When we completely invest ourselves in any cause we risk our sanity. From religion to politics to civil rights to social justice – to being employed in a noble profession – any cause can be consuming. Problems come when we identify ourselves in the context of the cause. We risk losing touch with social norms. Indeed, social norms become the enemy. We go to war with those who disagree. And ultimately we risk losing our identity as individuals.
To identify oneself in the context of religion, whether within a Christian denomination or the variety of Islamic beliefs, sets boundaries which are often in conflict with any given society. Political boundaries emerge when we identify ourselves with a Party label or with a philosophical label, i.e. conservative or liberal. I am a child of the 1950’s and 1960’s – and I completely invested myself in the period causes – civil rights and anti-Vietnam. I remember the extremists of our celebrated causes – those who gave their total being to defense of the cause. History does not take a favorable view of those extremists. And History will not take a favorable view of current extremists. Abolitionists of the early 19th Century are seen today as detractors of what should have been a noble effort.
This writer’s professional life has been in the not-for-profit arena. I have worked for the local government, local health care, and local education. This was not by design – only happenstance. Over the years I developed a self righteous idea that my work was somehow more noble, more worthy, because my work was for a higher ideal than just making money. This was a common trait with my fellow employees. Firefighters, Police Officers, Physicians, Nurses, Teachers, Ministers, Politicians – all noble professions – and all susceptible to a ’cause’ mentality. Some associate their work with their faith or their politics. When a teacher helps a child God is pleased. When a Physician saves a life God is pleased. When the cause is threatened (budget cuts to health care or education) the defenders of the cause go to the garage and get their soap box – they ready themselves for action.
My father invested his life as a firefighter. Any threats to the Fire Department budget were seen as a direct threat to the community. The firefighters knew that any cuts would cause an adverse change in insurance industry ratings, fire insurance premiums would go up, businesses would close, the city itself would become a ghost town. My father was completely invested in his work, work that defined his life, work that was noble and honorable and just and necessary. For my father there was no greater cause.
Political causes are not seen as being political by the people supporting the cause – they are moral imperatives. Gay Rights is a good example. Supporters see the moral imperative of allowing individual freedom of life choices. Detractors arm themselves with the words of God himself. Defense of moral boundaries is a very powerful force which can actually justify immoral behavior in the minds of the participants. Is there a greater irony? Immoral behavior can range from gossiping in the coffee shop to arming oneself with the intention of killing an opposition politician. Not many plan to kill others – but gossip, character assassination, is a common practice.
Causes are not small things – they can become everything. A good cause can give us meaning, purpose, satisfaction; a good cause can define our lives. When others threaten the boundaries of our cause we react with defense – for there is no greater purpose than the ’cause’. We lose sight of the the greater good. We justify anger, hatred, resentment, and violence in the name of our cause. The irony again is that these very traits are counter to our cause – but used in defense of the cause they become equally imperative and justified.
This very scenario plays itself out regularly in local Christian Church congregations. Support of the physical plant of the Church versus outreach programs to help the underprivileged – both noble causes – both vying for the same dollars. Good Christian people degenerate into character assassins condemning the opposition with personal attacks. Feeding the homeless becomes a greater good than actually acting like a Christian on day-to-day human interaction.
The recent shooting in Arizona of a Congresswoman and others served to highlight the power of ’cause’. FOX News and MSNBC shifted into high gear. No matter how thin you pour the batter, every pancake has two sides. And the two sides of gun control, of community mental health, and of general political discourse took their podiums to assault the opposition. Lost in fracas was the reality of horrendous acts of violence which no one condoned but everyone used as their trump card to defend their ideological cause.
Becoming totally and personally invested in a cause is seldom a good personal psychological position. We win battles along the way – but errant causes seldom win wars.