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Eulogy for America/Hope for Creation

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[Opening remarks at the Moral Values Forum sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA, October 9, 2005]

I come to this distinguished panel of theologians with one small disadvantage and one major advantage.

The small disadvantage is that I have no formal theological training. My larger advantage is that I have no formal theological training. I also have no allegiance to any particular theological system. Perhaps those of us who have opted out of the religious arena have a little advantage, a bit more freedom to draw on the wisdom of the various traditions without being weighed down by the history and dogma of any one in particular.

As we search the wisdom of the ages, it becomes clear that a few common principles are at the foundation of almost all systems. These can be succinctly expressed, I think, in the realm of the ethical, emotional, and intellectual.

First is the ethic of reciprocity, which we typically call the Golden Rule. Some version of that concept appears in every major philosophical and theological tradition. The most common articulation of it in the culture in which I was raised is in the Christian Bible, Matthew 7:12: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets."

Another recurring theme in so many systems of thought is the centrality of love and a call to expand both the scope and depth of our love. From our connections to those close to us, to our relationship with all of creation, the command is simply to love, and when we follow that we find within ourselves deep capacities for empathy, compassion, and solidarity.

Also embedded in all these traditions, I believe, is an understanding of the need for humility, the imperative to recognize that what we know amounts to painfully little in the face of what there is to know that is beyond our capacity. As a result, our own survival depends on acting on our knowledge, which is impressive, but also remembering our ignorance, which is far deeper.

I think these ethical, emotional, and intellectual values lead inexorably to a certain kind of political project, what I would call a radical humanist democracy. And I think that project is at odds with the current political project that we called the United States of America.

In this country, we ask people to be decent within institutions that are indecent. We expect people to act ethically, lovingly, and wisely within systems that reject our deepest collective wisdom. We accept a society that is increasingly built on four dangerous fundamentalisms -- religious, national, economic, and technological -- each based on a rejection of some combination of those foundational ethical, emotional, and intellectual insights. We expect that somehow magically we will be better than the systems in which we live. This is a recipe for disaster.

So, it is with that collective wisdom of the ages at our backs -- the wisdom one finds across cultures, through time, in many different places -- that we can, and must, begin to call for the death of America. Or, to be more accurate, we can demand that we recognize that in some sense America is already dead.

By this, I don't just mean that we have some problems. I mean that the United States in 2005 is a dead society, that the systems on which the United States is based are bankrupt -- ecologically unsustainable and morally indefensible. The problem is that, although this seems clear enough to me and many others, the United States has not yet recognized its own death, which makes it a particularly dangerous nation.

To say that this state of affairs is a recipe for disaster is actually too optimistic; it is a disaster, unfolding before us. It is the disaster of a white-supremacist society in which black infant mortality is twice that of whites. It is the disaster of a male-supremacist society in which one of three women will be raped in her lifetime. It is the disaster of a society that prides itself on being "a nation of laws, not men" and then pursues an unlawful invasion in defiance of all the civilized world, with predictably horrific results. It is the disaster of a capitalist society in which the privileged segment of the population engages in orgiastic binges of meaningless consumption while stepping over homeless people in the streets of every major city. It is the disaster of a society whose contempt for the non-human world has dug us into an ecological hole so deep that there may be no way we can pull ourselves out at this late date. And it is the disaster of a society that seems to believe that no matter what problems its own cleverness creates, it can rescue itself with more cleverness.

In this disaster, most of us in the United States are insulated by privilege from the most brutal consequences of these fundamentalisms. While this disaster unfolds in the so-called First World, centered in the United States, others bear the most crushing burdens. Such as the 500 children who die in Africa from poverty-related diseases that could be largely eliminated with minimal investment. If those 500 children lived in a world that wasn't structured on imperial domination and a rapacious global capitalism, they would have a chance to live. Those 500 children who die -- not every month, nor every week, nor every day. Those 500 children who die every hour. Those 500 children who, if we believe our own principles, have exactly the same value as our own children.

This hyper-religious, pathologically nationalistic, brutally capitalist, inhumanly high-technology society in which we live is a dead-end. There is no reforming it. All that is left to do is say a few words over the grave, toss in a handful of dirt, and walk away as we often do at funerals of people about whom we had mixed feelings -- remembering that there were some good things about the deceased, but secretly being glad they're gone.

America is dead. Thank God. Thank the gods. Thank the goddesses.

But there is much work to do to make sure that we bury the beast as quickly as possible, before it does more damage, before the damage is beyond repair. And there is even more work to do to imagine what the world will be when the beast is buried.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
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