Sapiens: The Jury's Still Out on Us

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg. 

Mark Zuckerberg's12th selection in his "A Year of Books" is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by historian Yuval Noah Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With just over 400 pages of text, Harari's well-written text is a delight to read. None extraneous, the 48 images selected for the work also drive the narrative forward. The Washington Post describes him as "an emerging rock-star lecturer at the nexus of history and science."

Harari's work builds upon previous readings in Zuckerberg's list, especially Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature (cited explicitly by Harari). First published in 2014, Sapiens has already been translated into more than 30 languages.

I have been privileged to travel. I have seen archaeologists at work. I lived in the Holy Land for a semester. I have pondered historic places like the Giza Pyramid, Petra, and Machu Picchu, to name a few places. I have been especially fascinated by the ancient Egyptians and the Inca people. I have read a number of serious scholarly works on both of these peoples, and both the ancient Egyptians and the Incans have fascinated greater minds than mine. Harari weaves together an account from pre-history to our present, explaining what is known about our past and pondering questions about our future.

Yuval Noah Harari
Harari posits three revolutions and largely structures his book around them: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agrarian Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution. The Cognitive Revolution refers to the appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago as Homo sapiens evolved unique cognitive abilities. The sapiens, in fact, derives its roots from Latin for "wisdom." The Agrarian Revolution refers to a period about 11,000 years ago when humans convert in increasing numbers from foraging (hunting and gathering) to farming. The Scientific Revolution, beginning about 500 years ago, unleashes the industrial revolution and further waves of technology. Harari's concluding chapters describe how the Scientific Revolution now poises humans upon possible technological advances with enormous impacts upon the well-being of our planet and our species.

Throughout Sapiens, Harari surprises and enchants conceptually and linguistically. In a number of instances, I found myself with eye-brow raised, acknowledging a truth that I had not heard before. For instance:
It's a common fallacy to envision these species as arranged in a straight line of descent, with Ergaster begetting Erectus, Erectus begetting the Neanderthals, and the Neanderthals evolving into us. This linear model gives the mistaken impression that at any particular moment only one type of human inhabited the earth, and that all the earlier species were merely older models of ourselves. The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears, and pigs. (8)
Harari bears no romantic myth about our pre-historic brethren:
Don't believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinction. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology. (74)
Calling the Agrarian Revolution "History's Biggest Fraud," Harari reinterprets our relationship with farming:
We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word 'domesticate' comes from the Latin domus, which means 'house'. Who's the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It's the Sapiens. (81)
Harari calls into question certain myths about "authentic culture," like 'ethnic' cuisine as well as our image of Plains Indians as brave horsemen, given that no horses were in America before 1492 (170-171).

When Professor Harari describes how empires built "hybrid civilisations" (198-199), I found myself recalling those who built the Pyramids and Machu Picchu. In particular, I recalled being on a small boat on Lake Titicaca in 1995 with an Aymaran mother and her small boy. She was making yarn from the alpaca as her ancestors had for centuries while her boy played with a plastic jeep. At the time here village did not have electricity, and, yet, her world and her son's world would see enormous change in the coming years.

Professor Harari peppers the text occasionally with questions about whether our "progress" has increased human happiness. He also brings awareness of how our happiness, such as it is, comes at great costs to factory farmed animals like cows and chickens. In the latter portion of the book, the teleological questions take the fore, questions about where we are going and why. Systems of belief, Christianity, Islam, capitalism, communism, democracy, human rights, to name a few, are "imagined orders" for Harari. He explains:
We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of people can cooperate effectively. (110)
These imagined orders, then, are exceptionally important for taking decisions about the future: "The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking" (414).

Professor Harari gives a pretty low grade for human history: "Unfortuantely, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of" (415). His final paragraph hearken back to seeing humans like the Greek and Roman gods: "Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?" (416).

Our final history is not yet written.The jury is still out on us. Whether we find a more peaceable way to care for creation or not rests inour hands and minds. I enjoyed reading Profesor Harari, both in style and content. I highly recommend Sapiens as a book that will make the reader look anew at the direction of human history and seek to be more responsible with our present.

In addition to reading Zuckerberg's list, including Professor Harari's book, lately I have been reading Laudato Si' by Pope Francis, as well as writings from Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. While each have different points of emphasis, as well as significant points of divergence, they make excellent companions in reflecting on what we have done to creation and where we hope to go from here. In the near future, I will post some commentaries about these readings. 

Four Articles and a Poem

Weekly, I will post four articles that I found significant, meaningful and a poem. Our lives are enriched by seeing better. One article likely will come from the world of photography, a discipline that is about seeing. Another article will come from the world of technology, hence seeing something of the future. Another article will take up some aspect of our life together, seeing more clearly the other. Another article will be directed to faith, seeing the unseen. Finally, the weekly post will conclude with a poem, because poetry is about seeing words whose arrangement allows us to see anew.

In a week with King v. Burwell, Obergefell v. Hodges, funerals for the dead of Charleston, and Confederate flags, here are four articles and a poem for your consideration.
  1. "Laudato Si’ on Non-Human Animals: Three Hopeful Signs, Three Missed Opportunities." The Catholic Moral Theology blog is a space shared by an interesting cross-section of younger Catholic moral theologians. Charles Camosy, an associate professor at Fordham University and author of For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action,has been a thoughtful commentator on Laudato Si' since its promulgation.
  2. "Build STEM Skills, but Don’t Neglect the Humanities." My undergraduate work in the "Great Books" enlivens my pulse anytime I see a quotation from Aristotle early in an article. Published in the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Johan Roos, Dean and Managing Director of Jönköping International Business School (JIBS), where he also holds a professorship in strategy, writes that, while STEM education is important, we need to propose an expansion of the concept. I concur, although I suggest that we also need a hefty formation in ethics along with STEM. It's not good enough to know that we can do something; we need to be thoughtful about the "why."
  3. "Racism: America's Original Sin." Originally written by Jim Wallis of Sojourners back in 1987, he revised it in 2013 in honor of Trayvon Martin. There remain fundamental fears that are black and white in America and need addressing.
  4. "The Question of Why." Brooks Jensen, the editor of LensWork, always asks great questions and offers practical, thoughtful advice. In this podcast, Jensen asks why one engages in photography. He boils it down to this: "We all know the maxim that there is no better way to learn something than to teach it. I guess my variation is photography (careful observation) and publication (expression) are the twin aspects of learning about life." Take a look. You can learn a lot from this wise man.

For more than twenty years, I have enjoyed reading essays and poetry from Kathleen Norris. Her works are fantastic. The poem below may well be my favorite from her. I especially love the line:
I don't know why
it's in us: this love that moves
in color, through fears
that are black and white.
We live amid such fears, communal and personal, of race and who another loves, and, yet, we are invited to live from a richer, deeper love.

"A Litany for Basil, on Leaving Oz"
by Kathleen Norris
[from Little Girls in Church (1995), University of Pittsburgh Press] (1995)]

I don't know how to do it,
but I see the plains before me
like a book.
I don't know why pain comes
in waves, but I see
grass in wind.
I don't know how it happens
but I listen to the story.
I don't know why
it takes so long,
but I love to hear it.
I don't know how
the days will run,
but I long to see them unfold.
I don't know why
it's in us: this love that moves
in color, through fears
that are black and white.

'You've always had the power,'
the good witch says. Why love is like death,
only longer. Amen. Amen.

The Parish Stewardship Committee and Laudato Si'

For Pope Francis, "mission" is a critical word. Evangelii Gaudium was all about mission. Laudato Si' may well be understood as an incarnation of a Christian's mission in this life. We are to care for our common home.

In their 1992 pastoral letter, Stewardship: A Disciple's Response, the U.S. Bishops explained:
An oikonomos or steward is one to whom the owner of a household turns over responsibility for caring for the property, managing affairs, making resources yield as much as possible, and sharing the resources with others. The position involves trust and accountability.(19)
This understanding of a steward is keenly aware of its groundedness in the care of creation, calling Christian disciples to be "collaborators in creation" (26). In other words, Laudato Si' is a reflection on our discipleship as stewards. Stewardship is a spirituality that aims for a growth in holiness. We cannot be good Christian stewards without taking care of "our common home." We will be held back in our growth towards holiness insofar as we fail to respect and care for creation which God has entrusted to us.

Making Laudato Si' a part of parish life requires mission alignment. The parish stewardship committee is a natural home for many initiatives in favor of Laudato Si'. In fact, a stewardship committee that does not act on this encyclical, I would argue, does not understand the nature of stewardship.

Take some time in your stewardship committee to reflect on the encyclical from Pope Francis. Prayerfully consider how your parish may align for mission as Christian stewards with Laudato Si'.

50 Ideas for Making Laudato Si' part of Parish Life

Laudato Si' is a remarkable piece of papal teaching. It breaks new ground not so much in content as in style. If we do not talk about it, if we do not live it, in our parishes, it nonetheless will be destined to the ash heap of history. Here are some ideas about what you can do in your parish to make Laudato Si' a living part of who we are as Catholics.

We Catholics talk about: "Think globally; act locally." Act locally. Act in your parish.
  1. Ask your priest to preach about it. The encyclical is not directed toward just governments and presidential candidates. Pope Francis has said that care for creation is an important part of personal holiness.
  2. When the priest does preach it, give him feedback. Be specific. Say more than "nice homily." When I preached, I often had the suspicion that "Nice homily," while it may be like similar to saying "Have a nice day," may only be the absence of having something better to say about the homily, or even a way of saying, "Yeah, I heard you, Father" (but I really wasn't listening). After encouraging your parish priest to preach about it, give constructive, even critical, feedback. You may want to think about it and send a note or an email later. The priest will hear it more seriously when he has time to listen, not when there is a pile-up of people leaving church. I assure you, a serious preacher appreciates serious feedback.
  3. Ask that the parish bulletin include inserts about the encyclical
  4. Make sure that Laudato Si' and tools for reading it are on your parish web page.
  5. Talk to pastoral council members about hosting an encyclical discussion group in the parish. Don't accept that this is the Social justice Committee's responsibility.
  6. Encourage the finance council to seek a green audit of the parish.
  7. Make sure that your parish uses "green" lighting. If it needs to change, be sure to explain why-- for what it saves as well as for the care of creation.
  8. Approach the RCIA team about including a session on creation, based on Laudato Si', in the content for adult initiation.
  9. The parish stewardship committee is a natural home for many initiatives in favor of Laudato Si'. The U.S. Bishops' pastoral letter on stewardship (Stewardship: A Disciples Response) makes clear that care for creation is an essential part of Christian stewardship. In fact, a stewardship committee that does not act on this encyclical, I would argue, does not understand the nature of stewardship. Make sure that the parish stewardship committee is moving on this. 
  10. Encourage youth to take a lead. Youth "get' these issues often better than adults. Let them exercise some leadership in teaching the parish about the encyclical, in word and action.
  11. Make sure that posters about the encyclical on bulletin boards.
  12. In catechesis for children, especially First Holy Communion, incorporate activities for formation around Laudato Si'.
  13. In preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, make sure that the examination of conscience asks questions about care for creation.
  14. Does marriage preparation have anything to do in regard to the encyclical? Yes! Living in harmony with creation, in our rushed and ragged world, builds better families. Explore ways to incorporate the encyclical into marriage preparation.
  15. Make certain that your parish has recycling opportunities.
  16. Find creative ways to include the message of Laudato Si' in baptism preparation. The Pope draws a clear connection to it in paragraph #235.
  17. Look inside your church for Laudato Si' messages. By that, I mean, you probably have a statue or stained-glass of St. Francis. Point to him as an example. Perhaps there are other signs and symbols inside your church art and environment that point to the care of creation. It might be as simple as plaster or paint clusters of wheat on the walls. Look for images of Jesus and the saints engaging with nature. Lift these up in homilies, bulletins, the web page.
  18. Don't let the Feast of St. Francis be only about blessing pets. Do something big and clear about Laudato Si' on this day.
  19. Invite in an "expert." There is the old adage: an expert is someone from more than 50 miles away. You can always go with a  closer option.
  20. Ask the liturgy committee to consider what might be opportunities to include Laudato Si' in the Sunday liturgy. Pope Francis makes clear that the Eucharist is an essential sign of care for creation in paragraph #236.
  21. The general intercessions on Sunday and daily Eucharist may include prayers for the care of creation.
  22. A banner with a phrase from the encyclical could be hung somewhere in the church for a particular period of time.
  23. The liturgy committee might have a good conversation about flower arrangements and plastic flowers and what best constitutes care for creation.
  24. The liturgy committee could examine what happens to old missalettes, seeking assurance that they are properly recycled.
  25. If there is a parish school, contact the principal about finding ways to work with students around the encyclical.
  26. Start a parish community garden.
  27. Ask the parish to provide copies of the encyclical. Free .pdf versions can be emailed to parishioners. Print edition might be offered at-cost in the parish office. Make sure that people can read directly from the Pope.
  28. If the parish has a food pantry or soup kitchen, review its operation for best practices.
  29. Print prayer cards with one of the encyclical's two concluding prayers. Distribute widely and generously.
  30. Ask the homebound to pray for your efforts.
  31. Ask all parish organizations to use the prayer at the end of the encyclical for a month in their gatherings. In fact, if your parish concludes with a prayer to St. Michael or some other prayer, ask that the Pope's prayer get added for a month.
  32. If you have a group that prays the rosary before mass, ask them to conclude with the Pope's prayer.
  33. Don't exempt the charismatics! Laudato Si' is about praise. Encourage the charismatic group to take some time with this letter.
  34. Host an ecumenical gathering about the encyclical. invite leaders from other churches and even other faiths to share what steps their congregations are taking to protect creation. The Pope quoted an orthodox patriarch as well as a Sufi mystic in the encyclical, follow his lead! Invite local media to get the good word out.
  35. Ask the Taizé prayer group to lead a prayer in praise of creation. Given the ecumenical nature of Taizé, this may dovetail nicely as a follow-up to idea #34.
  36. Don't let the Knights of Columbus off the hook! I suspect that the national organization will prepare some materials. If not, ask them to lead a parish-based activity. One council is doing a battery recycling drive:
  37. If the parish has a right-to-life group, Pope Francis also makes clear that care for the unborn is intimately connected to care for creation. Enlist their support in these endeavors. This may not be easy, but engaging this portion of the parish is important.
  38. If the parish has a Boy Scout Troop, ask them to share the best practices that they have learned with the parish some Sunday after mass. This is a win-win. It raises the profile of your scouts, and it will help them with recruitment of new scouts.
  39. In conjunction with the parish finance council or facilities committee, examine what best practices may be incorporated into the parish landscape and architecture. Does the parish use harmful chemicals on the lawn? Can the parking be made more green?
  40. Have the parish plant a tree. Explain why it is being done-- in a ceremony, at Sunday mass, in the bulletin, on the web.
  41. Seek permission to include the reflections of some thoughtful parishioners on the parish web page and in the bulletin.
  42. Don't let the sports organizations of your parish and school off the hook. This is important to them, too! They may play on grass. They may want to rethink using disposable cups. Ask to look closely at their actions. Encourage positive messages about care of creation into practices.
  43. If their is a senior citizen club, offer to arrange some content for them about the encyclical. it might be a guest speaker. Or you might offer some words, but make it happen!
  44. If the parish has a big parking lot, encourage parishioners to consider carpooling for just one Sunday. This won't be easy or comfortable. It may actually lead to more people doing it over the long haul.
  45. Seek opportunities for laity to give a post-communion reflection about the encyclical.
  46. Highlight the positive actions of the local bishop with respect to Laudato Si'.
  47. Share articles written in the diocesan newspaper about the encyclical, especially as it is lived locally.
  48. Coordinate some carefully designed, non-partisan political actions. Organize a letter-writing campaign to elected officials based on the encyclical. Personally, I think that this should be one of the last things done, because the energy to do this will keep the parish from doing the important work of personal conversion first.
  49. Report everything you do to the parish in the bulletin and the web page!
  50. Share your ideas with others, because, if we do nothing, this encyclical will be forgotten.
If you have other ideas, please, add them in the comments!

Four Articles and a Poem

Weekly, I will post four articles that I found significant, meaningful and a poem. Our lives are enriched by seeing better. One article likely will come from the world of photography, a discipline that is about seeing. Another article will come from the world of technology, hence seeing something of the future. Another article will take up some aspect of our life together, seeing more clearly the other. Another article will be directed to faith, seeing the unseen. Finally, the weekly post will conclude with a poem, because poetry is about seeing words whose arrangement allows us to see anew.

  1. Laudato Si'. Rather than read a commentary or excerpts, read the whole thing. It may take a few hours, but it is worth it. Read it on the Vatican website, or download the .pdf from the linked page. The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has additional resources here. Don't read it with an eye for Red/Blue, agree/disagree. Read it with an eye for: What does the Pope say that I know to be true? What does he say that makes me uncomfortable? What does the Pope say that calls me to change?
  2. Superwheat Kerna Could Save Our Soil and Feed Us as Well. In the spirit of Laudato Si', let's recognize the good work of farmers and scientists in my home state of Kansas. The Land Institute, founded by Wes Jackson and based in Salina, has done pioneering work that embodies the best of Laudato Si'.
  3. Stop using a Camera, Start Making Photographs. Most of my learning about photography is from reading blogs, books, and looking at images. An engaging writer and photographer, David duChemin is well known for his motto: "Gear is good; vision is better." DuChemin is also keen on the creative process. His posts are human, vulnerable, often poignant. Give him a look.
  4. Thugs and Terrorists Have Attacked Black Churches for Generations. The Atlantic tells of the sad history around attacks in Black churches. Another commentary, of a video variety, is from Jon Stewart.

What a week of joy and sorrow.And now for some poetry from Wendell Berry, who happens to be a collaborator of Wes Jackson from the Land Institute. This poem from his collection Leavings seems fitting for both the themes raised above.

2008, XII
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge… 
Hosea 4:6 
We forget the land we stand on
and live from. We set ourselves
free in an economy founded
on nothing, on greed verified
by fantasy, on which we entirely
depend. We depend on fire
that consumes the world without
lighting it. To this dark blaze
driving the inert metal
of our most high desire
we offer our land as fuel,
thus offering ourselves at last
to be burned. This is our riddle
to which the answer is a life
that none of us has lived.

Some helpful links for understanding Laudato Si'

First things first: read the document. I saw someone suggest parents reading it to children.The full document can be found on the Vatican web page here:

What is Laudato Si' about? Perhaps a wordcloud, courtesy of Catholic News Service' twitter feed shows some of the document's points of emphasis.
Another helpful window to see something of it is this video prepared by the Vatican in English, Italian, and Spanish:

The Vatican press conference that presented the document can be seen here (long video: 2 hrs):

A handful of helpful summaries:

Scientific responses to Laudato Si':
  • In the press conference, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, calls the science "watertight."

Responses to Laudato Si' from the political world:
  • Former Gov. Jeb Bush, prior to the document's release in The Atlantic. Quite likely, this makes for the weakest response from a political view.
  • Former Sen. Rick Santorum in early June said "Leave science to the scientists."
  • Sen. Marco Rubio offered critical remarks prior to the release of the encyclical.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders made an official press release from his Senate office that "welcomes" Pope Francis' statement, but, as a pro-choice politician, he may have missed those paragraphs that explicitly linked abortion to our woes. As Thomas D. Williams writes, For Pope Francis, 'green' equals pro-life.
  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not spoken directly to the Pope's document, but she spoke about climate change in her June 15th announcement speech as well as having a complicated history with competing interests around the issue. She would have the same issues as Sen. Sanders regarding the connection that the Holy Father draws between concern for creation and the most vulnerable, including the unborn.
  • Unsurprisingly, the Cato Institute slammed the encyclical.
  • Kofi Annan, former U.N. Secretary General endorsed Laudato Si' in a statement.
  • Ban Ki-Moon, the actual U.N. Secretary General, offered a statement about the encyclical.
  • President Obama offered the following statement:

Balm for Our Divided Political Heart

Over the last few days, I have made my way through E.J. Dionne, Jr.'s Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent. To begin with, the book posits that the United States is not an either/or, individualism or community, but a both/and. I have long enjoyed Dionne as a writer for Commonweal and the Washington Post and as commentator on MSNBC as well as someone I follow on twitter (@EJDionne). A Catholic, Dionne speaks gracefully about Catholic social teaching, a quality that particularly appeals to me.

The book's premise, that we in the United States, have a divided political heart is attractive and rings true. Written in 2012, just ahead of the election, I panicked as I entered Chapter II which began by recounting revisionist history from Michele Bachman and Sarah Palin (53). I was not eager to revisit the ugly politics preceding the general election of 2012. I yearned for something deeper. Dionne delivers.

E.J. Dionne, Jr., Photo: Brookings
Our Divided Political Heart engages American history, from the Founders, to the present. More than 2012 presidential candidates, we spend time with the Founders, especially Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Dionne does not pen a hagiography as much as draw the context for compromises, especially with regard to race, that they and later generations, like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, continued in new forms. Moving through Lincoln and the Civil War and Reconstruction, the book pays special attention to the Populist Movement and the New Deal. It includes rigorous scholarship about our shared history as Americans and invites us to see our current political choices in a broader, historical, philosophical view.

Regularly, Dionne recalls instances of how some current political figures call for individualism to the exclusion of community, but, from the beginning, Dionne reminds us that "in a democracy, government is not the realm of 'them' but of 'us'" (italics in the original, 6). While critical of his adversaries, he does not belittle them; their own remarks efficiently accomplish that. As Dionne observes, "Above all, the history of the early republic reminds us that so many of the commonplace assertions in our current discourse are simply wrong" (184). He exhorts that "it's important to get our national story right" (123).

Modern political currents urge an amnesia around how the New Deal has benefited us. My paternal grandfather, a veteran of World War II, was the first in his family to go to college. He did that by virtue of the G.I. Bill. He continued on to law school. After private practice, he then spent 24 years on the bench in Muncie, IN. Since then, almost all of his progeny have earned a bachelor's degree, and more than half of us have graduate degrees. The New Deal, particularly the G.I. Bill, changed the trajectory of my family.

Even now, three years after Dionne wrote the book, current events, especially the 2016 presidential election, maintain its relevance. Donald Trump's entrance into the presidential race yesterday served as ample reminder. Sounding not unlike a softer George Orwell, Dionne writes: "If describing developments in American political life candidly is dismissed as a form of partisanship, then honest speech becomes impossible" (251). What I long for, what I believe we long for, is "honest political speech," not a sound bite honed in a focus group or some business mogul flexing his public relations acumen. Dionne, to invoke the words of Moisés Naím, makes life harder for the "terrible simplifiers."

On the other hand, yesterday was the occasion to see an example of honesty. More important than Trump's announcement, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg came out. One may ask questions about the timing. It may require less courage to do so today than when Barney Frank did in 1987, or Harvey Milk before that, but I appreciate his candor. Buttigieg sharing his heart in this way is balm to his heart as well as ours, allowing him to be himself to the rest of us.

At the end of Our Divided Political Heart, Dionne introduces the word "stewardship" (261). A rich, powerful word more commonly seen in religious and environmental contexts, stewardship is an apt term for our political life. Choices between the individual and community, between rugged individualism and solidarity, are not simply choices that impact today. We are stewards for what will be handed on to the future. We are stewards of a political heritage, received from our Founders. We are entrusted with precious gifts, received thankfully. These gifts are to be nurtured that we may hand them on to future generations. Not so much a story of 2012, Our Divided Political Heart tells a story of our political heritage and calls us to steward it in the present.

Four Articles and a Poem

Weekly, I will post four articles that I found significant, meaningful and a poem. Our lives are enriched by seeing better. One article likely will come from the world of photography, a discipline that is about seeing. Another article will come from the world of technology, hence seeing something of the future. Another article will take up some aspect of our life together, seeing more clearly the other. Another article will be directed to faith, seeing the unseen. Finally, the weekly post will conclude with a poem, because poetry is about seeing words whose arrangement allows us to see anew.

  1. What is Code? If you are reading these words, unless someone printed this out on paper for you, it is by means of code. My typing on this ubuntu operating system has created code that is discernible to the pad, phone, laptop, or desktop where you read these words. How it does that remains a great mystery to me. We were the first family I knew to have a computer at home. It was Radio Shack's TSR-80 with 16kb memory. I learned to do some programming in BASIC. I quickly hit the limits of the memory and went on to other things. As speaking another language is an essential skill, speaking the language of code, likewise, is a great gift. Paul Ford, writing for Bloomberg BusinessWeek wrote a 38,000 word article that pulls back the veil on a world foreign to many of us.
  2. Are the Poorest of the Poor Being Lifted Out of Poverty? This short article by Martin Ravallion of Georgetown University was published by the World Economic Forum. It is absolutely worth your time.
  3. Between Darkness and Light. Steve McCurry, an American editorial photographer best known for his photograph "Afghan Girl" which originally appeared in National Geographic magazine, is an amazing photography. From his catalog of photos, every so often he will create a series of images based upon a theme accompanied by beautiful quotes. This week he offers us "Between Darkness and Light." Take a look. Let your eyes linger.
  4. Getting Ahead of the Spin on the Pope's Environmental Encyclical. The eminent correspondent of all things Catholic, John L. Allen, offers some pre-encyclical analysis. Many camps are jockeying already to dominate coverage and interpretation of the to-be-released encyclical. Allen puts those camps into context prior to the publication of Laudato Sii. To be honest, I am very excited about what Pope Francis may say, but I would urge all journalists to ask commentators how much time they took to read the encyclical before proceeding to hear their talking points.

The Journey (h/t to Kathleen Cepelka)
by Mary Oliver

Fritz Bielmeir: CC0
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Early Childhood Education: Giving Kids a Fair Chance

This has been my week for reading Nobel laureates. Today, I read James J. Heckman's Giving Kids a Fair Chance: A Strategy that Works.

Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, was a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences in 2000.

While one might imagine complex formulas mathematical scenarios and unduly long phraseology from a Nobel Prize-winning economist writing about early-childhood interventions, in fact, Giving Kids a Fair Chance is not a difficult read. The slim volume is just 137 pages of content. The first 43 pages are from Professor Heckman, and the remainder include 10 replies to Heckman's work from various authorities, with Heckman having the concluding word. In fact, the work is eminently readable.

Heckman and his respondents are passionate about children. The respondents themselves read like a who's who among people concerned about children: Mike Rose, Robin West, Charles Murray, Carol S. Dweck, David Deming, Neal McCluskey, Annette Lareau, Lelac Almagor, Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse, and Geoffrey Canada.

James Heckman: Flickr/Instituto Ayrton Senna
Professor Heckman argues that spending on early childhood education has a high rate of return, and that a significant increase in spending on early childhood education would likely reap benefits that far exceed the costs. While they may differ in particulars, all but Charles Murray agreed with this conclusion. To be honest, the only respondent who caused a visceral response in me was Murray, author of The Bell Curve, whose Twitter profile reads: "Husband, father, social scientist, writer, libertarian. Or maybe right-wing ideologue, pseudoscientist, evil. Opinions differ." I will take him at his word on the former, but, while appreciating his humor, his writing gives ample evidence of the latter.

As a nation worried about the growing national debt, as we need to make difficult choices about priorities, scarce public resources invested in early childhood education will yield significant rewards. A mantra for Professor Heckman: "Skills beget skills and capabilities foster future capabilities" (32-33). In other words, skills acquired build on previous skills. Heckman also cites studies about what we already know: it costs less to get a second grader up to level than what it costs to bring an adult learner to his GED. Heckman, as an economist, is balancing "equity" and "efficiency" (34) and concludes that investment in early childhood reaps the greater reward.

I found Giving Kids A Fair Chance in the bibliography of Robert Putnam's Our Kids (see my commentary here). Like Putnam, Heckman and his contributors recognize that all children are "our kids." Geoffrey Canada summed up the challenge this way:
These children belong to all of us, but we are simply not acting that way. Once we accept that, we will have made the first step in changing the direction of their lives. (117)

You can follow Professor Heckman on Twitter at: @heckmanequation

Learning from the Poor: Muhammad Yunus

Currently, I am seeking work. This period of time between my life in the Congregation of Holy Cross and a new labor has also afforded the opportunity to read. I have long been interested in micro-lending and the work of Muhammad Yunus. I had time this week to read two of his books: Banker to the Poor (BTTP), written in 2003, and 2007's Creating a World Without Poverty (CWWP). Reading chronologically, I began with Banker to the Poor.

Briefly, Muhammad Yunus, a Muslim from near Chittagong in what was then the British Raj, earned a Ph.D. at Vanderbuilt University, taught in the U.S. early in his career, and returned to teach at Chittagong University after Bangladesh achieved independence. He rose to be chair of the economics department. Amid an enormous famine in 1974, Yunus "kept trying to bring the academic world and the village together" (BTTP, 37). Eventually, he discover micro-lending as a means to improve the plight of actual poor people he met.

Muhammad Yunus - Flickr: Univ. of Salford
Banker to the Poor tells the story of Yunus' early life, his initial forays into microlending and founding Grameen Bank, the learnings along the way, and concludes with a hopeful vision of "The Future." It is an amazing story.

After 26 years with the Congregation of Holy Cross, I have heard a lot of stories about Bangladesh. I have known men who left the U.S. and have given their lives to build a better future in that country. Taking on the mission in Bengal was essential to Holy Cross receiving Papal approbation at its founding. The priest, brothers, and sisters of Holy Cross are rightfully proud of their work in Bangladesh. (For more information, visit here.) The story Yunus weaves brings detail to stories that I have heard from American missionaries and native Bangladeshis.

A fascinating element in Banker to the Poor is Yunus sharing his understanding of Islam. To launch Grameen, with its priority on empowering women, he had to be very conscious of his Islamic culture (109-110) and, specifically, purdah, "the range of practices that uphold the Koranic injunction to guard women's modesty and purity" (74). In an age of a "War on Terror," we could do well to learn more about Islamic culture.

Banker to the Poor also highlights the evolution of micro-lending. Yunus needed to refine a definition of poverty (40-41). Yunus describes briefly the revisions in involved in Grameen II (235-243). Readers may even notice changes in the "16 Decisions" from the time of BTTP (135-137) to CWWP (58-59). A new world in economics and development emerges with micro-lending and the Grameen Bank, and Yunus provides insight into its inception.

In BTTP, Yunus also describes in rich detail the operations of Grameen Bank and its microcredits. The groups and centers, the lenders and borrowers, all engage in interactions that are highly relational. He writes, "Grameen would succeed or fail depending on the strength of our personal relationships" (BTTP 70). While not using the term "social capital," the methodology intentionally builds social capital among the poor. It should not surprise in the slightest that one result is increased political participation (195-196).

Yunus also delves into economic theory. His work was an effort to move from "the elegant economic theories" (viii) of his classroom to learn directly from the poor. Yunus writes, "The poor taught me an entirely new economics" (ix). That "new economics" finds then that capitalism has an "incomplete" view of human beings, seeing people only as labor or consumers (150). Yunus explains that "Without the human side, economics is just as hard and dry as stone" (203). Yunus embraces a more robust anthropology than traditional capitalism. Entrepreneurship is not the gift of a few; for Yunus, "all human beings are potential entrepreneurs" (207). Yunus view makes the poor active agents, full of genius and potential:
These decisions are a demonstration that the poor, once economically empowered, are the most determined fighters in the battle to solve the population problem, end illiteracy, and live healthier, better lives. When policy makers finally realize that the poor are their partners, rather than bystanders or enemies, we will progress much faster than we do today. (137)
The hindrance to the active engagement of the poor, according to Yunus, is that:
the poor are poor not because they are untrained or illiterate but because they cannot retain the returns of their labor. They have no control over capital, and it is the ability to control capital that gives people the power to rise out of poverty. Profit is unashamedly biased toward capital. (141)
That the poor are "banking untouchables" (57), with no control of capital, results in "financial apartheid" (150). In the experience of the Grameen Bank, giving credit to the poor upends this structure and allows for a new future.

In Creating a World Without Poverty, Yunus now writes as the third Bangladeshi to have won a Nobel Prize: preceded by Rabindranath Tagore (Literature, 1913) and Amartya Sen (Economic Sciences, 1998). His tone is much more confident, and, as the title suggests, he dreams much more broadly. At the time of writing CWWP, Grameen has expanded from a bank to 25 organizations in the Grameen family of companies, stretching from textiles to fisheries, from cell phones to yogurt (CWWP, 78-79). Grameen ushered in a new way of doing business, and Yunus acknowledges that the regulatory structures of government need reworking.

In CWWP, Yunus describes a "social business" as:
a business that pays no dividends. It sells products at prices that make it self-sustaining. The owners of the company can get back the amount they've invested in the company over a period of time, but no profit is paid to investors in the form of dividends. Instead, any profit made stays in the business-- to finance expansion, to create new products or services, and to do more good for the world. (xvi)
Yunus argues rightly that a social business can be very competitive in the market place. It may have highly motivated employees, it may have lower costs (without the burden of maximizing profits), and it may have a desirable product for consumers with social change as an output. He proposes social businesses of all kinds and in all fields as well as a social business stock exchange.

In CWWP, Yunus has refined his argument with capitalism, which he describes as "a half-developed structure" built upon "a narrow view of the human being," a "one-dimensional human being," that fails "to capture the essence of what it is to be human" (18). Seeing a human being simply as a laborer or consumer is an "economic blindspot," like "the assumption that the solution to poverty lies in creating employment for all-- that the only way to help the poor is by giving them jobs" (52). This view fails to see the informal economy. A third blindspot is "the assumption that 'entrepreneurship' is a rare quality" (53). Yunus argues that  "entrepreneurial ability is practically universal" (54). Drawing on the image of a bonsai tree, he writes, "the poor are like bonsai trees," growing according to their containment. A bigger tree needs deeper, richer soil (54). Also, economics has a blindness around gender and children (54-55) as well as "another major blindspot" with regard to "the focus, in development strategy, on material accumulation achievement. This focus needs to be shifted to human beings, their intiative and enterprise" (55-56).

Yunus won the Nobel Prize for Peace, not Economic Sciences, an acknowledgement that reducing poverty is a component of building peace. Yunus also argues forcefully that social business is a necessary alternative, a "parallel voice" to profit-maximizing business. Citing global climate change, modern practices of industry and agriculture are unsustainable, and social business gives voice to another way of doing things (214-215). In the end, Yunus wants to put "poverty in museums." (223-233). Not a new aim for him, Yunus concludes Banker to the Poor with these words:
We have created a slavery-free world, a small-pox-free world, an apartheid-free world. Creating a poverty free world would be greater than all these accomplishments while at the same time reinforcing them. This would be a world that we could all be proud to live in. (BTTP, 262)
Both works, Banker to the Poor and Creating a World Without Poverty convey Muhammad Yunus' hopeful view of all human beings, especially the poor. Both works are born of the interplay of his mind, well-trained in economics, his heart, moved by the suffering of the poor, and his experience working intimately with the poor. Yunus is absolutely right that geography is important and being near the poor is essential (BTTP, 147). I have no doubt that the best development work is done "to," "with," "for," and "by" the poor, all at once. Work to the poor, for the poor, is done best with and by the poor. If it is not, to borrow a phrase from Bob McCarty, we're just hitting them "with a 2 x 4."

While I value the hopefulness of Yunus, human frailty also creates chains of bondage difficult to break. For example, I do not recall reading of an addict in either book. Some situations will not be resolved with providing credit. While he has powerful friends like Bill and Hillary Clinton, Yunus has battled publicly with powerful institutions like the World Bank. Yunus' critics are many. I found a few articles: here, here, and here. As is often the case, it does not seem to me to be an either/or choice. Yunus and the Grameen Bank and the institutions that they have inspired have changed many lives. While not the only solution, micro-lending is an important tool for fighting poverty.

Yesterday, I also discovered an article written by a Notre Dame undergraduate: Should We Give Up On Microfinance

No More "Scissor Charts"

Robert Putnam's latest work, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, is alarming. Like his previous works, Putnam, in the research terms of sociology, tells us what we already know. This time, as usual the bearer of bad news, he tells us that "our kids" are in trouble. We've known that, but we prefer not to see those "other kids" as "our kids."

"Scissor graphs," as Putnam dubs them, demonstrate the expanding gap between upper-class and lower-class parents and children in the U.S. (68). He includes 13 critical graphs in his work, and each one should raise an alarm. The word "gap" appears on at least 74 pages of the 277 pages of text, fully a quarter of the book (excluding acknowledgements, notes, and index). "Gap" would appear more frequently were it not for the rich illustrations of how so many American youth live.

Perhaps the measured tones of the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government do not raise the blood pressure. Perhaps amid the precision of the social sciences to distinguish correlations from causes mutes the urgency of this work. The final chapter of the books includes a rich panoply of ideas in "What is to be done?" (227-261), but the clarion call is rather tepid:
So if you are concerned about the issues discussed in this book, here is something you could do right now. Close this book, visit your school superintendent-- better yet, take a friend with you-- and ask if your district has a pay-to-play policy. . . . Insist that pay-to-play be ended. (258)
While I agree with the importance of school extracurricular activities, there are many matters that need our attention. From the first page, Putnam tells us that he sees a "split-screen American nightmare" (1). At the same time, Putnam has created "a book without upper-class villains" (229). Perhaps he is right: we are all responsible, and let's not waste time in finger-pointing. We all have interest in this, from the political left or right, including those who have disengaged. I understand the aim: that we might all engage in caring for "our kids," but perhaps Professor Putnam needs to raise the decibels to be heard. Perhaps we all need to sound the alarm.

As some would await eagerly the next Harry Potter novel, I wait for the works of Robert D. Putnam. No other non-theologian made his way quite so regularly into my homilies when I preached. I have been blessed to hear him both in North and South America. Moreover, his research, asking simple but great questions, draws common sense conclusions, even if bad news. For instance, the safest neighborhood? It is not the one with more police, or the wealthiest residents; it is the neighborhood where neighbors know one another by name, and, sadly, fewer of us know our neighbors by name.

Putnam revisits his hometown of Port Clinton, OH as the starting point for describing change in the U.S. This important work draws on vignettes of black, white, and Latino families, grounded in state-of-the-art research. Putnam charts a course through families, parenting, schooling, and communities (including churches) to see how we are failing more and more of "our kids":
If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for American children isn't good: in recent years, villages all over America, rich and poor, have deteriorated as we've shirked collective responsibility for our kids. (205)
And, yes, the book is having notable impact on the conversation. Last month, President Barack Obama appeared with Putnam in a forum at Georgetown University. However, we all need to take up the mantle for "our kids." If we really do it, I would no longer feel the urge to put "our kids" within quotation marks. If we really did it, we would end the "scissor charts." If we really did it, America would experience a conversion toward genuine care and concern for all, which would be a better America for us all.

It starts with hearing the bad news in the measured tones of an Ivy League sociologist. Read him. Then read it again. Then, when you close the book, don't stop at a conversation with the local superintendent. Let's put an end to the "scissor charts." Let's take care of our kids.