The Common Good

Utopia and Its Discontents

Sojomail - July 10, 2002


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 Q u o t e   o f   t h e   W e e k
     *Tone deaf

 B a t t e r i e s   N o t   I n c l u d e d
     *Utopia and its discontents

 F u n n y   B u s i n e s s
     *Have you ever wondered why...?

 B y   t h e   N u m b e r s
     *Women serving time

 P o l i t i c a l l y   C o n n e c t
     *World Bank rebel wages war against Wall Street

 S o u l   W o r k s
     *Are you looking at me?

 C u l t u r e   W a t c h
     *Martyn Joseph: U.K. musician tours North America

 P. O. V.
     *George W.'s bloody folly

 B o o m e r a n g
     *SojoMail readers hit reply

 W e b s c e n e
     *Spiritually curious women
     *G-8 people's summit
     *Kids: Don't buy the hype

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Q u o t e   o f   t h e   W e e k

"I maintain that we are born and grow up with a
fondness for each other, and that we have genes for
that. We can be talked out of that fondness, for the
genetic message is like a distant music, and some of
us are hard of hearing. Societies are noisy affairs,
drowning out the sound of ourselves and our connection.
Hard of hearing, we go to war. Stone-deaf, we make
thermonuclear missiles. Nonetheless, the music is
there, waiting for more listeners."

                       - Lewis Thomas


B a t t e r i e s   N o t   I n c l u d e d
Utopia: all it's not cracked up to be

by David Batstone

Have you ever noticed how much of our political language relies on binary logic? "Binary what?" you say - think the North and South Poles.

Here's an axiom that's half a binary pair: Before making an appeal for political action, describe a moment when the problem did not exist, at least in the form or to the degree it does now. Creating this mental space will then enable people to make progress by looking backward, effectively re-creating a past social order.

Alternative to axiom one: Promise freedom and justice in a world that is yet to come. Although here and now life is alienated, the future will break into history and transform what we have here into an entirely new place.

Both these axioms of political language have their theological counterpart, of course. Since there is no place outside the Garden of Eden that is free from the traps of history, release from bondage can only truly occur in the realm of the ideal.

In the Judeo-Christian West, "time" was destined to become our holy grail. Redemption can be found in time past (the Garden) or time future (heaven), both of which are bound by eternity. Time so conceived has no organic link to place. The forthcoming (future) and the antecedent (past) are not contingent on the horizon of the present.

But understandings of time are by no means universal, a fact depicted exceptionally well in the 1991 movie "Black Robe." The film relates the awkward and tragic relationships that evolved between North American Indians and the French Jesuits who came to bring them salvation. The Huron tribe is convinced that the clock is the foreigners' god, since it tells them what to do and when to do it. In one of the more poignant scenes in the movie, the Hurons are brought to the mission chapel where they sit down patiently, turn away from the altar, and face the clock. They wait in reverent silence for the cuckoo god to arrive and to announce the next sacred hour: Time is the transcendent, arriving from beyond history.

The European missionaries, for their part, are frustrated with their inability to communicate to these "primitives" a world of eternal destiny autonomous from their tribal relationships. The Hurons could only conceive the future in continuity with their present.

If we read the Garden of Eden story through the eyes of the Hurons - filtered by a logic of lived relationships rather than time - the thrust of the story would change dramatically. The much-maligned serpent would be the key to this reading. First, it is noteworthy that in many sacred traditions the serpent is a symbol for the primal relation of opposites, life and death. The serpent sheds its skin once its use has been exhausted; the death of its own being yields forth its life.

A second way that the serpent represents the vulnerability of living is in its mode of survival. The snake's body is one long digestive canal that is fed by eating other life. The survival of life demands feeding off life itself. Finally, the snake, which usually kills not by overcoming its victim but by injecting the victim with its venom, represents the fear of internalizing the forces of destruction. Social relationships imply inevitable infection.

When we read the story this way, the physical, ethical, and spiritual awareness of difference - in which we feel compelled, if not damned, to judge "good" and "evil" - is inevitable. That is the cost of living. Finding the unity of force that lies behind the differences is to tap into the mystery of transcendence.

A theological or political language dominated by binary logic, on the other hand, masks how terrifying reality can be. It splits off the differences, the contradictions, of reality and creates spaces where contradictions do not exist. They call these spaces "utopia," which literally means "no place," because they depict a space where the day-to-day occurrences of life are not implicated by their contradictions.

Therein lies the power of the imagination. Our mind can spin images that give visibility to the place where I am not, yet where I want to be. Sounds like a fertile womb for hope. But imagination can just as easy produce false hope when it calls me to identify with utopia, so that the place where I actually am becomes the illusion.

And that is what makes me suspicious of any language rooted in theological or political utopia rather than the language of lived relations. It asks me to move within a space where I am absent.

*This column appears in the July/August 2002 issue of Sojourners magazine.


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F u n n y   B u s i n e s s
Have you ever wondered why...?

*...a slight tax increase costs you $200 and a substantial tax cut saves you 30 cents?

*...In the 1960s people took acid to make the world weird; now the world is weird and people take Prozac to make it normal?


B y   t h e   N u m b e r s
Women serving time

Average daily number of women in local jails in the U.S.:

1990 37,198
1995 52,300
2001 76,621

*Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics

********************* JOB OPENING ***************************

Sojourners and Call to Renewal seek a hard-working, dedicated
administrative professional for the position of Administrative
Assistant to the Executive Director. This position coordinates
all aspects of Jim Wallis' schedule, speaking, travel, phone
calls, correspondence, and other Executive office needs. The
position is available in early July 2002. A complete job
description may be found at


P o l i t i c a l l y   C o n n e c t
World Bank rebel wages war against Wall Street

Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz accuses the agents of U.S. economic policy - the U.S. Treasury, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank - of having subverted the process of globalization for many years, turning it into a one-way street that benefits only the developed world. For full feature, go to:


S o u l   W o r k s
Are you looking at me?

It is great wisdom to know how to be silent and to
look at neither the remarks, nor the deeds, nor the
lives of others.

                - Saint John of the Cross

Most of us cannot help comparing ourselves with others, at least now and then. In fact, this has become so entrenched today that in order to have self-esteem, it seems almost necessary to say, "I am better than that person, so I am good." As long as we compete with each other and compare one with another, a certain amount of envy is inescapable. It is the very rare person who is completely free from jealousy.

As our spiritual awareness grows, we will know that God is present in everyone and that there is a uniqueness about everyone. The truly spiritual person learns to stop comparing oneself with others.


C u l t u r e   W a t c h
British musician Martyn Joseph tours North America

Martyn Joseph is a long-time favorite at the
Greenbelt Festival in the U.K. and a consistent
voice for social justice. The following are his
tour dates for this summer in North America:

July 11-14     Winnipeg Folk Fest; Ontario.
July 18        Calgary, Alberta; Kaos Jazz and Blues Club
July 22        San Jose, California; Espresso Garden & Cafe
July 23        Santa Cruz, California; Cayuga Vault
July 24        Berkeley, California; Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse
July 27        Davis, California; House Concert, 1820 Alicante Street
               Info: (530) 759-9518

August 9-12    Edmonton Folk Fest; Alberta, Canada
August 14      Bragg Creek; Calgary Snowbirds Sr. Centre I
               Info: (403) 277-0099
August 15      Canmore, AB; Creekside Hall Info: 403-277-0099
August 16-18   Victoria, B.C.; Roots Fest

For more info about Martyn Joseph, go to:

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P. O. V.
George W.'s bloody folly

by Jonathan Freedland
The Guardian

That was a fantastic speech. Quite literally, fantastic. George Bush's address on the Middle East, delivered outside the White House on [June 24], consisted, from beginning to end, of fantasy.

It bore so little relation to reality that diplomats around the world [were] shaking their heads in disbelief, before sinking into gloom and despair. Our [U.K.] Foreign Office tried gamely to spot the odd nugget of sense in the Bush text - but, they admitted, it was an uphill struggle. Israelis committed to a political resolution of the conflict were heartbroken. Even Shimon Peres, foreign minister in Ariel Sharon's coalition, reportedly called the speech "a fatal mistake," warning: "A bloodbath can be expected."

To read the entire column, go to:,3858,4448474,00.html


B o o m e r a n g

Daniel Sidler writes from Capetown, South Africa:

My heart is heavy with all the problems we are facing here in South Africa. What are we doing to prevent the misery happening and worsening in Zimbabwe?


Mary Bradford, senior campaigns officer (churches) of Christian Aid, writes from London, England:

Thanks for Jim Wallis' article, "The G-8 can't keep out moral scrutiny." Here in the U.K., 12,000 people gathered outside Parliament two weeks ago to lobby their MPs on the issue of trade justice in the run up to the G-8 summit. For pictures and more information, go to:

The Trade Justice Movement, a new coalition of churches, aid, and environmental agencies and other faith groups, is calling for new rules for global trade. We believe the world's poorest countries need the right to determine their own trade policies and not be pushed into a "one- size-fits-all" liberalization policy advocated by our leaders. (One that Europe and the U.S. ignore when it suits them, anyway!)

Over 320 members of Parliament were lobbied in person by their constituents (90 is usually considered a very good total!), and a delegation from the Trade Justice Movement met Tony Blair. Christians from across the country made the journey down to London to explain their concern for the world's poorest with passion and dignity.

So how about you guys getting going on this issue in the U.S.? I know that there are friends already thinking along these lines, and I can't believe that the same passion and concern for the poorest isn't to be found amongst church- goers and like-minded people with you too!


Paul Whiteley writes from Louisville, Kentucky:

America pays lip service to our Creator with the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.    In reality, we are "one nation, under Capitalism...."   We are a nation divided into haves and have-nots, and the gulf between the two grows wider each passing day.   Unless individuals, corporations, and Wall Street begin to take the greed out of capitalism, America and free enterprise will, in the long run, fail morally and spiritually. No matter how many times we utter the words "God Bless America" and "one nation, under God," they will be meaningless and unfruitful coming from the lips of those of us who love money more than we love God. Will President Bush and the Congress ever declare war against the evil greed within that threatens our nation's present well-being and future survival?  


Carol Wolman writes from Maryland:

George W. Bush is very good at praying loudly, but is he doing the will of his "Father in heaven," or of his earthly father? Is it his Father's will that he rob the public treasury in order to inflate the arms industry and make the world a more violent and dangerous place? Is it his Father's will that he allow greedy corporations to despoil the environment rather than using his awesome position to safeguard the fragile resources of the planet? Is it his Father's will that he frighten the citizens of this country with his "Patriot Act" so that they are afraid to speak the truth? Will he enter the Kingdom of heaven? In Jesus' precious name....


Ron McCreary writes from Jacksonville, Florida:

The "Silly Wabbit" Funny Business in the June 26 edition, while somewhat funny, was in really poor taste and beneath Sojourners' ideals. It was only a step away from the ethnic jokes we've come to abhor. One does not belittle one's opponents.


Boomerang is an open forum for all kinds of views. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Sojourners. Want to make your voice heard? Send Boomerang e-mails to the editor:


********************* EVENT NOTICE***************************
On Tuesday, July 16, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public
Life will host a panel discussion titled "The Compassion
Component: Welfare Reform and the Tradition of Social
Justice" at the National Press Club (First Amendment
Lounge, 529 14th St. NW in Washington, D.C). A 
distinguished group of religious leaders and welfare policy
experts, including Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Call to
Renewal, will discuss how our values should shape social
legislation. They will examine such issues as government's
obligations to the less fortunate in our society, the balance
between compassion and attempts to encourage
self-sufficiency, and the criteria by which the success of
welfare reform should be judged.

W e b s c e n e
This week's best of the Web

*Spiritually curious women

The Damaris Project aims to set an environment where women can evaluate their experiences in light of an affirming spiritual alternative and in the context of their current worldview. Research on the leading edge of women's issues and the creation of women's networks defines this site.


*G-8 people's summit

A forum to generate and discuss ideas and solutions that will promote economic activities that are beneficial to people living in all parts of our world, but that also reflect full respect for human rights and the environment.


*Kids: Don't buy the hype

This site gives youth insight to see through media bias and deception, including advertising.


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