Being Good for Nothing

I suppose I shouldn’t have said anything. But letting these things slide is, shall we say, not my strong suit. So when a Facebook friend posted a picture of a gun mounted under a car’s steering wheel with a caption about it being an “an anti-carjacking device,” accompanied by her wish that this were legal, I just had to put in my $.02 worth. I suggested that, given the prevalence of road rage, maybe more guns in cars might not be such a good thing. Only maybe there was the tiniest bit of sarcastic edge to the way I phrased it.

And, as these Facebook conversations go, someone else responded: “Wouldn’t you be more polite if you knew everyone else had a gun?” I don’t know whether the conversation got more serious for the other folks viewing the exchange at that point, but it certainly did for me. We had just entered the realm of religion. Here’s the thing. No, I’m not polite because I’m afraid of people around me with guns. I’m polite (at least I’m generally polite) because I just think people should be nice to one another. I’m happier, they’re happier, the world in general is happier if people are nice to one another. It’s a basic religious principle. Like, you know, the Golden Rule.

But there are plenty of folks in the world who believe that we need the guns in order to make people behave. Deterrence is at the heart of their theology. They figure that the sure knowledge of hellfire and damnation is the only thing that can keep people on the straight and narrow. Without the threat of hell, surely utter licentiousness would prevail and we would be sucked down into a whirlpool of degradation.

It’s a point of view to which they are entitled, but a) there’s no particular evidence that the threat of guns or the threat of hell actually makes people behave better on the average and b) really, how depressing can you get? Would you rather live in a world in which people are polite out of terror for their lives or souls, or would you rather be part of a community of people who cared for one another because love is the great sustaining principle? Isn’t it better, really, to be “good for nothing,” to be good without hope of reward or punishment other than the pleasure of doing what is right, kind, honoring of our connections?

Sure, there are people who do terrible things, who break the bonds of community in devastating ways. Carjackings do happen. But is the world a better place when we assume that any person on the corner is a potential threat, or if we assume that the folks we see outside our windows are neighbors, human beings with worth and dignity equal to our own? Which perspective is likely to make you feel safe? Which perspective is likely to bring you joy? Which perspective is one worthy of sitting at the heart of your religion? Me, I’ll go with the love every time.

  • Paul Oakley

    Reward and punishment – and the belief therein – eliminate all possibility of ethical behavior. In fact, under a system of reward and punishment, only evil can be good because it is the only thing that can be freely chosen.

  • Chalicechick

    Paul, that is the coolest comment I’ve read on any blog in a long time. Good job.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    “If people are only good because they fear punishment and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” ~ Albert Einstein

  • jerry lynch

    The notion that morality is based on discerning good from evil and acting on the former is one of the most destructive forces in society. Such a limited vision and hope, such a superficial expediency, underwhelms the spirit of humanity. Add to this the resulting superstitions, such as that of reward and punishment for our actions, and we have hogtied our soul.
    Morality is a process of revelation, not a fixed code of ethics or set of rules. Some never move into the second phase, the realization and appreciation for the aesthetics of our interconnectedness. Or to the third, so beautifully described in the beatitudes, were the person is freed from the bondage of circumstances and conditions to an inward peace beyond understanding. And the fourth phase is so preposterous there is no sense in mentioning.

  • jerry lynch

    Oh, what the heck. The fourth phase is best summarized in this verse from the Tao: “Perfect kindness acts without thinking of kindness.” Or this line from Janis Joblin: “It ain’t nothin’ if it ain’t free, babe.” Or a few words from Jesus: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Or a line from AA: “The results are nil until we let go absolutely.”
    We are meant to be good for nothing, as the article says.

  • Liz Davenport

    Amen, and amen! Well said!

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