerned about other. This is what the research tells us. We would like to think we are exempt from this, but it doesn’t happen that way. With more resources we can apply to our self-interest, the more the compass of self-interest overshadows our moral compass. This isn’t just Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas and his daughters and their friends going to Cancun when their communities are in crisis.

Ted Cruz said he was just “trying to be a good dad.” His daughter wanted to flee having to live in a “FREEZING” house. Schools were cancelled from the power outage. So, recognizing her resources, she had the idea of going to Cancun with her friends. Ted, supportive of this, thought he should go along.

This, while other parents in Texas were being good dads and moms by teaching and modeling civic mindedness, taking inspired initiatives to help others. As with the pandemic, in response to the dangerous weather, power outage and inability to get clean water, people in Texas moved in two different directions, depending upon which compass had priority. Many found ways to help their neighbors and their community. Some organized phone trees to check on the most vulnerable.

In response to the same conditions, others, like Ted Cruz, move to protect themselves, leaving their communities to fend for themselves. Early in the pandemic, New Yorkers with second homes fled the dangers of the city, leaving others behind to deal with it. Back in the gas shortage in the 70’s, while people were waiting in long lines to fill the cars they needed to get to work, John Denver had a large gas tank installed on his beautiful mountain property and found a way to fill it.

The cliché “We’re in this together,” does not apply to everyone. While in a widespread state of emergency throws many people into the same life raft, there are some who have their own yacht. All there is to counteract this is universal identity and morality, both of which need ongoing strengthening.   Native Americans refer to “our people” as the subject of a sentence. Others think of the divine in everyone, or that spiritually we are all one, while our senses tell us we are separate beings. It takes discipline.

Civic mindedness is also learned and reinforced through modeling, as in parent to child, friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor. This is my greatest sadness for Ted Cruz’s children and their friends. We can only hope that the pushback touches their hearts. We all do need the mutual accountability that comes with pushback.


Was This Land Really Made for You and Me?

At the inaugural ceremony for President Biden and Vice President Harris, Jennifer Lopez’s beautiful vocal tribute to America included the line: “This land was made for you and me.”

But was it? Really? Does anyone still believe that? Christian colonizers certainly believed that God made this land we now call America for them, specifically. Woody Guthrie’s song could have been their anthem, the anthem of Manifest Destiny.

Christian colonizers came to these shores with a declaration for the people who were here from time immemorial: “This land now belongs to us. God is giving this land to us.” Popes had said so, in bulls now called the Doctrine of Discovery. The colonizers could turn to each other and declare that this land belonged to “you and me.” That “you,” however, did not include the Native Americans. They were relegated to land the colonizers did not want.

The narrative that God made this land for the Christian colonizers remains deep and broad. The Episcopal Church, who in 2009 renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, still perpetuates the entitlement narrative in their Book of Common Prayer. Their prayer “For our Country,” begins with “Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage….” And, even more impactfully, those of us who are descendants of Christian colonizers continue to live as though we believe the land we legally own, that our ancestors participated in taking from the Native Americans, really does belong to us also in some moral sense. And so, also, with the wealth and opportunity that was derived from that land.

This may be changing, ever so slightly. There are some descendants of colonizers and some churches that are returning land or wealth derived from its sale to the Native Nations for whom it was their ancestral home.

Another sign of a shift in perspective is that statues glorifying colonizers are starting to look different to more descendants of colonizers. Statues and monuments that previously seemed innocuous are now seen as expressions of Christian domination. Statues of Junipero Serra are an example. While some of us may not have seen the superiority and domination those statues conveyed, the Native Americans always did.

Now we can see the moral blindness of our ancestors, Christian colonizers who followed the lead of their religion’s teaching of chosenness and laid claim to this beautiful land that was already inhabited by wonderful people. But even deeper in the Christian narrative is the belief that God created the world for us human beings. Of all creation, we are the chosen species. The world and all other living things are here for our benefit. This starting point, we can now see, leads to the doing of great harm to other living things and to the earth itself. Then you add to this the narrative that God chose certain people above others, a narrative that Christianity adopted for itself, and we can now see how Manifest Destiny would result. What these examples have in common is that whomever is dominant is so because of God’s choosing. This is the foundation of Christian Nationalism.

If Woody Guthrie were with us today, with his sensitivity to injustice, I don’t think he would write such a song laying such claims to ownership over a land that was already occupied. When he wrote it in 1940, he was tired of always hearing “God Bless America.” So he wrote something new, a song honoring America that even addressed its injustices in its later verses. But this he did not apparently see that he was perpetuating the colonizers’ claim that this land was made for them, from California to the New York Island. “God blessed America for me,” he even wrote.

This is how moral blinders work, and how moral progress is made. The blind spots of people from former times who we rightly respect are now revealed. May we all have the grace to willingly have our blind spots revealed to us as well. The sooner the better.

Related posts by Arden: Decommissioning JoshuaWas This Land Really Made for You and Me? The Serpent Constantine & The Fall of Christianity: A Myth,


A Christian Coup Attempt, 2021

Among the flags and symbols brandished in the recent attempted coup was the cross, with flags declaring “Jesus 2020” and “God wins.” While many faith groups are condemning the attempted coup and are calling for Trump’s removal from office, the long-term question for Christians is what they will do to excise the theme of supremacy and authority within Christianity’s narrative, theology and scripture.
            This strain of belief, which some call Christian Nationalism or Christian Supremacy, is authoritarian, not democratic. Senator Josh Hawley, a leader in the attempt to overturn the election, has publicly declared that his charge is to “Take the Lordship of Christ, that message, into the public realm, and to seek the obedience of the nations. Our nation.” (Katherine Stewart, NYTimes, Jan. 11, 2021) He does not take his charge to be to uphold the US Constitution or the integrity of elections. When he was sworn in to the US Senate, he must have been lying.
            When Pastor Brian Gibson declares that “The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ started America,” he has a strong point. In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII, in his bull, Unam Sanctam, (One God, One Faith, One Spiritual Authority) declared the authority of the church over political authorities, like Christian Nationalists do. As European nations acquired the wherewithal to travel to all parts of the earth, several popes blessed them in doing so, so long as they carried out Christ’s directive that his followers convert all nations of the earth. In doing so, Christ declared that all authority on heaven and earth had been given to him. He transferred that authority to his church. The popes were insistent on the requirement that the conquerors convert whomever they encountered who was not Christian. The mission of colonialism was the mission of the church. And the justification of the popes, referred to as the Doctrine of Discovery, was recognized as law in US jurisprudence with the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh. This precedent of this decision holds sway even today.         
            Pastor Gibson is correct. The Christian church founded America. In 1510, the Council of Castille formulated a statement for Spanish conquerors to read to the native peoples they encountered. It was a declaration of Christian dominance.
            That declaration, Requieremiento(Requirement: To be Read by Spanish Conquerors to Defeated Indians) stated that what the conquerors were doing was ordained by God, and that the Church was “the Ruler and Superior of the Whole World.” The Native peoples were informed that they were invited to voluntarily convert to Christianity. When they did, they would lose their autonomy and become “the subjects and vassals” of the Spanish crown.  Belying the fact that this was not at all voluntary, if they did not convert, “with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.”
Any wonder that some would now claim that “Christianity represents the worst of the history of colonialism among Indian peoples in North America.” (p. 72, A Native American Theology) When Christians came from Europe to occupy the land they call the Americas, they did so with the belief that they were God’s chosen people, and this was their promised land. The narrative of Manifest Destiny was unquestioned by ordinary Christians while it was the program of their church leaders. As Simone Weil observed, “Evil when we are in its power is not felt as evil but as a necessity, or even a duty.” 
            At this point, it is easy for liberal Christians to blame white supremacy or fascism for the danger of Trumpism. This ignores the growing realization that white supremacy had its roots in Christian supremacy. (See Hill Fletcher The Sin of White Supremacy). Liberal Christianity does not take ownership of this problem, rather treating Christian nationalists and not being true Christians. As we have seen in Germany with Nazism and in South Africa with apartheid, health and healing requires taking ownership of the problem by people who initially deny any role. Christian Nationalists and liberal Christians draw from the same source material. And, in many ways, liberal Christianity is the benefactor of the Christian domination that founded this nation and structures it yet today.
            In addition to addressing systemic racism, we would do well to address systemic Christian domination, which may be even more difficult to recognize and admit to. We can begin by identifying the authoritarian themes embedded in Christianity’s narrative of chosenness and its promise to what others have, the hierarchical nature of its theology, and the foundational threads in the Christian bible liberal Christianity shares in common with Christian Nationalism.


Insurrection is not Protest

With the current crisis in our nation, we need to be clear about how to think about what is happening. People with agendas are trying to influence how we think about the vandalism and trespassing on the US Capital. We need to be clear. Insurrection is not a form of protest. Insurrection is not a form of communication; it is an attempt to seize power through illegal means. Protest is not. They should not be equated. Insurrection should not be afforded the protections that protest deserves. Nor is vandalism a form of protest. It is merely self-indulgent exploitation of a situation. With vandalism, there is no desire to reason together or come to resolution, as is the case with healthy protest.
                Another important distinction we need to make is between political action that is reality based and action that is based on delusion. When it is fueled by delusion, people simply need to be stopped. They will not stop themselves. There is no reality-testing possible, no reasoning that will change things. No additional recounts or court cases will get them to recognize that they were wrong. There is no additional fact-finding by congress that will convince them. Delusion does not work that way. Delusion based behavior simply needs to be contained. It is simply too compelling for most people to self-regulate without professional help. In this case, there is no willingness to recognize that one is wrong, which is required of discourse. In this case, what also leads to insurrectionist motives is simply a refusal to accept the loss of power that is inevitable with the ebb and flow of democracy. Some people don’t act democratically because they are incapable or unwilling to do so. Such people need to be stopped. And we can do so with compassion.


The Truth About White Protest Distress


White liberals, this message is for you too.

“You want me to tell the truth? Sure, I want you to get what you need to be free from injustice. I just don’t want it to cost me anything. I don’t want to be afraid or insecure for my future. I don’t want your protest to make the stock market go down. I don’t want to lose symbols I am attached to. I don’t want to lose my favorite boutique. I don’t want to look to the future with uncertainty. I don’t want to look at what you are doing and be confused. I hate confusion, insecurity, fear and loss more than I hate the injustice you endure, if I’m really honest.

So, I will keep my certainty. If what you protestors are doing doesn’t make sense to me, then I will insist that it doesn’t make sense. If your way of protesting doesn’t seem right to me, I will insist that it isn’t right. Why can’t you be like Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King. Their protests didn’t threaten or disturb anyone, did they? Their protest followed the established rules of engagement for change, didn’t they?”


Well no. Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King succeeded in large part because they engaged by different rules. People in positions of power think they have the right to decide the rules of engagement for anyone taking issue with them. Of course, they only do so in a way that gives them the advantage. They aren’t stupid.”

European soldiers and European American soldiers fought in straight lines, faced off, in open terrain. Those native to this land did not fight that way. Had they tried to, they would have had no chance. They hid behind boulders, ridges, and trees. They used the element of surprise. So the Europeans, our ancestors, condemned this way of fighting as being uncivilized, morally wrong.

Those in power fault protestors for not working through the system rather than trying to settle things in the court of public opinion. They have more control over the system than the wild card of public opinion, which can force their hand. People in power know they will win if the issue is handled in the system they control. Anything else, they want to be wrong

Do white liberals really want what protestors of police racism and Black Lives Matter Advocates want, as they claim? What makes it suspicious are things like lumping all protestors together, to make them a “them,” a coherent group in our minds. It isn’t true and they don’t want that. If we don’t want nuance and complexity, then we don’t really want what they want.

When we insist they have clear goals and strategies, maybe we don’t really want what they want. If we can’t tolerate their process, we can’t really know if we want what they want. Our distress blocks our ability to understand the complexity of what they long for. Our impatience may be hiding our real desire for the protests to fail. When we insist that they aren’t protesting right, it is suspicious that we really want them to fail.

We are confused; we are threatened. We don’t trust the protestors to have power. What would become of us if they got what they wanted? We can’t possibly know. Maybe we are unwilling to do find out, to live with an uncertain future when the present is working so well for us. We want guarantees.

If we care enough to manage our distress internally, then we might be able to make the charitable assumption that the fact that I don’t understand means I have something to learn, not that they are wrong. The charitable assumption that if I feel threatened, I am invested in what is oppressing them, not that they need to be stopped.

With so many others wanting an end to the injustice that they endure, some of the hardest work for those who feel no need to be liberated, is to learn to get out of their way. And that means learning to manage our distress internally and being willing to lose something for the sake of what others can gain. For them to be safer, maybe we need to be less safe. For them to have more power, maybe we need to have less.

Whose Name is This, Anyway?

When a car company names a car for an American Indian nation, are they honoring them? Does it matter? When the football club names their team Chiefs, are they honoring anyone? Does it matter?

When people are caught violating someone else’s boundaries, they often claim positive motives. The motivation, of course, is irrelevant. The only relevant question is, whose name is it? This is not a legal question. It is is a justice question.

Whose name is it? It is clear. The name Cherokee does not belong to Jeep. Fortunately, we are in a time when more nations are fighting to get control of the use of their names. But they need our support. It is important because names are related to identity. And one way invaders take control of people is by renaming them. They also use the original names as if they have a right to them. It is all about power. And because it is, we need to exert whatever power and influence we can to have people control the use of their own name.