The Forgotten Man in religion.
A little more than a century ago the great sociologist William Graham Sumner wrote a book, which unfortunately has been neglected, entitled What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other. (Be patient you will see how this applies to religion momentarily.) It is one of those books widely attacked but usually on the basis of a sad understanding of the content.
In that work Sumner discussed an individual he called the Forgotten Man. What Sumner was discussing was the common occurrence of some individuals deciding to use collective processes in order to ameliorate some problem for a specific person or class of people. In the debates over such matters they discuss how best to help the objects of their charity but they neglect a third party: the man they intend to fleece in order to pay for their vision.
Sumner noted: “In all the discussions attention is concentrated on A and B, the noble social reformers, and on D, the ‘poor man. I call C the Forgotten Man, because I have never seen that any notice was taken of him in any of these discussions.” The Forgotten Man is the one who shoulders the burden for the plans of the social reformers.
In many ways the Forgotten Man syndrome is quite similar to what Frederic Bastiat wrote about half a century earlier in his essay What is Seen and What is Not Seen. In this story a poor cobbler has his window broken but the locals cheer him up by telling him how his plight is a blessing in disguise since the glass maker will benefit and his profits will be spent on bread helping the baker, etc. Bastiat notes that such foolish ideas, still heard today from some prominent thinkers, ignores the fact that the cobbler, instead of spending money on a new window, might have spent it on a new suit. So while the one business benefited by his misfortune another was hurt by it. And in the end the cobbler is down one suit of clothes and still only has the same numbers of windows as he owned before. It was not a situation that created winners. The total number of losers went up.
So now how does this apply to religion.
Well what got me thinking about it was a situation of a Forgotten Man, who in fact was a forgotten woman. We have deranged religionists committing suicide in the name of Allah in order to secure martyrdom for themselves on the basis of a supposed promise by the equally deranged Allah that he will give them 72 virgins in paradise for their act. What about the virgins?
Exactly why is this a benefit to them? It appears that no one was thinking about these poor women given in sexual service by some demented deity to someone who only benefited humanity through his own destruction. (Unfortunately he took people who did have same value with him.) But apparently in all the centuries that this concept was discussed no one asked what the virgins thought of this deal. Sometimes the Forgotten Man can be a Forgotten Woman.
Sometimes planes crash and people die. Let us take a real example. Eugene Jones was 18-years-old and a freshman at Marshall University. He was on a work-study program and worked as equipment manager for the university football team. The team was to play a game at another university and a chartered flight was arranged for them, staff and some fans.
But Jones received word that his grandmother died. To attend the funeral he had to miss the flight. And the plane crashed. Jones is apparently hooked on religion and like other drugs it clouds his mind. He says he knows what happened. “We often don’t understand why things happen when they do, but I’m firmly convinced that my life was saved by God and divine intervention. People told me how lucky I was, but I know luck had nothing to do with it.” As Jones sees it some deity left him alive so he could do things like raise a family, take care of his elderly father and so forth.
That is what is seen. But what is not seen? What about the Forgotten Man?
First, to accomplish his intervention the deity that Jones is talking about killed the grandmother. After all it was her death that caused him to miss the flight. If the divine intervened to cause him to miss said flight than the same deity intervened to kill off the grandmother. Surely a flat tire on the way to the airport could have been as effective and less cruel? But maybe this god didn’t think of it.
Now Jones says that he was spared so he could be a father, a son, a brother, etc. But what of all the forgotten men on that plane who never had children because they are dead? What of the elderly parents who miss their children and have no one to care for them because a deity supposedly killed them in plane crash? They are truly forgotten in this nonsense.
If we assume some deity wanted Jones to do these things we still don’t get how killing a lot of other people accomplished it. Jones could have been a father without killing the entire football team of this university. What would prevent him from caring for his elderly father if the players had not died that day in 1970?
Jones is not alone. Often individuals who miss a flight that crashes attributes their missing the flight to divine intervention. With millions of flights and hundreds of millions of passengers it is inevitable that people will miss flights for many reasons. And sometimes the missed flight will crash.
To attribute divine intervention as the reason for missing the flight would seem to warrant the view that divine intervention crashed the plane as well. Why exactly does the one person who missed the flight think he is so much more special than all the other people who didn’t miss the flight? Why did a god want him alive and want everyone else to die? And why do we think sparing one person is divine mercy when to do that he had to slaughter as many as 300 other people.
During World War II the Nazi regime rounded up Jews and sent them to their deaths. One Jew who was never incarcerated was Eduard Bloch. Bloch had been a small town physician. One day a patient of his came to see him. The woman, Klara, was complaining of pain in her chest. But she had avoided the doctor until it became too much for her. He examined her and discovered a very advanced tumor.
He summoned her children to him and told that this woman was severely ill and even surgery was unlikely to help. Klara’s son wept at the news. Later during the surgery Bloch, at the woman’s request, stood by her side. After watching the surgery he reported to the children. The son begged to know: “Does my mother suffer?”
But the surgery did not help and Klara got worse. The pain increased and Bloch would visit the home and give her morphine injections to ease the suffering. Klara held up well but “it seemed to torture her son. An anguished grimace would come over him when he saw pain contract her face.” The son remained grateful to Dr. Bloch for years to come and would ask about him on occasion and even sent him greeting cards and gifts. After Klara’s death the son took the doctor’s hand and said: “I shall be grateful to you forever” and then bowed to him.
Over the years the situation became grim for people like Dr. Bloch. Anti-semitism was on the rise. Jews were persecuted but Bloch seemed to be spared. He was not forced to wear the Yellow Star that marked Jews on the streets. Nor did he have to give up his practice or his apartment. Apparently the matter of Dr. Bloch had been resolved in Berlin. Klara’s son was Adolph Hitler.
Now compare this story to the football team that died in the plane crash. One man was spared and it shows the mercy of God. Would we argue that Hitler was a merciful man because Dr. Bloch was not exterminated? If sparing one is mercy then what is killing hundreds? There is this disconnect when it comes to the alleged actions of the deity. He crashes a plane killing many people and nothing is said about his genocide while the one man who missed the flight proves his mercy! Anyone who argued that Hitler was a nice guy because of the treatment of Dr. Bloch, but who ignores the anti-Jewish measures pushed through by Hitler at the same time would stand accused, with good reason, of being pro-Nazi.
There is one other area I immediately can think of where the Forgotten Man is found in religion. Consider the prayers of believers. They ask their deity to perform a certain task. They even say that these requests can be effective -- odd when you think about then moving God around with their words.
But often prayers that “get answered” require the god to deprive one person of something so another may have it. It is a bit like divine redistribution of the wealth with God as a the ultimate bureaucrat deciding who shall have this job and who shall be denied the position.
The supplicant asks Jehovah, Allah or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to grant their request. Say they want to be work at Wal-Mart at the cash register. And they know that 50 people have applied for the position. So they beg Jesus, the saints, Mary or whoever to get them this job. And they get it! They praise Jesus, the saints, Mary or whoever for answering their prayers. And they ignore the 49 other people, many of whom were also praying for the job.
“God answers prayer,” we’re told on the basis of the one person who got the job. But wouldn’t “God does not answer prayers” be more truthful based on the 49 other people’s experience of not getting the job?
One of my favourite examples of the Forgotten Man in prayer is the biting, satirical work by Mark Twain The War Prayer. I urge people to read it in full themselves. In this story a town is all excited as the young men prepare to go to war. Of course the good Christians in the story gather to pray for the soldiers and the minister prays. Twain describes it this way:
Then came the "long" prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory – An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher's side and stood there, waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, "Bless our arms, grant us victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!"
Well the old man Twain described in this section did what Bastiat and Sumner did. He noted that there are things which are prayed for explicitly and those things which are prayed for but not stated. In other words there is that which is seen (or heard) and that which is not seen (or heard). The old man said there were two prayers. The “one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.”
He noted that when you pray for military victory there are things “you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!”
And then the old man put into words the unspoken prayer.
"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them – in spirit – we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with hurricanes of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen."
It seems to me that the divine has not solved the problem of the Forgotten Man or that which is seen and that which is not seen. Central planners on earth haven’t solved the problem and the central planner in the sky is apparently no better at doing so. And when we start looking deeper we find the problems. Instead of merely seeing the one man who lived by missing the flight we see the hundreds who died.
To me the real miracle would be if this one man missed the flight, the plane crashed and everyone survived. I’d take that to be a stronger case for divine intervention than the killings of so many innocent people.