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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. This lecture was delivered at the First United Methodist Church in Prescott, AZ, February 22, 2003. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock..


We live in the best of times and in the worst of times. Charles Dickens started his book, A Tale of Two Cities, with a paradoxical statement of this sort about the time of the French Revolution. It applies to today with even greater force.

We live in the best of times. I can attest to this with reference to my own very fortunate life experience. Even though I grew up in the Great Depression, I never experienced real want. The people I knew, both in Japan and in the United States, were well fed and adequately housed and clothed. World War II was terrible, but few people I knew well suffered personally. The right side won! The victors were more generous to the defeated than is usually the case. Japan and Europe rose from the ashes to become prosperous and peaceful. For several decades poverty, in any acute and degrading form, declined in most of the industrialized world. Systems were devised to insure that as we grow older we will not be denied medical care or thrown into destitution. Racism, which had been endemic and publicly affirmed, came to be universally acknowledged as evil, and its grossest manifestations declined. Advances in medicine conquered major diseases and extended the length of healthy living. Hundreds of millions of people became accustomed to what had heretofore been considered luxurious living. Travel all over the world became fast and comfortable. Furthermore, in much of the industrialized world we have taken for granted a level of personal freedom and assured rights that only a few have known in earlier periods. The Internet allows instant communication. Hundreds of millions of people have thus been provided with advantages undreamed of in any previous epoch.

But we live in the worst of times. Not all agree with that. There are many who believe that the evils that have for some accompanied these great advantages for others will soon be reduced as the benefits of progress are extended further and further. They believe that the foreboding that many of us feel is not rational, that the catastrophes we anticipate will never occur. They believe that the best of times lie ahead. Of course, they may be correct. I am certainly not able accurately to foresee the future. But as I look into that future, it appears to me that what is worst about our present global situation will deteriorate still further. So I repeat -- we live in the worst of times.

Since World War II the gap between rich countries and poor countries has grown rapidly. There are those who argue that even many of the poorest countries have gained a little, but my own view is that this gain is in numbers that do not measure true, sustainable well-being. The great increase of wealth in the industrial world has been achieved in part by transferring wealth from the South to the North. The cost to the South has been appalling. Furthermore, within most countries the gap between the rich and the poor has also grown greatly. The United States is an extreme case within the industrial world; Europe and much of East Asia are not as bad. But overall, globally, wealth has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. With wealth goes power, political as well as economic. The forms of democracy conceal the reality of plutocracy. The control of the media by rich corporations prevents the public from understanding what is happening.

The same developments that impoverish the poor and concentrate wealth in a few hands also degrade the earth. Ultimately, this is even more serious. New generations can change the social order. Restoring a devastated environment is more difficult. To make the desert bloom again requires enormous resources. And the fresh water required to accomplish this, to take one crucial example, grows scarce in relation to need. Forested mountains, once having lost their cover, lose also much of the soil needed for replanting. Tropical forests, once cut, leave exposed a soil that turns to rock. Some fish species, once decimated, do not recover. Irrigated land, once salinization has occurred, is very difficult to make fertile again. Species once lost are lost forever.

The list goes on and on. There are, of course, technological solutions to some individual problems. For example, ocean water can be desalinated and pumped to the interior. But the cost in energy is enormous, and, even without increased demand, an energy crisis looms ahead. Improved technology can certainly postpone catastrophe, and that is very important, but some of the means employed are likely to make the eventual crisis worse.

The social and ecological crisis cannot be separated from population growth. This is chiefly a problem for countries that have not industrialized. Often their population growth slows, or prevents, per capita economic growth. Many countries suffer from physical crowding and inadequate land to support more people. We are sometimes told that industrialization is the answer, but we know that this answer is also the problem. It is the per capita consumption in industrialized countries that causes the greatest environmental problems, such as exhaustion of resources and global warming. There is no possibility of solving the problems of poverty and overpopulation in the poorer countries by bringing their per capita consumption to the level of the United States! The planet simply cannot support this.

I doubt that all crises could be avoided even if the primary energy and imagination of the rich and powerful were directed to this end. I believe, however, that these crises would not have to turn into massive catastrophes. But one of the reasons that I say that we are living in the worst of times is the policies pushed by the government of the United States, now the world's only superpower, with the cooperation of the International Monetary Fund, the World, Bank, the World Trade Organization, transnational corporations, and most of the world's governments. These policies advance still further in the direction that has caused such social injustice and ecological degradation in recent decades. Resistance to these policies and proposing alternatives to them are left to nongovernmental organizations with little power. We can protest the pell-mell course toward catastrophe, but we seem impotent to stop it.

Let me share an image that may make my sense of where we are more vivid. Imagine an extremely luxurious car at the end of a long train. The passengers in that car live in great comfort. The scenery is beautiful; they are entertained by music and television that is deeply enjoyable and reassuring. Stewards and stewardesses serve them graciously and attentively.

There are other cars on the train. The ones immediately in front of the luxury car are adequate, though far from luxurious. Others, near the front, are more like cattle cars in which people are jammed together with little food or water and terrible hygienic conditions.

The train is speeding toward a river. The bridge over the river is broken. The conductor is aware that there may be a problem, but he gives his attention to other matters, especially the well-being of the passengers in the luxurious car. Perhaps if the brakes were firmly applied, the train would stop in time. There would be damage caused by slowing down so rapidly, but there would not be catastrophe. But the conductor ignores the danger signs and speeds along. For the passengers in the luxurious cars it is the best of times. For all the passengers, including these, and for the conductor as well, it is the worst of times.

Scattered through the train are persons who have heard that the bridge may be out. They try to alert their fellow passengers to the prospect ahead. Those crowded into the cattle cars are more concerned about finding food and drink than thinking about the future. Most in the decent cars are hoping to find ways to enter the luxury car. Some in the luxury car do understand the danger and try to influence others, but on the whole there is complacency. Since the conductor shows no sign of alarm and the TV reports ignore the danger, they enjoy their happy circumstances and try to silence the persistent mutterers in their midst. Even if there is an accident, they reason, they will be relatively protected.

They are right. When the train falls into the river, those in the front cars suffer most. These cars are under water, and even those who survive the crash have difficulty escaping from the crowded cars. Later cars come crashing down on top of them. The luxury car ends up on top of the pile of cars and the deep upholstery cushions the impact. There are serious injuries, but far fewer deaths than in the other cars.

Obviously, the analogy is far from perfect, but I hope you find it suggestive. There is enormous suffering in the world today. Those who suffer most now are most vulnerable to future crises. But those crises, if they become globally catastrophic, will engulf everyone. The rich have many ways to buffer themselves from the effects of catastrophe. But they, too, will lose much.

II

If we are living in what for us in the recent past, and in the imminent future, is "the best of times", but for others now, and for all of us in the not too distant future, "the worst of times', what does that mean for us as Christians? That is not an easy question to answer. Most Christians through most of Christian history have focused their attention on quite immediate problems. We seek to meet our own spiritual needs. We look to one another and the church for help in shoring up our marriages and bringing up our children. We struggle with health problems and financial crises. We mourn the loss of loved ones. We try to improve the quality of the communities in which we live. We seek justice for the groups with which we most strongly identify. If the church is with us in these struggles, we are grateful. We support the church with our prayers, our time, and our money.

We expect the church to call on us also to respond to the needs of the less fortunate. Some of these are other members of the church. Others live in our neighborhoods. We also give for the relief of suffering in other parts of the nation and the world. In times of major disasters, we dig deeper into our pockets to help.

This is admirable. No other institution serves its members so well while calling on them to serve others so extensively. With all of its failures and sins, and these are many, the church plays a unique and indispensable role in society. It is worthy of our support.

But the church has another responsibility that is particularly difficult to fulfill. It is our teacher and it speaks to the larger society. It has the task of bringing to bear on the issues of our day the accumulated wisdom of its tradition. It should lead its members in action relevant to the most urgent problems of its time.

The record of the church in this regard is checkered. It has not always been wise. Most of us deplore the Crusades that played such a large role in Christendom during the Middle Ages. But not all of the church's social initiatives during that period were bad. It mitigated the suffering of the poor and the abuse inflicted on them by the powerful. It led in education and medicine. It taught governments that their task was to serve rather than to exploit their people. It affirmed the dignity of all human beings.

In the United States the churches generally recognized the evil of slavery. This was true even in the South. This recognition paved the way for eventual emancipation. Sadly, in the South this was succeeded by legal segregation. In the churches there was some recognition that this also failed to conform to Christian teaching. But in the white churches this recognition had only peripheral effects until the leadership of the black churches forced decisions. When that happened many of the churches knew what they had to do and gave important support to the Civil Rights movement.

The church in the Middle Ages, while preaching Crusades against the Muslim conquerors of the Holy Land, did moderate warfare within Christendom. Christians knew that war was evil. Individual Christians have taken an absolute stand against war. Most churches, while supporting those individuals as individuals, have opted for just war theory. This means in theory that stringent conditions must be met before the church can sanction a war. The practice, however, has been far more tolerant. Most churches have supported the wars waged by their nations. Recently, however, the Pope spoke clearly to the effect that a preemptive strike against Iraq could not be justified. Most church leaders in this country have agreed.

In the United States the churches worked hard during World War II to insure that the United States would not fail to support international cooperation for peace when the war was over. They recognized that the refusal to join the League of Nations had contributed to the causes of World War II. They did not want that to happen again. At the end of World War II the people of the United States overwhelmingly supported the United Nations. The churches can claim some credit for having nurtured this acceptance.

Some of the churches, including the ones that are now part of United Methodism, also worked hard in earlier days for public Sabbath observance, restrictions on gambling, and, most especially, the prohibition of drinking of alcohol. They succeeded for a time on all of these fronts. However, prohibition was an experiment that created at least as many problems as it solved, and by the time it was repealed, the churches had lost enthusiasm for trying to impose their moral standards on the society as a whole. They have not resisted repeal of Sabbath laws or the revival of gambling, and they have been remarkably quiescent with respect to drug policy.

The church has always taught that Christians should have special concern for the poor. As in the Middle Ages, so also later, the churches have had institutions to help the poor and have tried to moderate their oppression by the rich. As the industrial revolution created a new kind of exploitation of the poor by the rich, many in the churches protested and attempted to mitigate the suffering. In the first decades of the twentieth century, most Protestant churches worked together to enact legislation that would protect women and children from the factory system, limit the hours worked by all, and improve wages. Much of the New Deal legislation followed the lines proposed by the churches.

This sketch of some of the ways the churches have acted to influence the larger society is enough to show that this has been part of the churches' history. It is not a glorious one, but overall, in my opinion, the church has played a positive role in Western society. It has learned from its mistakes as well as its successes, and on the whole its current positions on public issues seem to me wise. However, at present, the fact that a few people in leadership make good statements has little effect in the life of the church. So far as I know there is no issue in our society today on which the old-line churches are giving effective leadership of the sort I have been outlining above.

One reason, no doubt, is that the churches have been engaged in reflection about what has been wrong in their own traditions. After World War II we Christians gradually became aware of how destructive had been the consequences of our teaching about the Jews. Except for the actual killing of Jews, most of what Hitler had done against them had the support of historic Christian teaching, which had never been repudiated. The churches have now repented, and that means they are trying to change their teaching and practice.

Similarly, Christians have realized that our missionary efforts have been closely bound up with Western imperialism. That has not led us to repudiate missions, but it has led to repenting of our arrogance and reappraising the cultures in which we engage in missions and appreciating the religious dimensions of those cultures. Dialogue has become a much more important part of our relation to other communities.

Christians also discovered that the deep-seated suspicion of sexual activity and enjoyment that characterized most of our tradition was not biblical and that it continued to do us great harm. We have tried to rethink our views of sexuality on the basis of seeing it as a gift of God, which we are called to use responsibly. Sadly, we are deeply split about what such responsible use entails, especially for those whose sexual attraction is to members of their own gender. Some believe that responsible use is possible only in the context of marriage, which they define heterosexually. Others believe that there can also be responsible use between committed and faithful members of the same sex. Our churches are torn apart over the right practical expressions of our changed view of sexuality.

In the midst of repentance for its own historic sins, the church seems to have difficult generating the confidence and energy to respond to current issues. Most of its energy is expended on internecine strife. The rest is devoted to survival strategies. We cannot look to it for the leadership the world so desperately needs.

III

In the first part of this talk, I sketched a picture of where humanity as a whole now stands in its historical course. This situation seems to call for dramatic action from Christians. In the second part of the talk, I described a church that sometimes in the past has led in dealing with public issues and sometimes responsibly followed other leaders, but is now ineffective even when it makes occasional pronouncements that are good. I gave a very partial account of why it is now so weak. In this concluding section, I will give some ideas of my own about what Christians are called to do even when the leadership of denominational and ecumenical bodies is ineffective.

The first need is for Christians to become informed. This is not easy. Most of us Americans get most of our information from newspapers, popular magazines, radio, and, above all, television. Of course, these do provide some accurate information. But overwhelmingly they communicate the picture of what is happening in the world that their corporate owners and advertisers want us to adopt. Most Americans get from these sources a picture of American innocence, such that the deep hatred we inspire in many places, and the suspicion of our motives widely entertained elsewhere, are hardly understood. We need to balance these sources of information with others. Among Christian sources, I recommend the publications of the World Council of Churches. In the United Methodist Church, we can get some information from the Board of Church and Society and through United Methodist Women. I am sorry to say, however, that even these voices have been muted through conservative pressure within and upon the denomination. The Methodist Federation for Social Action is less affected by conservative pressure, but its publications are quite limited.

It is important to read some publications that are not beholden to corporate owners or advertisers or inhibited by politics within the church. Fortunately, such publications exist. Indeed, there are dozens of them. Of course, their articles also show the bias of the editors and the specific authors, and none of them have the resources to gather information comparable to the public media. I am not saying that any one of them is wholly reliable. I am only saying that they provide views not filtered through the interests of major corporations or government officials. Without exposure to such views, it is almost impossible for an American to gain a picture of what is really happening.

A second need is to reflect about the Christian perspective. If we become quite clear about the policies that now guide the government of the United States, there remains the question of Christian judgment of that policy. Sometimes, this is judgment is quite simple. We should be able to agree, for example, that having environmental policies shaped primarily by the short-term interests of the oil companies is not Christian. We should also be able to agree that policies designed to reduce services to the poor and to put a larger part of the tax burden on the shoulders of the lower middle class is not Christian.

I have only recently become aware that our national policy is now geared to maintaining overwhelming military power so that no nation or group of nations can challenge our global domination. The goal is a worldwide Pax Americana. Is this a Christian goal?

The question here is a little more difficult. Those who promote this goal believe that this is the best way to achieve peace and prosperity for the whole planet. If we cut off, at the outset, the possibility of any serious threat to our power, through preemptive strikes, the disruption of world peace will be short-lived and local. Natural resources and goods can flow freely around the world. The ideal of a global market can be still more fully realized. This should ensure economic growth. Given this possibility, it can be argued, it is the moral responsibility of the United States to realize it. No other nation has ever been confronted by such an opportunity. Despite the costs to us, we must rise to the occasion.

These arguments have a certain persuasiveness. I think they are honest and honorable ones, although we must always ask, who benefits. The answer in this case is clear, large corporations benefit, especially the oil companies. The first expression of the quest for global hegemony is to secure Near Eastern oil, especially around the Caspian Sea and in Iraq. With these bases, our government believes, Iran and Saudi Arabia can be kept in line or conquered if need be. Transnational oil corporations will have greater security and freedom from governmental manipulation of oil prices.

My suspicion is aroused also by the history of U.S. relations to Latin America under the Monroe Doctrine. We have supported Latin American governments that have been highly oppressive of their own people as long as they have been subservient to us. We have overthrown Latin American governments that were genuinely concerned for the well-being of their own people when they have been less subservient to us. Subservience to us has consistently meant giving a free hand to our corporations even when this was not in the interest of the people. To extend these policies around the world does not seem moral.

But let us suppose that the quest for U.S. hegemony is to be taken at face value as dedicated to global peace and prosperity. Is the goal of prosperity, understood as increasing production and consumption the right goal for our time? Will it not lead to the more rapid approach of global crises? Meanwhile if prosperity is sought as in the past by liberating corporations to invest with few restrictions anywhere in the world, will it not continue to increasing the gap between the rich and the poor? Will it not be harder than ever to stop the "race to the bottom" in terms of standards of labor and pollution?

For myself, I have no difficulty judging that the global hegemony of any one country, in this case our own, is a bad goal from a Christian point of view. "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is not a biblical phrase, but it arises from a biblical understanding of human sinfulness. The founders of the United States were keenly aware of the danger of concentrating power and developed a system of checks and balances that is responsible for much of what is best about our country. For us to trust ourselves, primarily the executive branch, with almost total military control of the planet cuts against this deep Christian understanding.

There is another Christian responsibility. It is to envision a better direction for U.S. policy. I think we can all take a few steps. Instead of trying to control the world unilaterally, we could give real support to strengthening the United Nations, the World Court, and other multilateral organizations. We could guide in their reform so as more fairly and inclusively to reflect the needs and insights of all the world's peoples. We could give it the power and authority to keep the peace, submitting ourselves to international law and subscribing to international treaties designed to extend human rights and social justice. We could promote steps to relieve human poverty and suffering without simply increasing global consumption. We could strive for global rules governing corporate behavior that would place human well-being and the health of the earth above corporate profits.

All of these matters are complicated. They deserve the kind of resources of time, talent, and money now poured into the expansion of military power. A deep reversal of policy or this sort might save the world.

It is sadly clear that churches as institutions cannot now provide the leadership humanity needs to avoid terrible catastrophes. Christians as individuals and in groups, however, are free to think and act. If we express our faith thoughtfully in relation to the critical issues of our time, the churches may eventually join us. If we work together with those in other religious communities and other nongovernmental organizations, we can make a difference.

What would that work be? Much of it will be with ourselves. We have been socialized to accept the values of a consumer-oriented society instead of a sustainable one. We have to recover our awareness of our participation in nature and re-imagine a life that is deeply rooted in the land. The work will also be ecclesiastical. The church must come to express the new vision. The work will be humanitarian. Many are already suffering the results of present policies and impending crises. We are called to ease their suffering. The work will be educational. Society will not change direction until many understand the dangers of the present direction and the possibility of another, more promising, one. The work will be evangelistic. We need to convert other Christians and also convert secular people to this kind of Christianity. The work will be local. We can model ways of being in community that are far more sustainable than our present society. The work will be political. We will need to organize to effect change in government policies at all level.

None of us can save the world. Indeed, none of us can work effectively at all the levels where work is needed. One great blessing about being in the church is that we know that the community as a whole can accomplish much if one-by-one we do what we are personally called to do. Also, even if we cannot see much sign of success, we take satisfaction in knowing that God is working with us and accepts our efforts, modest though they are.

Most fundamentally, today, we are called to make a choice. Jesus told us that we cannot serve both God and wealth. Our society today is organized in the service of wealth. Our government is intensifying that service at the global, as well as the national, level. It is easy to be personally sucked into a life where wealth is the primary value. But we can also choose to serve God. If we do so, we will be part of the solution to the world's problems rather than part of the problem.

 


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