Without a doubt America and all the world has entered a new era. We celebrate a relatively conflict-free transition of power after the most unconventional and disturbing presidential election cycle in our nation’s history. And with characteristic bluster and an ambiguous blend of vigorous support and equally vigorous opposition from a sharply divided electorate, our new president and his administration now take on the work of governing our nation. One TV commentator observed that it typically takes time for elected representatives to transition out of campaign mode into governing mode, from the bruising political contest to the humdrum slog of civilized, measured, and orderly dialogue. That’s probably why the constitution mandates a little over 2 months from election to inauguration. It gives political rivals more than ample time to cool their jets, celebrate their wins, mourn their losses, mend some fences, catch up on sleep, do a round of late-night show guest appearances, then nominate their picks for executive appointments, pack up their belongings, and move into their new digs, or send out résumés to prospective employers. But at some point, on account of how democracy works, those newly elected to public office will have to compose themselves and lay down the weapons and the rhetoric of political rivalry. They have to understand that they are now accountable to all of the electorate, not just those who voted for them, but especially those who voted against them, as well as those who neglected to or actually chose not to vote at all. It is a grave responsibility of our elected representatives to initiate and encourage healing of the governed after a bruising campaign cycle that has surely exposed deep fractures, which if left unattended, may fester and cause further harm to our union. And we do say preserving our union is our highest priority after all.
In recent months journalists and broadcast commentators all across the spectrum have repeatedly mentioned the suddenly changed landscape of our political discourse. We have sailed into uncertain and unchartered waters. Quicker than any other public arena of social interaction with their time-honored hierarchies and well-established rules of engagement, American political discourse seems to have gradually abandoned civility, decency, and respect. The high road of restraint and graciousness is practically deserted while some of our very leaders have unapologetically paraded down the low roads of mistrust, innuendo, disrespect, bigotry, dishonesty, rudeness, and mean-spiritedness. The pomp and pageantry of inauguration day we saw on display feels a tad hollow, lacking the basic respect and regard for our shared history and destiny. We have sailed into a new era that has given decent citizens license to show contempt and disrespect for their neighbor, gradually escalating into unkindness and ugliness, even raising unchristian behavior to the level of patriotism.
We need to reflect on the road before us, for our own sake and the sake of our children. We are not powerless to chart our own course as Americans and as Christians.
The prophet Isaiah directs our attention to the ancient heritage of the tribes of “Zebulun and Naphtali, the seaward road, the land west of the Jordan, the District of the Gentiles.” The pressing reality that confronted his listeners was their alienation from God. He calls the land “degraded,” and acknowledges that the people walk in darkness. He doesn’t mention it, but whenever Israel suffers oppression and natural disaster, they are convinced it is caused by their infidelity, their hardness of heart, their disregard of God’s law. And yet God sees fit to restore them to glory. “Anguish has taken wing; dispelled is darkness: for there is no gloom where until now there was distress. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwell in the land of gloom a light has shone. … For the yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder, and the rod of their taskmaster you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.”
The evangelist Matthew invokes the prophet Isaiah to frame the inauguration of Jesus’ own public ministry. He had gone to live in Capernaum by the sea of Galilee, and there proclaim a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus himself does not invoke his divine credentials. To everyone else he is an untested nobody, nothing more than a carpenter’s son. His words do not challenge political power or incite civil unrest. Instead he invites his listeners to acknowledge a deep hunger and thirst for God. By shining the light of God’s compassion on the darkness of our hearts, Jesus tries to awaken us to our own self-imposed misery, and offers us a viable alternative which is reconciliation and the richness of God’s own life. He tells us that we are not powerless to chart our own course, that better days lie ahead, that God desires our good.
We may have heard that America is in decline, and that we have lost our way. I propose there is some truth in this, but not in the sense our leaders often mean. Our economy is strong. “America is far wealthier than other nations. According to the International Monetary Fund, the US has a gross domestic product of $18 trillion, one-third larger than that of China,” our nearest rival. Our military “is stronger and more capable than any other nation’s. The website Globalfirepower.com ranks countries based on 45 factors, and the US tops the charts. Here’s one small statistic: The United States has 19 aircraft carriers, as of the end of last year; no other country has more than four.” “The official unemployment rate is 4.7 percent, down from a high of 10 percent in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Jobs have been added for a record 75 months.” By most measures, we are still, and have always been a great nation.
Instead, America’s deficits are largely spiritual and moral. Despite claiming we are a Christian nation, the gospel of Jesus Christ is seldom our true guide or standard. Even our practice of religion is polluted by self-righteousness and judgment. Our bitter rivalries and inner darkness stem from our disregard of God’s law, of common decency, and human dignity. We have learned to set aside modesty and examining our goals and motives in light of the common good. We have belittled honesty and integrity, instead upholding as values self-promotion, indecency, material wealth, and the exploitation of the vulnerable—the unborn, children, the elderly, the poor. Jesus calls us to repentance. And in his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul rebukes his listeners and us for promoting division. Our preaching of the cross of Christ is emptied of meaning otherwise, because we cannot credibly call others to live by the Gospel if we do not lead by example.
Jesus invited his first disciples to help dispel the darkness. We are not powerless to change America and the world for the better. The climb will be unglamorous, steep, and slow. But his way forms more authentic disciples. The new normal is up to us.
Rolo B Castillo © 2017