In the magnificent new document, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis exhorts “all the communities to an ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times.” This, he says, “is a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse.” Later in the document, the Pope says, “When we attempt to read signs of the times it is helpful to listen to young people and the elderly.”
St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, of which Pope Francis is a member, placed great emphasis on scrutinizing the signs of the times as a vital tool of spiritual discernment. As the product of eight years of Jesuit education, I have long been in the habit of paying attention to the signs of the time.
Here are some signs that caught my attention during the December 3rd broadcast of NPR’s Morning Edition.
- The median rent for an apartment in San Francisco has risen to $3400 per month. Evictions have risen 175% in the last three years as landlords and real estate speculators evict long time tenants to convert apartment buildings into condos. Many of these evictees are disabled or seniors on fixed incomes. The inner Mission District, home to a mix of working-class Latinos, artists and activists, has been particularly hard hit. Former Mayor Art Agnos says the city is struggling to keep families who make $60,000 to S100,000 per year in the city and “It’s all but over for the poor.”
- Every three years since 2000, 15 year-olds from around the world take a test to evaluate their skills in reading, math and science. Scores for U. S. students have been flat since 2003.
- Close to 2,000,000 new jobs have been added to the work force this year, however many new hires are working fragmented unpredictable hours. They are asked to commit to 5 days of availability for last-minute scheduling with no guarantee of work. Instead the employee waits on call while a computer program calculates the need for more or less staff to be called in during the day.
- Conservative columnist, Yuval Levin was interviewed about his new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left. He spoke about the distinction between governments run on principles and governments run on theories. The interview left little doubt that leaders in all three branches of our government have lost sight of the principles on which our nation is founded and have brought us to near-paralysis in a never-ending debate about theories—a debate which fails to serve or support the people.
- All of this good news was followed by the Marketplace Morning Report’s discussion of the 17% unemployment rate among young people 16-24. Harper’s Magazine Columnist, Jeff Madrick, a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute noted that while corporations and special interest groups like seniors have full-time lobbyists representing their interests, young people who are “rapidly becoming the most disadvantaged group in America” have no voice or representation at all. College graduates who can’t find better jobs and seniors who can’t afford to retire are filling jobs that used to provide entry-level employment for the young. Madrick suggests that the popularity of movies like The Hunger Games and movements like Occupy Wall Street reflect young people’s growing dissatisfaction with the establishment. He ends the interview wondering, “Is rebellion the only way you’re going to get some justice out of the nation?” . . . “It would not be unprecedented.”
Jennifer Lawrence as 17 yr old Katniss Everdeen in Catching Fire (2013)
Another way of reading the signs of the times is by paying close attention to popular culture, movies and television. And this has, no doubt, been the year of the survivor. Dystopian societies abound in which the privileged and cynical 1% hoard food, medicine and resources while the 99% live in fear and misery as they do in Catching Fire, Elysium and most especially, 12 Years A Slave. Entrenched and inefficient bureaucracies, self- righteous in their superiority strangle others with their out-of-date often arbitrary rules, threatening the lives of AIDS patients in The Dallas Buyers Club and at-risk teenagers in both Short Term 12 and Fruitvale Station. The heroine of Gravity and the hero of All is Lost fight for life alone in the incomprehensible and unforgiving vastness of space and sea. The kidnapped hero of Captain Phillips discovers that captors are as desperate to survive as he is. When Captain Phiilips asks the hijackers if there isn’t something else they could do as an alternative to being pirates, their leader says, “Maybe in America.” Today some Americans might reply, “Maybe not.”
Although not all of the characters survive, their will to survive is a testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.
Cate Blanchett as Jasmine in Blue Jasmine (2013)
The only character in a major film that lacks the character and skills to survive is Jasmine, the privileged and entitled central character of Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine. Unlike the characters in the rest of this year’s films, all of whom nature and the times have made into unsentimental realists, Jasmine clings to the groundless expectation that she will be magically restored to the station she unwaveringly believes she deserves.
Reflecting on the signs of the times, Joshua Cooper Ramo, in his book, The Age of the Unthinkable, says
“In a time of change and perpetual surprise we’ve arrived at a moment of peril that not long ago would have seemed unimaginable. . . . All around us the ideas and institutions that we once relied upon for our safety and security are failing.”
“In a revolutionary era of surprise and innovation,” he continues,” you need to learn to think and act like a revolutionary. People at revolutions who didn=t act that way have a particular name: victims.”
Jasmine and her larcenous, con-artist husband represent the culture of high finance, hedge funds and fraudulent mortgages—the fabled “1%” who manipulate markets, news media and the nation’s pay-to-play political system. Pushed to the wall, they are revealed to have neither courage, nor character, nor endurance. They are rigid and unable to adapt, to imagine a world other than the one they’ve lost. They are victims.
The younger generation of the 1% has no buy-in to the market. They get their news from John Stewart and Stephen Colbert who mercilessly expose the hypocrisies and folly of the elite. They are more likely to read the rigorous investigative reporting of Matt Taibbi and others in Rolling Stone than to scan the pages of The Wall Street Journal. They organize through the social media. They don’t watch television: they download entertainment from the internet. Walter White (Breaking Bad), the straight arrow high-school chemistry teacher who, screwed over by the system when he needs health care, becomes a ruthless drug lord is a folk hero. Heisenberg T-shirts abound.
Katniss, the heroine of “The Hunger Games”, along with the protagonists of Dallas Buyer’s Club, Short Term 12, Fruitvale Station, Elysium, Captain Phillips, and even 12 Years a Slave represent the “99%”. What unites these characters is their refusal to be victims; they inspire us with their refusal to submit passively or helplessly to the circumstances they find themselves in regardless of how hopeless and impossible they might be. They are rebels and revolutionaries.
Asked if he was an optimist, Pope Francis said,
“I do not like to use the word optimism because that is about a psychological attitude. I like to use the word hope. Hope is a gift from God that cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human. God does not mislead hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise.”
In these chaotic times, these movies, most of which are based on true life events, speak to me like signs. They give me hope.
Happy New Year!