From the Editor: Neighborhood Watch

Ray Waddle

We’ve passed through several months of giddy national tumult, and it’s not done yet. The entire drama triggers new debates about the meaning of America and the strength of our political institutions. It also raises an old question: Who is my neighbor?

We thought we knew. Until last year many of us were pleased to think we understood the mood of the electorate. Then the 2016 election handed us our ignorance. The times are bringing harsh news, but also clarity. There’s something to be learned from it all.

We’re learning that millions of Americans feel disrespected, alienated, ignored. They’re unimpressed with the current run of experts. Millions are suffering in this economy or enduring the blunt force of daily prejudice. The American dream is not serving them.

We’re learning that both major parties are flattered and impaired by the big money. Regular citizens pay the price, living in gutted towns or fighting in permanent wars. As George Packer described it recently in The New Yorker, Democrats years ago lost a traditional ally – working-class whites – and embraced a coalition of urban professionals and diversity. Must it be either-or? Republicans meanwhile thundered social conservatism while quietly lending a helping hand to the 1 percent.

We’re learning that our bedrock spiritual traditions need to speak more acutely against the era’s economic excesses. Perhaps we’ve neglected to make a hard study of the way power really works. In many cases religion has not challenged or examined the spirit of consumerism and empire but endorsed it.

Tested by disorder or disinformation, we’re learning too that millions are deeply committed to constitutional freedoms, public integrity, environmental repair, and a culture of empathy.

It took countless decisions to get to this embattled moment. And the next will unfold, transmute, blossom in exciting, unnerving directions. We can be sure of this much: History will merrily provide ironies at every turn. Consider the politics of a century ago: Many American small farmers and Christian rural citizens believed the biblical news of “peace on earth, good will toward all” carried a message of socialism. Jesus was regarded as a leftist philosopher of the people, and politicians could win evangelical votes by quoting the Nazarene as the messianic enemy of the banks. It gives new meaning to “red state.”

Bluster and disruption win the attention in the social media era, for now. Much unglamorous work gets discounted – the vigilance of fair voting laws, the fight for a living wage, infrastructure repair, a thousand local commitments to good governance and neighborliness. All these depend on cooperation, discipline, patience, mutual respect – actions rooted in humane virtues. Where do such values come from? Not from Social Darwinism or the metrics of ruthless efficiency. A functional society needs something like Golden Rule wisdom found in sacred texts, parental leadership, mentors, and congregations that honor the soul.

Preparing this Reflections issue on “God and money,” I’ve learned from each contributor that it takes tough-minded analysis but also heart and resolve and gospel truth to write about this big thing called the economy. These writers take seriously the world-bending lines from the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Those words speak to the creator of the universe. They also dignify the political, economic details of this time and place.

If you want to feel more hopeful about the rampages of history, talk to divinity students. Catch their enthusiasm and resilience. Chatting with Yale Divinity students is invigorating. They are pursuing a vocation, trying to make daily poetry out their faith, with ethical impact, often in the teeth of financial struggle. Many take on sizable debt in order to be in school, but they refuse to let that define them or derail their sense of calling. Find a way to support them, through congregation or denomination or scholarship fund. Consider a gift to the YDS Annual Fund, which is entirely devoted to student financial aid, or a donation to the $53 million campaign to raise endowment funds for financial aid.

A wounded body politics needs these future leaders, healers, and neighbors.