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Time for U.S. society to reknit its unraveling social compact


Almost two decades ago, inequality of income, wealth and opportunity began to widen, and the gap today is greater than at any time in living memory. The recently published Locked in a Cabinet by Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, raises serious questions about the disintegration of the social compact that has held us together as a nation.

Every society is defined by a social compact that sets out the obligations of its members to one another. America's mid-20th century social compact, says Reich, defined our sense of fair play and proclaimed that at some fundamental level we all depend on one another. It affirmed that the economy could not prosper unless vast numbers of employees had more money in their pockets; that a better-educated work force was in all our interests, as in the case of the GI Bill for returning veterans and a vast expansion of state-supported public universities and community colleges; that none of us could be healthy or economically secure unless we pooled resources in things like unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

But, over the last 15 years, this consensus has begun to unravel, and our national consciousness has lost the balance between naked individualism and the common good. Downsizing the work force is now the preferred path to increased corporate profits. We abandon the very affirmative action we once designed to give a fair shake to women and minorities in education and employment.

Even the new welfare reform bill, which will drop more than a million children from the safety net and into deepening poverty, was defended by both political parties as good for family values, since, as a leading voice put it in the House debate, "at last, personal responsibility is the focus of this legislation."

In the culture and piety of the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a certain tendency to hold sacred the family -- and this has easily spilled over into the political bombast of the religious right. Important as it may be to celebrate the joys and values of family life, the biblical warning is that we dare not make an idol out of clan and family. Friendship and neighborhood and village and nation are also sacred forms of human association, as are the real bonds that can grow in a union hall, a sports club, a soup kitchen, a classroom, a battered women's shelter, a local church or synagogue.

We are one family. Our individual lives and destinies are wrapped up together, and they have value only as they interact and contribute to the life of the community. In a profound sense, none of us is free until all of us are free and none of us is saved until all of us are saved.

We can never eradicate the racism and sexism that corrode the soul of our nation until we affirm our membership in that one human family, sisters and brothers, all sacred and all interdependent on each other. I am convinced the creation of a new and inclusive culture of the common good is the central issue of our time.

My wife and I spent 1993 and 1994 in South Africa. There are 40 million South Africans, only 13 percent of whom are white. About 30 million are black and three or four million are mixed race -- "coloreds" -- and Indians. I was a senior research fellow in religious studies at the University of Cape Town, trying to understand what South Africans mean when they describe their ideal of a "nonracial democratic state" -- not interracial or multiracial but nonracial equality.

I suspect South African nonracialism has something vital to teach us Americans, here in these multicultural, disunited states.

It was a school on social compacts for us -- one exclusively white and diabolically evil and the other inclusively rainbow-colored and brilliantly beautiful. My wife volunteered her lawyering experience with a community legal resources center in Cape Town. We came to know up close the terrible ravages of apartheid -- and hugged and listened to and cried with so many victims of what was one of the most vicious systems of racial oppression the world has ever seen.

We also shared the terrible anxieties and wild exhilaration of the election of President Nelson Mandela and the birth of a new South Africa. Under Mandela's charismatic leadership, this new South Africa is committed to a way of reconciliation and healing that is simply awesome, given the road of vengeful and violent retribution that might easily have been taken by the black majority now in power.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu keeps crying at every turn: "We are the Rainbow People of God. Thanks be to God!" He really means that, and most South Africans have come to believe him, even as they now watch him flinch in pain at the stories of torturous inhumanity coming before the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission over which he presides.

One of our most moving encounters in South Africa was a long visit with Beyers Naude, a renowned white Afrikaner pastor of the Dutch Reformed church who was defrocked by his church in 1960 when, with a ringing prophetic voice from the pulpit, he announced his powerful conviction that apartheid was a sin.

In the decades that followed, he suffered ugly ostracism, social and ecclesiastical, from his Afrikaner peers and endured long bouts of the strictest kind of banning by the South African Security Forces.

Beyers is in his early 80s now, frail and beautiful and almost translucent, with the shining eyes of a seer. I asked him what has kept him going in all those times when everything seemed to be hopeless or in deadlock. He answered that it was the beauty of the Black South African soul, the uncanny ability of Black South Africans to forgive, their unwillingness to call for vengeance under the lash of so much terrible suffering.

And he traced this to the African value called ubuntu. In the long traditions of African tribal society, ubuntu means that no one is ever fully human except in community with others. When I asked whether this was a value brought to South Africa by Christian missionaries, Beyers replied: "No, it is an ancient and pre-Christian value deep in the African soul, a priceless gift that Africans have to teach us Christians if only we could hear. And it is my greatest source of hope for the new South Africa."

I read the morning papers and come away feeling that we live in a desert time. So little spice, so little lively verdancy, so little spark for new visions of wholeness in public life.

But the blessed experience of our privileged time in Cape Town lives bright in my spirit. It is a beacon of hope and possibility. The Black South African soul has taught me much about the diversity of the human family and about the common good and about the inclusive love of God.

Ubuntu is the vision: I am not fully human unless all of us are enabled to be fully human. None of us is saved until all of us are saved. None of us is free until all of us are free.

Thomas Ambrogi is an ecumenical theologian and human rights advocate living in Claremont, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 1997