Balancing Acts – Back to Egypt

tom b

Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.

by Tom Beutel

And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

Numbers 14:4 (NIV)

The book of Numbers recounts the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert. In Numbers 14 the people rue, not for the first time, that they left Egypt, despite the increasing hardships that they had  endured there. Giving voice to their frustration they cry out, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Of course, they had a leader. What they wanted was a new leader, someone who would go along with their desires and lead them back to what they mistakenly remembered as the “good old days” in Egypt!

While we may scoff at the Israelites’ forgetfulness and wonder how they could ever want to go back, perhaps their folly is simply part of “human nature.” All too often we humans remember the past with unwarranted fondness.

There is that spirit afoot today, perhaps around the globe, but certainly in the United States. We remember the good old days when life was simpler, “family values” prevailed, work was plentiful and paid a good wage, and so on. But, the reality is not so straightforward. Exactly when were the “good old days,” and why were they so good?

Perhaps the 1950s? While some Americans were watching “I Love Lucy,” “Father Knows Best,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” and “The Mickey Mouse Club,”  in parts of the US, African Americans were denied service in many restaurants and were expected to give up their seat on the bus if a white person was standing. Less than 30% of jobs were held by women. The average life expectancy was 73. Food, housing, and clothing – considered essentials – took 68% of household income. 42% of heads of households were craftsmen or machine operators. A 3 minute long-distance phone call from Los Angeles to Washington, DC cost $2.00.

Certainly, for many of us “baby boomers” the 60s would be the “golden age.” On TV we were watching “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Flintstones,” “Leave It To beaver,” and “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteed voting rights for racial minorities. But, the 60s were marred by violent riots as well as by non-violent protests. John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert were assassinated as was Martin Luther King, Jr. Life expectancy was 74. Essentials took 64% of the family income. Health care accounted for almost 7% of the expenditures. The federal income tax rate for people filing married/jointly was 22%.

“All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “Happy Days” were among the most popular TV shows of the 1970s. On May 4, 1970 the Ohio National Guard opened fire on protesters at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine others. The Watergate scandal erupted resulting in President Richard Nixon’s resignation from office. Life expectancy was 76. The share of the family budget devoted to essentials dropped to 57%; health care costs were 6.4%; incomes taxes remained at 22%.

During the 1980s Americans’ TV’s were tuned to “The Cosby Show,” “MASH,” “Happy Days,” and Laverne and Shirley,”  as nostalgia for the “good old days” began to seep into programming. Ronald Reagan was elected president, touting “Morning in America,” a better life, especially economically, was now here thanks to “Reaganomics.” The Berlin wall was destroyed. The 80s were also the beginning of globalization, with multinational manufacturing companies relocating overseas, particularly to Asian countries. AIDS was acknowledged as an epidemic and global warming was beginning to be recognized. The portion of family expenditures consumed by essential dropped to 51% essentially the same as it is today and life expectancy rose to 78. Health care cost dropped to under 5% of family income; taxes continued at 22%.

The changing times are obvious from some of the favorites on American television in the 1990s – “Friends,” “Married with Children,” “The Simpsons,” and “Family Guy.” The World Wide Web – ultimately “the Internet” – was born. The Dow Jones Industrial average closed above 10,000 for the first time in its history. The Soviet Union dissolved. Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris. Twelve students and one teacher were killed at at Columbine High School and the Alfred Murrah Federal building was bombed in Oklahoma City. Life expectancy increased to 79; health care costs were 5.3% of family expenditures; and personal federal income taxes for an average family were 15%, the same as they are today.

After all this, what can we say? First, the facts that I have chosen for each decade are obviously somewhat arbitrary and certainly affected by my own biases. Nevertheless, whatever measures one chooses, it will be clear that each decade of the “good old days” included both “good” and “bad.”

Do we really want to go back to Egypt? For example, if we choose the 1980s, we see Americans already looking back to the “Happy Days” of earlier times. Despite President Reagan’s optimism, personal tax rates continued to be 22% for those earning the average family income (although the top brackets were cut from 70% to 28%), and with the tax reductions the federal budget ran a significant deficit. Multinational companies were already relocating overseas to obtain cheaper labor.

Clearly not all that happened in the “good old days” was good and what was good did not necessarily happen for all. Each time, including our own, is a “balancing act,” of recognizing that which is harmful and working to reduce it and promoting that which is beneficial.

As peacemakers, we must recognize that promoting peace is a balancing act, too. We do not and should not accept prosperity of some at the expense of others. We do not want to advocate for war and violence as a solution to problems. But, for some to have more, others must have less and that may (and probably does) mean you and I, not just some “rich others.”

To avoid the violence spawned from oppression and desperation, we may need to see how our lifestyles promote inequity and be willing to make changes that will advantage the disadvantaged.  As we seek to promote well-being for others, we do not need to “go back.” Instead, seeking God’s will and guidance, we can do good here and now.




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