Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Continuity and Discontinuity in the New Year

James Skillen


January 1, 2010

The start of a new year is supposed to be the time of new beginnings, resolutions for change, hopes for a new bright shining.

Yet before January has grown very old we will notice, for the most part, that not much changes by sheer dint of will or good intensions. You can’t teach old dogs new tricks, even if the old dog is you. The House and the Senate will behave much as they have done for years in fashioning laws. Recovery from the financial crisis that has left us worried and wary will continue at about the same pace. Iran will still be trying to advance its nuclear interests. Climate deterioration will continue as before. The starving, hunted refugees from Congo, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan will still be starving and dying.

Nevertheless, there will be declarations of new things and new starts, some of which will contain elements of truth. A new healthcare bill from Washington could represent a big change with major, long-term implications. A troop surge in Afghanistan could stop the deteriorating security situation there. Americans might become even more determined to save, work, and invest in real production and leave behind old habits of spending, borrowing, and hoping for the best.

Even with some of these “new” things, however, we are likely to see more continuity than discontinuity. Healthcare reform has been in the works for a year; the troop surge was authorized last year; saving was forced on us by the near economic collapse and may not represent a real change of heart.

All of this drives some people to cynicism, particularly if they have held on to large hopes for a long time—hopes for continued salary increases, for a secure retirement, for an affordable college education for their children, for an extended period of peace and prosperity after the West won the Cold War.

But why the cynicism? What historical evidence is there that humans can radically change the world? There have been many changes for the better, but many others have been for the worse. There has never been an ongoing, ever-upward climb from ignorance to enlightenment, from violence to peace, from hunger and disease to health and happiness.

Why then do we keep going? What are we laboring for? What are we aiming for? These questions may be especially weighty for Westerners who have assumed for a long time that our pattern of life should be the goal of everyone else on earth. But now, China and India are growing while the US is staggering under a debt load that may continue to grow indefinitely. The dollar is losing its dominance as a global exchange currency. Our industrial strength has been surpassed. How did all this happen? Is there any reason to keep on trying to climb the old ladders of success? What shall we encourage our children to do? Where will they find work, and to what end?

But hold on. There is good news! Don’t give in to cynicism and despair. The new thing that is fresh every morning and worth celebrating every January 1 is the promise of God to accomplish what we cannot achieve. The good news is that our labors—labors of love for family and neighbors, of justice for society, of productivity and learning—can be offered up as humble thank-offerings to God rather than as our attempts to save ourselves and the world . . . as if we were gods. Any truly new start is one that only God can bring about. We are always too much part of what is old and never big enough to rise above ourselves and the world to make all things new.

Our labors for greater justice, enduring love, and fruitful stewardship should continue energetically, but not with the all-or-nothing hope/fear that if we don’t succeed, all is lost. Rather we should labor on in light-hearted abandon, looking ahead with great anticipation to God’s fulfillment of creation—all things new—in the One on whom God’s blessing rests: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

— James W. Skillen, Senior Fellow
     Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”