I sit here in my apartment in Berkeley, California. It is a rain-soaked day, and a day of sharp contrasts.
President Barack Obama has just given his farewell address. With his orator’s gifts in great display, he urges us not to let fear crush the democratic process, but rather to increase our involvement as citizens so we can make this world a better place. I hear again the cry I heard more than eight ago, when I gathered with thousands on the campus of UC Berkeley to hear his prophetic words. Tonight he repeated his encouraging mantra, “Yes we can! Yes we can!” Only now it’s a different day, and the start of a very different era.
Earlier today, the incoming president held what was called a press conference. It was almost an hour of adversarial back and forth, filled with denials, contradictions, and half-truths. It was a virulent attack on the free press, whose democratic responsibility is to speak truth to power. The most important questions were left either avoided or unanswered.
Yes, we live in anxious and uncertain times. America’s 240-year-old record of democracy has reached a dangerously precarious moment.
Today I also watched the hearings for the candidates the president elect has put forth for his cabinet. If approved, these individuals will be called upon to deal with far-ranging questions regarding social justice, civil rights, immigration, and racial equality. My heart sank at the introduction of each new candidate because, in almost every case, his record stands in staunch opposition to the Constitution he must promise to uphold. For example, the candidate who would be tasked with protecting the environment is a man who publicly denies scientifically proven climate change. The candidate for attorney general has a long history of racism and bigotry. I feel moral outrage as I see how their words and deeds stand in opposition to the gospel view that is revealed in scripture.
Sitting here now, I pick up my copy of the latest issue of the National Catholic Reporter, the most progressive periodical of the American Catholic church. Throughout its pages are articles about gun laws, the death penalty, ecology, and the future of the church. One article that catches my eye is about the grassroots leaders who will be gathering in Modesto, California in February.
This will be a regional meeting to support popular movements from around the world, and it is being cosponsored by the PICO National Network of faith-based organizers and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which is an anti-poverty initiative. John Baumann, SJ, first told me about this gathering when we spoke in late August, and he invited me to participate with the PICO group. I would have welcomed this opportunity if my schedule had allowed. I know this meeting will inspire the creativity of participants, and guide them to respond to the issues of senseless war, violence, hunger, and homelessness, both here in California and around the world.
Tonight I am stunned by the contrast between Obama’s farewell address and Trump’s press conference and confirmation hearings. There was a time in our country when the combined work of faith and justice was viewed as the call for only a small minority. Now, however, this call must be heard by every Christian if faith and justice are to survive. To fulfill this call requires a deep, mature spirituality that refuses to let the gospel be reconciled with the unjust tendencies in the dominant culture. We must heed the voice of Pope Francis, who summons us to a life of faith and justice: “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change.”