Every day, we make our most potentially life-altering decisions based on trust–blind trust. When we approach a green light in busy traffic, the prudence of “trust but verify” would create chaos, so we keep a steady foot on the accelerator and move through the busy intersection. We trust both that the lights on the perpendicular streets are red–and that the possibly distracted drivers approaching them will stop.
As we do on the highways, we entrust many other aspects of our lives to technological devices. We pay the final amount on the cashier’s screen at Walmart, trusting that the price is encoded correctly and that the computations of totals and discounts and taxes, both food and nonfood, have been performed correctly in nanoseconds. When we see https:// or the symbol of a tiny green lock, we share our most private personal and financial information, trusting Internet security despite alarming breaches of the systems at banks, credit reporting companies, and even government agencies.
Even though we are more suspicious of humans than of machines, most of our daily decisions also require blind trust in other people as well–mostly people we don’t even know. The decisions we make on the road and the Internet also require trust in the people operating the vehicles and scanning purchases and counting our change or our cash-back requests. We trust that our medical providers have the expertise to keep us healthy, we trust framers not to use harmful pesticides on our food, and we trust bottles of Tylenol on the pharmacy shelf not to contain cyanide–sometimes at our peril. The very pretense that pieces of green paper can stand in for piles of gold or sheaves of wheat or hours of labor is a fundamental example of shared trust, and now we have arrived at a place where even that paper has been replaced by a mysterious signal emanated when we wave a properly clad wrist past a nearby scanning device. As I think of countless examples, I realize that trust may be the very bedrock of civilization.
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people seem to trust the institutions that once gave our country its unique position of respect in the world. Many believe that those who make the laws are corrupt, that those who enforce the laws are inept or even evil, and that those who report the news are mouthpieces for people of power and wealth.
Even more sadly, we often lack trust in the very people who are part of our daily lives. Workplaces have become vipers’ nests where uncorroborated accusations can destroy careers and lives. We lock our doors and windows and close the blinds because we believe it is dangerous out there. Lives of community that were once open and enriching have become insular prisons, and “gated community” is a selling point.
As I meditate on the uses of today’s simple Advent word in today’s complex secular world, my prayer is twofold:
May we use this quiet season to examine and repair our relationships with others so that we can enter the new year with the kind of trust that allows us to be open and vulnerable and free to grow together in love;
And may we be mindful of the words that are still emblazoned on those bits of metal and paper we blindly use as currency in the marketplace: In God We Trust. Only by heeding that message of ultimate and eternal security can we live fully into those other trust relationships essential to our daily lives.