Populism, faith and despair


Dear friends,

the last few months have been rich in political and social events and, somehow, their results can be quite confusing for many of us and undoubtedly deserves a reflection.

What appears to be more clearly evincibile, beyond the individual particular eventualities, is that we are witnessing a progressive and increasingly evident rise of populist ideologies being naturally opposed to our positions: the resurgence of xenophobic, racist, nationalist feelings, the raising of social, economic and cultural barriers, the closure in particularism, in egoism and in an ideology that is the epitome of the most sinister, savage and stupid capitalism have become the flag not only, as previously, of small groups of fanatics unable to understand how their narrow have had already been widely condemned by history but also of large sections of the populations of many Western countries, enchanted by “strong men” who, for their own interests, have become standard-bearers of these ravings.

To analyze the causes of these disturbing return to a past that many of us thought as already buried by human reason is a complex work that, for the most part, may appear to fall outside the competence of a pastor. Equally, though, on a personal basis and only in broad terms, I would like to list some of the ones I see as primary causes of the phenomenon.

  • First of all, more in terms of underlying cause than in socio-historical terms, I believe that the massive migration we are witnessing has had a very important weight in this clear entrenchment within ideological trenches that someone would like (unfortunately more and more successfully) to become also physical. “Our welfare, our value system, our own culture are in danger and, then, we have to build walls, dust off old nationalist-protectionist assumptions and get prepared to defend ourselves! “, the champions of the defense of the privilege to be randomly born and raised in the Western industrialized world claim. Frankly, the first question that arises is: to defend ourselves what from?  To defend ourselves from the exodus of desperate people fleeing from genocide, war or extreme poverty? Are these the “enemies” that endanger our prosperity and our civilization? Honesty, I do not think that being a landing area for humans who only ask for a dignified and safe life can be considered such an immeasurable danger. Rather, I think it would more appropriate to state that the failure to listen to their cry of pain would be a litmus test of the human and moral inadequacy of this “civilization” that some people wish to defend. Do they claim? It seems to me that these desperate people are not so much in a position to demand anything, or that they normally do so, unless we considered “a claim” to require minimal levels of dignified treatment and personal liberty, which, moreover have every right to be claimed in any forum, not on the basis of national, ethnic or any other kind of definition but on the basis of a common partnership to mankind. Is their presence in large numbers jeopardizing our own culture? Perhaps it might be an assumption making sense if we saw, like many proponents of the “national cult”, a culture as a monolithic sacral element, not tied to continuous transformative and evolutionary mechanisms. Personally, I would rather say that any static cultural system shows its weakness just in its impermeability and its rejection of any comparison, while all the major cultural advancements, from the birth of the proto-civilizations to the Roman Empire and to the Renaissance development, to name a few, have arisen from cultural mixtures and hybridizations between different social arrangements. Or, perhaps, what terrorizes us is the Malthusian effect of local limited resources to be shared among a larger number of competitors. Again, this assumption seems to me so poor that, if it were not tragic, it would be hilarious: who defines any area as a sort of “private possession”? On whicht basis? Perhaps on those nationalistic bases that are exclusively self-referential? Isn’t, rather, the Malthusian one a global phenomenon which, although still far in time in its accomplishment, should, however, be addressed on a global scale, dimensioned to its own proportions? Or do we fear so much for our small garden to be unable to think bigger than our limited horizons?  I would say  this fear of losing a small part of our ultra-welfare, of our consumeristic surplus in favor of a dignified survival of other human beings is a really strange effect, especially if embodied in alleged supporters of social and religious values!  But, well, in the end, it is basically nothing astonishing: it is the effect of that perverse and circular mechanism that ensures that those who work to develop social fears can present themselves as great problem solvers fighting against those “false” problems they presented as “epochal disasters” and, in doing so, can get power with messianic claims.
  • Or, perhaps, the reason  of this populist resurgence lies in the terrorist phenomenon that makes us stigmatize an entire population as thirsty for blood and eager to impose to the West obscurantist religious rules that would take our civilization back of 800 years? Probably all this might make sense if we did not take into account some assumptions I would really hesitate to define irrelevant. The first of these assumptions is that, even without denying the danger of this phenomenon, I suppose it would be appropriate to circumscribe it in its true proportions: the jihadist fanatics are, in fact, a small percentage of a fundamentalist minority within a society which, despite appearances (obviously ultra-emphasized by the media), withstood the terrorist impact (being, after all, its first victim) and largely coalesced with a Western world that had understood the extent of the risk it was running well too late and that had placed the reaction to this risk at the bottom of a list of other priorities just to realize, after millions of victims, that a joint reaction (or, at least, partially joint) could rather quickly resize the terms of the “clash of civilizations” that was feared.  Anyway, no one ever bothered to analyze the reasons for such a possible “clash of civilizations” in its real historical and cultural context, just dismissing it as an emanation of a “religious madness” being, on the contrary, only a mask to hide much deeper mechanisms. Perhaps, the examination of such mechanisms would cost too much, in terms of emotional involvement and of destruction of a stereotypical image of the “Western democracies”, to be addressed in its true extent.  It is curious how the ones who screamed and keep screaming about the Islamic barbarity show to know very little about Islam and don’t realize that to answer (if we can speak about an answer) to alleged (or real) “closures” with even greater and more serious closures is mad not only lacking the support of any authoritative ideology (except for a vengeful fear) but, mainly as it ends up being strident with those values that we claim to defend. Finally, an element is emerging clearer than any other: terrorism does not come from far away and the so-called radicalization occurs in peripheral and declining areas of our cities much more than in Arab countries mosques. This becomes the evident mark of the failure of any ghettoization and isolation policy which, however, continues to be defined as the only possible one and will, indeed, increase the risk of terrorism without doing anything to stop it. .
  • Of course, all this is seamlessly grafted into the climate of “economic crisis” in which we have been, globally, all immersed for years. The ever-present crisis is the great theme of the day but at least a couple of things appear, so to say, to be at least curious. The first is that, in a time of widespread economic collapse, some, a few (but, in the end, not even so few) elected people prosper and, indeed absolutely undisturbed, enrich themselves, attracting the envy and, unfortunately, more often, the admiration of many less fortunate ones, who, as a rule, look more to the results of this enrichment than to the methods by which it took place (does the end justify the means? I would have imagined that an overall negative response had to be, now, an acquired ethical equity!) or deny to think to the obvious inequality among humans potentially having the same dignity that could be solved just with a small tax redistribution. The second, which is even more absurd, is that those who end up paying the highest tribute to this crisis are not those who, with their creative financing, with their wild speculations, with their hoarding syndrome, contributed to create it but, on the contrary, those who were, in their economic weakness, its first victims, taken as “scapegoat” precisely on the basis of the limited possibilities of defense stemming from that weakness. There is nothing new in all this, and, on these occasions, one is almost tempted to give reason to the supporters of an alleged historical cyclicality: the crisis, somehow, affects us more socially than economically in its push to erect defensive barriers, in its remarking the scales of hierarchical privilege, in its capability to force the mass to point the finger at the weakest categories. So it happened in Middle Ages, so it happened in Germany after World War I, so it happens today because, mutatis mutandis, the human soul does not seem to ever change in his reaction to emotional stress and, once again, these mechanisms are well understood precisely by those who to the creation of the emotional stress contribute, amplifying apocalyptic predictions about the possible effects of the economic situation for personal gain, posing as supporters of the “only possible solution”.
  • Finally (but only to limit this discussion as much as possible), no small weight has been the inability of the political system to free itself from a self-referential and self-assertive mechanism solely aimed at the perpetuation of established powers and not to the community welfare. The social rift that opened between a political class closed in a sort of parallel world, seemingly in perpetual struggle among factions but essentially homogeneous in its blatant subservience to powers that reside elsewhere, in an economic and financial sector far away from alleged democratic mechanisms, and an electorate that of such characteristics has now assumed full consciousness and that feels constantly deceived by the perpetuation, beyond the appearing theatricality of clashes now more played at personal than ideological level, of a monolithic system totally disinterested to the common welfare. This situation has destructive (to say the least) corollaries. The collective mistrust on the one hand and the lack of critical capability of an electorate now unaccustomed to a critical filtering of the media bombardment to which it is constantly subjected led the latter to bet, in an attempt to break the vicious spiral of games aimed at a “change everything so that nothing changes” policy, on histrionic demagogues whose salient feature is only to come from areas far from professional politics and to use methods and messages suitable for used car salesmen or strolling players able to speak to the “belly” of the listeners, fanning fears of all sorts, pointing the finger at even non-existing threats and enemies and using a language of disarming coarseness, rather than feeding the collective critical reasoning.

From such a fatal co-mixture of nefarious variables (all being inter-dependent) only a policy flattened on a sort of self-referential “ground zero”, just speaking about itself, living of pure breathless verbal onanism, limited to a close horizon and to the aforementioned big game of “I create fictitious fears and then pretend I can solve them”, with formulas of a banality that is not even able to walk away with a minimum of creativity from already thoroughly tested and discredited populist experiences, can derive.

As a human being first, and as a Unitarian Universalist secondly, I can not but feel discouraged by such a socio-political landscape but, perhaps even more, I feel the weight of possible answers that may arise, more or less naturally, inside of our communities. Three, among the many possible answers, seem to me like being particularly pernicious.

  1. The first concerns those of us who most directly refer to a theistic vision of the Transcendence.As always, in fact, facing adversities our first instinct may be to feel a sense of abandonment and to wonder “where is God? Why does He allow all  this?”. Though basically very human, this is yet another “belly” response to stimuli deliberately and precisely pointed to hit the instinctual levels of the single more than his rational capability. As a matter of fact, a question of this kind does not only assumes a level of consideration of the divine immanentism being very close to magism, a presumption of knowledge (if not, indeed, of induction) of the Transcendence’s will that is not ours and that, however, gives rise to uncertain corollaries (why should God side with this or that instance? On what basis? In relation to which projects?) and, if anything, could more easily belong to undoubtedly less rationalist positions than ours, but, above all, ends up denying that human freewill that is the basis of many of our Seven Principles (from the belief in the inherent dignity of men to the one related to the necessity of a free and responsible search for truth and to the right to freedom of conscience), translating, without warning, the human being from a position of center of creation and cooperator in the realization of the Kingdom to a mere puppet positioned within predetermined paths and impassable boundaries.
  2. Perhaps even more radical and, consequently, even more harmful is the somehow opposite answer to the previous one, the one that sees in the current situation a reason to lose confidence in human beings and in their management and decision-making skills.The human being, then, becomes, in a sort of Calvinist vision, a fundamentally corrupted being, merely intended to evil, to the satisfaction of selfish needs, absolutely incapable of collective impulses, wolf for his neighbor and, therefore, fundamentally dangerous. Once again, it is a basically quite understandable vision from a human point of view, especially in the light of the events of a society in which a perspective of this kind is not only likely to arise spontaneously in the observer but is also constantly proposed as a “pick” to open, as mentioned, the mind and hearts of possible “clientes” to the penetration of para-messianic messages proposed by some instigator of mostly unjustified terrors. What stands is, however, that this is only a partial, induced and limited perspective, which does not take into account not only the human constructive potentials nor the countless specific examples where this potentials consistently continue to express themselves, albeit in a certainly less publicized form than the opposed negative one. Taking a para-Calvinist vision of the human being is such a blatant contravention to any of our Seven Principles that it appears superfluous to deepen our analysis. We are, in the end, in front of a vision inciting towards a potentially violent attitude (isn’t it true that, ultimately, the worst violence arises from the instinct of defense?) and I do not hesitate to say that the very fact of clinging to defensive (or ultra-defensive) positions, discrediting the human being and his potential or actual management capabilities is, in itself, a total and blatant violation of the fundamental principle addressed to peace and cooperation that is so foundational for our spiritual experience.
  3. Finally, a third answer, perhaps more subtle than the previous ones, can be summed up in the motto “the worse, the better.” In essence, it is the response of those who see in a hypothetical “Kali Yuga” the beginning of that apocalyptic path that should lead, ideologically, to a sort of universal regeneration. I will not deny that I have been repeatedly inclined to take the path of a such a response. In front of the plunging of our socio-political environment towards a populist, selfish and xenophobic chasm, I happened several times to think that perhaps this generation would need to live experiences that of this abyss are the obvious result and that were very clear to previous generations, which had lived on their skins the harshest results of this barbarity. And yet … And yet no, this cannot be our response because it would mean, ultimately, quiescence and acquiescence in the face of evilness, of injustice, of discrimination, of hatred and division and, even more, it would mean a serious appeasement insofar they become the product of a thoughtful, reasoned, even spiritually rooted choice. Palingenesis? A new cycle? Not only are these just legacies of a mythological thinking that, once again, implies a presumption of knowledge of the Divine that is not ours, but they also postulate an immanence that, in reality, is nothing more than a faint, not necessarily shared, hypotheses or an hope without any rational foundation.  And then, perhaps above all, isn’t it, on balance, simply a way to “wash our hands” in pure Pilate style, justifying and self-justifying our inane inaction, even moving us to the role of accomplices or supporters in the construction of a status quo which appears to be the exact opposite in respect to our system of reference values? Isn’t it the negation of the role of co-builders of the Kingdom or of operators of a change in the social horizon that we, perhaps idealistically (who says that utopia is a such a negative propulsive force?) chose for ourselves?  Isn’t it a path pushing us, in conclusion, to give reason to Marx’s definition of any religion as “opium of the people”?

What is the element that links all these possible “answers”? Which turns out to be their common denominator? The answer that appears to me to be the most convincing one is that of “hopelessness”.

Of course, desperation in front of a society in a clear and obvious phase of involution can be a knee-jerk reaction, naturally arising, but it is precisely against this attitude that we have to fight with the strength of our liberal spirituality not to get flattened on such a dark situation (which promises to become even more obscure for us and for our children in the future).

How to react? First of all, not ceasing to hope in the incredible human potential, in his ability to create a truly interdependent network and in the divine force (however one can understand the term) that the union of cohesive people in the name of a better, more just, more loving society can have on our political system, although in the near future this can only seem a pipe dream.And this without expecting divine interventions or miracles, parousias and regenerations that are only mirages and projections of our ego until proof to the contrary.

From here, then, from this inexhaustible hope despite everything our actions must descend, perhaps being uncommon (and, in a much broader context than the immediate present, that value can have the compliance or non-compliance, but for the risk to become accomplices conforming to common trend?) but always with an active commitment in the proposal and in teaching. These are nott just abstractly utopian terms: they are rather the terms of the definition of a system of life in which the values that animate us are made of flesh and blood, are reflected not only and not necessarily in outstanding actions (and we have to give thanks to the ones having the strength, the courage and the ability to be at the forefront in many defense trenches of human dignity and justice!) but, above all, in our daily life. As it is in our daily life that the proposal of values and the education to them assume a real meaning, not through pompous proclamations or didactic attitudes but through the simple showing of examples of an alternative opening, sharing, spreading love that we live, that shines from our being, from our acting, from our interaction with the others.

This is the point, brothers: let’s be who we are, and never be tempted to go with the flow becoming something different, locking ourselves in a selfish private, prefabricating barriers and walls. This is our only weapon to fight every day, to resist, to convince with the simple example of a possible alternative, of union, of a justice arising from an intimate need, of irrepressible love even against all odds.

And the drop, brothers, perhaps almost invisibly, perhaps taking years and decades, eventually erodes the rock and digs.

Let’s dig the rock every day, let’s not allow the limestone of immobility and resignation to transform us into a rocky stalactite, let’s not be discouraged if the rock is too hard because every rock, sooner or later, will be excavated! This is the task we are called to: to be the humble but inexhaustible drop of hope that daily breaks on the rock and works on it.

Adonai echad, amen.


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