TALKING IT OVER
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
January 27, 1999
The very number 1999 is a vivid reminder that we are about to celebrate The Millennium. The celebration of thousand-year milestones, dating from the time of Christ and drawn from Scripture, may not be significant to other traditions and can be misunderstood even among Christians and those who use the western calendar.
The impending celebration has sparked a renewed interest in what was going on in Christendom in 1000 A.D., when Jerusalem was considered the center of the Christian world. On the maps of the time, Europe was shown as a large land mass with well-known contours. Asia and Africa were mysteriously incomplete, and the New World was nowhere to be found.
The majority of Europeans tilled the soil, while the church, trades and military service provided alternatives for others. Life expectancy was short, and most people did not live past 40. Girls, unless they were born to wealthy families or became nuns, were not educated.
The people of medieval Europe measured time by sundials and water clocks. No one marked birthdays. They traveled by foot, horse, cart or ship, and a pilgrimage to Jerusalem could take two years. Influenced by Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions, their culture was rich in proverbs, folk tales, legends, love songs, poems ... and stories from the Bible.
This year, as we count down to the year 2000, attention is focused on issues such as: When does it happen, and where will we celebrate? What is the Y2K "computer bug," and what will it mean for me?
But this week, at the fifth Millennium Evening at the White House -- a series of conversations with artists, scholars, scientists and creative individuals from many fields -- we were looking for the answers not to these questions but to more fundamental ones: What can we learn from the past? And how can we use what we learn to find meaning in the present and the future?
Historian Natalie Zemon Davis was our guide to medieval Europe, debunking "the false image of western Christians quaking in terror at the prospect of the year 1000." Rather, she explained, "there was no clear-cut apocalyptic movement led by a single prophet and focused on the single year 1000 but rather a millennial spirit spread over several decades. Preached by monks, it touched at one time or another bishops, nuns, warriors, wives, traders and peasants, inspiring moods that ranged from fear and repentance to initiative and joy."
The millennial period did witness optimistic and pessimistic movements -- devoted on the one hand to peace and on the other to the burning of heretics and the persecution of Jews. Professor Davis reminded us that "Our dream-making capacity, our capacity to imagine, can give birth to the good as well as the bad. ... The past urges us toward new commitment and also offers us a source of hope."
Hope -- or hope tempered by realism -- was the focus of the discussion as theologian Martin Marty brought us back to the present and challenged us to ponder the future. It was Christian philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, he said, "who put the search for meaning into context:
"'Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.'"
Hope, faith, love and forgiveness. Professor Marty pointed out that these can carry us beyond a parochial concern about our own end and help us all "find meaning for the millennium, even if we cannot claim we have found the meaning of the millennium. My husband ended this very special evening by issuing a challenge to all Americans. He asked us to write down the three things that we are most worried about and the three things about which we are most hopeful. Then, he suggested we answer the question "What can I do about these things to create a more hopeful future?"
I hope that many of you will take up his challenge. Talk with your family, friends and colleagues, and when you've reached some conclusions, share them with the White House.
If Americans take time to participate in this simple exercise -- to commit to action on three areas of concern -- we will be well-provisioned for our journey into the future and on our way to preserving our values and our optimism for generations to come.
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