By Frank Wessling
Individual people are generally good — as good as they can be in their circumstances — but many human societies are a mess, along with humanity as a whole. How do we account for that?
And how is it — 2,100 years or so after God personally took up human life — the mess continues? In the birth of Jesus, we Christians believe that the grip of sin over the world is broken and we can rise toward the destiny of eternal love meant for us. Jesus expressed the meaning of love by taking the load of sin on himself, and in this way freeing us for a fresh start.
But that fresh start has been like a Tenderfoot Boy Scout trying to light a fire in a windstorm: lots of flashes, but no sustained flame. History since the coming of Christ is a story of painfully slow and fitful progress toward the universal good life envisioned in the Gospel. Is it meant to be that way, with God teasing each generation along only a step away from discouragement and despair? Or is it a failure to hear the Gospel fully?
The English Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton heard the arguments that Christianity itself had failed and was not impressed. “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting,” he said. “It has been found difficult and not tried.”
The Gospel is the anti-self-indulgence story, which is a large part of its difficulty. To the extent that we think of the United States as a consumer society and ourselves as consumers, we mock the Gospel — unaware and unconsciously for the most part, but those are common reasons for a failure to thrive.
The Gospel is the story of going into places of pain, suffering, danger and desolation and taking on those burdens with the occupants. To the extent that we look away, turn away, avoid and try to hide from these difficult places and the people in them, to that extent we look away from the Gospel and put it behind us. Jesus made this clear enough in his story about the rich man who lived his version of the good life by ignoring the poor man at his gate. It’s in Luke 16:19-31 and the conclusion stands our consumerist notion of “the good life” on its head.
In the Gospel, the poor man has the dignity of a name, Lazarus. The rich man is a no-name loser.
It’s very hard to not be impressed by material things, by wealth above all. Our immediate experience is always with the material surface of life, with stuff and its appearance. Accumulation, adding more, always seems better. Only with reflection, with thought do we begin the difficult work of bringing a holy spirit into things and directing them to a holy end that is more about life-giving relationships than material prosperity.
As a society we Americans have struggled for more than two years now with a deep-seated threat to our collective sense of prosperity. Unfortunately, this danger erupted after several decades of me-first living supported by the decline of external danger. Even after the trauma of 9/11 we were encouraged to participate in solidarity as shoppers in order to maintain a strong economy. But an economy based primarily on free-floating greed and acquisition has proven unsustainable while we seem to have lost so much sense of the common good that we don’t know how to even begin getting healthy again.
As long as we see politics as only a power game of winners and losers, there is little light at the end of that tunnel. We talk a lot about “the economy” but as long as we see ourselves primarily as agents in an arena for the exchange of goods and flow of money, where is the spirit that will get us out of the materialist trap? The originators of economic study, like Adam Smith, had a different idea. They understood the exchange of goods and money as only a function of human community, and not the most explanatory part. They saw “the economy” as part of a larger moral universe aimed at full human flourishing.
Our sense of economics is a shriveled and distorted imitation of that grand vision, with no human soul. We tolerate a shameful degree of poverty and suffering. We tolerate a shabby, ineffective system of schooling that contributes to a widening gulf between the comfortable and the depressed. We tolerate a system of rewards that honors sports and entertainment stars a hundred times more than those who teach and nurse and heal us and pick up our garbage.
And we refer, with only partial irony, to the great money manipulators of Wall Street as “masters of the universe.” In a society with any sense of solidarity at all, would these things happen?
Chesterton was right. Christianity can’t be called a failure because it is hardly tried. And this can’t be a failure of outsiders. They don’t know what they’re missing. While preparing for another celebration of the incarnation of God among us, we might ask ourselves: Do we know what’s missing?