We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, July 4, 2014

Reflections on Competition

The creation stories contained in Genesis 1-2 affirm a number of things including the goodness of creation including humanity and the idea that the Earth was created to be a garden in which we live in peace with all of life and each other.  The story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden in Genesis 3 affirms a less happy fact: it was humanity's competitive spirit, its desire to be equal with God that led to expulsion.  Humanity "had it all" and wanted more.  The story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16) confirms this ancient analysis of the human condition: our desire to be better than someone else, to have more than they have lies at the root of our tragic failings as a race.

If we weren't so competitive, we would still be in the Garden.  Jesus made much the same point when it came to the Kingdom of God: those who want to be "first" there must be slaves and servants who are not interested in what they attain but in how they serve (see Mark 10:35-45).  The lesson of the Bible is that we cannot go home to the Kingdom, which is the Garden, until we stop being destructively, greedily competitive.

As an evolutionary tool, competition is important to our race.  We determine leadership through competition.  Our very survival required that we compete with our species and with other human groups for scarce resources.  We obtain and keep territory through competition.  Our young learned the skills they needed to survive (and even thrive) through competitive play, and we continue to take great pleasure in competition.  Placed in this context, the biblical message can be understood to make at least two important points: first, the problem is not competition itself.  We obviously were created with a competitive spirit in the Garden as a part of God's good creation of us.  The problem in Genesis is that we started competing in ways that are counterproductive.  Second, the road back to the Garden (the Kingdom, if you will) takes us away from competition.  It means unlearning the competitive spirit that gets us into so much trouble, causes so much pain.

Just as we abuse God's good gift of a loving spirit by turning it into lust, so we abuse the good gift of competition by turning it into greed.  The antidote for love gone bad is asking and giving forgiveness; the antidote for competition gone bad is seeking to serve.  We are created to be competitive.  The issue is how we compete, which takes us ultimately into the realm of the uses and abuses of power.