A Better Future?

This weekend is a rare confluence of Easter and Passover, holidays with different but compatible messages. Each memorializes a sort of victory over an oppressive and unjust tyrant—Easter through resurrection, Passover through escape. Both hold out the hope of a better future, whether in the here and now or an afterlife.

My acquaintance with Christian theology is minimal, and I’ve forgotten much of what I learned about my own Jewish heritage in Sunday school. I do remember exhortations about the need to make this world more just. To paraphrase a Talmudic injunction: God doesn’t expect us to perfect the world in our generation, but we are not free to desist from the task. We are not free not to try.

Americans have very different definitions of justice, of what a “perfect” world would look like, and right now, those differences are pretty stark. What many of us see is a national administration dismantling hard-won progress—reversing measures to protect the environment, ensure fairer administration of justice and extend civil rights protections to people who had previously been marginalized. We see norms of democratic and ethical behavior, not to mention civility, being violated daily. We see a President who encourages tribalism and ancient hatreds.

And nowhere–not in the Administration, or in Congressional leadership–do we see any concern for “the least of us.” There’s lots of bible thumping, but evidently very little bible reading.

Those who support this administration applaud what they see as an overdue defense of white Christian male dominance and rejection of an (ill-defined) globalism.

Clearly, today’s Americans have dramatically different worldviews. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that we inhabit different realities. We appear to have lost the ability to actually debate policy, perhaps because our differences are tribal, not philosophical.

So what do “hope” and “justice” look like in our divided America? What should sincere Christians and Jews—together with Muslims and atheists and others—conclude about the forces of division and resentment that challenge our ability to build an inclusive and tolerant society?

A not insignificant number of political scientists have recently characterized average Americans as uninformed and politically apathetic– one recent book calls deliberative democracy a “folk tale”–  but I’m not ready to write Americans off, because the one truly positive outcome of the 2016 election has been the degree of civic activism it has generated. That activism should give us all hope.

A non-exhaustive list of examples:

  • A number of Christian churches have emerged to challenge the Christian Right and its claim to represent “true” Christianity. Congregations and denominations that haven’t been socially active since the heyday of the social gospel have joined with with other faith communities to demand a fairer, more inclusive, more humane country. (As one pastor was moved to observe “When Episcopalians take to the streets, it’s serious!”)
  • Across both rural and urban America, women are refusing to return to second-class status and back-alley abortions, refusing to accept sexual harassment and unequal pay as the price they must pay for the privilege of employment.  Those women are putting on their “pussy hats” and running for public office in unprecedented numbers.
  • Most of all, it’s the kids who give me hope. The Parkland survivors were awe-inspiring, but what is even more impressive is the fact that they didn’t produce the March for Our Lives single-handedly. Thousands of young people, most of them high school students and many even younger, planned and coordinated one of the largest civic demonstrations in the nation’s history—a demonstration remarkable for its lack of violence or lawlessness, and for the measured and reasonable demands of its speakers. They show promise of being a genuinely civic generation.

Even those of us who are secular Americans can be encouraged by religious observances  celebrating victories over those who have misused the powers of government. They remind us that we are not free to desist from the fight for a fairer and more just America.