A Year of Revelation
It is (nearly) universally acknowledged that 2020 was, to put it technically, a dumpster fire. A global pandemic, economic turmoil, political chaos, isolation from loved ones, and massive loss of life across the globe combined to make 2020 one of the most difficult years to live through, both literally and metaphorically. In this short reflection I would like to focus, though, on what we can take away from this year. To be clear, this is not to say that I believe all of the evil of the past year is “really good” when seen in the right light. I am convinced by scholars like David Bentley Hart that evil is meaningless and irrational. Evil, classically defined as ontologically nothing (i.e. ultimately possessing no existence because it does not find its ground in God), cannot truly be evil if it possesses positive traits, such as reason. Any existence evil makes use of is parasitic on goodness. That being said, we can learn something about ourselves and our society from having gone through an evil, traumatic experience.
In the film V for Vendetta, the deeply flawed protagonist V announces early in the film, “The truth is, there’s something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression.” We do not live in the fictional dystopia depicted by the film, yet these words ring true as a description of our nation. A nation where many lives could have been saved by taking basic precautions, where healthcare is denied to the most vulnerable, where the rich grow richer while the many lose their jobs and businesses, where systemic racism ensures that Black people and other people of color suffer the brunt of evil in society, and where climate change not being mitigated but accelerated by immoral politicians taking advantage of any excuse to allow corporate abuse of the environment. These evils existed prior to this year, yet the pandemic has illuminated them, heightening the contrast between the haves and have-nots in our society. We ought to have learned before now, but 2020 presented us with an unusually clear picture of our shortcomings as a society. These shortcomings will not go away on our own. This was viscerally illustrated by the violent takeover of the Capitol building just two days ago by extremist supporters of our outgoing president—many of whom are white supremacists and QAnon conspiracy theorists—who were sent there by him to halt the certification of a free and fair election. Time, as Martin Luther King Jr. states in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” is neutral, and becomes an ally of “the forces of social stagnation” when we fail to stand up for freedom and justice.
However, we as Americans still have a chance to address these failings in the new year. A new year provides us with a chance to begin again. And, while just acknowledging our faults can seem disempowering, the fact that we have the ability to change these realities should give us real hope. We can build a better nation and a better world through our communal power. So, let us make a collective commitment to learning from the injustice and evil of this past year and working towards a better future. You may agree with me that the role of government is, at minimum, to provide for the basic needs of all citizens. If so, you can organize to put pressure on the new administration to pass meaningful legislation to provide healthcare for all, raise the minimum wage, end the dangerous warming of climate change, and work towards a just and equitable recovery from the ongoing pandemic. (There are some great information here on The Magnificast and from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)
However, even if you disagree with this approach, there are many ways you can organize in your local community. Unions are at a nearly all time low in terms of bargaining power, but they gain power as people join. You could start your own union—whether organizing at your job, your school, among other tenants, etc. And, even if you are uncomfortable with both of these suggestions, you can organize locally through your church or other community organization to provide shelter, job training and opportunities, direct debt relief, education for members and the community, and general alleviation of suffering in this dark time. Historically, the early church grew because it offered a place of acceptance and uplift for those cast off by society; the church in America can fill this role again.
It is easy to feel disheartened in the midst of such suffering and evil. And these problems of mental health should be taken seriously. Seeking mental health treatment from professionals should be encouraged, not stigmatized. Alongside support from a mental health professional, a complementary way to address these feelings of disempowerment and disappointment is to pick something positive and concrete to put your energy towards so that you can see that making a difference in the world is possible. So, that is what I hope we take away from 2020. Both that we live in a deeply flawed nation and world, and that we have the ability to address these flaws by working together. That is my challenge to myself and to you. Go, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel prescribed, and pray with your feet. Pray for courage and discernment, and then go out into the world and pray with your actions meant to honor the infinitely valuable image of God found in each and every human being. For, to quote Dr. King once more, “Prayer is a marvelous and necessary supplement of our feeble efforts but it is a dangerous and callous substitute.”