For the last few weeks, I’ve been involved in something that at least at surface level seems batty.
I’ve been running an online petition to gather at least 500 signatures to send to the leadership of a company. It’s a long story, but I will try to make it short. I’ve been following the rebirth of Eastern Airlines. Eastern was a major airline that folded suddenly in 1991. It was reborn in 2015 to start as a charter airline with scheduled service coming later. For reasons we don’t know, the founder of the airline left the company in 2016. Many think he was pushed by the investors who wanted to make money fast. The investors tried to run the company, and they did a bad job. In 2017, Swift Air, another charter airline, bought the company. It sounded like the people who worked for Eastern would just be merged into Swift, but that wasn’t the case. It seemed to be more of a sale of assets and nothing more. Maybe a few went over to Swift, but a lot of employees including flight attendants were let go, from what I know in some cases without warning.
Swift has two airplanes from Eastern that for now still have the Eastern livery. My petition is a plea to Swift to keep the Eastern name in some way. So far, over 225 people have agreed. I want to get 500 people at the very least to sign it.
People have made fun of me saying the company will do what it wants or laugh at the possibility that my little petition could do anything. There is also my own brain that wonders if I’ve gone mad. For many this seems like a lost cause.
When I look at our society today, what I see is an America that is risk-adverse. People don’t get involved or learn to dream big. Where there are problems, people seem more content to just let them fester and not make a splash. But I think the biggest problem is that we are an America ruled by common sense.
Mariana Alessandri wrote in the New York Times last year about Don Quixote and Lost Causes. Spanish philosopher ressurected Spain’s most famous imaginary character after his nation’s loss in the Spanish American War. He saw the delusional Quixote as a symbol to rally the people to take part in what might seem to be lost causes because to give into common sense is to not engage with the world. Unamuno sets up Quixote as the “sane” character while his sidekick, Sancho is really the delusional one:
Abandoning his senses — or rather, his common sense — freed up Quixote to engage in fruitless tasks like charging windmills. In the most famous scene of the book, his squire, Sancho Panza, warns Quixote that the giant he is tempted to charge is just a windmill, and, as such, should be left alone. Sancho’s common sense tells him that fights that are sure to be lost are not worth fighting. Yet it is that same common sense that continually keeps Sancho from engaging with the world; likewise, it keeps us from engaging in what are perhaps the worthiest of causes: the lost ones.
Unamuno believed that it was not Quixote but Sancho who was delusional, firm in his belief that windmills are not worth charging, and, more broadly, that unwinnable battles are not worth fighting. The result of this type of thinking will usually be paralysis, since most enemies are windmill-size instead of human-size. Sancho believed that tilting at windmills was dangerous. Today, we might just call it a waste of time, and since common sense also tells us that time is money, we had better steer clear of anything unprofitable.
The essay cites theorist Joshua Dienstag who says that Quixote charged windmills not because he thought he would win, but because it was the right thing to do. Quixote did what he did not thinking that it was sure thing, that success was certain. He was willing to be made a fool, because he believed battling windmills was a moral issue to be tackled, outcomes be damned.
Alessandri’s main point in the essay is that we can talk ourselves into thinking the monster in our lives is not that bad. While I don’t agree with Unamuno’s Marxist analysis or that Walmart is an always bad thing, her point still makes sense:
On Unamuno’s Marxist interpretation of the windmill scene, Quixote recognized that, though they might look harmless, the “long-armed giants” kept the townspeople sated and distracted enough to forget their oppression at the hands of the modern bread factories. Unamuno complained that instead of asking whether they would ultimately benefit the towns they invade, the townspeople ended up “venerate[ing] and pay[ing] homage to steam and electricity.” Contemporary windmills might look like a small town getting a Walmart, or like kindergartners getting free iPads. Common sense fails us in two ways: first and most often, it uncritically believes that technology equals progress, and second, even in cases in which people recognize the potential harm to the community, they generally don’t believe that they can resist it. Common sense calls it a waste of time and energy. Quixote rejected this calculus, instead favoring a moral metric to decide who and what to fight. Thus freed, Quixote was left open to fight for lost causes — and lose.
Warning: quixotic pessimism will not go over well in public. If you choose this life, Unamuno says you will face disbelief, judgment and ridicule. He writes that moral courage “confronts, not bodily injury, or loss of fortune, or the discredit of one’s honor but rather ridicule: one’s being taken for a madman or a fool.” In a real-life context, quixotic pessimism will look like constantly face-planting in public, and we will need moral courage to accept it. People will laugh at us as they do at Quixote. People will mock our decision to fight big machines, but we must do it neither to win nor to impress. We will eventually grow accustomed to ignoring the criticism of our saner colleagues and friends who seem to follow the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
This sense of trying to avoid lost causes or to become risk averse is something that I think plagues churches in America. In my years in mainline Protestantism, I’ve seen a church that isn’t really interested in experiment or risk. It is far more willing to play it safe more than anything else. It’s a reason that we don’t invest much time or effort into planting new churches; to do so is as I’ve heard people tell me, waste good money. Forget spreading the gospel, people just want to be taken care of.
Australian missiologist Alan Hirsch explains how risk-aversion is killing the church. He notes that a risk-adverse church tries to tame the gospel; to make more affirming of our middle class lifestyles. Episcopal priest Matt Marino shares this description and reminds us that this is a problem that reflects the entirety of the church in America (evangelical, mainline and so on). He notes:
Stasis and institutionalism are everywhere. I have experienced it in the mainline, the mega-church, the parachurch, education and mental health. Erwin McManus in his book, The Barbarian Way, tells of being at the trendiest Christian leadership conference in the country while the gurus of the big-box movement implored a generation of idealistic young youth pastors and church planters, “Don’t be an innovator, they get chewed up. Be an early adopter!” Not taking risks seems to be an inherent, and horribly sick, part of American church culture. How anyone can grow without risk is a mystery. Risk and faith and trust are the crucible where growth happens. Safety, security and a God who can be contained in our 5″x 7″ heads should sound like soul-death to those with a pulse. We may think we want safety and security, but don’t we really crave to stand on the edge of an abyss, fascinated by what might be on the other side and figuring out how to get the team across? Safety and security might be the “red sky at morning” of the dead religion Jesus came to free us from. Jesus came to “seek and to save the lost” and “give his life as a ransom for many” (Luke 19:10, Mark 10:45), not create an institution to function as packing material to insulate ourselves from life.
Faith is about taking a risk. It is about moving from our comfort zones. Faith as a Christian means being willing to believe even if it doesn’t make sense,even if it seems a waste of time,even if people will make fun of you. Which is kind of what Jesus said would happen when people followed him.
Let’s go back to my working example of Eastern. On the surface it looks like some crazy guy unwilling to let go of a failed business. But there is more going on here than just keeping nostalgia alive. There’s the case of how workers (flight attendants, pilots, flight crew) were treated during the transition. There were also promises made to companies on future orders of aircraft that are now in doubt. As I said in a recent post on Medium:
If Eastern wasn’t doing well, then it should have honestly shut down. I think people would have understood that. But it feels like the owners of Eastern didn’t really care if the airline lived or died. They gave up. There also seems to be some dishonesty in the sale. The leaked email said things like the “next exciting chapter in the Eastern story.” But that seemed to be crock of you-know-what. The next exciting chapter was basically to shut down.
The actions of the owners had repercussions. People lost jobs because of this.
The common sense take would be to see this as just another company that folded and lost workers. It would be another airline that should have never started in the first place.
My petition has a high chance of failure. The naysayers might be right that it won’t change people’s minds. Common sense rules again.
But sitting on the sidelines and calling potshots might be safe, but it can also keep unjust people or systems in power. Charging a windmill might seem foolish, but it could be that the windmill will fall.
When I am being teased for charging this windmill, I am reminded by this quote from Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
So, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go and attack a windmill.