I went to the Chesapeake Bay to greet the first sunrise of 2013, but alas, a gray drizzly sky hung overhead like the damp shroud from the sad waning days of the old year now, blessedly, gone. My spirits lifted immediately upon hearing the irresistible noise of the first great flock of snow geese of the season rising by the thousands over the tidal marshes of the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge. In the inevitable rhythms of the seasons, so clear and compelling when immersed in nature, we can find hope and a true regeneration of spirit and energy for the challenging days ahead. As the day brightened I thought of the words of the great conservationist Rachel Carson, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
Back in town, there’s work to do! Tradition expects resolutions at the start of a new year. Too often, we resolve to do trivial things that wind up falling short because they fail to capture our imagination, to ignite passion, to have the power to compel true change in ourselves or our communities.
We live in times that demand outrageous resolutions, earth-shattering life-changing paradigm shifts for the good of our society. Exercise more, lose weight, etc. — well, all of us who want to change the world need to do that, yes, as part of our training regimen for the more important tasks on our list of resolutions. But just improving ourselves, while important, is short-sighted. How do we resolve to change the ugly, selfish, dysfunctional, life-threatening conditions that afflict too many people on our small planet?
The last few weeks have taken this nation to the edge of the cliff — not just that fiscal cliff of sad renown, but the cliff of community, of common purpose, of belief in the ideal of the Good Society. The unspeakable tragedy in Sandy Hook brought the almost-unbelievable response of more gun sales than ever before. Self-interest trumps common sense and decency in too many dark corners of our nation. Elected leaders seem to find it impossible to lead, devolving into squabbling factions and snarky demagogues that leave even the most hopeful citizens bereft.
How can we resolve to fix all of this? Resolving to walk a few miles a day sounds so much easier, but that only accomplishes something personal. The personal must also become the communal. Those of us who are dedicated to the life of reason know that courageous people with bold ideas can and do change history. We need some historic change right now.
First, those of us who believe in the moral as well as religious message of social justice, of which the dignity of life is the bedrock teaching, must become even more aggressive in our advocacy for laws, policies and civic leadership that promote justice. Courageous examples abound, especially among the religious women like Sister Simone Campbell of Network and Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association. The Sisters of Notre Dame whose example and influence have guided Trinity for 115 years continue to challenge us to pursue action for social justice. We cannot let narrow-minded public officials, funded by the most narrowly self-interested special interests, defeat the moral imperative of working for justice — defending life (and this includes gun control), providing for decent health care and services for the poor, protecting the rights of workers, ensuring environmental stewardship. Yes, all of that, and more, is part of Catholic social teaching.
Second, we who are teachers must consider where we have failed in the big picture, and how to correct our course. There’s a lot of rhetoric about the failures of American education, but it’s hard to find any commentary on what may be the gravest failure of all: the inability of highly educated people to bring sound moral judgment to bear on their policy decisions and actions, the refusal to compromise, the lack of understanding and empathy for the common good. Yes, the fact that too many inner city schools continue to be a catastrophe is a problem. But what are we doing about the problem of elite education that seems to foster even greater selfishness and lack of concern for the moral use of education to improve society?
Third, we must be fearless in our advocacy for real change in both government and private civic behavior. The Case Foundation has recently launched a campaign called “Be Fearless” and I like the principles listed on their website. But if the only thing we’re fearless about is trying to make more money for the Tech Sector, then what’s the point? The most important agenda about which we all must “be fearless” is to make this a nation where every person can live without fear, without poverty and hunger, able to read, to work, to be economically secure and enjoy the blessings of liberty. All of that starts, of course, with being able to live.
As I write, our esteemed members of Congress continue to jockey for position, play games with the public mind, pursue small-minded and short-sighted agendas that will harm this nation’s long-term interests. We the People should be inflamed. We should be surrounding Capitol Hill demanding that nobody goes home until the work is truly done. We suffer a government that reflects the worst divisions of our national community. We can hold up a mirror to Congress and see ourselves. The ultimate resolution we must make this year is to find a way to bridge those great divides that are withering the hopes of the nation. In this democracy, where We the People are the ultimate governors, we cannot leave it up to elected officials. Somehow, some way, we have to find within ourselves the ability to reach across differences, to forge compromises that we can live with, and to set a national course toward greater unity and more urgent emphasis on ensuring justice for all.
Happy new year.