It is a privilege and a daunting privilege at that, to speak in this Lenten series. I try not to be a preacher, but I don’t always succeed. Today, perhaps, I’ll try to be a preacher. That might not succeed either. But what I will attempt to do is begin a conversation that we can engage in together–on the designated topic, “Witnessing Faith, Hope and Charity in Troubled Times”–from my personal perspective and from a global perspective.
My message will be more civic than religious, because that civic ground—that public space in which we all reside—whatever our respective faiths– is my principal realm; call it the public square. In this increasingly interdependent world, that public square is not only our local community—but the nation and the world. It is a gross understatement to describe our time as troubled; within just a few short years, we have witnessed the devastating impact of the New Orleans hurricane, the Indonesian tsunami, the Haitian earthquake, the New Zealand flood, and now the almost indescribably destructive Japanese debacle, which includes an earthquake and a tsunami along with a nuclear accident. Is this the story of Job rewritten for the age of globalization? Perhaps.
And then, and here I would say for better and worse, we have the serial revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, which in a sense, end the post-Cold World era. For better of course, is the toppling of dictators who have reigned for much too long—affording their subjects much too little power over their own destinies. For worse is the loss of life, the particular tragedy in Libya—and the unknown ultimate outcome of many of these coups. We like to think that there is a new world order—but I think we must resign ourselves to being, in the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt, as she described the period between the two world wars, “Between the no longer and the not yet.”
It would be more than presumptuous for me to interpret our 21st century world according to the Catholic gospel or, for that matter, according to the Torah. My place—my area of interest is that common ground that we share as human beings and as citizens. In that area I believe that we have equal rights to our opinions and it is fair game to defend and debate what we believe to be right and/or wrong.
Surely my remarks will be more catholic, lower case, than Catholic, upper case. But in fact, to give you a clue about where I come from, geographically and demographically as well as philosophically, I lived almost exclusively among Catholics, upper case, for the first ten years of my life—on the Main Street of Old Forge. My father came to the United States from Hungary when he was eight years old, and the family moved to Old Forge where there was a small enclave of Hungarian Jews who came from the same part of Hungary as they did. My father spoke no English when he started school there and his teacher had the wisdom and kindness to take him to the upper grades to show the students how good he was at arithmetic, lest they make fun of his halting English. He went to Old Forge High School, played football until his mother found out, became the chairman of Old Forge’s Republican Party, which fortunately, I found out only much later, went to St. Thomas College which was most welcoming of students, no matter how poor or of what faith, and then to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he learned the law, fell in love with my mother, brought her back to Old Forge, to the dismay of her family, and by and large, lived happily ever after.
In Old Forge I was always the only Jewish student in my class, which never struck me as being anything but normal. Demographically speaking, it was normal. Socially it was normal. I never thought much about it and it was never brought to my attention.
But I would be remiss if I neglected entirely the realities of anti-Semitism. While my immediate family has been extremely fortunate in that regard, many members of our extended family who remained in Europe were victims of the Holocaust, and many Jewish American family and friends experienced blatant anti-Semitic rejection by well established and esteemed religious and educational institutions and professions—not to mention hotels and social clubs. But that is a subject for another time.
From the sidewalks of Old Forge, my world grew like Topsy. Although I live only about six miles today from my first home, I have traveled to many parts of the world—dozens of times to Europe, about eight times to Africa, at least as many to Israel, and a few forays into Asia and South America. I feel and think like a global citizen. But thanks to the revolutions in information, communications and transportation technologies, I suggest that we all need to think like citizens of the world, with all the rights and responsibilities that that citizenship affords us. I have become increasingly aware of the interdependence that has been created, again, for better and for worse, by the above mentioned revolutions, and it has caused me to rethink the whole idea of citizenship from the perspective of civic and moral responsibility.
I have faith that we are capable of assuming the larger responsibility implicit in our 21st century reality. Our human capacities for empathy and compassion are ample, but they need to be cultivated, whatever their origin—whatever their inspiration. Faith in humankind has many sources—it can come from religious belief, it can come from something called civil religion, which sanctifies civic responsibility for the common good, or, not to be cavalier or pretentious, what the French call je ne sais quoi—I don’t know what. I am not so concerned here about which road we take and in which vehicle we arrive; I am concerned, in brief, with what we do in our relationships with other human beings while here on this earth. And speaking of the significance of those relationships, I spoke at a dinner for the Salvation Army last year and learned that its founder, William Booth, living in England in the early 20thcentury, sent to his worldwide colleagues a Christmas message by cable. To save money, the message just had one word—OTHERS. I was quite dazzled by his choice of words. If I had to make a choice for such a message today, I would go with his, “Others.” If we are to be judged by the posterity, or a divine power, I believe it will be about how we have treated others—beyond our family, beyond our neighborhood, beyond our social or economic or cultural cohorts. That, in my view, is the ultimate test of morality.
With regard to hope, faith and charity—here is how I see them. Hope is a necessity if we are not to be paralyzed by the troubles that the world knows. I call myself a deliberate, somewhat disingenuous optimist—because I feel that I have to believe in hope if I want to try to fix the world. We can all hope for hope—whether it’s genuine or contrived—as it is the engine that drives us to do good—to alleviate the suffering that we see in every part of the world and to create new realities—new tomorrows—as a poet friend wrote in her holiday poem—“new nows.”
Moving around the world, both physically and vicariously, is an essential part of education for life in the 21st century. We need to know how the world turns, how other people live—and how they die; not so much what they believe but what the world has dealt them—and how they handle it by overcoming it or taking advantage of it. Take hunger; while we Americans obsess about food in so many ways—from anorexia to obesity, from vegan to gourmet—from all- American to foreign, from home grown to imported—there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who have no choices, who may never have a clean glass of water in their lives, and may indeed die of starvation. It’s important for us to understand that and do something about it—that they might have the same opportunity to have hope—and water—that we have.
In January of 2010, I arrived in Rwanda where I have been doing some work for the last three years. My work is about strengthening democracy by helping people to understand the central role that citizens play in making democracy work. It was my fourth trip there. When I arrived in my hotel room in Kigali, the capital, on the night of January 12th and turned the television on to CNN, I learned of the earthquake in Haiti. Because I was alone and kept the TV on during the night throughout my week-long stay, I saw much more of that debacle than I would have if I had been at home. I had time for a lot of thinking, too. Rwanda, as many of you know, had a genocide—a civil war kind of genocide, with Rwandans killing Rwandans, about a million of them, in 1994. As I witnessed the destruction of Haiti every night, I had two thoughts: The first was that I had experienced two earthquakes of similar strength in Los Angeles, in which nobody died. That speaks volumes about the differences between a highly developed country and a woefully underdeveloped one. What a startling reminder of our respective fates! The second thought that I took away with me was that the earthquake in Haiti had many characteristics of a genocide—within a week a quarter of a million people were dead and countless others were limbless, homeless, orphaned or childless, and but for their dauntless faith, you would have to say they were in a near hopeless situation .
We humans are a hopeful breed but we live in very different environments. We cannot even imagine the poverty, hunger and disease that many people experience for their entire but almost always abbreviated lives. Such lives are not so susceptible to hope, but hope rises up with disaster, almost like a chemical reaction—or perhaps it is a chemical reaction, when it’s needed most. For those of us who are privileged to have too much of everything, it is almost immoral to be hopeless. Hope comes cheap to us.
Regarding faith, I will stay in the realm that I understand—the civic realm. I hope that all of us, wherever else we reside, religiously, ethnically and culturally, reside in that realm. We are multidimensional and have multiple capacities. Above all, and relevant to our topic tonight, we are both particular and universal. In that place that I call the civic realm—the community–I believe that our responsibilities cross all borders and boundaries; they go way beyond family or tribe, though they may begin there. And those responsibilities have religious as well as civic roots. Kofi Annan, in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, had this to say:
In every great faith and tradition one can find the values of tolerance and mutual understanding. The Qur’An…tells us that “We created you from a single pair of male and female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other….In the Jewish tradition, the injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is considered to be the very essence of the Torah. The thought is reflected in the Christian gospel, which also teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who wish to persecute us.”
What we know—because of the human inventions that have hastened exponentially communication and the transfer of information—gives us a new responsibility for the world. I wouldn’t at this stage in history, call it charity. Perhaps the difference is a semantic one, but I think there is a moral tilt to it as well. What we know through religion and philosophy, psychology and sociology is that we have the responsibility to build capacity among others in the world whose societies have not given them that opportunity until now. Building capacity in those who do not have it is not just altruistic—though it is the most noble and useful form of giving– it is also pragmatic. The growing gap between rich and poor—between those who have too much and those who have too little– is tragic in and for itself—and it is also dangerous. It’s an untenable situation in an increasingly interdependent world. We who have too much cannot afford to leave those who have too little behind.
Because we know about the gap and the disproportion, are we not obliged to eliminate them? I think so. And yet, even in our own country, the oldest ongoing democracy in the world, which is also, at this point in history, the richest, we have unconscionable inequities—we have poverty and hunger, and we have intolerance along ethnic, religious, racial, cultural, gender and sexual preference lines and more.
In the name of faith, hope and charity—and in the name of genetics and ecology—as science as well as philosophy and theology have illuminated the interdependence of everything in this world and perhaps in this galaxy—we must move to a new ethic of interdependence—so that the gaps are closed between rich and poor, developed and underdeveloped, educated and illiterate, overfed and hungry—and more.
Before closing my portion of the program and inviting your questions and comments, let me add another dimension to the mix of traits and instincts that we possess. That is ingenuity. I have faith in human ingenuity—resilience, responsiveness to danger or despair, innovative ideas about how to fix things that are broken. Again, I can’t speak of the origin. Call it nature or nurture; call it God or goodness; but whatever its origin, we know it when we see it—and we see it everywhere—in every nation, in every culture, in every period of history.
The job for us in a democracy is not only based on hope, and faith and charity. We citizens of democracies have the power and the obligation and the skills to do more than we do to bridge the unconscionable gaps that I’ve referred to. We can sigh and say “there but for the grace of God go I.” But then, we must and we often do do more than sigh. Let’s say “yes we can; yes we must” choose and create a future here on earth in which all of us can be a bigger part of the solution than we have been in the past. In our capacities and in our will, in our ingenuity and in our goodness, I have faith.