It has become incredibly worn to discuss how bad 2020 was for most of us, and I certainly don’t need to explain how or why it was a difficult year. It’s understandable, then, that the new year has been greeted with a sigh of relief, that finally we’re past all that and we can get back to normal.
This is what worries me about 2021, our collective desire to “get back to normal”. As Pope Francis explained in his recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, the crises that this year provided did not cause the horrible flaws in our world, national, and local systems, they merely exposed them. Our culture of greed and exploitation, of viewing human lives as disposable, inconvenient, or not worth taking effort to protect, will not be solved by a mere change of the calendar year. With this attitude, we become like Chesterton’s caricature of the progressive, the man who prefers Wednesday to Monday simply because it occurs later. The passage of time, by itself, I’ll never and can never fix the deep flaws in our country and world.
This may all come off very doom-and-gloom, but it’s actually the opposite. The only way to have real, true, useful hope is to have our fake hopes dashed. We see this all the time in scriptural accounts of ancient Israel. Time and time again, the ancient Israelites, hoping for military victory, economic success, or any number of other goods, turned to the gods of their neighbors for help. Time and time again, this resulted in bitter failure: the people suffered, their false hopes were revealed as idols, and usually destroyed in some theatrical way. False hopes are never rewarded by God, they are always loudly and clearly exposed for what they are.
This, ironically, is why I am hopeful for 2021. If the past year has done anything, it has revealed that we cannot rely on the institutions to which we typically look to save us. The rich and powerful, political figures, the wise in the world, and our own self sufficiency have completely and utterly failed, to the tune of nearly two million deaths from COVID worldwide, with almost a fifth of those this the wealthiest, most powerful country on Earth. Our idols have failed us, and in many cases spectacularly so.
While this may seem odd, we can say confidently that this is a good thing! This is what it looks like when Grace interacts with comfortable brokenness. This is what mercy looks like. It hurts. God’s wisdom is not our wisdom, and this is made most clear in his method of pursuing us. Rather than letting us stay and wallow in our own filth and brokenness, he shows us what we’re doing, as he sees it, to shock us out of our self-centered lethargy.
It all depends, then, on how we respond. Thankfully, scripture shows us the way forward. In the return from Israel’s habitual backslides into idolatry, there are two concrete steps. First, someone working for the good of the people, and cooperating with the Holy Spirit, calls the people to repent and give up their idols, and return to service of God and Neighbor. Second, the people repent, often in mourning and fasting, and return to following the Lord.
The first step has already happened. Pope Francis, speaking authoritatively from his position as head of the Church on Earth, released a document saying almost exactly that, and begging us to reorganize our society to repair the fault lines revealed by COVID and the resulting economic and political crises. You can find the document here, and I highly recommend giving it the time it deserves.
The only question, then, is whether we will finish the process. Will we return to the Lord and make the necessary changes in our lives, not relying on the rich and powerful to save us, or the politicians, but rather working to serve and love God and Neighbor? If so, 2021 will indeed bring welcome changes. If not, we can expect more of the same.