America has moved beyond the cruel acts of public hangings, school lashings and racial segregation, but this country is still just as cruel, albeit in different ways, argues Professor Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite of the Chicago Theological Seminary.
In a Washington Post editorial, she points to the recent Republican debates, where audience members cheered at the idea of letting an uninsured man in a coma die, booed a gay American soldier who was asking if a candidate would try to reinstate "Don't Ask Don't Tell" and then broke into applause when Rick Perry was asked about the 234 executions he's authorized as the governor of Texas.
True, there was no bloodshed at these events — the ancient definition of cruelty — but Thistlethwaite points out that they were examples of "substantial cruelty," defined by philosopher Phillip Hallie as "the maiming of a person's dignity, the crushing of a person's self-respect."
For Hallie, it's not enough just to avoid cruelty by keeping Biblical commandments to not kill or steal, it's about remembering the positive injunctions too.
"To follow the negative ethic is to be decent, to have clean hands," he wrote in his essay, "From Cruelty to Goodness." "But to follow the positive ethic, to be one's brother's keeper, is to be more than decent, it is to be active, even aggressive. If the negative ethic is one of decency, the positive one is the ethic of riskful, strenuous nobility."
Yet, the recent debate outbursts demonstrated not only a failure to be noble, but a complete lack of decency, as the "infinite dignity and worth of a human being (was) denied," Thistlethwaite wrote.
"When you cheer an uninsured death," she continued, "you are cheering for the death of human dignity. A moral nation does not celebrate death from neglect; a moral nation takes care of people precisely because they are people and thus worthy of respect."
Debates about health care and the economy today often center less on respecting and taking care of others than on demands that individuals take care of themselves, an important part of the discussion but which alone doesn't address, for example, the larger tax burdens on the poorest Americans.
Nearly all of the Republican candidates running for president are presenting economic plans that include tax hikes for the poorest segment of society, while keeping tax rates low for the wealthiest and for corporations.
Perry, Rep. Michelle Bachman and Jon Huntsman Jr., have all expressed some concern about the poor who aren't paying taxes, yet are benefiting from government services.
"This is factually wrong, economically wrong and morally wrong," says a New York Times editorial title "The New Resentment of the Poor." "Even if (Americans) earn too little to qualify for the income tax, they pay payroll taxes (which Republicans want to raise), gasoline excise taxes and state and local taxes."
Charts, like two published by the Huffington Post, detail the percent of income spent on taxes, clearly and dramatically highest for the poorest Americans, and dropping to the lowest for the richest Americans. For example, the poorest 20 percent of Americans use 11 percent of their income to pay for state and local taxes, while the richest 1 percent use about 5 percent of their income for those taxes.
"The real problem is that so many Americans are struggling on such a small income, not whether they pay taxes," the Times wrote.
Comedian Stephen Colbert took aim at the nation's increasingly cruel attitude toward the poor on his show, "The Colbert Report" by quipping:
"If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we've got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it."