Mar  2017 14
Christians and the Social Contract

You may have seen the news story recently out of Guatemala City. To date, 40 girls are dead. They lived in a combination orphanage and detention facility. At least double the kids packed into a space for which it was designed.

A bunch of girls escaped the night before the incident that caught international attention. They ran away because of the hellacious conditions, including being raped or abused at the will of whoever wanted to.

After they were captured and returned to their captivity, some girls set fire to a mattress in protest. The resultant smoke and fire killed 40 of them, thus far.

Nine years after adopting a little girl from Guatemala, a process that included my wife living in-country for 16 months and during which I made 14 visits, I still skim my Google alert daily for Guatemalan news. So, I know something about the context of this maddening tragedy there.

There is no culture or systems of adoption in Guatemala, and international adoptions were shut down—for cause—at the time my wife and I were bringing our daughter home.

Add extreme poverty, racism (Euro-appearing persons are significantly privileged over indigenous peoples), drug-trafficking, a nation far from recovered after a 36-year internal war that devastated indigenous rural communities and strengthened cultures of corruption and violence, colonialism, a systemic devaluation of women and children, and you have more ingredients in the recipe that contributed to why teenaged girls were warehoused with boys who had been previously incarcerated in a facility inadequate in every way for human and humane life.

The social contract in Guatemala, the sense of what one person owes to others and what citizens and government owe to each other, is weak

I don’t tell this story to wag my finger or shake my head. I tell the story because it is more familiar and near than one might think.

I live in a state where the female incarceration rate is the nation’s highest, where prisons are overcrowded and guards are paid an unlivable wage, where lawmakers would prefer to throw people in prison for simple possession of small amounts of illegal drugs (the voters in the state clearly said we don’t like that approach, and the lawmakers responded “You did not know what you were voting for”), where public education is being starved year after year, where legal paths are made to enable the poor to pay usurious rates for payday loans, where cities may be prohibited from protecting LBGTQ rights if the state does not, where renewable energy sources are vilified because of the subsidies given but where it is sacrilegious to look seriously at the ways fossil fuel extraction has been subsidized for generations (have you ever been through what is left of Picher, Okla.?—not a fossil fuel site but a perfect, horrible example of an area where the earth and affected families will cry to heaven for healing for centuries to come due to the abuse of persons and land).

What these examples indicate is that the dominant culture in Oklahoma promotes punishment, warehousing of human “problems,” the protection of the rights of the rich, undervaluing the majority of the state’s children (who are increasingly children of color), the rejection of LBGTQ rights, and using the earth’s resources with short-term gains and with corporate persons (rather than human beings) at the pinnacle of who and what is valued.

A social contract is the cultural framework, expressed in legal and moral codes an in everyday living, that manifests how we the people think we are connected and what we think we owe to each other.

In Oklahoma, we have a weak social contract. Beyond obeying the laws of the land, and helping out in times of disaster, I don’t know what all is a part of Oklahoma’s social contract.

The word “religion” comes from a Latin word that means to bind or tie. In most cultures, religions shape social contracts.

So I wonder: what is the religion, or what are the religions, that influence the social contract in Oklahoma?

When I consider the list of miseries I recounted above, I think, “Well, these Oklahoma practices do not reflect Jewish or Muslim values, and Jews and Muslims are very small populations in this state, anyway. These practices do not reflect African-American Christian values. Those are certainly not Native American Christian or Native American Church values.”

Well, these practices represent SOMEONE’S values or the state would be known for a different set of transactions. See what you think by looking at Pew Research.

There are many interesting facets of that research, including the strong likelihood that the current state legislature reflects an even thinner sense of the social contract than the majority of the white Christian evangelicals in the state. White Christian evangelicals represent the largest religious cohort in the state. By far.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ interrogator asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus never answered the question.

At the end of the story, Jesus asked the man, “Who proved to be neighbor?” Rather than answering the question about to whom one has special obligations, Jesus changed the question to what it means to be a neighbor. Jesus’ question is a better way to think about the social contract, for those of us who claim to follow him.

There are plenty of resources in Christianity to enrich the social contract in Oklahoma. Tragically, there are also resources that Christians are using to impoverish it.


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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