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Zero Sum Game

Zero Sum Game

A dark cavern carved inside most people leads them to treat human interactions as a zero-sum game. When I am right, you must be wrong. When you are right, I must be wrong. Partially right, then partially wrong – the sum total equaling zero.


Scripture and the Psalms sometimes read like a zero-sum game, black and white. I am good so my enemy is bad. Therefore, God, please kill my enemy. As though the sum total equals one hundred percent, no more, no less.


Years ago, a cousin and I had a disagreement about Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson had altered his external appearance. He bleached his skin and straightened his nose. Also, he had lived an eccentric lifestyle and created a strange – some might say unique – home compound, complete with its own zoo, Neverland. (At the time of our discussion, the singer was on trial for child molestation, although later acquitted. This issue was not a part of the discussion my cousin and I were having.)


I maintained that we – the bank of society – created the eccentric Michael Jackson, that Michael Jackson in some way reflected, or perhaps refracted, us, for good or for ill. My cousin took exception. “I don’t agree,” she responded. “Each person is responsible for him or herself.”  


I continued: “But he became what we wanted or needed him to become … we listened to his music,” I said, “voraciously read about him each time he morphed into a new and stranger iteration of himself …”


“I had nothing to do with that,” my cousin retorted.


Would he have have become who he became had we ignored him?”


Of course we were both correct. Michael Jackson made his own life-choices. Not every pop star bleaches his skin. Yet, he was a product of the sixties, seventies and eighties, a product of our society. He responded to the world in which he lived, that we created (or maintained), for good or ill. The tentacles of my world, my lived ethic, my choices, reach deeply into those living in my sphere – my family, friends, church, the nation and the world. And vice versa.


FaceBook provides an apt example. Say I log onto FB and run across a friend’s political post. Just seeing the post necessarily elicits a reaction of some sort. I will probably embody my reaction in one of several ways: a. “like” the post, an active response; b. dislike the post by posting a negative comment, also an active response; or c. withhold my opinion, positive or negative, a passive response. I might try to ignore the post, but once I’ve seen it – even in passing – it will register somewhere inside of me, if for no other reason than the fact of its existence. My posting friend will have affected my life, for good or for ill. We’re in this together.


We’re in this together. Which means this: forgiveness of sins is not just forgiveness of one’s individual peccadillos. A prayer for forgiveness must consider forgiveness of us, not just me. My sin is not just about me, nor is yours just about you. (Didn’t Jesus tie personal forgiveness to one’s forgiveness of others?) It is not that I am wrong and therefore you are right. Amidst intractable conflict, we’re both wrong. Amidst love, we’re both one hundred percent right. Two hundred percent in either direction.


But sin, which the Gloria refers to as the “sin of the world,” is collective. It is the overlay of darkness that enshrouds all of us, so much so that we find ourselves living together in this inescapable system, one we happen to perpetuate. All of us. Hence, I am guilty when you are guilty; I am forgiven when you are forgiven.


I am my brother’s keeper. Paradoxically, I am my own keeper.


Joseph forgave his brothers their sin as though it were his own. Yes, they threw him into the pit to languish and die, but had he not become arrogant? Had he not flaunted their father’s favoritism by wearing his multicolored robe? Did his “sins” afford his brothers a moral basis for murder? The end result was estrangement, that frequent byproduct of family sin. Who needs forgiveness? We all do. As it turns out, Joseph forgave his brothers’ murderous behavior long before they apologized.  


This week, Jesus invites us to elevate our understanding of the world and the people around us. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn your other cheek to them so they can strike that one, as well. A philosophy scholar I know once told me something I have heard repeated from the pulpit, that Jesus intended a turned cheek to be the supreme act of protest, akin to  slapping your opponent emotionally in return. I cannot agree. Jesus seems far more interested in displacing political power with spiritual power than in scoring political points. (Please do not misread me – of course the Christian has a moral duty to protest injustice.)


Still, Jesus invites us to view the world differently, to treat your sin as my sin. Your success as my success. Life is not a zero sum game equalling 100%. Love enemies. Do good to those who hurt you. Lend expecting nothing in return.


Lent hangs on the horizon, and I wonder what might happen in the world if we treated our lives as intertwined this year, rather than oppositional? Two hundred percent.


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Michael Hartney

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Michael Hartney

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