Meaning Beyond the Struggle

Each meeting of the PCG Board of Directors opens with a faith reflection from a member of the board. Executive Director Alexander E. Sharp shared the following thoughts at the meeting of January 18, 2011.

In the fall of 2010, I conducted an education session in a church on the Illinois state budget crisis—agencies closing, human services being gutted, no real hope immediately in sight. The minister came up to me afterward. He apologized for the low attendance: there were only about 7 or 8 people at the session. Why? He tried to explain: “We’ve all heard about these problems, and it doesn’t seem like we can do very much about them. Don’t you ever get discouraged?” he asked.

It is fitting perhaps to recall this moment now, right after the historic developments in the final days of the 96th session of the General Assembly when we have begun to address our structural budget deficit in Illinois. But the minister’s question was not just about the budget. He was asking something deeper. We talked a few days later, and he commented further: “We never seem to solve the problems. There’s still so much hunger in the world”…and he went on.

Nor is he the only person to speak in this way. I have experienced it several times, most recently in a PCG policy committee meeting. My visceral response was, quite simply, “Despair is not an option.”

Maybe not, but why? To the extent that we all have such moments, how do we answer them? Therein lies at least a sermon, or perhaps several. But let me offer a couple of thoughts. The first is to remind ourselves of the fundamental importance of persistence. I loved the comment of Rep. Barney Frank, one of the nation’s first openly gay members of Congress, rejoicing in the passage of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” “Important things don’t come easy,” he reminded us.

Barack Obama said the same thing when he became president: “I believe in the power of persistence. You are going to hear a lot about persistence from this administration,” he said in an early speech. So, before we give up, before we despair, let’s, at a minimum, be sure we have given persistence its due.

Second, let us realize that concrete gains along the way are possible, and they make a difference in particular lives. PCG is now 15 years old. In that period, we have improved health care in Cook County for years to come by helping to create an independent, professional board; provided fairness to GLBT individuals by adding sexual orientation to the protections named in the Illinois Human Rights Act; given ex-offenders a second chance by providing for certificates of rehabilitation along with the sealing and expungement of records; lifted the income of the very poor through an Illinois state income tax credit and increases in the TANF welfare grant; passed legislation that calls for affordable housing in municipalities throughout Illinois; and helped protect our democracy through legislation that limits pay-to-play and curtails campaign contributions.

Just in the last year, we finally, with our colleagues, limited the abuses of the payday loan industry and removed juvenile prostitutes from the criminal justice system. Each of these initiatives was difficult, some exhausting. Some gains will not be permanent. But they have happened, and people are feeling their impact.

Solutions, of course, bring new problems. In Illinois, our revenue increase will accomplish little unless we cut expenditures, some of which we should have done long ago. More deeply, on a larger human scale, the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, “Our frailties are invincible, our virtues barren; the battle goes sore against us to the going down of the sun.” New technologies bring new dangers even as they enhance our lives. An emerging global economy devastates third-world communities even as it provides jobs for others. As it has been said, “Every revolution ends in the reappearance of a new ruling class.” The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

At the end of the day, then, what can we say to others, and to ourselves, when we see suffering all around us, and change seems so difficult, the gains so often short-term? For me, the answer, beyond what I have already said here, beyond the good that we can do—even when it seems small in the face of such great pain—is that our work has meaning rooted in essence of our Christian faith.

Surely we all have experienced the joy simply of being in the right fight, even where the going was very hard. There is a reason. The fight has meaning beyond anything we can provide. The importance of what we do, in our individual lives, and in our fight for social justice, is not something we create, or can diminish. It is rooted in the very meaning of reality, which as Christians we take to be the essential love of God for this world and all that God has created.

That is why Paul was able to say, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made manifest in our bodies.” (2 Cor. 4: 8-10). There is meaning in our struggles on this earth, because there is meaning beyond the struggle. We serve the God who lives within us, and beyond us.

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