St. Augustine, explaining man’s proclivity for sin and his susceptibility towards temptation, wrote that God created humans with freewill, and that by virtue of that free will sin is possible. Man, in other words, chooses to reject good and embrace sin; we bring evil unto ourselves. I think it is easy for many, when they review this theory, to overlook how profoundly empowering it is. They understand only half of its implications, that man is responsible for his own wrong, that he has only himself to blame. But this severity is inextricably linked to, in fact necessitated by, the idea that man chooses his own nature; it is within everyone’s power to embrace or reject goodness or sin. Central to Augustine’s theory is human freedom and the human capacity to make decisions. I think this is important to remember as we reflect on the year: the integral role conscious decision-making plays in politics and human affairs. It is important that we interpret global affairs as such, that is, deliberate decisions and not accidents. On that note, I think we should review some seminal moments of the year through such a lens.

It seems that there has been a trend over the past few years, at least in the West, to interpret events differently, as products of larger trends outside the control of any person. If we view geo-political events as precipitations of zeitgeists and not human doings, we quickly find ourselves in situations where there is no clear course of action, and where blame is removed.

This may all seem a bit opaque, so take the recent American Studies Association boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The ASA, an association of American academics, has decided to boycott Israeli academic institutions to protest their support for the policies of the Israeli government, which they see as discriminatory towards Palestinians. The boycott does not, it should be noted, extend to individual academics operating outside the confines of their universities, but rather universities when they act singularly in their capacity as an institution.

The boycott, besides being anti-academic and ultimately fruitless, is horribly misguided. Underlying the ASA’s criticism of Israel as discriminatory and anti-Palestinian is the belief that political events fall outside of human providence. When a Palestine blows himself up to kill Israeli citizens, or shoots up a mall, or fires missiles into heavily residential neighborhoods, he is not really in control of his decision as his decision is a result of larger political, cultural, and economic trends. Therefore, it is wrong for the Israelis to carry on like the perpetrator is blameworthy. Indeed, they themselves may ultimately be considered the author of his action as they, that is, their political and military institutions, created the circumstances that created the terrorist.

That is the reasoning of someone who supposes that political events fall out of human control. Obviously a perverse strain of thought. It make sense, however, that they are lashing out not against particular persons who are relevant to Israeli operations in Palestine, but an entire class of organizations and institutions.

This is not to mean that there are no trends at work in the world. In fact, a total rejection of that idea results in a concomitant foolish faith in the ability of singular actors. For example, many have expressed hope that the new Iranian President Rouhani will be able to bring about reform. It was perhaps this hope that motivated the recent nuclear deal with Iran. For a moment, we will ignore that Rouhani is not a moderate and that he does not have a history of reform, and suppose that he genuinely wants to change Iran. For this to be possible, Rouhani would have to overcome the Islamist trends that have governed Iran since the 1979 Revolution. Embodied in Speaker Larijani, an ally of Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Khamenei, the Assembly of Experts, the Guardian Council, and more, Iran’s reactionary radical Islamism is as powerful as ever. It is naïve to suppose one man is capable of so quickly undoing it.

Perhaps the best example of what I have in mind is Pope Francis. The new pontiff has been able to, in an amazingly short amount of time, change the public dialogue concerning the Church by shifting its emphasis towards economic issues. The new pontiff has condemned – I would say rightly – consumerism and greed and – I would say very wrongly, with no real regard for facts – capitalism, and in doing so partly reoriented the Church. Why I say only partly, however, is because the Church still holds all its traditional positions, both on social and economic issues. Truthfully, Francis is not a renegade changing doctrine, but rather a traditionalist who chooses to focus on one aspect of doctrine rather than another.

Pope Francis was able to affect an institution without totally changing it. Most analysts would say because of Pope Francis, at least from a public relations perspective, the Church is in a much better position than it was one year ago. And perhaps his upcoming synod will change doctrine. What we see when we look at Francis is the potential for human decisions to have an impact, while at the same time their limit. In thinking about both the past and the new year, I feel it is important that we keep in mind the real possibility for change that singular actors carry, but also temper our hope by reminding ourselves of the power and importance of larger geo-political trends.