Every generation wants to live in good times. People work to make that so. But there are sometimes circumstances bigger and more powerful than our efforts. The American Civil War, the stock market crash and Great Depression, the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s… we could reach farther backward in time and just keep going. It’s difficult to live during a time when our own effort cannot turn things around, when there are forces at work which make us not-so-hopeful for the present time and immediate future. But even then, we are called to learn from our mistakes and to hope. It’s just a drag that any given generation suffers because of the willful, selfish, and short-sighted concern of those who came before them, thereby paving the way for the coming day of reckoning that the aforementioned catastrophes and conflicts symbolize.
Those who count themselves part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, along with secular historians, have biblical examples of such times. We think of the repeated rises and falls of the people of Israel – economically, politically, morally. What’s interesting to note is that each time such a failure takes place – whether in the pages of biblical history or in secular annals – there is one more example added to the list. Christian history has its failures, too and yet they each seem to fit some earlier template. As the late historian J. Rufus Fears often said, “The first lesson of history is that people don’t learn from history.”
One lesson that seems pertinent is that the morality of leaders does matter, whether in the realm of religious, corporate or civic life. In hundreds of ways (if not thousands, over time), leaders communicate to their constituency. Because of each generation’s desire to live in good times, the populace seems ever willing to look the other way when the economy is good, or their group (whatever that group may be, whether racial, ethnic, political or religious) is winning. People gloss over the moral failures of deception, self-interest, arrogance and corruption because things are going well for them. They believe, hope, or delude themselves into thinking that surely the next generation will straighten out the matters of immorality, injustice, inequality and hubris — if indeed they even see them as problems. Sometimes the fall is experienced by the next — or the next after that — generation. Sometimes the leader or people of the generation that experiences the collapse are blamed. In many cases, the seeds of that harvest were planted long ago.
Like beetles under the bark of a healthy-looking tree or the invisible erosion taking place beneath an eventual sinkhole, when the foundational principles of society are so diseased that they cannot bear the weight of life’s ever-present needs and problems, collapse occurs.
I love the principles upon which the United States of American were founded, even if they have not always been realized. I am grateful and blessed to be a citizen. But these days, I sense the growth of a cancer that may, like countless examples in history, result in a collapse of the nation that Americans in every generation have dreamed would come to fruition. If – or when – it happens, I doubt historians will say “they weren’t clever enough at politics”, “there were forces that overwhelmed their ability to feed the people”, or “they were conquered by another nation that was superior in technology and military might.” I suspect that it will be the old story repeated innumerable times and still not heeded: it was the corruption of the moral standards which allowed hate, deception, partisanship, and hubris to take their eternally-predictable toll.