Paul J. Dovre, Published December 24 2012
Letter: In the winter of our discontent, we embrace God’s love‘The Winter of our Discontent:” These words were penned by William Shakespeare and laid the groundwork for his portrait of Richard the III as a disenchanted man. In many ways, America is experiencing a winter of discontent. Consider the continuing polarization of the body politic.
We are a self-indulgent people who believe we can have what we cannot afford. We are a self-delusional people who believe that there is no hell to pay for our self-absorption. We are an idolatrous people caught up in the worship of the false gods of materialism, individualism and pleasure.
In our world, the hopes of the Arab Spring have been dashed by the death of an ambassador and his aides, by the emergence of a new form of oppression in Egypt, by the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and other nations, by the continuing crisis in Syria, which may yield an outcome we despair, and by a global economy so precarious that if one domino falls – whether Greece, Spain or France – the consequence may be a global financial collapse.
And that was before Dec. 14, when 28 people died in Connecticut, most of them children; which was after the Aurora, Colo., shootings, where 12 were killed; which was after the Oak Creek, Wis., shooting, where seven were killed.
Culture of death
And none of this has to do with guns and ammunition, of course – whose sales have skyrocketed following the election of President Barack Obama four years ago and again the last few days at our own Mills Fleet Farm store. We seem to gravitate toward, and even subsidize, a culture of death with our passion for violence in movies, in music, in video games; with our toxic politics; with the death spiral of our public spending and debt; and with our continuing withdrawal from the commons and toward the self. One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln said of this nation: “If destruction be our fate, we ourselves shall be its authors and its finishers.”
For many, there are personal agendas of discontent, as when a mother exhibits the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s; when a friend – my friend – receives word that he has been dismissed from his job one day and that his mother is terminally ill the next; and when another friend – my friend – struggles to recover his health after a month of hospitalization.
And we may experience our winter of discontent when you – your very own self, and me – my very own self, acknowledge a fundamental disconnect between our values and our conduct.
‘To have scars’
My first word today is acknowledgement, that is, the acknowledgement of our winters of discontent for, as the novelist John Steinbeck said long ago: “to be alive at all is to have scars.” John Bachman, editor of the Christian Century, writes that most of the revelations of God came to people in situations that were bleak. Consider the experiences of the Israelites to whom the prophets spoke. They were surely experiencing long winters of discontent. In the centuries of their millennium they had been promised and then received a rich land and subsequently they mismanaged their largess and were imprisoned, enslaved and dispersed all across Africa and Asia. While they experienced brief periods of reform and restoration. they often slipped into agnosticism and the idolatry of the gods of their conquerors or their new homes.
Zephaniah was among the prophets who spoke the truth to both his fellow Israelites and to their oppressors. He spoke of human and animal sacrifice, of false gods and their priests, and of leaders who misused their power.
Here is what he said about Jerusalem: “Ah soiled, defiled, oppressive city. It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to God.” If the oppressors and idolaters were comfortable before Zephaniah, by the time he uttered his prophetic words of judgment, they too experienced a winter of discontent.
All of which takes me to my second word for today – the word is promise.
Isaiah was a predecessor of Zephaniah and he prophesied a very similar judgment. But then he gave the people a reason for hope. He wrote these words to people in the winter of their discontent: “There will be no gloom for those in anguish. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders’ and he is named wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and of his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
King of love
And the key to such hope? One more word: Love. “My Kingdom is not of this world” is what Jesus said. He was right about that, for what he brought was a kingdom of love. Love is of God, and God is love. Again he said: “As the father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love.” This probably is neither what every prophet expected nor what many first-century people who were experiencing oppression hoped for. They looked for a new King David – a warrior to avenge the Romans. Instead, they got the King of Love. And God in Christ turned out to be a game changer – initiating a whole new dynamic of forgiveness and renewal and justice and righteousness.
One of the placards in Newtown, Conn., reads: “Love will see us through.” The love that changes hearts and lives, love that is inexhaustible in supply. I submit that if we are to address the profligacy of this nation, it will be because we love our neighbor and our children enough to pay more taxes and give up some benefits we want but may not need.
If we are to effectively address the culture of violence through some combination of self-control and common action, it will be because we love our neighbors. Think about the results if we were to approach the matter of gun violence in the context of love instead of the context of fear. Don’t think it’s possible? Think about the sheer power of love in the actions of the teachers at Sandy Hook.
I am not suggesting a love that is necessarily soft and gentle in expression. Remember Jesus’ anger at the Pharisees, his rebuke of Peter, his muscular intervention at the temple. Love for neighbor can lead us to some bruising encounters. But I am saying most emphatically that the gift of this season is the love of God – and God urges us to give it away, and when we do so, things change. Even things we thought impossible, like violence against children, homelessness, political gridlock, self-centeredness, and idolatrous self-deception.
Here it is succinctly: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love.” And again, “love one another, even as I have loved you.” This is the love that will see us through the winters of our discontent. This is the love that is foretold again this season. This is the love of which fellow Rotarian William Craft wrote in a verse from his “Carol of the Word:”
In this cold and angry season/ This winter of our Sin,
From the rude, unlovely manger/ Love calls to us again
Speaking justice over empire/ Lifting hatred’s mortal curse.
Making whole our broken spirits /With news of peace on earth
So with stabled beasts and angels /With stars and moon and sun,
We declare Love’s new creation /God’s life in us begun.
And so may it be this Christmas season.
Dovre is former president of Concordia College. He also is interim director, Center for Ethical Leadership at Concordia’s Offutt School of Business. This commentary was adapted from his recent message
to the Moorhead Rotary Club.