My last post (The Two Pharaohs) briefly examined the insidious influence of the modern consumer culture – that is, it not only exists ‘out there,’ it has become part of who we are and way we think and act. The authors of An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture (2016) suggest that we, like the Prodigal Son, must bring our inner selves home from the marketplace and (re-)establish a covenant of neighborliness.
Cormac Russell, while commenting on An Other Kingdom, suggests that the authors have done well in commenting on the Prodigal Son’s leaving home to participate in the marketplace, “but somehow the potential for a modern day homecoming … seems less clear. … [I was] wondering where the Prodigal Son was going to appear.” (page 89)
I share Russell’s wondering. Many of our churches and pastors have attempted to deal, at some level. with consumerism but without much lasting effect. We are the Prodigal Son. I am the Prodigal. When and how will we/I return home. When CEOs continue to increase their net worth while their workers find their buying power reduced… when the middle class is shrinking not because of upward mobility but because of the reverse… when our elected representatives want to remove any and all restrictions on business ventures while putting more and more of the financial burden on middle class and poorer citizens… when corporations are treated with kid gloves because that are declared to be “persons”… under those circumstances is it possible for neighborliness to bring about a transformation.
Henri Nouwen (Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son; 2009), in discussing the role of the elder son in the parable, gives a different perspective to the decrease of neighborliness. The elder son is filled with the “cold anger” of resentment. The 2016 U.S. presidential election has dramatically opened a window into the underbelly of resentment in American society.
The elder child – citizens who consider themselves to have “stayed home” obediently while a party is being thrown for those who have wandered off into irresolute living – undocumented aliens, people of color, LGBTQs, women, Muslims, foreigners – is resentful toward anything that is non-traditional or looks like “government.”. The presumptive GOP nominee has pandered to that resentment. The presumptive Democratic Party nominee has build her campaign as a traditional politician would – a more polished “vision” for the future of government – while ignoring (or chiding) the resentment of the GOP supporters. She did this while solidifying the traditional supporters of her party in opposition to a challenge from a more progressive appeal, especially to younger citizens who, in their own way, are also not happy with traditional politics or traditional governmental approaches.
Nouwen (page 78ff) suggests that “Moving away from resentment requires moving toward … thankfulness.” That transformative action does not seem possible in the current climate of discord within American society. Nouwen, however, goes on to make some rather prudent (amazing, even) observations that speak to our current situation:
“It is important to objectively acknowledge the other’s unique story and especially the suffering of the one who offends us.” (page 87)
While this presidential election is of vital importance to the future of our country; the more important issue may be how to re-build, re-store the fabric of American society . The handwriting is on the wall – the United States is quickly becoming a nation no longer dependent on the rule of white, middle European citizens. People of color, Hispanics, Asians, LGBTQs, and others have been gaining footholds into the American dream. It is for them that the fatted calf has been slain and the party is being thrown. The traditionalists, the elder child, those filled with resentment over the profound changes that are taking place in American society are not going away, even if their preferred candidate does not get elected. How can we acknowledge their unique story and profound suffering, given the degree to which we are offended by their thoughts and actions?
“The return is not just about you and me, but has to do with another person’s resentment. … It is primarily when we are giving thanks for our lives that we have the potential to receive another’s anger and judgment while remaining upright and letting it move through us. … Otherwise their resentment becomes our resentment.” (pages 86 & 87)
Hard words, but this is likely the only option open to us that would prevent further breakdown in American society and preserve the American dream. We are at a crossroads. Traditional politics, traditional religion, traditional solutions, traditional ways of relating are not going to move us forward. As a superintendent once identified the task before her school system, “We need to move forward to the basics.”
There is a battle of two wolves inside us. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope humility, kindness, empathy and truth. The wolf that wins is the one you feed. (Native American Proverb, Cherokee)
How do we preserve so many of the values that underlie the American dream, while moving into the uncharted waters of overwhelming transformational change? How do we feed the good wolf — in us and in those who offend us (and are offended by us)?