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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Vision for the Nation

A Vision for the Nation

What vision are students at most colleges, including Catholic colleges, receiving these days?


The goal of a college education is to equip the student to make money.

Students will graduate, get a job, marry, and raise children. The children will go to college, and the parents will help finance their children’s education. The parents will get old and they will need money to live well in their retirement years.

There was a time when young people went to college because they wanted to expand their minds for the benefit of the community. They would become scholars or teachers or healers. It is much harder to do that now. College has become so expensive that students are forced to concentrate on money. A student who majors in liberal arts looks forward to a low-income future. True, the liberal arts equip some people for outstanding careers. But students majoring in them cannot count on being in that group.

It is not surprising that colleges and universities should be drifting in search of a credible mission. We as a nation have lost sight of any vision of where the nation should be going. In the absence of such a vision, we cannot blame students for deciding that making money is the way to live their lives. What else is there?

Past Visions

Back in the 1800s the nation believed in “manifest destiny.” The U.S. was destined to lead the world in democracy, technology, and overall quality of life. This vision inspired our subjugating of native peoples and our enthusiastic embrace of the industrial revolution.

Woodrow Wilson gave the nation a vision for World War I: make the world safe for democracy.

The “Greatest Generation,” the generation whose young men fought World War II, had a vision: get rid of Adolph Hitler and his Japanese counterpart.

Millions of young men came home from World War II and found a country freed from the Depression, ready for the Good Life.  They had a vision: make a home and raise a family. The “Baby Boomers,” their children, did not have the same experience of hardship and suffering as the background for a vision. In Vietnam they saw the World War II vision (“get rid of the bad guys”) crash and burn. Then during the 70s and 80s they saw the middle class dream of home and family slowly weaken as the nation became more and more unequal and more and more families dissolved in divorce.

The generations that have come after the Boomers, those born in the 70s and 80s, need a vision too. Even more than the Boomers, they face constantly greater inequality and increasing marital breakdown. Iraq and Afghanistan gave the nation a temporary glimpse of the old “make the world safe for democracy” vision, but, like the Vietnam generation, they have seen that vision fail.

What vision will children born after 2000 live for? What vision inspires their predecessors, the huge population of Boomers?

If the television commercials I watch are any evidence, the vision of seniors today is to be able to go fishing with your grandchild.  It is to live fantasies about things you could never do before because you were too busy making money. Since old age increases health problems, your focus has to include health. In order to go fishing with your grandchild, you must deal with arthritis, diabetes, and COPD.

Not an inspiring vision, especially if you do not care for fishing and you do not have grandchildren.

A Vision of Love

Here is a vision that I propose. It is based on one kind of Christian tradition, a Franciscan tradition. The vision I propose is this: the behavior of every person and every group (e.g. corporation) in our society, will be based on love.

This statement seems trite and self-evident. Haven’t we been doing that all along? Jesus said “love one another as I have loved you,” and we all claim to follow Jesus.

Our problem is that we have not had a working definition of love. “Love” can mean everything from chocolates to sex. Here is my working definition: love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement of one person with another. We will treat every person in the world with passionate respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness.

We will replace the great symbol of our present vision, the dollar sign, with the great symbol of love, a heart.

Some examples.

I start a business. My business is successful, and forty or fifty men and women are making a living working for me. I grow older and decide I do not want to manage my business any longer. I sell my business to a larger business, which closes my business and moves its operations somewhere else, leaving most of my employees high and dry.

This, we say, is progress. This is pain that we endure for the sake of a greater good down the line. But how are we treating those forty or fifty people? Are we treating them with passionate respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness? No. We do not respect the lives they have built in a specific place, with specific people. We say, if they want to work let them move to where there is work. Or we close our eyes and say that they will find other work. “Small businesses,” we say, “will create new jobs.” What good is it for small businesses to create new jobs when the small business gets swallowed up by the large business as soon as the small business becomes successful?

The 2010 Supreme Court decision, “Citizens United,” declared that a corporation is a real person, and has a right to expression just like an ordinary human being. Therefore we cannot limit what the corporation does with its money, because the first amendment protects the right of “persons” to free speech. Fine. If every corporation is a person, then every corporation should treat people with passionate respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness, not only its employees but its customers and its suppliers and those who supply its suppliers.

But, you say, a corporation cannot do that and stay in business. What that statement really means is that a business cannot treat people with respect and vulnerability and faithfulness and still make obscene profits. Executives and board members use profits as chips in fun games against their peers. This is worship of the dollar sign. It is idolatry. If you don’t worship the dollar, you blaspheme. The penalty for blasphemy is death. 

No, I say. The corporation must examine the effects of its policies on every person affected by those policies. It cannot, for example, go into Nicaragua, force thousands of people off the land that they have lived on for centuries, and use the land to raise cattle for fast food restaurants. It would have to take into account the well-being of each one of those people.

But that would slow down progress.

Yes it would. It would also slow down the damage to our environment, damage which threatens to make every business, large and small, extinct. We are creating the hell that is the punishment for idolatry.

Suppose that more of those small businesses could continue to operate as small businesses and not be swallowed up. Keeping things on a small scale will change the rules of the game, so people will have to be creative. How can we do fast food without hurting people? There is a question worth researching. But in order to take the question seriously we will need people who put love before money.

That is a bottom-up tactic. No actions of business or government will give us a vision. We will have to build a new society within the shell of the old.

We will resolve to treat every human being we deal with, both individually and as directors of corporations, with passionate respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness. We will work to make love the central value in our society. We will move as slowly as such a policy requires. We will not kill ourselves trying to invent the next thing that will save us from the problems that the last invention causes. We will test the effects of our inventions before we replicate the inventions on a massive scale. We will use our ingenuity to create, but our creations will be on a smaller scale, focused on the well-being of real human beings.

It is logically impossible for everyone in the world to continue to produce more and more with less and less for ever and ever--the standard definition of “productivity.” That model is a runaway train heading for the cliff of environmental disaster.

We will have a vision that does not presume unending economic growth, but that focuses on health and well-being from day to day, not just for ourselves, but for everyone in the world. The Boomers will lead us, because they are being forced to get out of the older game, and the dollar sign no longer has as much meaning for them. They need something else to live for. Here is what they will live for: love of every human being that God sends into their lives.

Sometimes when you act out of love, you lose, or get hurt, maybe even die. Christians call this “the paschal mystery.” The paschal mystery says that God will not let us lose in the long run. In the long run, if we live out of love, the God who loved us into existence will love us back into existence if we lose our life. That, we say, is what the story of Jesus teaches.

You don’t have to be Christian to live the paschal mystery. There are plenty of examples of people all over the world who are not Christian but are giving their lives for others. Being Christian gives us a powerful story to make our sacrifices meaningful.

Can we sell this vision? Can we make it the mission of at least some of our colleges and universities? Catholic universities? Franciscan universities?