At a New Year’s Eve gathering, a friend said to me, “I am so damned glad that 2016 is over!”
Whatever joys that year might have brought to us (such as the Cubs winning it all) were overshadowed by an overly long presidential campaign that both in the primaries and beyond was marked by bile, bitterness, name calling, whiffs of scandal (or purported scandal), vulgarity and, to put it mildly, less than love for either of the candidates.
Now that the election is over, the sour nature of the campaign has spilled over into gloating on the winning side and barely disguised contempt from those who lost. That polarity has leached down to the local level. A friend who is a high school teacher (at a Catholic school!) is beside herself about the frequency with which non-Hispanic students taunt their Hispanic companions with the claim that they will be deported soon.
The new year didn’t get off to a great start. We had a bitterly divided Congress, a very unpopular president, and an electorate rent asunder by rancorous suspicion and ill will. Many remain reluctant to even talk about social issues or political matters lest they trigger outrage. There is, in short, a rancid smell of intolerance in the air, emanating both from the left and the right.
How do we live humanely (to say nothing of “Christian-ly!”) in such a negatively charged atmosphere? I have thought about this a good deal, because I myself am not innocent of the baser instinct of harrumphing about this outrage or another, nor am I free from sour grapes because my ideas are not universally adopted. As a consequence, I am setting out for myself some resolutions that will function as ideals, even though I may not observe them fully.
First is courtesy, by which I do not mean simply to be polite, but to treat others with dignity. To be courteous is to resist stereotyping the other by slotting them into abstract categories, which are easy to condemn. To be truly courteous is to undertake a stern discipline simply because it forbids us to judge rashly and demands that we actually take the other seriously. Catholic writer Hiliare Belloc got it quite right in a lovely quatrain he once penned: “Of courtesy it is much less/than greatness of heart and holiness/but in my walks it seems to me/the grace of God is in courtesy.”
Next, I am going to try to seek what is true, and resist what talk show host Stephen Colbert has called “truthiness” or what is now called “alternative facts.” My hero, the late New York senator Daniel P. Moynihan, once rightly said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” If we are to be free agents, we need to know what is true (as opposed to what is asserted, opined or tweeted) in order to act for the good. This is no mean task, since we are bombarded with propaganda and advertisement and slogans and — increasingly — misinformation and Newspeak, a term George Orwell coined in the novel 1984. One can judge how hard acquiring truth is by simply looking at this or that event as commented upon by Fox News and MSNBC. It is not to be wondered at that 1984 is back on the bestseller list in 2017.
Third, I am even more appreciative of the Catholic social doctrine of subsidiarity, which carries the notion that action most aptly is taken at the immediate level. For example, the obligation to educate children belongs first to the family, not to the state. I am not powerful enough to change foreign policy, but I am powerful enough to have a say about what is happening in my neighborhood and town if I act as a concerned citizen in possession of facts (see No. 2 above). If I work to solve the problem of homelessness here in South Bend, I am doing something good and I am also better equipped to ask why there is homelessness in this country.
The late House Speaker Tip O’Neill had a nugget of truth in his observation that all politics is local. The same is true, to cite some examples, of the problems concerning roads, clean water, decent wages and so on, since from a local perspective, they raise the greater issues of infrastructure, the environment, economics, etc. The term “environment” is an abstraction, but the term “clean water” is an existential reality.
Finally, there is hope. As a person of the democratic left, I was appalled at the 2016 presidential election results, but consoled by something said by outgoing president Barack Obama: “The only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.” One lives in hope in the midst of what the Second Vatican Council called, “the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time.” The Council then goes on to say that for the Christian, nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in our hearts.
In a world that seems increasingly imperfect, it can be difficult to keep hope alive and listen for that humanity that echoes in our hearts. But this is our charge as Christians, inhabitants of this great country and citizens of the world. And we must never lose sight of this worthy charge.
Lawrence S. Cunningham, is a Democrat and retired theology professor at the University of Notre Dame.