New challenges for Americans in the New Year

(December 31,2015)

The U.S. Constitution

(Photo: U.S. archives)

Each new year provides the impetus for review and promise making. We look back, cataloging good and bad, triumphs and defeats. Personally, we talk about family and friendships, gains and losses, repair and renewal. We make commitments to exercise our muscles and our compassion. Collectively, we assess our nation’s accomplishments and shortcomings.

The future health of our country is dependent on three attitudes: vigilance, vision and volition. For 240 years, our country has prospered due to a steadfast commitment to freedom. From the First Amendment, pledging no establishment of religion, but guaranteeing its freedom of expression, to the 15th and 19th amendments giving citizens the right to vote regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or gender; from the Civil Rights Act to the Equal Pay Act, we have moved to greater tolerance and justice.

Yet we are acutely aware that the preservation of these rights requires constant vigilance. Demagoguery and thoughtless rhetoric can erode these accomplishments. It is easy to forget the battles fought, the courage and daring that were required to inscribe these freedoms in our Constitution. There have been periods when we did forget, when we allowed fear mongering to get the better of us. Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation, the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II, the McCarthy era’s blacklisting of those suspected of communist sympathies, represent dark periods in our national history.

Dennis and I recently saw “Trumbo,” the film depicting the shameful proceedings of the McCarthy period. All through the film, we kept elbowing each other. When the movie concluded, we said, “It sounds all too familiar.”

Bryan Cranston, the lead actor in the film, expressed our feelings. “The essence of the movie ‘Trumbo’ is to stop the polemic which is pervasive in politics today. And that is, if you have a difference of opinion … you are the enemy.”

We face serious issues: the economy, immigration and the threat of terrorism. But history should teach us that blaming and targeting an entire group of people is never the answer. It is born of both ignorance and hate. Some political candidates relish such incendiary and vulgar language. Embarrassingly, the more they repeat these odious remarks, the more their ratings go up. In 2016, we must be vigilant to protect the heart of what it means to be an American.

Beyond vigilance, we need vision. What is required for us to be a great nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all … are created equal?” How do we address the widening gap between rich and poor, the shrinking middle class? How do we tackle the national debt without sacrificing the debt we owe to our most vulnerable citizens? How do we grapple with health care and education? How do we respond to increasing violence and the accessibility of guns? What can we do about the racial divide, xenophobia and political gridlock? The answers to these questions require the creative engagement of economists; government leaders; great thinkers such as poets, musicians and artists; and all concerned citizens.

Vigilance and vision are not enough. They demand volition, the will to make it happen, to dream big and think outside limited boundaries. Volition requires that we not only see what is, but imagine what can be and what must be done to better ourselves, our country and the world.

Vigilance, Vision and Volition — three wishes, three commitments, three hopes for the New Year.

Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.