Is the American empire aging toward an inevitable end, or are we suffering a national mid-life crisis? Guys buy sportcars. Nations go to war. This one, the long war as they are calling it, drifts aimlessly into a fourth year much as a 50 year old stuck in a dead-end job.
In the midst of it I ponder the world my children will inhabit as they age. The comfort and security of their aging may somehow be connected to Jesus’ challenges and, therefore, to a theology of the cross calling forth self sacrifice from a culture unaccustomed to and massively resistant to such selflessness. That can be unpacked some other day.
The sacrifices of middle age sometimes amount to nothing more than making concessions to age, and nothing less than letting go of the illusions of youth.
I’ve given up my dream of slamming a basketball – not exactly sacrificing my first born, but no small concession for a 6’0” hoops junky who once came tantalizingly close to throwing one down.
Emmanuel Levinas reminded us that paternity is preparing for a future that is not our own; indeed, for a future in which we’ll be dead. Perhaps that explains why my vertical leap topped out the year our first child was born!
The grandest illusion of youth is that such a future of our own absence will never arrive. Letting go of that illusion, often in the midst of very real sacrifices we make for our children, is the occasion of many a mid-life crisis.
Perhaps the grand illusion of America’s youth was that we could stand alone, a colossus astride the world’s economic and geopolitical arrangements. Now America’s child – the global economy, or is it the global spread of democracy – demands sacrifice, demands the letting go of our youthful illusions of unilateralism.
Levinas reminds us that an ethical demand always arises in the face-to-face encounter with the other. Perhaps that is another way to understand the solidarity with the other that the gospels call us toward. The sacrifice that Christ call us toward includes letting go of our youthful illusions of immortality and extreme individualism, while embracing a love of life lived in community and relationship to the one who beckons us from another shore.
On that other shore today stand our brothers and sisters in Baghdad. They remind us that, as children of the same God, we are inextricably bound to one another. The bombs that continue to fall there fall on us, too – exploding then if not on our heads, at least in our hearts.
Are we, then, sacrificing ourselves at the very moment we would, according to our national security apparatus, secure our futures? No. For in this campaign there is no sacrifice called forth from us by that national leadership. Rather, we sacrifice our brothers and sisters and our own hearts become collateral damage. Mid-life crises always leave mangled hearts in their wake.
And where is the church in the midst of this American mid-life crisis?
The sacrifice and selflessness demanded of the church in this time of crisis may be a letting go of our socially secure and comfortable position as chaplain to the American way of life and an embrace of the long-abdicated prophetic pulpit that echoes Jesus’ challenge to the social arrangements of his world.
At this moment – as at every moment of national crisis – that means standing in the public square and calling loudly and incessantly for justice and for a peace build upon the foundation of that justice. Such a call is not likely to be popular today any more than it was in Jesus’ time. So some of us may age a bit less comfortably and securely than we had imagined. But a future of justice and peace can be a compelling enough vision to move a middle-aged country to sacrifice its youthful illusions.