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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in 2004, shortly before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, gave an address about the alarming decline of Europe. To our dismay, he notes, “here in the West, there is a strange form of self-hate we can only consider pathological.” The West “no longer loves itself. All it sees in its own history is what is disgraceful and destructive, while it no longer seems able to perceive what is great and pure. In order to survive, Europe needs a new, critical and humble acceptance of itself.”

To which he adds: “If it really wishes to survive.” 

Which brings me to the question I’ve been asking these days: Do we have in America what it takes to survive? In our moment of insufferable cancel-culture, are there roots from our past worth reclaiming? Out of those roots is it possible to reshape a vision for a different, and better, future?

There is a lot of talk like this in the air these days. In an article in The Atlantic, David Brooks laments: “I’ve spent my career rebutting the idea that America is in decline, but the events of these past six years, and especially of 2020, have made clear that we live in a broken nation.”

Brooks continues bluntly, discouragingly: “The stench of national decline is in the air. A political, social, and moral order is dissolving. America will only remain whole if we can build a new order in its place.”

The central focus for Brooks is that we are infected with “the cancer of distrust.” We don’t trust our institutions. We don’t trust each other. We don’t trust any notion of truth to bring us together. Any nation that has lost trust in itself will not survive.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, leader of the Orthodox synagogues in the UK, lists the many ways we witness our decline:

The collapse of marriage, the fracturing of the family, the fraying of the social bond, the partisanship of politics at a time when national interest demands something larger, the loss of trust in public institutions, the buildup of debt whose burden will fall on future generations, and the failure of a shared morality to lift us out of the morass of individualism, hedonism, consumerism, and relativism.

With a list like this, are we capable of rebuilding? We turn to politics in this season, but do we really see a rescue at hand? Is there anything close to a common vision floating around out there that promises a better future?

So where do we turn? Perhaps we should return, Rabbi Sacks suggests, to the prophets of our faith. We would find in Jeremiah, for example, the same anguished consciousness of decline. As he languished in horrifying exile in Babylon, his nation was being destroyed, the symbols of his history toppled and smashed to the ground.

Jeremiah fiercely scolds his people, says Sacks, for betraying “their mission by becoming obsessed with politics at the cost of moral and spiritual integrity. . . .” Isn’t this the point? To survive, to have any hope of flourishing, God’s people must reclaim that “moral and spiritual integrity” from our roots.  

And it’s up to God’s people. Rabbi Sacks focuses on what he calls creative minorities to carry this new vision:  

I believe Jews and Christians can and should work together to promote the values that we share and that we believe truly are universal: the sanctity of life as the gift of God, the dignity of the human person as the image of God, the covenantal virtues of tzedek, umishpat, chesed, ve-rachamim; fairness, justice, love, and compassion. Let us stand together in defence of the ecology of human freedom: the loving, stable family uniting parents and children in a bond of loyalty and care and supportive communities built on the principle of chesed, or caritas.

Is it possible that people of faith might rise up out of our discouragement, out of our defensiveness, to form these creative minorities as a model of something radically different? Could it be possible, in some new way, with new language, within new institutions, perhaps under the banner of a new kind of church, to focus once again on matters like these deep within our tradition of teaching? And most of all, could it be possible, that God—as we plead, brought to our knees—might come dwell in our midst, once again?  

Maybe this could happen. I’m looking for the signs, even the small ones in our daily lives, that might signal a change of course. They’re out there. I know they are. I’ll keep looking. I hope you will too.