May 4, 2014
Sometimes God provides pleasant surprises, or at least some of us choose to see them that way. Last week I was sitting in the waiting area of the veterinarian’s office with Wilson, my Springer Spaniel. Another man came in and sat down and we struck up a conversation. After speaking in Spanish for a few minutes, he asked if I’d prefer to speak in English. It turned out he attended a bilingual university here in Bogota and was quite fluent in English. In addition, he was quite articulate. In the course of our conversation I learned he is a speech writer for President Santos (presidential elections in Colombia are scheduled for May 25).
We talked a little about the mood of the Colombian public and some of the potential results of the May elections (which will probably end up in a run-off election on June 15 before the choice of president is finally decided). Most of us in the States are aware of the on-going political and military conflict with the FARC, the Leninist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and are aware of the peace talks that have been taking place over the past year and a half. While many of us may cheer the possibility of peace, we not appreciate that not all Colombians are enamored with the peace process. And, of course, as we noted in our conversation, Colombian political perspectives are multidimensional and not just based on the peace talks.
What occurred to me is the fact that we could have a political discussion that wasn’t based on our personal political perspectives, and the arrogant stance that “of course, one of us was right and the other wrong.” It was delightfully refreshing. Soon we found ourselves moving beyond the political environments of the U.S. and Colombia and talking about bigger picture political issues.
Some of you have heard me use the expression, “the demise of democracy,” as I believe our current problems and the geo-political transformations taking place are expressing something about evolving perspectives on governance and bringing into question the validity and legitimacy of democratic institutions. In our discussion, my new colleague used the more accurate and articulate expression, “The crisis of legitimacy facing Western democracies.” What he had to say was fascinating and put a number of socio-cultural and socio-political issues in perspective. Regardless of any of our personal political bents … right, left, center, or anywhere else along the spectrum, I think we’d all be wise to pay heed. We have a tendency to see things in the immediate, and as if answers are all clearly black and white, rather than in an historical perspective and much more gray than we’re usually willing to admit.
In our conversation we were pointing to a crisis period in global socio-political development. The democratic institutions we’ve built and trusted are failing us, and some might say are no longer functioning. As scholars have noted, crony capitalism has become the norm in today’s democracies, leading to what many economist are now calling a tragic level of income inequality (though, again, our politicians don’t seem to be listening).
I think it speaks loudly that all Western countries are experiencing political polarity and culture wars, along with significant global economic jolts … both highs and lows … such as the crash in 1987, the tech boom of the 1990s, the tech crash of 2000, and the financial crash of 2008. Any student of economic history will tell you that there have always been economic booms and busts, but few would note this kind of economic activity in such a short period of time. We’ve moved away from what we knew as the Industrial Age, experienced two world wars, and are now in a constant state of war with a massive military complex. Intellectually, we’re in a post-modern environment where things we thought we knew are now open to debate. And for many, our religious faith has been displaced by science, or bastardized by a variety of social forces to the point that the average person searches elsewhere for answers to life’s tough questions. The technologies that drove our intellectual attainment since the Renaissance, such as the printing press, are being replaced by new technologies, and no one has fully grasped the ways in which these changes are impacting the ways in which we think and learn. Among those social forces, our governments and subsequent social programs, which were products of the Enlightenment, are failing us. We’re transitioning into a technological panoptic world in which everything we do and say, and everywhere we go, can be tracked and known by others such as our web surfing, nearly all forms of communication, and GPS on our cell phones.
I think the major challenge for most people today is where do we turn with our questions and from where do we seek hope for the future? … to our faith? … to a government we can no longer trust? … to science which we no longer accept has guaranteed universal truths? … ??? As I noted in our conversation … which, again, was delightful being able to talk about such complex social issues … I, personally, think this is a great time to be a person of faith, and in particular, to be a priest. It’s in the midst of this kind of social chaos that the church has a tremendous opportunity. People are looking for solace and guidance in this period of great change, and the church has the capability to provide both. We have the opportunity to be innovative and respond to cynicism and despair, by providing leadership that reflects the kind of church I think God means for us to be … by doing things like putting our faith into action to develop micro-finance programs and housing for the poor, providing food and advocacy for more effective social programs for the hungry, providing healthcare to the sick and dying who lack adequate care, reaching out to inmates in our overflowing prisons, advocating for human rights, and reaching out to those around us as a reminder that we have more in common than that which divides us. We may not always be that church, but I, for one, am going to keep trying.