COMMENTARY: When the best days seem behind us, not ahead

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(RNS) My grandfather — Class of “Naughty-five” at Purdue University — was a civil engineer, builder and inventor imbued with an American “can-do” spirit.

He worked on a great dam project in the Northwest, when a new nation tamed rivers, spanned canyons and enabled populations to expand.

He served in the cavalry during World War I, returned to Indiana, invented a machine for canning tomatoes, and started a company. He lived simply, educated his da(RNS) My grandfather — Class of “Naughty-five” at Purdue University — was a civil engineer, builder and inventor imbued with an American “can-do” spirit.

He worked on a great dam project in the Northwest, when a new nation tamed rivers, spanned canyons and enabled populations to expand.

He served in the cavalry during World War I, returned to Indiana, invented a machine for canning tomatoes, and started a company. He lived simply, educated his daughters, and was a loyal Mason, churchgoer and citizen.

I contrast him with today’s bright stars, who amass fortunes by managing wealth that someone else created and prey on the unwary. They invent games and entertainment devices, but rig systems like health care and education to their benefit. Too often, they profit from others’ travails.

They live extraordinarily large and leave military duty and community service to others. They evade whatever taxes they can, and see education as credentialing for accumulating wealth, not for building useful infrastructure, products and services.

No wonder America’s bridges are crumbling. No wonder China is leaping ahead of us in technology, transportation and efficient power, while we lack the political will to fix broken systems, much less invest in new ones.

No wonder automakers keep cycling back to the easy days. No wonder we are buried in debt from spending money we didn’t have, and are vulnerable to the medieval feuds of religious extremists sitting atop oil we can’t imagine living without.

No wonder newspaper headlines tell one corruption story after another. When “get mine” replaces “can do,” all restraints vanish. Civic virtue is for suckers and dirty-hands work is for losers. Self-sacrifice and personal ethics give way to the smug pieties of religious ideology.

No wonder the self-described “greatest nation” and its audacious “experiment in democracy” are floundering in the hands of obstructionists whose only goal is to gain power and its financial benefits, as ideologues harvest anger and anxiety in seeking to turn citizens against each other.

The blindness of self-serving is rampant. In a Sunday school class discussing their congregation’s dwindling fortunes — empty pews, lifeless services, minimal ministry — most were eager for change and growth, but a noisy few carried the day: “I grew up here, I like the church, it does not need to change,” said one.

“We’ve heard these arguments before, leave it the way it is,” said another. “If you don’t like our church,” one suggested, “why don’t you go to another?” And then this: “We don’t need those people who leave.”

Such sentiments violate the gospel and guarantee the death of an institution. Yet they prevail because few have the courage to resist nihilism. Conflict-avoidance seems safer than the risks, tussling and hard work that are required to build something.

How bad is it? These feel like the latter days of the Roman Empire, when an effete and corrupt ruling class lived large at others’ expense. Or the early days of repression, when demagogues promise easy answers, scapegoat the vulnerable, and flatter people while seizing power from them. Religion, meanwhile, goes silent in order to protect its franchise.

I look for spine, like my grandfather had. Not the bullying of demagogues, nor the phony certainties of fundamentalism. Not smug entitlement, but spine, a can-do spirit, a belief in hard work and risk-taking, a joining of hands in great endeavors, living simply, and serving others.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project, http://www.churchwellness.com. His Web site is http://www.morningwalkmedia.com.)

ughters, and was a loyal Mason, churchgoer and citizen.

I contrast him with today’s bright stars, who amass fortunes by managing wealth that someone else created and prey on the unwary. They invent games and entertainment devices, but rig systems like health care and education to their benefit. Too often, they profit from others’ travails.

They live extraordinarily large and leave military duty and community service to others. They evade whatever taxes they can, and see education as credentialing for accumulating wealth, not for building useful infrastructure, products and services.

No wonder America’s bridges are crumbling. No wonder China is leaping ahead of us in technology, transportation and efficient power, while we lack the political will to fix broken systems, much less invest in new ones.

No wonder automakers keep cycling back to the easy days. No wonder we are buried in debt from spending money we didn’t have, and are vulnerable to the medieval feuds of religious extremists sitting atop oil we can’t imagine living without.

No wonder newspaper headlines tell one corruption story after another. When “get mine” replaces “can do,” all restraints vanish. Civic virtue is for suckers and dirty-hands work is for losers. Self-sacrifice and personal ethics give way to the smug pieties of religious ideology.

No wonder the self-described “greatest nation” and its audacious “experiment in democracy” are floundering in the hands of obstructionists whose only goal is to gain power and its financial benefits, as ideologues harvest anger and anxiety in seeking to turn citizens against each other.

The blindness of self-serving is rampant. In a Sunday school class discussing their congregation’s dwindling fortunes — empty pews, lifeless services, minimal ministry — most were eager for change and growth, but a noisy few carried the day: “I grew up here, I like the church, it does not need to change,” said one.

“We’ve heard these arguments before, leave it the way it is,” said another. “If you don’t like our church,” one suggested, “why don’t you go to another?” And then this: “We don’t need those people who leave.”

Such sentiments violate the gospel and guarantee the death of an institution. Yet they prevail because few have the courage to resist nihilism. Conflict-avoidance seems safer than the risks, tussling and hard work that are required to build something.

How bad is it? These feel like the latter days of the Roman Empire, when an effete and corrupt ruling class lived large at others’ expense. Or the early days of repression, when demagogues promise easy answers, scapegoat the vulnerable, and flatter people while seizing power from them. Religion, meanwhile, goes silent in order to protect its franchise.

I look for spine, like my grandfather had. Not the bullying of demagogues, nor the phony certainties of fundamentalism. Not smug entitlement, but spine, a can-do spirit, a belief in hard work and risk-taking, a joining of hands in great endeavors, living simply, and serving others.

We lived that way once; I’m increasingly skeptical we could ever do it again.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project, http://www.churchwellness.com. His Web site is http://www.morningwalkmedia.com.)

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