Faith Commons

by Rabbi Nancy Kasten

“It’s not the end of the world.” How many of us have said something like that to someone we love when trying to comfort them, or ourselves? The phrase expresses the conviction that, no matter how challenging the trials and tribulations that assail us, there is an underlying cosmic order that allows us to hold on to a vision of a better future.

But right now, it feels as if it might be the end of the world, or at least the end of a world that made sense to us. A world, for example, in which we trusted experts with credentials in their field to develop public policy, rather than ideologues with eschatological agendas. A world in which natural disasters were rare enough that we could find and afford homeowners insurance. A world in which civil and human rights would be protected for every person, not just a select few. And a world in which people would speak to each other with respect, on- and off-line, even to people with whom they disagree.

Did we ever imagine a world in which our children and grandchildren would have active shooter drills in their classrooms? Or where a U.S. President would be indicted for multiple crimes, including many intended to overturn free and fair elections, and then be allowed to run for another term? 

Some can’t wait for this world to end. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among U.S. college students, indicating that many young people on the cusp of adulthood cannot envision a better future for themselves. 

But others are excited for this world to end so that they can experience their idea of a perfect one. In 2022 the Pew Research Center conducted a study in which 39% of American adults said they believed “we are living in end times.” That conviction is often correlated with another—that this world will end with the Second Coming of Jesus and he will establish the kingdom of God on earth. The worse things get, the nearer and sooner the end will come with the return of Jesus.

This mode of thinking is primarily associated with a particular subset of Christians, and goes hand in hand with believing that America is a Christian nation. Adherents to this way of thinking, including many who have been elected to public office, believe they should be doing whatever we can to accelerate the Second Coming of Jesus, rather than bearing positive witness to the coming kingdom by protecting the earth and one another. Mike Johnson, our current U.S. Speaker of the House and Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick are among the public officials who understand their election to be in service of this mission.

It is hard to offer a political alternative that can compete with Messianism, but that doesn’t mean that we have to capitulate to it as our only option. It is possible to fear that this world is coming to an end and to draw very different conclusions about what will come next, and what we should be doing to prepare for an unknown future.

Author and activist Joanna Rogers Macy understands the changes we are experiencing now as part of a necessary transformation from an industrial growth society to a more sustainable civilization. While Macy personally identifies as a Buddhist, the basic ideas that undergird her thinking are expressed in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religious and spiritual traditions. They are rooted in abundance rather than scarcity, reinforce the inevitability of our interconnectedness to one another and to the earth, and call upon us to reach out to one another across all the barriers that have been erected between us, including, but not limited to, race, nationality, gender, socioeconomic status, and ideology. 

To go through this election year with a hope for a better future world, we must engage in personal practices that will strengthen our ability to face our fear of those who look and think and live differently than we do. Simultaneously we must support candidates for office who extend their hands and their hearts across lines of difference, and who are more afraid of degrading and destroying life than they are of alienating their base.

Lately we have seen some striking examples of elected officials speaking from their hearts, and expressing their faith in the humanity of their colleagues. In his speech at the U.S. Mexico border in late February, President Biden invited Mr. Trump to work with him on substantive immigration policy reform. Last week Senator Chuck Schumer risked alienating long-time supporters when he gave a speech promoting a political solution to the Israel/Gaza war, criticizing the current Israeli government and calling for new elections.

In the Book of Proverbs we find some perplexing and paradoxical wisdom for our times: “Happy is the one who is always afraid, but the one who hardens his heart will succumb to wickedness” (28:14). It is part of human nature to fear the unknown. But happiness lies in managing fear, not eliminating it. We cannot harden our hearts to one another, lest we forfeit our power and lose our hope.