Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“God has lifted up the lowly, and filled the hungry with good things.” (Luke 1)
When Thurgood Marshall was a justice on the United States Supreme Court, he often chided his colleagues for basing decisions on what he termed “wishful thinking.” In City of Richmond vs. Croson, for instance, a case heard in 1989, the court declared unconstitutional a municipal ordinance setting aside 30 percent of public contracting dollars for companies owned by blacks or members of other minorities.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Marshall said that in reaching that conclusion, "a majority of this Court signals that it regards racial discrimination as largely a phenomenon of the past, and that government bodies need no longer preoccupy themselves with rectifying racial injustice." He added: "I, however, do not believe this nation is anywhere close to eradicating racial discrimination or its vestiges. In constitutionalizing its wishful thinking [there’s the phrase], the majority today does a grave disservice …."
Wishful thinking, of course, is a fault to which we all fall prey. The dictionary definition of it is “the attribution of reality to what one wishes to be true, when in fact it is not.” In other words, wishful thinking is choosing to believe what is pleasing and reassuring, over and against what is true and difficult. The underlying thought pattern is, “I want something to be true, and therefore it is true.” So, for example, I might say something like, “Today is my birthday, so the weather is will be beautiful.” Well, it might be. It might not be. But there is nothing in the premise to justify the conclusion. That’s just wishful thinking.
From a philosophical point of view, we might say that the problem with wishful thinking is that “ought” becomes “is.” Because we think that something ought to be true, we conclude that it is true. But because wishful thinking is not grounded in reality, it can just as well be that the “ought, is not.”
And here, I think, we as people of faith bump up against a real problem. At the beginning of this service, we heard Jesus say that above all, we are to love God, and to love our neighbor. And we Christians like to think that this “ought,” is an “is”—that the world actually runs according to this foundational principle. But in fact it manifestly does not. Just read the newspaper or watch the news if you need proof of that.
So what are we to do? Is the core of what Jesus taught really only a bad case of wishful thinking?
To wrestle that question, I think we have first to become a bit more nuanced in our thinking. Jesus knew full well the gap between what he taught, and the reality of how we actually behave. His teaching, then, might best be thought of as a prescription for what is possible, rather than a description of what is the case. The “ought,” in other words, becomes the “could be” rather than the “is.” It could be that we human beings will be able to love God and neighbor—we were created with that capacity—but it is hard to do and takes a lifetime of effort to do so. Yet we have evidence that it is indeed possible in some measure: that’s why we give the title “saint” to those who offer us a glimpse of what living for the other might look like: Francis of Assisi. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Brother Roger of Taizé. Oscar Romero of San Salvador.
What each of these figures represents to us is someone who was intensely realistic about the world, and then went about trying to live in solidarity with those who suffer because of it. Or to put it another way, they did not give in to the seductions of wishful thinking, but put their mind and heart to changing the world as they found it.
I read in the paper this week a story about a certain Rabbi Elliot Kukla, who once described a woman with a brain injury who would sometimes fall to the floor because of her infirmity. People around her would rush to get her back on her feet right away, wishfully thinking that she was perfectly alright, even before she was quite ready to get up. The woman told the Rabbi, “I think people rush to help me up because they are so uncomfortable with seeing an adult lying on the floor. But what I really need is for someone to get down on the ground with me.”[*]
What if we put it this way: religious faith is about getting down on the ground to share someone else’s reality, even when it isn’t our own. Maybe it’s helping an aged neighbor with the effects of old age. Maybe it’s helping a child struggling to learn. Maybe it’s consoling a spouse who has lost a partner. Maybe it’s learning what it’s like to be of another race, or ethnicity, or physical ability.
That’s how you transpose the ought/is fallacy of wishful thinking, into the ought/could be promise of social solidarity. It causes us to cross from thinking that what I wish to be true, is true—to embracing the fact that what I wish to be true, will require my best effort and fullest engagement to make it so.
During Advent, we contemplate how God has gotten down on the floor with us. In Jesus, yes, but also through those countless women and men who have themselves directed their life toward embracing the other. Nowhere is there a more powerful example of that than in the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe—a story in which none other than the Queen of Heaven identifies herself with the poorest and most suffering people of the world, our own sorrows in these difficult days included.
And here’s the thing: from down on the ground, is where hope rises. There—here—on the ground is where there is a possibility of rising up, of regaining one’s footing, as we together help one another up. Ironically, wishful thinking leads to only cynicism—the kind of anger that is so pervasive right now—because its expectations are inevitably disappointed, being grounded only in a mirage. But facing the world truthfully and honestly, getting down on the ground, can give us hope because we can then begin to spot the places where change is possible, and where our involvement can help bring it about. It is there that the “ought” can be transformed into the more hopeful, “it could be.” Amen.
[*] David Brooks, “What Do You Say to the Sufferer?” New York Times, 9 December 2021.