Old Year, New Year: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I wanted to write an article about all the wonderful things that have taken place in 2019, but it is rather hard to do. Please don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for my family and my friends. My mother, coming up to 93 years of age in the new year, is doing well and is comfortable in her assisted living apartment. I am constantly buoyed and encouraged by the creativity and energy of my younger friends involved in music and film. A few of my older friends and mentors have died, while others are facing health challenges. It’s to be expected. My wife of thirty-nine years appears to be willing to stick it out to at least hit forty years. Knowing what a difficult person I can be at times, that is a bit unexpected! Moreover, during the last year, there has been the opportunity to experience new books, new music and new films. So, all in all, on a personal level, 2019 has been a reasonably good year.
When, however, I look beyond the personal aspects of this last year, I find myself deeply troubled.
We are deeply divided and, it appears, many of the divisions are deepening. This is true with regard to the church, society, culture and politics alike. We see this division every day in our choice of boutique “news” programs, radio shows, blogs and periodicals. Most provide an echo chamber for a particular point of view which is championed, while at the same time excoriating any other point of view. This pattern of behavior has now expanded to encompass Christian communities and publications as well. Additionally, the vitriol, language and disdain which was once limited to drunken arguments in a bar, are now a part of everyday discourse on social media. What was once considered offensive in any normal conversation, can now be found written daily in tweets by the President of the United States and, of course, many who oppose him answer in kind.
In church and society alike, we deepen the divisions, day by day, week by week, month by month. We describe each other as “deplorables” or “elitests”. We deride others as “neo-fascists” or “left-wing crazies”; and with every insult the divisions grow deeper and the walls between us grow higher. Among Christians and people of faith we have watched the same thing taking place. Many have baptized their political views and have made those views a tenet of their faith, and this is true of not only the right, but the left as well. We have even taken on this formula of division in theological discussion in which another opinion on a given topic is immediately branded not as speculation or having a different point of view, but instead is classified as heresy or false teaching. In so doing, we cease to listen; we cease to reflect; we only react.
If I could have one wish for 2020, it would be that we would recover our sense of decency.
More than fifty years ago, while campaigning in California, Robert Kennedy said, “If there is one overriding reality in this country, it is the danger that we have an erosion of a sense of national decency. Make no mistake, decency is at the heart of the matter.” He then went on to outline what he considered indecent – poverty, the war in Vietnam, illiteracy and racism. I would posit that in our own time, the erosion is, if anything, more profound, for it has entered our very souls and our perception of one another, both in the church and in society at large. When we begin to perceive someone with a differing theological view, or a differing political view as “other”, we essentially dehumanize them. They are no longer someone made in the image of God, someone to be respected, they are simply an opponent to be overcome and, for some, to destroy.
Yet, I must admit, that my concern at the end of 2019 is that we can no longer even agree on what decency means.
For me, and I can only speak for myself, it is indecent that families are separated and placed in cages on the border. It is indecent that gun violence is taking the lives of children in schools and on the streets. Yet, as I write this, I realize that even here there is no agreement as to decency, as both of these examples already have deeply divided us as a society. If I were to echo Kennedy’s words that poverty is indecent, or lack of education is indecent, or the flight of young people to drugs and violence is indecent, there is no agreement, either as to the reality of the problems or, indeed, if the problems are ones that can be addressed.
Somehow, at least it seems to me, we have lost our moral compass.
A moral compass and a sense of decency is not something we should expect to discover in either the Republican party or the Democratic party in the current situation. It is, however, something we should expect of communities of faith. Many of those communities of faith, however, have failed us. In aligning themselves with one party or another and subsequently “baptizing” policies and personalities they have simply become yet one more partisan voice, one more part of a political machine. These alignments may well haunt us for years to come.
If we are to recover a sense of decency, or a moral compass, it will likely have to be done on our own. We will have to make our own individual decisions, day by day and week by week, guided by prayer, scripture and those other tools provided for us. Yet, I believe that God uses individuals. Many years ago, I arranged for my friend, John Michael Talbot, to sing at an event at which Mother Teresa of Calcutta was speaking. Meeting her before she spoke, John and I were amazed at how tiny she was, especially standing in between two formidable Bulgarian nuns who accompanied her! Her address that day was moving and simple. I still remember her last words before she left the lectern:
“I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time – just one, one, one. So you begin. I began – I picked up one person off the street. Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty-two thousand….The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community. Just begin – one, one, one.”
Whatever your concern, whatever your station, the way to recover that compass, the way to show that decency in 2020 is to simply begin with one person. I can’t change society. I can’t change the church, but I can make a New Year’s resolution to reach out to begin with one person. Who knows what might happen?
“Just begin – one, one, one…”