‘Do you remember the ’60s, Walt?”
Michael Rosenthal and Pastor Walter Mitty were talking on the phone last Thursday morning.
“Remember how sure of ourselves we were? How we were going to change the world?”
“Michael, I still have my Times They Are A-Changin’ LP somewhere in my closet,” Mitty said, as he recited the song in his mind from memory:
Come, mothers and fathers,
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand.
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command.
Your old road is rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand,
For the times they are a-changin’.
“So, Michael, what made you think of the ’60s?”
“I was checking out Facebook earlier this morning and happened to read Sharissa’s post saying she was disappointed with Biden’s cabinet picks. That they were too ‘establishment.’ That Bernie and AOL had the right policies like democratic socialism, Medicare for all, and the Green New Deal. Fifty years ago, Walt, wouldn’t you and I have posted the same thing if Facebook had been around?”
“I guess we would have, but do you still think that way? That desperate times call for desperate measures?”
“No, not exactly,” Michael replied. “I guess this is where I am. You remember the Five Man Electrical Band?”
“Of course. ‘Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind … ‘”
“That’s it, Walt. ‘Do this, don’t do that. Can’t you read the sign?’ So one part of our brains in those days was telling us that government is the problem, right? Like they got us into Vietnam on the one hand and won’t let us smoke marijuana on the other.”
“I think I see where you’re heading,” said Mitty. “Part of us chafed at what the government was doing and the other part felt fine about the Civil Rights legislation. That was imposing something on people, too, but it fit our values, so then big government was OK.”
“What’s ironic,” Michael said, “is that the president-elect is catching it from both the left which protests that during his administration the government will not be doing enough and the right which warns that he will do too much.”
Michael and Mitty both checked Facebook to see if Sharissa had gotten any comments.
Sure enough, Sarge at the army surplus store responded with, “There you go again, Sharissa. Just because you have a college degree, you and the liberal elites feel entitled to tell everyone else how to live. Big government always leans toward being Big Brother.”
Zaphne surprised them by commenting, “You know, as a small business owner, I have been really limited by all the regulations and restrictions the village puts on us, and recently Pritzker’s shutdown is killing my business. I’m smart enough to make my own decisions about how to keep my business safe. I’m not stupid. If someone got COVID at the Retro, do you think anyone would come here anymore?”
Miss Rose was so provoked by Zaphne’s comment that she wrote, “Some white people don’t understand that it was big government that gave us Brown v. Topeka and the Civil Rights legislation. I feel for small business owners right now, but think twice before you start trashing big government.”
What really surprised them was a comment from Bernie Rolvaag, the owner of History/Herstory Book Store. “Most people nowadays,” he wrote in the comment box, “don’t remember the name Reinhold Niebuhr, but maybe we all should be paying more attention to what he said.”
Pastor Mitty had read Niebuhr in seminary and Michael knew of him because of Niebuhr’s friendship with the Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Michael and Mitty both read silently what the bookstore owner had written. “What Niebuhr reminds us of is that to understand whether government should be big or small, we have to accept the reality that sin is a part of human nature, that — perhaps paradoxically — we humans have been created in God’s image and at the same time are fallen.”
“Here’s an analogy,” he continued. “Athletes will inevitably cheat if they play the game without referees who hold them accountable to the rules. That’s human nature and an argument for government. But if the number of referees throwing penalty flags on every play outnumbers the players themselves, that kills the game. That’s an argument for less government.”
After reading Bernie’s comments Mitty asked his next door neighbor, “Michael, do you think our friend is saying that both government and individuals are capable of doing both good and bad? That people like Senator Sanders naively overestimate the good that government is capable of and that the folks in the Tea Party wrongly make it out to be the source of all evil?”
Michael said, “You know, Rabbi Levine sometimes actually quotes Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer in his sermons, something which might apply here: God grant me the serenity to accept what I — or the government — can’t change; courage to change what I — or the government — can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
After he and Michael said goodbye and wished each other a happy new year, Pastor Mitty googled Niebuhr and found a quote from Arthur Schlesinger: “We are beginning in this distraught decade to remember what we should never have forgotten: We cannot play the role of God to history, and we must strive as best we can to attain decency, clarity and proximate justice in an ambiguous world.”
Pastor Mitty pondered those words: Proximate justice in an ambiguous world and we cannot play the role of God.
“I wonder,” he thought, “if that’s what 81 million people were thinking when they voted for Biden.”