No, I’m not asking about a fanciful apocalyptic scenario based on a few texts taken out of context. Last night, my church showed the animated movie Cars. I found the movie moving (both literally and metaphorically, I suppose), but I was particularlly struck by the way themes from the movie intersected with ones I have been thinking about while reading Jack Clayton Swearengen’s book Beyond Paradise: Technology and the Kingdom of God. In the movie Cars, most of the story focuses on the encounter between rookie race car Lightning McQueen and the inhabitants of a small town on Route 66 that was once thriving but has been bypassed by the interstate.
Swearingen’s book focuses on the development of technology and the unintended but inevitable side effects (both positive and negative). The story of the town in Cars is not a true story except in the sense that it reflects the actual experiences of coal miners, auto workers, and of course small town residents whose place on the main thoroughfare has been usurped.
There is, of course, a certain irony in this story making its point about “progress” and those left behind it through some very advanced computer animation. Things change around us gradually and it is easy to fail to realize just how much things have changed. If you want to see this very vividly, just watch some bloopers from the original Star Trek series. We are so used nowadays to doors that open automatically that we can easily forget that in the original series someone had to manually pull the door out of characters’ way, and there are plenty of clips where this failed to happen and Capt. Kirk collides with the door.
The key message of Cars, however, is not primarily about progress and those it leaves behind (if anything, it encourages those sidelined to be the ones to put themselves “back on the map”). But it is about moral excellence being more important than excellence in competition. When Lightning McQueen [SPOILER ALERT] chooses to stop short of the finish line and go back to help another race car, the point is clear: winning isn’t everything.
This raises a challenge for those of us living in capitalist, technologically sophisticated nations. If we keep managing to be among the top competitors in industry, technology, and the economic world generally, but do not aim and strive for moral excellence, then how much are our other successes really worth? Or, as Jesus is recorded to have put it, “What does it profit if a person gain the whole world, but lose his soul?”
I have no doubt that American companies, while facing serious competition from those elsewhere, are still managing to remain serious players in the world economy. But are we being left behind morally, and are we at times even sacrificing our ethics precisely in order to keep a competitive edge? Many of us would say that improvements in standard of living benefit health, safety, crime reduction, and other things. But if we inflict ethical crimes upon ourselves in our attempts to attain an economic advantage, what is our prosperity worth, and who is it for?