How to Create a Society That Prizes Decency

In 2020 Joe Biden ran on the theme of saving the soul of America. Once he was president, he used the power of his office to help direct hundreds of billions of dollars through the infrastructure law and the CHIPS Act to the people and places that had been left behind. At the time, I hoped that these programs would not only create jobs and give people a sense of financial security but also be seen as a sign of respect, a sign to the unseen and the alienated that America had their back.

These policies were successful in economic terms, sparking a torrent of additional investment and lifting real wages, but economic progress has not produced social or spiritual progress — less alienation, higher social trust. American society, at every economic level, is still plagued by enmity, distrust, isolation, willful misunderstanding, ungraciousness and just plain meanness. The pain in America resides in places deeper than economic policies can reach. So how can we create a society in which it is easier to be decent to one another?

To answer that question, I returned to Howard Thurman’s magnificent 1949 book, “Jesus and the Disinherited.” Thurman, a Black theologian, was a contemporary of Martin Luther King Sr., at Morehouse and had a strong influence on the activism of his son Martin Luther King Jr.

In the book Thurman asks a series of profound questions: How is it possible for the disinherited and the oppressed to live pushed against the wall without losing their humanity? More broadly, how is it possible to strengthen the spiritual and social foundation of society so that people will recognize one another’s full dignity amid the normal tussles of life? These are germane questions today, when so many — on the left and right — feel that society has pushed them against the wall.

Thurman emphasizes that Jesus was a poor Jew living under the tyranny of Roman power. But even in these vicious circumstances, Jesus focused his attention on the “inward center” of each person. He showed that you can’t look only at a person’s economic or political circumstances. The crucial level for any person is the spiritual level, the place where souls are either sanctified or degraded.

Thurman reminds us that when the networks of relationships in a society are broken and unjust, national transformation must flow from a tide of personal transformations.

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