“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” Matthew 6:19-21
It’s good to prepare for things, right? Sure it is. It’s common sense to think ahead and be ready for what might come. We “insure” ourselves against what the future might bring in many, many different ways. For example, think about how we actually buy insurance: home owners insurance, to protect us in case of fires or hurricanes, etc.; health insurance, to help protect us in case of sickness or injury; car insurance, to protect us from the cost of automobile accidents. Wanting to feel safe and secure is something everyone wants and really needs to a certain degree; safety, along with physiological needs like food, water and sleep, is one of Maslow’s fundamental human necessities after all. Now, it’s important to note that all of the things I just mentioned, which we protect ourselves from (fires, hurricanes, auto accidents, sickness, injury, etc.), can be classified as either natural disasters/occurrences, chance occurrences/accidents, or things we ourselves are liable for (e.g. injuring ourselves while moving a piano, or crashing our own car while backing up, etc.). But, there is something else that can often threaten our well-being and which many people want to protect themselves from: other humans.
Before I go any further I will say right up front that I don’t deny for a second that bad things often happen to good people, and I do not blame anyone for wanting to defend themselves and/or their loved ones against malicious or criminal attacks; this is the cautious, thoughtful and smart way to be. I’m not advocating that people be naive, reckless idealists. Quite the contrary, I think protecting oneself, and those who are close to us, is the correct, pragmatic, virtuous way to live.
All of that considered, however, I believe there is a significant difference between preparing for the worst and preparing to do the worst.
Recently I was involved in a few Facebook conversations which were sparked by Donald Trump’s recent executive actions that banned refugees and Muslims. The nationalistic argument I kept hearing over and over from Trump supporters was that we must protect our citizens by fighting back (an eye for an eye) against “radical Islamic terrorism,” even if this means discriminating against certain groups of people and allowing some innocent people (refugees ((women and children among them)) fleeing violence) to die. On a superficial, immature, tribal level I can understand the sentiment here. We value those closest to us the most, and when push comes to shove, if we feel anxious, threatened, and fearful, hey, we’re looking out for number one. Every man, woman and child for themselves! This is certainly one way to prepare for the worst, but in preparing for the worst in this way one actually allows and/or participates in doing the worst; innocent (and not-so-innocent) people will die unnecessarily. Unfortunately, I personally no longer have the privilege to think in such toxic, simplistic, myopic, selfish, and childish ways. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still compelled to take care of those closest to me, to worry about their well-being and to do what I can to ensure it, but as I have matured over time I’ve found that the scope of what I value has broadened to such a degree that I must begin to think differently about how I ensure the safety those I care about. Trying solve complex problems with simple, childish solutions is a recipe for disaster.
For those with a tribal or ethnocentric worldview, ensuring the safety of loved ones is very simple matter: kill all threats before those threats kill you. Period. End of story. In other words, the best defense is a good offense. This is the mentality of “second amendment” folks, for instance, who like to keep guns handy for “self-defense” purposes. Their view of humans is a circumspect one, and they think keeping a gun in the house to stop “bad guys” is the common sense equivalent of having a fire extinguisher close by in case of a fire. After all, one should be prepared for the worst, right? Unfortunately, the reality is that guns aren’t defensive weapons, like shields, or armor, or force fields. Guns are strictly offensive weapons. So it follows that by keeping a gun in the house for “self-defense” purposes one is not preparing to defend against the worst, they are preparing to do the worst first: to kill another human being. Accordingly, the analogy to a fire extinguisher is a non sequitur and simply doesn’t hold up; fires are typically accidental and/or random acts of Nature (unless it’s arson). Humans, on the other hand, generally have reasons for doing things; we have stories and motives and needs. Burglars rob houses because they need money; for what? Who knows. Drugs? Food? It really doesn’t matter. The point here is that if we zoom out we will generally see a larger picture, one with lots of forces and factors in play (social, psychological, economic, etc.) and this larger picture is what needs to be kept in mind. If it is kept in mind, then one begins to take different steps to “prepare for the worst.”
I personally begin with a few very basic axioms; it’s really simple stuff that most people teach their kids: 1) Try my best not to hit or punch or kill humans to solve problems. 2) Share. And do not horde wealth and possessions (don’t be greedy). 3) Value all of life (love God) and love others as we love ourselves. Logically, it has always seemed to me that if we are going to attempt to literally do these things (and not just cross our fingers behind our backs and wink when we teach our kids this stuff), then it requires a certain mode of existence, a certain openness to the uncertainty of life. In other words, love requires vulnerability; it requires that one take on the very real risk of being injured.
So, if we’re thinking about this in a very practical, common sense sort of way, then perhaps the old “best defense is a good offense” strategy isn’t way to go. Because look, if the goal is for no one to get killed (and I realize that this isn’t the realistic goal for everyone, some people do believe with all their hearts that certain people, “bad guys” in particular, deserve to die; this is another conversation, one that has philosophical/theological underpinnings that I won’t get into here) then it’s MUCH smarter to stop making enemies; start small, perhaps, and stop using the term “bad guys,” strike it from your lexicon (unless you’re talking about Skeletor from He-Man of course…). Accordingly, I have concluded that if the goal is to NOT kill people (like we tell our kids ((and lets assume for the sake of this post that this is the goal))), maybe we should take some practical steps toward this goal, like NOT keeping deadly weapons lying around the house, like guns (there are LOTS of other non-lethal means of self-defense), and be mindful to not fixate on “prepping” for a home invasion. Also, we might try dearly to embrace life and it’s uncertainties with open arms and try our best NOT to live in fear of our fellow humans. We might also want to keep in mind that it’s a pretty good idea to not hoard wealth at the expense of others (the existence of security cameras on your home tells me more about your anxious guilt and paranoia than anything else…). Ultimately, common sense might tell us that it’s actually a good idea to live a life of compassion, mercy and aggressive peacemaking, working for the liberation of ALL peoples, if we want to ensure the greatest amount safety for ourselves and our loved ones. There are people who actually try to do these things (I try to be one of them) and these people are indeed being pragmatic, thoughtful, cautious and virtuous, just like the smart people who buy life insurance or car insurance; they are attempting to “store treasures in Heaven,” as Jesus would say. BUT, unlike the person who is preparing for the worst by preparing to do the worst, this alternative way to live prepares for the worst by embracing the worst in the World, trying to understand it, and working to transform it and fix it. There is a BIG difference.