I have come to believe that the greatest casualty of the past economic downturn isn’t the lost equity and wages, but the breaking of the American spirit. Millions of people did as they were told, worked hard, believed deeply, lived modestly and have watched their standard of living deteriorate; and that deterioration has eroded their sense of self-worth and their ability to trust. They’ve grown an unshakable inner gnawing that tells them they are failures.
When you feel like you’ve failed, you become vulnerable to anything that will take the edge off that pain—chemicals, promiscuity, social ideologies of blame, even religion. By creating a momentary euphoria, these substances or activities work as opioids, dulling the incessant ache of inadequacy and multiplying a desire for the “next fix.” I see a direct connection between the rise of political hate groups and a national opioid epidemic.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he speaks of such a cultural decay: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” (Romans 1.25)
In that passage we tend to rush off to the next verses because they have to do with sexual perversion, which is far more interesting to us than Paul’s theological point. The point of Paul’s argument is not a condemnation of particular sexual practices, but the deterioration of a culture. When a person’s value is determined by their power over material things rather than their submission to eternal value, that culture is doomed.
Paul goes on to point out that the judgmental-ism towards evil doers (in our culture let’s say opioid addicts and hate groups) is part of the problem. We become complicit to the system when our smug self-righteous superiority declares our way of thinking to be right and others to be losers (2.3-4). “Being right” becomes its own narcotic, numbing us to the recognition of how our success is derived from the dumb-luck of birth rather than our superiority as competitors. Paul’s ultimate argument in Romans is the unification of humanity by our shared condition as sinners rather than the division of the world into right-thinking-people and bozos.
All this drives my musing into the breathtakingly uncomfortable position of considering neo-Nazis and crackheads as kin. This does not forgive their choices resulting in violence or self-destruction, but it does suggest we share the same desire for pain-relief and meaning. Comfortable or not, we are bound to one another by our irrevocable and mutual need for grace.
Feeling uncomfortable with my relatives, I remain with love,
Jonathan B. Krogh