I’ve read a lot recently about how fractured our modern society is becoming. How the internet and modern media have allowed people to isolate themselves more and more, surrounding themselves with like-minded people and only the “news” they want to hear. And how more and more people have lost faith in the institutions that held our society together in the past: government, churches, scientists, news organizations, etc. The apparent result of this is that people are more easily duped by “fake news.” Because they are increasingly isolated from mainstream views and trustworthy institutions, they seem less able to discern the truth.
There seems to be obvious evidence of this trend. But then I wonder whether the institutions that people trusted in the past were really all that good at delivering the truth. Maybe that’s a big reason why they have lost people’s trust?
And is “the truth” really what people are most interested in now?
It seems to me that the development of new technologies has simply allowed people to find easier, more direct ways to affirm the particular “truths” they want to hear. Before, they had to rely on political institutions that would tell people what thy wanted to hear (because that’s how those institutions survived). But now people don’t need those so much. Now they can just find a group online to agree together, and so give almost anything a feeling of truth. As Simone Weil put it, “The power of the social element. Agreement between several people brings with it a feeling of reality.”
It may be that isolated people are easily duped. But people in big united groups are also easily duped (sometimes even more easily). History has demonstrated that. What is necessary to maintain contact with the truth is not a connection with large groups of people or their institutions. What’s necessary is a connection with God, who is the Truth.
And that requires the humility to submit and listen to what God is saying, in the myriad ways God speaks, rather than only listening to what we want to hear.
This morning the boy and I were dancing to Dan Zanes & friends' version of this old spiritual:
In front of this child
she sees that soldier, one day,
casting himself down.
(previous years' haikus start here)
I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have taken heed of my adversities,
and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
you have set my feet in a broad place.
O how abundant is your goodness
that you have laid up for those who fear you,
and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!
In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots;
you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues.
Blessed be the Lord,
for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
when I was beset as a city under siege.
Love the Lord, all you his saints.
The Lord preserves the faithful,
but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the Lord.
The result of the recent presidential election was a shock to many people here and around the world. It seems like a pretty destructive (and self-destructive) choice. And it’s very sad, because it looks like many of the most vulnerable people in our society and around the world will suffer the most because of it.
It seems clear, though, that this choice of president was a backlash. The result of an overwhelmingly strong uprising of people who are angry and hurting and scared and resentful. And where did that come from? Some of it, certainly was a result of changes in our society and the world that no one will be able to stop or undo. But a lot of it was a result of changes being forced on people by their leaders. That seemed to be the main focus of the anger and resentment: the lawmakers in Washington. Of both parties. Lots and lots of people have been growing more and more upset by what has been forced on them by government. And the new president is their angry response.
But of course it’s not just the lawmakers that have produced this anger. Those people were put in place and given their powers by a great number of other people. All of these people have worked together to forcibly gather people’s money and enact laws that other people also have to follow (whether they agree or not). That kind of thing pretty much always produces some level of anger and resentment. Looking back over the last decade or so, there’s been lots of signs that a response like this might be coming.
Most people think it’s okay (even necessary) to force others to do the “right” thing. (“Right” being determined by those in power, “the majority” in our case.) But Jesus didn’t do that. And he didn’t teach his followers to do that; quite the opposite. Jesus insisted that people do good only by their own free choice.
But we (in our “Christian nation”) instead imitate every other nation and, whenever we can, we force our neighbors to do what we think is best.
And they grind their teeth and scheme for their opportunity to do the same favor for us.
We had a really good retreat this past weekend (despite the leak from the bathroom above our kitchen). Focusing on Jn 6.66-69:
Many of Jesus' disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?"
Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
Heather wrote this fictional meditation to go with it:
I thought I knew what was happening. I don't anymore.
We were together, and strong. Following a man worth believing in—he woke us up, he brought us together. He made us strong. We used to sit by the fire, me and my friends, Joseph and James and Ben, talking about the latest thing he'd said, talking into the night. And we'd get up in the morning and there'd be new faces arrived with the dawn, crowding in and all talking at once, it's him, it's really him, and you had mothers crying for joy that they'd found him and they could get their little babies healed, and big men with gray in their beards talking seriously to each other: I thought I should come and hear him, how else could I decide if he's really from God?
Well, they heard him. And they decided no.
Now you wake up in the morning and you look around to see who left in the night.
He fed five thousand people on five loaves of bread. Can you imagine? No more hunger. They wanted to make him king, of course they did. I understand why he said no—I think—but I didn't think this would happen. I know he's said things some people didn't like. But it's like watching the wine leak out, after a wineskin has burst a seam. People simply turn around and go home. No, he's not from God. No, this is not the moment we have all been waiting for. Good-bye.
And how are we who've stayed supposed to keep on believing that it is?
I felt our strength, before; the vision we all saw together, the joy, the excitement. We had a destiny with him. How can you have a destiny when you're leaking people like a sieve? Now it's arguing, low voices, glances to the side. Because it gets worse. He has enemies. Rumors are spreading and this time it's not “He can cure anything.” There are people who say he's an enemy of God. We don't just travel the roads now like we used to. It's not safe.
I don't know what's happening anymore.
Joseph's gone. He walked out in the night, didn't even tell us. James went back to John the Baptist's group, where he came from—said he might have been wrong about Jesus—maybe not—but anyway John's got a clearer message, you know where you are with John. He said sorry, he needed to do this, and Ben and I watched him walk away, the road dust puffing up from his feet. Ben turned and looked at me.
“Don't tell me,” I said.
“Don't tell you what?”
“You're going too.”
“That's what I was going to ask you.”
We looked at the ground.
“I don't know,” I said finally.
I didn't sleep well that night. I kept waking. I dreamed of faces turned away from me, of walking down a long, long road that I never saw the end of, into nothing. I woke and saw the stars in the black sky above me and did not know why the sight made me so sad. I remembered what Peter had said two days before, when the Teacher asked if he and the Twelve were going to leave too. “To whom would we go?” I found tears in my eyes. I got up and slipped away, walked down the road by myself in the dark. The road went on and on in front of me and disappeared behind a hill. I walked, and I thought, to whom? where? I looked down the rest of my life, as if down that road. It's not that there was nothing in it exactly. I was pretty sure I could make my way.
But he wasn't in it.
When he spoke, I could see. All the confusion, all the wondering what my life meant, it was gone; like lightning flashing, and the night is turned to day. It was still that way, even after everything.
And it wasn't just that.
When I got back, Ben was awake. I could just see his open eyes, staring into the night. I sat down and heard him whisper, “I thought you'd gone too.”
“I had to think.”
He didn't say anything.
“I'm staying,” I said, and suddenly it seemed like I could breathe.
I didn't know how to talk about it. I never used to talk about that part and what it meant to me, because I don't like to brag. No use making other people resent you. See, he called me. Himself. He walked up to me and called me to join him. I know that doesn't happen for everybody. Lots of people find him on their own. Maybe he knew something about me. Maybe he knew the life I had wasn't what I wanted, though there were people who would've wanted it. Maybe he knew I wasn't ready to admit that. I never talked about it because I knew people wouldn't like it, so I never put words to the way I felt when I looked up and there he was and he said Come follow me. It was a shock. I was shocked that somebody knew me.
We were wrong, they say. There's no great destiny here. He's not from God, they say. I hadn't found the words before. Maybe I should've tried. Maybe I had to wait till God showed me what they were.
“People say this,” I told Ben, “and people say that. But if I admit it to myself, I know. I can't leave if I know. I can't lie. I can't go saying he's not from God. He brought God to me.”
I could barely see his eyes. I don't know what it was. Like the dark around us grew soft. A kind place to be. There was silence a long time. I lay down on my bed-mat again, and looked up at the stars. I was almost asleep again when I heard his whisper.
“Yeah,” he said. “I'm staying too.”