The lights went out at 4:11 p.m. on Aug. 14, along with the telephones, computers, television sets, air conditioning and all the other essentials of modern life that we take for granted. They are just there, dependable, and yet in truth it is we who are dependent. At first we are simply surprised. Then, when the problem is widespread, we become concerned. Is it terrorists? And when it becomes clear that the problem is not going to be of short duration: What do we do now? Is anyone in the elevator? Is my family O.K.? How do I get home? Will the food spoil?
Without electricity we are at a loss. We cannot work, we cannot play, we cannot even read once the sun goes down, except by candlelight. Batteries in flashlights and portable radios quickly go dead. We are back in the 19th century, sitting on the stoop talking to our neighbors until the house cools off and we can go to sleep. (Nine months from now, will there be a minor baby boom?)
Middle-class America has a low tolerance for failure. It is not supposed to happen. In most parts of the third world, the lights go out regularly, in some places every day. But not here! And yet we are incredibly resilient. New Yorkers in business suits and tank tops directed traffic at gridlocked intersections where the traffic lights were out. Street merchants suddenly found a supply of flat-heeled slippers to sell to high-heeled women who had to walk home when faced with closed subways and overcrowded buses.
Yet this was not the summers only failure. Computer worms and viruses slowed the Internet and caused thousands of computers to crash. Eighteen-year-old cyberterrorists cost businesses millions of dollars because technicians failed to update their Windows and antivirus programs.
More devastating is the failure of the Bush administrations Iraq policy. America cheered as our soldiers raced across the desert and quickly subjugated Saddams forces. But now we see chaos and death in Iraq as the administration flip-flops and goes hat in hand to the international community for money and soldiers for a job it does not know how to finish. And yet U.S. soldiers remain brave and constant, despite the fact that more lives have been lost since the war officially ended than during it. Is Iraq going to become for the United States what the Palestinian territories are to the Israelis and Northern Ireland was to the British?
Other summer failures include the ripping up of the Middle East road map by both sides of the conflict, continued high unemployment and growing deficits. Children are now returning to schools that are no better, or even worse, than they were a year ago, despite promises that no child will be left behind. Nor in the midst of these societal failures can we forget the failures of the church.
In the face of such failures there are many possible responses: denial, resignation, despair, anger and even violence. Computers are not supposed to crash. Schools are not supposed to fail. Doctors are not supposed to make mistakes. Wars are not supposed to be lost. Priests and bishops are not supposed to sin. My knees are not supposed to give out. California has responded to failure with a political circus including a muscleman, a midget, a topless dancer and an assortment of clowns. Too many appear to respond by tuning out or switching the channel.
Failure is a part of life that we must learn to live with and deal withsocietys failures, the churchs failures and our own personal failures. As one wag explained: Conservatives believe that people are basically immoral. That is why they believe in weapons and prisons. Liberals believe that people are basically stupid. That is why they think education and communications will solve all problems. But as the church has always taught, people are both immoral and stupid. That is what we mean by original sin.
Christian love does not mean never having to say youre sorry, but never giving up in the face of failure, immorality and stupidity. That is what the life of Jesus was all about. He never stopped loving or working for his fathers kingdom even when it led him to the ultimate failure, Calvary. The coming season of fall reminds us that all things ultimately fail and die, including us. Christian faith gives us hope of resurrection. Optimistic eschatologists believe that our job as Christians is to build the kingdom of God and that when we succeed, Christ will come. Pessimists, on the other hand, believe that the human race will make such a mess of things that Jesus will have to come at the end of time to save us. Whatever the case, we will still be asked how we dealt with failurewhether we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, sheltered the homeless and visited the imprisonedhoping against all hope.