and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
Lately I've been hearing a lot of people say how bad the world is; I've probably even said it myself. And things are bad, for sure. But without any sense of history, we can make it almost apocalyptic- bad. Like we are living in the end times. Like human beings have never before faced the kind of challenges we now face.
And my sense is that not only is this not true, but it paralyzes us. We don't look to history to learn anything - what do they know, anyway? The world was Ozzy and Harriet until now and now it's all coming unglued. Everybody panic!
As soon as we say it this way, however, I think most of us realize that isn't so. And that is why my prayers keep bringing me back to that old line from Ecclesiastes, a too-often neglected Biblical text in which I find much wisdom. There is nothing new under the sun.
If that's right, then it changes the work that we are given to do at this unique moment in time. It invites us to look for patterns and lessons; good decisions and bad ones. To learn from our past failures and successes. To look for moments when leadership was exerted and when leaders failed. It puts us in touch with memory and imagination - into our collective neo-cortex where we can discuss what is possible, rather than retreating in fear.
Our nation is just about 240 years old. Civilization(s) are a lot older than that and the planet is older still. We do well, I think, to take the long view. Even in western civilization, we might reflect on the decline of the Roman empire. Or the dark ages. Again, note that I'm not in denial about the fact that the world is a mess. Only that we might learn something from times when it was a mess before...
But sticking with our own North American context, I think of two times in our history that may be a bit like what we are experiencing now.
One is the Civil War. As divided as we are today - and we definitely are divided - we may not be quite as divided as we were in the middle of the nineteenth century. Again, don't misunderstand me - my point is NOT to minimize the challenges we face right now. We may yet end up in another civil war; I don't know. But the point is that the nation has not been singing Kumbaya for 240 years and then all of a sudden we find ourselves a mess. So what can we learn from Lincoln, and from those who followed him in the aftermath of that terrible war?
In truth it seems to me that this nation's original sin is indeed racism and by choosing to not deal with that question fully at the founding of this nation, things came to a head in the middle of the nineteenth century and a country divided almost did not remain standing. In the aftermath of that war I'm sure there was just a desire to "get on with things." But of course the Emancipation Proclamation didn't bring about racial reconciliation.
And so the other time that I think is similar to the one we are living in is 1968. Also an election year. Humphrey and Nixon and Wallace all had different visions for the future, in the aftermath of the assassinations of John and Martin and Bobby. Opposition to the Vietnam War was growing. It was not a simple time in America. I was only five; while I was technically there, I have no first-hand memory. But Google it. The world was a mess!
America has always been a work-in-progress. America has been an experiment. I don't yet know if Cleveland (or Philadelphia) in 2016 will resemble Chicago in 1968. And I don't know if this post has a point - or a conclusion - which is why it may be the first in a series and/or is definitely a "rumination." But I guess what I think is that if we can see some patterns then we can better understand what it is we need to deal with. Moreover, for people in my line of work and many readers of this blog, we can also ask "what is the work of the Christian community given these challenges that we face?"
For me it helps to let go of a kind of innocent nostalgia and/or idealism to focus on the challenges of our day. It also leads me to pray with those who have gone before us and fought the good fight, all the way to November and beyond:
Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United State in the election of officials and representatives, that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. (BCP 822)