Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
17 December 2016
Intense and often hateful polarization in politics and religion are a result of changing values within major segments of our population. As people reaffirm their identity, the assertion of opposing beliefs and values threatens people and creates anxieties. How one responds is crucial.
Some forms of political and religious polarization have always been with us, of course, and probably will always be with us. When polarization and accompanying violence reach a dangerous high point, however, the warning lights begin to flash.
Historically, our survival as individuals and as groups within U.S. society has been based on shared values sustained by government, churches, schools, and the media. When there is no longer a socio-cultural common vision and fake news and fiction are promoted as truth, polarization becomes life-threatening. That of course is what’s happening today. The packaging of information has become more important than the content. The best-selling news story more important than the most truthful. Honesty becomes what people want to buy not what is truly honest.
Within less than an hour, for instance, a hateful Twitter comment or an unfounded Facebook remark can get promoted as reality; and life becomes intensely unpleasant and often mortally dangerous for the people mentioned in the posting. Opposing groups dominate and attempt to vanquish the other. Mr. Trump is an example. The people he despises the most are not America’s traditional “enemies” but the American men and women who disagree with him
This post is not about Donald Trump, per se, but his conflicted election has underlined the new predicament in which we find ourselves. Some observers fear the situation is life-threatening. Are we becoming a house divided against itself? Will America explode?
We have inherited transforming ideas from the cultural revolution of the 1960s, key among these: the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, the drive for women’s equality, the questioning of institutional religion, and the whole question of hard-nosed militarism as a solution for contemporary international problems.
In our contemporary American socio-cultural growth and change, we see as well increased hatred and violent social intolerance within segments of American society. They have gone hand in hand with a weakening of what we call social morality, our social glue, that is an essential part of civility and shared civil life.
Social morality directs, guides, and restrains individual and group behavior. In day-to-day conduct, social morality is normally more important than the law. Generally speaking, law prescribes minimalist standards of conduct. A person can act legally and still not act ethically or civilly or politely. That’s where we are. It has been front page news.
Today, we observe almost routine ethical scandals in American political and corporate life. We witness increased hatred for blacks, gays, Mexicans, Muslims, and assorted immigrants. Ironic of course for a country of immigrants. We see a lack of civility in public places, denigrating language from political and religious leaders, and increasingly violent public confrontations. Donald Trump is, in fact, example, symbol, and instigator. He is not the grand inquisitor but the great self-centered authoritarian leader whose authoritarian followers, more comfortable in their 1950s fantasy life than in our contemporary changing society, trust and follow him blindly. A very unAmerican situation.
So we have the big contemporary dilemma in American life: How do we reconstruct a viable social morality that will unite us in our diversity? A social morality that stresses that all are created equal. A social morality that stimulates and promotes tolerance, dialogue, and collaboration. A social morality that will promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.
I remain the long-term optimist. It can and will happen. I believe Millennial Americans have a key role to play here in constructing a viable new social morality. (It is a deadly risk for churches to ignore the Millennials.)
In constructing a new social morality, we need the close and consistent engagement of families (in the great variety of family forms), schools, businesses, and churches.
And they all need to affirm a set of eleven core American values:
(1) Patriotism that sees the USA as a collaborating country in an interdependent world.
(2) Self-confidence rooted in the belief that every American has self-worth.
(3) Individualism for self and for the other.
(4) Belief in hard work and productivity that enhances human life.
(5) Religious beliefs that should critique a country but not control it.
(6) Child-centeredness that pushes right to life beyond simply arguing about abortion.
(7) Community and charity seen as essential exercises in civil life and responsibility.
(8) Pragmatism and compromise as we walk down the same road.
(9) Acceptance of the diversity of ethnic and cultural and religious backgrounds, and our ability your respect and live with each other.
(10) Cooperation with other countries as the authentic way to make America great.
(11) Hunger for common ground.
I close with the prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.