The old order and the old integrity slowly collapse, but the statues remain, and the words. How odd they sound:
“The founder of the University of Chicago, John D. Rockefeller, on December 13, 1910, made provision for the erection of this chapel and thus defined its purpose: As the spirit of religion should penetrate and control the university, so that building which represents religion ought to be the central and dominant feature of the university group. Thus it will be proclaimed that the university is dominated by the spirit of religion. All its departments are inspired by religious feeling, and all its work is directed to the highest ends.”
Well, hmm. This was the 19th century’s religion, of course. Its patriarchal God presided over empire and scientific progress and the Industrial Age, but even still — no matter how many passionate arguments I’ve had with this God over the course of my lifetime — I was struck, on this beautiful fall afternoon in Chicago, as I stood in the vestibule of Rockefeller Chapel with my out-of-town guests, by this God’s absence in contemporary public life. The regulating force is gone and we’re spinning, it seems, out of control.
I say this fully aware that the God etched in Rockefeller’s granite condoned racism, colonialism, war, genocide, the exploitation of the Third World and the conquest of nature, all to vicious future consequence. And that future is now.
But the old integrity, however flawed, was a force that monitored the economy, spread prosperity to large numbers of people, generated a middle class and kept greed and criminal corruption under wraps. The old integrity valued the public sector and presided over democracy. It built a nation that was a beacon of hope to the world.
In its void, we’re reeling toward our ecological and political comeuppance in a state of narcissistic denial; there is too little public seriousness about the issues that face us.
“As the spirit of religion should penetrate and control the university . . .”
The very oddness of these words awoke in me an urgent longing for their updated replacement: for a God, a belief system, compassionately attuned to the natural world, whose worship breaks down borders, savors truth and celebrates our equality and interdependence. Let such a spirit penetrate and control . . . Congress, the White House, the foreign policy establishment, the state houses and the media.
What we must build is unprecedented: a truly humane world. This won’t happen in a state of cynical separation from one another. This is not, as you may have noticed, the world we are actually building. We wage war and business in the same old ways, with a reckless determination to replicate the triumphant past, but it’s not working. Every failure ups the ante and fuels our determination not to change course.
“With the hubris that marks empires over the millennia, Washington has increased its troops in Afghanistan to 100,000, expanded the war into Pakistan, and extended its commitment to 2014 and beyond, courting disasters large and small in this guerrilla-infested, nuclear-armed graveyard of empires,” Alfred McCoy wrote in The Nation last December.
America the sputtering empire may be flailing in its death throes, ignoring its own needs and people, letting its infrastructure collapse, skimping on healthcare and education, but, as Glenn Greenwald recently reported, it’s building a $100 million detention facility in Bagram, Afghanistan, among its endless toxic follies of global domination.
“To date, the United States has spent more than $2.5 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon spending spree that accompanied it and a battery of new homeland security measures instituted after Sept. 11,” economists Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz wrote a few days ago in the Los Angeles Times.
They added: “Already, half of the returning troops have been treated in Veterans Administration medical centers, and more than 600,000 have qualified to receive disability compensation. At this point, the bill for future medical and disability benefits is estimated at $600 billion to $900 billion, but the number will almost surely grow as hundreds of thousands of troops still deployed abroad return home.”
And as though we don’t have enough enemies, we’re also waging a furious war on our own southern border and throughout the country, purging ourselves of the “illegal aliens” who steal America’s jobs and, as John McCain recently fulminated, start wildfires in Arizona.
But our anti-immigrant consciousness doesn’t limit itself to merely dehumanizing and deporting foreigners. This is also a war about what people are allowed to think, with the state of Arizona leading the charge against its own ethnic studies programs, in particular (what a surprise) Mexican American Studies. Roberto Rodriguez, writing on Common Dreams, described the Tucson Unified School District’s ongoing appeal of the state’s non-compliance ruling against it “reminiscent of the 1500s-era Inquisition” and “a war against Indigenous Knowledge.”
This hollow, multi-front war is one we will lose, but there is a divine irony here. Only in defeat do we have the opportunity to begin rebuilding ourselves — on the foundation of a new integrity, based not on domination but harmony with ourselves and our planet.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
© 2011 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.