March 12, 2017
The State of Our Union
“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
— H.L. Mencken
By now, we know that the republic will not run itself. Our political and economic challenges, the relation of individuals to larger communities, require constant work. Already 50 years ago, the Second Vatican Council recommended to clergy and laity that, “By unremitting study they should fit themselves to do their part in establishing dialogue with the world and with men of all shades of opinion” (Church in the Modern World, 43.)
Kenneth R. Himes, OFM, gives an example of continuous study. He wrote “The State of Our Union” for the latest issue of Theological Studies, a Jesuit-sponsored academic journal. He composed most of it before the last election and submitted it before the inauguration of President Trump. With a mix of statistics and many footnotes, he lays out the moods and issues that bedevil us. And he observes factors that triggered the “populism” that we read about here and in Europe.
Father Himes’ article can be good Lenten reading insofar as it may produce the compunction that an examination of conscience requires. That is, it holds up a mirror to facts for which we share political responsibility, and to attitudes which, if ours, need to be subdued. Never does Himes soft pedal the hurt and loss experienced by so many working-age people. And he cites a study which asserts that certain large groups, while deserving sympathy, do not give it. This is just one marker of national divisions, both philosophical and economical.
Where to start with any dialogue? Himes cites other authors who have long suggested that we learn about people who are not like us. There are multiple ways to do this through community centers and inter-church activities. And study. Three of my own recommendations that give insights into others’ experiences: Sonia Sotomayor’s “My Beloved World” (“Mi mundo adorado”), J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” and Michael Eric Dyson’s “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.” While the last book uses some rough language, it reflects the author’s experience, not mine — which is the point of reading another’s reflections.
In another push toward dialogue, Father Himes observes that “democracies do not begin with elections, but with public conversations.” There are many topics and interests, worlds of experiences different than ours even within our national borders. Understanding has to happen before the common good, much less agreement, comes into focus. In north central Indiana, we have seen how churches and schools do facilitate public conversations.
Himes borrows a couple of times from Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, whose article “The Greatness of a Nation” appeared in America magazine in early 2016. In citing a later speech by Bishop McElroy, the author says that “what is needed is to move from a culture of grievance to a culture of solidarity, which entails rejecting the ‘habit in our political culture of attributing all differences of opinion to ignorance or malice.’”
If Himes’ and Bishop McElroy’s commentaries applied to our nation and nothing else, we would be in their debt. Because so much of the culture has seeped into encounters within churches, their observations apply also to us as believers. In this Lent where we accompany Our Lord who came even into a broken world, may we ask the grace to pursue conversations that benefit our religious and our civil lives. And the grace to understand that these are not two separate things.