Mind Matters

by the Rev. Robert H. Tucker

Number 427

June 3, 2002

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
1743 - 1794

Antoine Lavoisier. His name on the page touched a vague remembrance in my mind--he discovered oxygen. Well, actually, he didn't; oxygen was already known. However, he did discover that combustion consisted of a chemical reaction between oxygen and the burning material.  Before Lavoisier, scientists believed that what burned was "phlogiston," a substance that resided in combustible materials. His fertile mind led him to many other discoveries, including the composition of water. He has the title: "Founder of Modern Chemistry."

That phenomenal intellect was extinguished in the French Revolution. He was tried and convicted, and sent to the guillotine--all in one day. His wife and friends pleaded with the judge, citing his numerous services to country and science. The judge rejected their arguments, saying, "The Republic has no need of geniuses." A later mathematician, Joseph Lagrange, passed judgment: "It took but a moment to sever that head, though a hundred years perhaps will be unable to replace it."
Tied to such madness in the French Revolution is the madhouse that was Cambodia in the second half of the 1970s under Pol Pot (1925-1998). Pol Pot disposed of individuals, between 1.5 million and 2 million people, in a ruthless campaign to create an idealized agrarian communist society. He declared the year of his coming to power as "Year Zero," which meant that what had taken place before was of no value. Wearing glasses, for example, indicated an intellectual who was automatically killed or sent to starve in the countryside. Pol Pot, like Lavoisier's judge, 'had no need for intellectuals.' The ratio of deaths to population made the Cambodian revolution the most murderous in a hugely murderous century.

Whenever individuals are made subservient to a larger goal, they are abused, without fail. It happens not just in the Killing Fields of Cambodia and in other massive slaughters. We have our own home-grown variety.

Last month, we found out our government sprayed navy ships with various germs, because in that restricted environment, it was easier to check what consequences there might be--important information for chemical warfare. A business, in order to fatten the bottom line, finds ways to fire people, often causing the loss of health and retirement benefits. Bishops, in order to protect the church's standing, slip and slide around the issue of its ordained leaders sexually abusing others. Jesus, we are told, was condemned to death because "it is better that one die than the whole nation."

What is writ large in nations and organizations we also find at work in our own hearts and minds. I may sacrifice the accomplishment and self-respect of another so that my own standing in the eyes of others is enhanced. My child's good can lead to the neglect of the needs of other children. In light of my personal goal of being somewhere on time, I may push my way through traffic in such a way that others' schedules are disrupted.

It is an immense distance when comparing the hundreds of thousands exterminated in Cambodia to the way I maneuver my car on the local freeway. But, it is no distance at all when comparing the motivation underlying such behavior. Making people subservient to one's larger goal--whether the reordering of society or one's personal enhancement--abuses the individuals involved.

We humans cannot live without visions for ourselves and for society, and there will always be an accompanying hurt to others that comes from living into those visions. Thus, we cannot totally avoid causing pain to others, but, we can examine our motives, we can balance the costs, and we can be sensitive and compassionate to those who suffer the consequences.

--Robert H. Tucker
3 June  2002

© Robert H. Tucker, 2002.


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