Our Chasm, at Its Core, at this neo-Fascist Pass
At bottom, often more than about unity, our history is one of contentious chasms.
These schisms have to do with the proper role of federal and state power, if and how and why society may channel private money, if we may restrict how enormous private sums are publicly used, how enormous public sums are committed (taxed/spent), and the never-simple fit of religion in a nation distinguished by a fundamentally secular Constitution.
The enormous rift that undergirds all of these ongoing debates is philosophical and cultural, not simply political and economic. These are the same divisions worked through when the Reconstruction Amendments, Women’s Suffrage, labor organizing rights, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, landmark Civil Rights legislation, Abortion Rights, and the right to adequate health care, were all fought for and, largely, finally, won.
These divisions persist and particularly in feeble economic environments, they do open to chasms and often with loud and noisy hate, hate directed by those fearing class-slippage and the men and women pleased to foment, fashion, and manipulate that hate for gain. They watch others foist it on the already long-term victims of structural inequality and undeserved disdain.
The American chasm at its core is the gulf between those, on one hand, who understand social life as individuals essentially and properly rather isolated, choosing to meet when self-interest, most typically commerce and defense, make group activity expedient and, on the other, those of us who see social life as informed, a priori, by a series of mutual commitments requiring us to regard ourselves always and at the same time both for ourselves and for (unknown) others.
I am clear: mutual commitment is the proper approach to leading an ethical American life. The injunctions of my secular upbringing as well as my ethnic/religious culture and the United States Constitution (as well as common sense) tell me that taking care of the destitute, the widow, the orphan, the ill, the elderly, the unsheltered and consistently hungry, in the face of ongoing violent, systemic and structural inequality, is integral to what it means to be a person and an American citizen. I see it also as my obligation as a Jew.
The rabbi who was Jesus, his public acts, teach me that he knew the insistence of the prophets, from Moses and Miriam, to Deborah, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the same message finding voice through Dr. King, Sister Simone Campbell, and beyond: to be a complete person means seeing the possibilities for and moral necessity of envisioning and then enacting universal Justice, here, right here.
The ancient rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, teaches me to ask If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? All of the prophets demand — and particularly when I fall short of the mark — that I understand and continually hone…and this is what I believe my America can once again, even at this nascent neo-fascist pass, increasingly reflect and what must one day be: I am only fully a person to the extent that I am for the least of us as well as I am for my family and for myself.
With Rabbi Hillel, Jeremiah, Jesus, Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela, Dr. King, Sister Simone, and so many others, then, I have to say and I want my country, collectively, to act on this: What you do for the least of us, you do for me. (after Jesus, as reported in Gsp. Matthew) If I am for myself only, then I am no one at all. (after Hillel)
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