David Carlson: Words of ancient wisdom for our time

This is the type of fast that I wish: to loosen the fetters of injustice … to set free those who are oppressed … to share your bread with the hungry, and to offer shelter to the homeless poor, to clothe the naked when you behold them and not turn your back on your own kin. Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your wound will quickly be healed. Isaiah 58:5-8

I have spent most of my working life within two organizations: a hospital and a college. Hospitals and colleges are different in many ways, but I’ve found that they have similarities as well. What I remember most fondly about the two entities is the times when each organization changed for the better.

The health of any organization is revealed when hard decisions have to be made. And because organizations are made up of human beings, it isn’t surprising that employees as stakeholders are concerned with their “stake” in the decision. Put another way, in times of hard decisions, it’s common for employees to focus on these questions: “What’s in it for me? What’s in it for my department?”

Of course, whether it’s a hospital or a college, when employees focus on the “what about me?” question, they are in competition, if not conflict, with other employees or other departments. As Pink Floyd put it so eloquently in “Money”—“I’m all right, Jack, keep your hands off my stack.” Except in most cases when hard choices have to be made, we don’t feel we’re “all right.” We fear that we’ll be overlooked, and others will benefit more than we will.

What I will never forget about working in both a hospital and a college is the moment when each organization realized that there is a better question to ask than “What about me?”

The better question that changed the culture of the hospital was, “What is in the best interest of our patients?”

Similarly, the better question that changed the culture of the college was, “What is in the best interest of our students?”

When they changed the question, employees at the hospital and the college also changed how they viewed one another. Instead of viewing one another suspiciously as competitors, we began to see one another as fellow problem-solvers. I won’t lie and say that the focus didn’t revert at times to “me and mine,” but we could always return our focus to patients and students.

What is true of organizations is also true of countries. Our country is more divided than it has been in living memory. As we’ve seen in the mid-year elections, each party is prepared to do anything to get a bigger slice of the pie. The hostile atmosphere isn’t going to improve as long as the parties focus on, “What’s in it for me and mine.”

That brings us to the wisdom and hope found in the passage from the book of Isaiah, wisdom for Republicans and Democrats alike. If we want America to heal, if we want light to break forth, we need to shift our focus. Instead of asking how my party can bludgeon the other party into submission, we should be asking the better question: how can we “loosen the fetters of injustice,” “set free the oppressed,” “share bread with the hungry” “and offer shelter to the homeless?”

America might have a higher percentage of Bible readers than any other nation. But the advice found in all the Hebrew prophets comes with a warning: Reading isn’t enough. We are to be doers of the Word, not hearers only.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected]