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Two Cheers for Competition, Three for Cooperation
By John Buehrens

November/December 2000

Remember noncompetitive games? They were oh-so-trendy back in the 1970s, when I entered the ministry. The rules of one, called "Zen baseball," dictated that all games end in a tie. Another, called "vampire blob," resembled tag, except that no one had to go to the sidelines.

I once watched a group of UU kids get bored and run away from a whole field day devoted to noncompetition. As they ran, they were competing with one another in speed, in somersaults, in showing off to one another. Quite naturally. This inspired me to write a sermon titled "Two Cheers for Competition!" with apologies to George Orwell, who has an essay called "Two Cheers for Democracy."

As you read this, the United States will be completing an electoral campaign that could influence the world for decades to come. Like all of us, I love the free competition of ideas. But as a matter of moral and religious principle, I also worry about the rules of engagement. About gratuitous personal attacks. About campaign practices that evade real discussion of serious issues. I also worry about the campaign finance system--one of several issues on which I'll be focusing my own public witness--because in a democracy public forums shouldn't belong only to the wealthy and special interests.

So two cheers, not three.

Three thousand years ago, in river valleys and cities where people of different tribes and ethnicities had begun to trade and interact, the earliest written scriptures emerged in the effort to universalize religion. In response to unfair uses of economic or social power, they invoked a Higher Power and called for reciprocity: treat the other person as you yourself would like to be treated.

Some believe that competition between civilizations and between religions is the real problem in the world today. It is not. The real problem is that we once again need to find good norms of reciprocity, covenants that limit the most dehumanizing and brutal forms of competition--including unjust forms of economic competition, such as those represented by globalization and our winner-take-all economy.

I hope you and your congregation are studying the Statement of Conscience titled Economic Justice, Poverty, and Racism, which the General Assembly passed in June, and contemplating what we Unitarian Universalists can do to help limit the destructiveness of our economy. If we're going to live up to this new Statement of Conscience, we might do well to study similar statements on the issue. In the process we might find some new interfaith partners. Take what the US Roman Catholic bishops have said on the subject, for example:

Distributive justice . . . calls for the establishment of a floor of material well-being on which all can stand. This is a duty of the whole of society, and it creates particular obligations for those with greater resources. This duty calls into question extreme inequalities of income and consumption when so many lack basic necessities. [Our] social teaching does not maintain that a flat, arithmetic equality of income and wealth is a demand of justice, but it does challenge economic arrangements that leave large numbers of people impoverished. Further, it sees extreme inequality as a threat to the solidarity of the human community, for great disparities lead to deep social divisions and conflicts.
I might want to debate these bishops about some other matters--about the need for democratic accountability within religious communities, for example; or about the need to deal with human sexuality from a justice perspective. But it's funny. Somehow I think I would enter such debates more fully and more gladly knowing there are areas of religious concern in which we do share values, where we might cooperate.

Two cheers, then, for competition! But let's save the third for empathy, for the possibility of cooperation. In today's human world, it's the cheer we most need to raise--together.

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