By Fr. Travis Russell, SJ
April 19, 2020 — When Americans hear the word “infrastructure,” we usually think of roads and bridges. We can’t help it. It’s paved onto our imaginations like Route 66. Where else, except in America, would a movie like “Thelma and Louise” make sense? Nowhere. Muscle cars? Big, gas-guzzling SUVs? Made only in the USA. Even America’s all-time best selling self-help book, “The Road Less Traveled” by Scott M. Peck, has infrastructure in its title. I could go on. My point is simple: Americans love building infrastructure. It’s in our DNA.
In President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, nearly $1.3 trillion of the plan’s $2 trillion price tag goes to overhauling and updating America’s traditional infrastructure. According to the White House, Biden’s plan will rebuild 20,000 miles of roads, repair the 10 most economically important bridges, eliminate lead pipes from the nation’s water supplies, expand accessibility to high-speed internet and modernize the nation’s electrical grid to support a new, green economy. And despite the hefty price tag, for infrastructure qua infrastructure, there’s bipartisan support.
With all this frenzied talk of infrastructure, I’ve been thinking about Pope Francis urging Catholics to be bridge builders. Francis, of course, is not talking about the American Jobs Plan; rather, he is responding to those who prefer to build walls, the barriers that stymie human connection and keep people isolated. Returning from Morocco in 2019, he observed: “[T]hose that build walls end up being prisoners of the walls that they have built. On the other hand, those who build bridges go forward…. To build bridges is for me something that almost goes beyond the human, it needs very great efforts.”
When we hear the word infrastructure, our imaginations automatically jump to the tangible. We think not only of building roads and bridges but of building them bigger and better than before. But what if we paused, heeded the insight of Francis and allowed ourselves to consider the intangible? What if instead of physical bridges we invested in the invisible bridges of human connection? Isn’t this infrastructure worth investing in, too?
If I were to perform a national examen, at the top of my list would be the need to “build back better” communities. Over the past decades our social fabric has been frayed. We have become more isolated, more suspicious and as a result more afraid. Our gaze has turned inward. Instead of following the gospel and looking out for those in need, we have become the priest and the Levite in the Good Samaritan, who pass by their neighbor lying on the side of the road and pretend not to notice. The justification then — who is my neighbor? — is the same NIMBYism as now.
“The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project” Francis writes in Fratelli Tutti. “Each day we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders.”
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t invest in infrastructure. We should! We need to build back better than before. Rather, I’m asking a different question, the question of Francis: What are our criteria? What infrastructure should we be investing in? What bridges need to be built?
Before spending $2 trillion on the American Jobs Plan, we should pause to imagine a future that is not only economically better but also reflects the kingdom of God. Such an imagination is necessarily religious, for it requires that we set aside our political ideologies and as God’s co-laborers put community at the center. Again, Francis is helpful: “[T]he bridge is made by God with the wings of angels so that men can communicate…. The bridge is for human communication.” For Christians, this is what building back better truly means.
Given the current State of the Union, America would do well to expand the word infrastructure to include the bridges of community, what Francis calls a “culture of encounter.” According to Francis’ infrastructure plan, “To speak of a ‘culture of encounter’ means that we, as a people, should be passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone.” Dorothy Day had a similar infrastructure plan. Quoting her friend Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, she said that we should work “to build that kind of society where it is easier for people to be good.”
Investing in schools, parks, community health centers, nutrition programs, paid family leave, affordable housing — these are bridges, too. They are bridges towards a kinder society, and they should all be included in the word infrastructure.
The infrastructure that we need today is human connection, and its building will take “very great efforts.”
Fr. Travis Russell, SJ is the criminal justice policy advisor for the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology. He has worked with Jesuit refugee Service in Malawi, taught at Verbum Dei High School and served as an assistant at L’Arche Seattle.