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Interfaith Inform: June 29, 2021
Kaufman Interfaith Institute


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Garrett
Interfaith Insight
Doug Kindschi
Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Our nation facing a choice by heeding the prophets
As we look to another Fourth of July, do we celebrate the 245th anniversary of our country’s independence or should we worry about our country’s future?  Our polarization has led to multiple expressions of concern about our ability to survive and thrive as a nation. Can we come together or are we on a track to decline?  A few years before his death, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks addressed the question of “Why Civilizations Fail,” and began by quoting Moses:

"Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God. … Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. … You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’… If you ever forget the Lord your God … I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.” (Deut. 8:11-19)

Reflecting on this passage, Sacks continued with the warning that it is not the suffering in the wilderness that is the real test.  The real challenge will begin “precisely when all your physical needs are met – when you have land and sovereignty and rich harvests and safe homes ­– that your spiritual trial will commence.”

This is seen as an early version of what many historians have observed over the centuries as they look at the history of civilizations. Sacks points to the 14th century Islamic thinker, Ibn Khaldun, who in his introduction to history was one of the first to observe that great civilizations become too comfortable and complacent, leading to a period of decay and eventual decline.

In his “History of Western Philosophy,” Bertrand Russell notes a similar pattern in what he considered to be examples of great civilizations.  In his introduction he notes: “What had happened in the great age of Greece happened again in Renaissance Italy: traditional moral restraints disappeared … the decay of morals made Italians collectively impotent, and they fell, like the Greeks, under the domination of nations less civilized than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion.”

British historian of the last century, Arnold Toynbee, studied 26 different civilizations in his 12-volume “A Study of History.”  I don’t claim to have read this major work, but according to Britannica on the web, he concluded: “Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to the sins of nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority.”  The Britannica also noted that Toynbee “saw history as shaped by spiritual, not economic forces.”

Sacks summarized this spiritual decline thus: “Inequalities will grow. The rich will become self-indulgent. The poor will feel excluded. There will be social divisions, resentments and injustices. Society will no longer cohere. People will not feel bound to one another by a bond of collective responsibility. Individualism will prevail. Trust will decline. Social capital will wane.” Is this our situation today?

Sacks suggests that this decline is not inevitable and proposes three rules to guard against it.

Rule 1: Never forget where you came from.
He admonishes us to focus on justice, caring for the poor, ensuring dignity for everyone and “making sure there are always prophets to remind the people of their destiny and expose the corruptions of power.”

Rule 2: Never drift from your foundational principles and ideals.
Sacks explained, “Societies start growing old when they lose faith in the transcendent. They then lose faith in an objective moral order and end by losing faith in themselves.”

Rule 3: A society is as strong as its faith.
This faith is necessary in order “to honor the needs of others as well as ourselves … (and) give us the humility that alone has the power to defeat the arrogance of success and self-belief.”

Given this warning from Rabbi Sacks, I have recently reflected on the current book “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We can Do It Again,” by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Garrett.  They point to an earlier time at the beginning of the 20th century when as a nation we experienced great selfishness, division, and income disparity.  In their sociological research they point to the “upswing” that happened in that century, when the disparities and polarization of the early 1900s gave way to increased collaboration and care for the larger good. This led to a more egalitarian and cooperative society that peaked in the mid-century during the Eisenhower presidency. 

This upswing was marked by desegregation of the armed forces, expanded Social Security coverage, more public housing, and better health care and education.  There was also cooperation on a massive investment in infrastructure, notably the interstate highway system. Putnam and Garrett also document the “downswing” during the second half of the century leading to the current polarization and inequities that are similar to the early part of the 1900s. But they do not give up hope but instead analyze how the last century’s upswing developed -- and why it can happen again. 

So where are we this Fourth of July?  Have we already gone too far down this path of spiritual decline? Have we lost our social cohesion?  Do we honor the needs of others, especially the poor?  Have we lost faith in a moral order? Is it too late to regain a collective responsibility? Rabbi Sacks also makes the distinction between prediction and prophesy. Prophets do not predict -- they warn. “If a prediction comes true it has succeeded; if a prophecy comes true it has failed. The prophet tells of the future that will happen if we do not heed the danger and mend our ways.”

Can we heed the current prophets like Sacks and look to an upswing that will bring a renewed commitment to the common good?  Let us also heed the ancient Hebrew prophet’s call “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)


These weekly Insights are published in the Grand Rapids Press'  Religion section every Thursday.

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