The antagonism between life and conscience may be removed in two ways: by a change of life or by a change of conscience.

—Leo Tolstoy

I still recall with a start the moment that jarred me out of adolescent lethargy. It happened in a car, in 1964, as my high school debate team was winding through the roads of northern Georgia en route to a tournament.

Our trip was being chaperoned by a new sociology teacher, the center of a swirl of gossip in our placid suburban school. He had untrimmed hair and a huge, bushy moustache—rare in those days when the Beatles were a faraway phenomenon. He owned only three ties and two sport coats, and often wore the same clothes to school five days in a row. Dark rumors about his “socialist tendencies” floated through the hallways; some concerned parents had even transferred their children out of his classes.

In a rattletrap car packed with five eager young debaters (two of whom were fighting off motion sickness in the back seat), this intriguing man told us why he lived the way he did. “Do you realize,” he said, “that one-fourth of the people in the world earn less money in a year than I spent on the watch I’m wearing right now?” His left arm moved across the steering wheel to display a gold bracelet watch worth about 50 dollars.

Until that moment, I had not once thought of myself as rich. But the teacher, fresh back from a term with John Kennedy’s Peace Corps, went on to describe in vivid detail the daily rigors of life in much of the rest of the world. I was stunned. In that conversation he shattered forever the isolation and naïveté of my suburban world.

The teacher revealed that he had been a Southern Baptist evangelist before joining the Peace Corps. When he returned to the U.S., the apathy he ...

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