Friday, December 31, 1999

'An opportunity for new beginnings'


A time to reflect, hope

BY JOHN J. BYCZKOWSKI
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When the clock strikes midnight tonight, we can begin to distance ourselves from just about anything that happened in a year beginning with the numeral 1.

        We haven't had a slate this clean in a thousand years. Tomorrow, we will be one day into an age where we've yet to see a great plague or a world war or genocide.

        It seems things should be different. They probably won't be. Attaching significance to the three hands of the clock aligning tonight is a tricky business.

        “Calendars are man-made contrivances,” said Johnny Pressley, chairman of the theol ogy department at Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary.

        The New Testament twice speaks of thousand-year periods in prophetic ways, in the books of Revelation and 2 Peter.

        “People look at that number and just assume next year has to be something big,” Mr. Pressley said. “It may be if God wants it to be, but it doesn't have to be. I'm of the opinion it only has whatever meaning we put into it as individuals. For most, it'll be a fad that passes quickly.”

        Not, however, for Catholics, who begin a Jubilee Year, celebrating 2,000 years of Christianity.

        “When we stop and think about it, the completion of 2,000 years of Christianity and the inauguration of a third mil lennium is a milestone that deserves a lot of attention and celebration,” Father James Bramlage, pastor of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains, wrote in the parish bulletin.

        “We are celebrating 2000 years of God's saving grace at work among us, 2000 years of the gospel's good news being carried into all parts of the world. That's something.”

        But that doesn't address whether the simple passage into a new millennium in itself carries meaning. New years, new decades and especially new centuries have always been accompanied by reflection on where we are.

        “Every Jan. 1 is an opportunity for new beginnings,” Mr. Pressley said. “Christianity teaches the concept of new beginnings; that's one of our big themes. Even those who aren't looking at it from a religious perspective, everybody looks forward for a chance to start fresh and see if they can do better this year.”

        But new millennia? That's new territory. Most of the 250 million alive at the last millennium moment didn't even have clocks to note its passage.

        Today, a good part of the world's 6 billion will have their eyes fixed on some second hand or blinking light. This passage must have greater meaning, right?

        Roger Fortin, chairman of Xavier University's history department, has studied future-oriented writings of the 19th century and says such writings today have a far different tone.

        The last 30 years of the 1800s saw 100 Utopian novels produced, each looking into the 20th century to see if technology could help cure great social ills.

        “In the late 19th century, when we made enormous progress in electricity and industry, future-oriented writers like Henry George and Edward Bellamy began asking questions like, "Are we going to fuse this electricity and industrial change with democracy and republican ideals to make life better for everyone?'”

        The novels imagined societies where big benevolent governments ensured fulfillment of essential needs — income and housing, for instance. This resulted in cooperation, not competition, and eliminated poverty and crime.

        Today, “we don't have in our society authors writing those kinds of utopian works,” Mr. Fortin said. “We don't have the kind of volume. A lot of people don't necessarily think we are in a desperate strait.”

        Today's future-oriented writing lacks the social tone of the late 1800s. Writers contemplate the great gadgets new technologies will allow, but not how the quality of life will improve — how poverty will be reduced, for instance.

        “As we enter now another millennium, with all this new technology, what assurance do we have that we're going to harness this to make life better for everyone? That to me is the biggest question we should be asking ourselves,” Mr. Fortin said.

        Maybe it's the economy. Americans end the millennium in an era of unprecedented prosperity. In February, the current economic expansion will become the longest in American history, and there's no end in sight.

        Our view of the new millennium would likely be far different if today were more like 1990, when we were on the verge of recession and tensions rose in the Mideast; or 1980, with inflation in double digits and Americans held hostage in Iran; or 1970, on the heels of massive anti-war demonstrations and news of the My Lai massacre.

        Today's prosperity doesn't mean we're not carrying any baggage into the new millennium.

        “I do feel that the coming millennium and the coming century is going to have to resolve some of the very big leftover problems that have not been resolved,” said Herbert Shapiro, professor of history at the University of Cincinnati.

        In 1903, W.E.B. Dubois labeled racism “the question of the century,” and it's still a question to be dealt with, Mr. Shapiro said. “Hopefully the coming 1,000 years are going to see unimaginable advances not only in technological and scientific and medical arenas, but in human conduct, how people relate to each other.”

        Jews are in their sixth millennium — it's year 5760 by their calendar. Though they celebrate their new year at Rosh Hashana, this Christian millennium celebration is too big to ignore.

        It's a challenge, said Rabbi Irvin Wise of Adath Israel Congregation in Amberley Village, for Jews to maintain their “Jewishness” under the millennium barrage. But Jews — and other non-Christians — shouldn't seek shelter, he said.

        “There are a lot of genuine efforts which will be made in the name of peace and justice, in ecumenical ways, in interfaith ways, in secular ways throughout the planet,” he said. “I don't want to ignore that, and say that's not important.

        “It's not going to keep me from being uniquely Jewish. It's also not going to keep me from sharing prayers on behalf of all humanity that we're ushering in an era of more peace and justice.”

        Can we be that confident? UC's Mr. Shapiro says, “Maybe it's passe to be concerned about such things as homelessness or the fact that there are still tens of millions of people in this country without adequate health care. I don't really think that's acceptable.”

        It's possible we will view such problems as unfit for the 21st century, and work seriously to eliminate them. “In the end I don't think our country can survive as a great civilization with those kinds of antiquated features,” Mr. Shapiro said.

        Here's a trick those 19th century writers used, according to Mr. Fortin: “They suppose that tomorrow will be better than yesterday and today. That's very therapeutic. Somehow if you believe tomorrow will be better than yesterday and today, you can cope with hardships today. You can make sacrifices.”

        So, Mr. Fortin said, here's the hope: “If there's any one society that in the next millennium will have the most potential in influencing the direction of the world, it is the United States of America.”

        Who is richer, who is freer?

        “One would have to hope that we are able to really wrestle with the idea of blending our best ideals with the latest technology,” he said. “Let's face it: No society is as advanced technologically, and no society is as wealthy as the United States. A lot rides on the shoulders of this small nation.”

        Celebrate, then get a good night's sleep, because you'll need the energy in the Third Millennium.

        Happy New Year.

       



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