Some years ago, my wife Angie and I were in China on vacation. While in Beijing we took a walk through (part) of the Forbidden City. It’s far bigger than I could have imagined, even overwhelmingly so. As you might expect, the vast majority of tourists there appeared to be the Chinese themselves. One person caught my attention amid the crowds: a young man walking backwards, holding two selfie sticks out at 45 degree angles to his body. This allowed him to continuously take pictures of himself with the various parts of the City as a backdrop. While I couldn’t help but smile, I wondered if he would ever be able to look at, let alone appreciate, the hundreds of pictures he was taking. The other thought I had, was how difficult it can be, especially these days with so many temptations, and to really be present to what’s going on in our lives.
Currently there is a lot of discussion about how poorly we as supposedly developed nations, have behaved in the past; whether it’s our role in slavery, colonialism, oppression, destroying cultures, and so on. We are also grappling with what our response should be for the sins of our ancestors. To a degree, it’s a healthy and important exercise.
A helpful parallel can be found on an individual level in our Catholic tradition. As Catholics we have the sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation if you prefer. This sacrament asks us to reflect on our sins: the things that keep us from oneness with God and our neighbor. And to truly resolve to do better right now and going forward, as well as to perform some sort (usually a token) of penance. Not only is it a grace-filled sacrament but also healthy for us as humans.
My sense is that what we are trying to do collectively as a society, in reflecting on our history can, like the sacrament of Confession, be very helpful and fruitful if we follow through on the key elements. First to recognize where we have not acted out of love; then to perform some sort of just atonement; and lastly, perhaps most importantly, look at what needs to change here and now.
For example, one might wonder if generations 50-100 years hence will, like we are today, ask some difficult questions about our behaviors such as:
Why did the richest country in history allow an estimated 16 million children to go to bed hungry?
Why did we cause so many people to die whether through abortion, capital punishment, or a lack of healthcare?
Why did we continue to abuse God’s creation, the planet earth, rather than treating it with respect?
Why did we allow systems and structures that enable a handful of people to control the vast majority of our country’s and even the world’s resources?
Obviously there are no easy answers to these uncomfortable questions. In fact you may not even think they are reasonable, helpful or appropriate questions. The important thing here though, is to stop, take a critical look at what’s going on and see how it compares with what you say you believe. And especially how it aligns with the Gospel teachings if you happen to be Christian. It’s all well and good to look into the past and lament how things were, but what about right now?
Jesus points out in Matthew 7, it’s much more important to take a hard look at our own lives before judging others. And this means not just our personal challenges or prayer lives, but what we are doing to create the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. This means not just looking at our own shortcomings, but also our engagement in the community, including keeping up with the difficult to hear news. Our support for initiatives that help the needy. And yes, even participating in the voting process at every level.
While there are many distractions and supposed entertainments vying for our attention, and the naysayers who tell us “what’s the use in trying to make things better”, we need to be sufficiently humble to do our bit. We shouldn’t expect that our will, will be done, but be content in the knowledge that we are trying to do God’s will, and also creating tomorrow’s history today.