Thursday, December 6, 2007

There Was an Old Man With a Beard by Edward Lear

There Was an Old Man With a Beard

There was an old man with a beard,
Who said, "It is just as I feared!--
Two owls and a hen,
Four larks and a wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!"
--Edward Lear

I really have nothing to say about this poem -- it's one of Lear's most famous limericks, but there's nothing especially special about it. I picked it today for precisely that reason. I wanted to revisit my comments on another poem, and didn't want to shortchange a new one that I had something to say about.

A few days ago I was looking through the comments people have left on the site, and found that somebody wrote a very angry (and and offensively worded) comment about The White Man's Burden. I don't mind that -- the poem has indeed been used to justify some truly awful things whether Kipling intended it to or not (which is still up in the air--I personally don't think he did, but I only know his writings, I didn't know him or his intentions). At any rate, I re-read the poem and my own comments, and I was struck once again by the question, "Who did they think they were? Why should their version of civilization and religion be any better than what the people had already? Why couldn't they just go away and leave them alone?"

This has always been a hard question for me because there are obviously some things we know about that can make people's lives better -- things like hygiene practices, methods of farming, irrigating, purifying water, reading, and yes, even the gospel. At the same time, I think it's terrible for people to lose their heritage and forget what it was that their fathers believed and how they lived. The European colonial missionaries did immense social, cultural and historical damage on top of the physical damage done by the conquerors. Knowing that, can I really say that anyone was truly better off after they were taught?

Last night, Peter and I were watching the Stargate SG-1 episode Origin where a missionary from a new set of "gods" show up in our galaxy. Having just defeated one set of false gods, our heroes are naturally skeptical, but essentially tell they guy, "We don't mind if you preach, we don't mind if people in our galaxy choose to worship your gods (who do have real power), but we aren't going to stand for it if you come in here and force everybody to worship on pain of extermination."

Finally, it clicked for me. We claim the privilege of worshipping almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience and allow all men the same privilege let them worship how where or what they may (AOF 11). Because we have the knowledge, it's our moral responsibility to teach others. Because God gave us free will, we aren't morally responsible for forcing people to believe us and/or take our advice. We should do our best to make sure they really and truly understand what we have to say, but in the end, they get to choose. When people in Africa refuse to let their local pond or river get treated against malaria and guinea worm, the aid workers don't kill everybody in the village who objects -- they argue, they try to persuade, and then if they fail, they move on to the next village and vow to try again next year.

So that's the burden that people everywhere should take up -- doing your best to make the world a better place while allowing others to make their own decisions.

1 comment:

  1. You are so right: "Because we have the knowledge, it's our moral responsibility to teach others…" I've been thinking along similar but different lines today. The idea is that even if we don't know enough about a subject to consider ourselves an expert in that field, there may be many others who know even less. What we do know may ease their burdens considerably if we are willing to share and if they want to listen.

    I have seen different versions of this quote from Edward Everett Hale. I think it bears repeating here: “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do. What I ought to do, by the grace of God, I will do.”