- - Monday, August 14, 2017


There is a deep well of suffering in America.

What we see on the surface is a country with a national emergency of opioid addiction, where loneliness is a greater threat to public health than obesity and where an increasing number of middle-aged citizens, white people in particular, succumb to “deaths of despair,” suicide, accidental drug overdose, and alcohol-related liver disease.

Economic factors alone don’t account for the rising tide of deaths of despair. Non-white Americans, as well as immigrant citizens, experience the same economic pressures – low wages, high expenses – without the same rise in death rates.

Perhaps it is, in part, their historical entitlement that makes white Americans particularly susceptible to today’s existential malaise. Fundamental attitudes toward success and failure may also play a role. According to the results of a recent survey from The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, white Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on individual failings than Americans who have no religious affiliations. This is especially true for white evangelical Christians. Half of white Catholics attributed poverty to lack of effort, that is, laziness. Less than a third of African-American Christians agree.

On Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, America’s deep well of inner suffering exploded outward, exposing the bloody ugliness of fear, hatred and extremism. Demonstrators carried Nazi flags and Confederate flags, banners of degrading and cruel ideologies, the nation’s historical enemies who are ideological enemies of everything that is good and decent in America.

Like the “deaths of despair,” white supremacist ideology is a symptom of an ailing society. The illness is spiritual, infecting the soul of our national community. Middle-aged white people are dying prematurely, and white extremists are dominated by the fear of extinction. Their existential fear needs an explanation and here’s what they find: They believe they are doomed by the growth of the non-white population, manipulated by the Jews.

White supremacy on the right finds its reflection in a brand of identity politics on the political left with its own hateful rhetoric, including anti-Semitism, aka anti-Zionism.

Politically and socially, we are defining ourselves into smaller and smaller subgroups, each looking out for itself. Where once a president inspired the nation with “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” we now feature the politics of resentment – “Look at what they’ve got – I’m entitled to mine!”

A spiritual disorder is one that causes fragmentation and alienation … it is a state of disconnection from one another, from our community and from the larger whole. There are fewer and weaker marriages and families, and no robust institutions to take their place. The individual is isolated, literally dying of loneliness.

We will move forward and find our way through this national emergency, as we have through so many before. The experience will make us wiser if we keep in mind some fundamental human truths that transcend the politics of the moment; that individuals have innate value – regardless of their productivity, or achievement, wealth or power; that we are in this together - our connection enriches us, creating a whole America that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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