August 7, 2020

Chris Smith: Barbarians at the Gate?

congress

Note from CM: It is my pleasure to welcome Chris Smith again, with another thoughtful article about how the ethos of life in a technological, mobile, fast-paced society is diminishing our ability to relate well with others. This piece was first posted on his blog, Slow Church. I’m eagerly awaiting his upcoming book of the same name.

* * *

The recent government shutdown, frustrating as it is, should not really come as all that big of a surprise.

In Western culture – and particularly in the United States – we have been cultivating habits for many decades that are dissolving our capacity to talk civilly and live peaceably with our neighbors, and especially our neighbors who differ from us in prominent ways: politics, economic status, race, sexual identity, etc.  This history has been chronicled over the last thirty years by important books such as Habits of the Heart by the late Robert Bellah and othersBowling Alone by Robert Putnam and more recently by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort.

In a similar vein, I have recently finished reading Jane Jacobs’s last book Dark Age Ahead (2004), which enumerates the ways in which she believes that our culture is on a fast track toward self-destruction. In the book’s introduction, Jacobs emphasizes that they defining mark of a dark age is forgetfulness: “During a Dark Age, the mass amnesia of a survivors becomes permanent and profound. The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness, almost as decisively as if it had not existed.”  There are indeed many things we have lost, or are losing, as a result of the long-nascent fragmentation of individualism: the ability to live healthily and fruitfully in community with others, civil dialogue, etc.  Jacobs presciently describes our times: “Cultural xenophobia is a frequent sequel to a society’s decline from cultural vigor. Someone has aptly called self-imposed isolation a fortress mentality. … A fortress or fundamentalist mentality not only shuts itself off from dynamic influences originating outside, but also, as a side effect, ceases influencing the outside world.” Jacobs identifies five “pillars” of North American culture (she was living in Toronto at the time the book was written), that are essential to our culture and in serious decay:

1)      Community and Family

2)      Higher Education

3)      The Effective Practice of Science and Technology

4)      Taxes and Governmental Powers in touch with needs and possibilities

5)      Self-policing by the Learned Professions

While others might point to other serious issues like “racism, profligate environmental destruction, crime, voters’ distrust of politicians, and the enlarging gulf between rich and poor,” Jacobs suggests that these undoubtedly key fragmentations follow from her primary five above. Despite the ominous title of the book, Jacobs does recognize the possibility that we might with significant attention and energy, be able to avert a dark age.

I also have been haunted recently by Alasdair Macintyre’s famous words from the close of his classic book, After Virtue:

What matters at this stage [in history] is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.  And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.  And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.

Macintyre’s words about the barbarians who “have already been governing us for quite some time,” make me chuckle uncomfortably, not only at their timeliness in this government shutdown, but also with the realization that our barbaric leaders in Washington were elected by us, and reflect who we are. Building on Macintyre, I have previously argued that local churches can be communities that either guide the larger culture to avert a dark age, or to survive through one.

My intent in talking about the possibility of a coming dark age is not one of fear-mongering. Jacobs emphasizes the massive inertia of a culture such as that of North America, and I agree with her; many of the fragmentations that have brought us to our current position have been snowballing for decades or even centuries, and thus there’s no sense in getting all worked up about our fate as a culture. But as Wendell Berry has argued in his recently televised interview with Bill Moyers (this segment starts at 24:30), the way out of this mess – dark age or no dark age – is to start living a different way in our own local communities.  At its very heart, Slow Church is about challenging and empowering church communities not only to reorient themselves to a different way of being that is attentive to our many fragmentations, but to be catalysts in our neighborhoods, energizing change toward the health and well-being of their communities.

I hope that this government shutdown and the ever-impending possibility of economic default serve to get our attention. Our North American culture is unraveling, but the sort of change we need is not the top-down sort of bandages that Washington can offer (though those might just enable us to limp along until better alternatives emerge), but what we need most is radical transformation (the sort that St. Paul points to in Romans 12, for instance) as individuals, families, churches, neighborhoods, and – to the extent that all of these are transformed – the broader systems that sustain a culture.  Such radical transformation, of course, although it might quietly take root in a relatively short time, will take a long time to mature and bear fruit, and likely the length of time will be proportional to the scope of the change (churches or neighborhoods will take longer to change than individuals and states will take longer than neighborhoods, etc.).

We are, in essence, the barbarians at the gates of our North American culture, but the question remains: will we prefer to continue in the barbaric ways that have emerged over the course of the modern age, or will we be converted to a way of life that seeks not to conquer – other humans, land or the mysteries of life – but to live peaceably with all humanity, and especially those who are closest at hand in our faith communities and our neighborhoods?

Comments

  1. Interesting piece.

    I have come to believe that fulfillment will not be found in this world, or country, or by who we support in politics or do not support. And we, as Christians, are free to take whatever side we feel can do the best job for our families and neighbors. But that might do our duty and trust that no matter what happens here, Christ will be our fulfillment. He will one Day usher in His New Kingdom. And to try and share that Good News with folks, whenever we are able..without beating them over the head with it.

    Thank you, Chris Smith. And thank you, Mike, for sharing it.

  2. flatrocker says

    While it’s not a quote from Pope Francis, occasionally Benedict had something quote worthy as well:

    “People of faith, take a good hard look at the new landscape and do not be afraid; do not be afraid.
    Changes are going to come, and they’re going to come quickly, so now is the time to work on strengthening the atrophied muscles of our spiritual lives — to make them stronger and healthier through the exercises of prayer, fasting, lectio and service and by divesting ourselves of the world and all of its things, its glamor and its empty promises. We must be ready to help them; the remnant must be ready when the people who have invited the void into their lives become unspeakably lonely. And they will. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.”

  3. IMO, one of the indicators of the barbarism of our society is the type of and apparent necessity of Entertainment combined with a culture of celebrity. As the late Neil Postman asserted, we’re entertaining ourselves to death. Thoughtfulness has been dsplaced with entertaining diversions.

    • IMO, Chris’s article does speak indirectly to this. The reason we are entertaining ourselves to death is not because somehow we are more drawn to entertainment than those in the past, but because technology has enabled entertainment options to become pervasive and accessible. However, slowing down and focusing on human relationships is a way of helping us relativize the value and meaning of that entertainment and to see what’s truly important.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > not because somehow we are more drawn to entertainment than those in the past, but
        > because technology has enabled entertainment options to become pervasive and accessible.

        +1 This kind of dark age was simply not available to our ancestors. There is nothing new under the sun, and the sin here is not new, it is just that it is only recently abundantly possible.

        > slowing down and focusing on human relationships is a way of helping us relativize

        And there is something of a movement towards turning it off, at least to some degree. I have several friends, younger than I, true Millennials, who have made personal decisions to turn off Facebook, etc… and live more in ‘the real’. Whether that will hold or not…. but there is some recognition of this in that generation and in the over-culture [these are not Evangelicals attempting to tune out the sinful world, but normals making a life-style choice].

    • I agree with this. I was having a discussion about a year ago with a friend and mentioned how we (America) had become a service industry nation, and how a service industry nation can’t sustain itself. He replied that he thought it was worse than that, that we’d become an ENTERTAINMENT industry nation, which is less sustainable than a service industry nation. The light bulb went off in my head. So true!

  4. I have little hope that the American Acculturated Evangelical Church ® has the Spiritual resources to be the City on the hill.

    • TOM, I fear you may be right when it comes to the ALL the extreme right Christians who have aligned themselves with the economic agenda of a certain political party . . . truth is, Ryan is Catholic, but his agenda (which the party embraced) was more ‘Ayn Rand’ than anything approaching a moderately compassionate conservatism. Thank God for the Nuns On The Bus . . . they didn’t judge . . . they patiently offered to take these extreme conservatives on board and tour with them to show them how their agenda would affect real people in our country.

      That kind of Spirit-driven patience may in the end make the healing difference that is needed.

      But I always knew that there was ‘something about the nuns’ that makes a difference in lives that they touch. 🙂

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Ryan is Catholic, but his agenda (which the party embraced) was more ‘Ayn Rand’ than anything approaching a moderately compassionate conservatism.

        Atlas Shrugged, the Role-Playing Game.

        Joining Left Behind: the Role-Playing Game (which uses the same mechanics and basic scenario), Commanders of Holy Gilead: the Role-Playing Game (Joyner and his calls for a Godly(TM) military coup), and all the other gamers who won’t admit to it in their Zero-Sum Game against each other.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        But again you are going back to Washington. The key is the local community. Let the kings and would-be kings duke it out, there is precisions little that can be done about that, that least in the short term. Looking in that direction can only create division; the villagers should focus on their village and what they can do to build it up.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          But everybody wants to be King by Divine Right. Whether that Divine Right comes from Christ or Marx or Rand. Struggle for the Throne.

          “A Cold Iron Throne
          Holds a child barely grown;
          His crown based on lies,
          YOU WIN OR YOU DIE —
          Game of Thrones!”

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            >But everybody wants to be King by Divine Right.

            You are still looking to high. As this is quite clearly no true of the manager of the local non-profit mental-health center, the mayor [or at least the mayor where I live, who oddly, is/was an ordained minister], or the guy who organizes cleaning up the park.

            If they are aspiring to divine right – they have tragically small gods.

        • Josh in FW says

          +1

        • @ATW.

          I believe you’re right about “local” being key. However, as a retired farmer, one thing I learned from going to producer meetings on the national level is that an inordinate proportion of my income is determined by the politicians and the bureaucracies. I find it important to know how to “fly under the radar.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      1) The Culture Warriors are already in the Faction Fortress Mentality. And like all the other Fortress Mentality Factions, their solution is “WE Get to be Caesar!”

      2) The Left Behinders have already signed everything over to The Antichrist and The Tribulation and only await being beamed up to Heaven. Living in the prologue to Left Behind and finding it all Very Exciting. (Any minute now… any minute now… any minute now…)

      3) The Megas and Gigas are in their own little Kingdoms, following the money. As long as more butts are in the pews and more Tithe$ are coming in, who cares?

      4) And in the latest Christianese political-activist Syncretism, Ayn Rand is the newest Fourth Person of the Trinity. Like the Left Behinders, they’re living in the first chapters of Atlas Shrugged and find it all Very Exciting. This Thursday, Atlas WILL Shrug and the moochers and takers will fall. (“A equals A! Who is John Galt! A equals A! Objective Truth! A equals A! A equals A! A equals A!”)

  5. Jerry Goodman says

    I don’t know you Steve, in person. However I know you by what you believe as a brother in Christ whose hope is in the Gospel message. And by our faith struggles to have Jesus as our focus in the crumbling world. We are learning as so many in so many nations on what it means to live our Christ centered faith. The target is Jesus and sadly I miss the mark. Yet one of God’s great gifts is repentance – the courage to come back to Jesus by his Spirit. Thanks Steve.

  6. I do agree that our greatest weakness as a society is our individualism (it’s almost our national religion), and it is responsible for a whole litany of problems, from simple rudeness to violent crime, though I still find most people (at least in my midwestern community) to be polite, friendly and helpful, though if push comes to shove I’m sure it would be every man for himself (read gender-inclusive language 🙂 ).

    I know this will be controversial, and it is not intended as political (though obviously it has political implications), but is it possible that this fragmentation and individualism is, at the very least, fostered, by a large, all-encompassing, all-providing central government that ALLOWS people to be disconnected from their communities and families?

    If the federal goverment had shut down 100 years ago, I doubt that most Americans would even have noticed. Today our lives are so engulfed by and entangled with what happens in Washington that some people’s lives were disrupted after the first couple of days, and everyone is worried whether they will get this or that on time. We rely on a faceless, remote (and seemingly disconnected and dysfunctional) government to provide everything from safe food to the money to buy it with. (I’m not saying there isn’t a role for government – I do like safe food, and some need help to buy it.)

    My point is this: 100 years ago (and I’m no nostalgic ‘golden ager’) if one had a need it was probably one’s family, neighbors, or local community that provided help (if possible, and certainly not always adequately). But it probably did keep people connected to their kin and community, and also maintained some accountability. Today, with help coming from far away, though a faceless beauracracy, paid for by who knows who, it allows us (me included) to become isolated from my kin and community – they don’t have to meet my needs, and I’m not accountable to them. I now have the ability to isolate myself from others and they from me. They are not my providers or helpers, and I am not their burden. It’s a win-win for everyone, except perhaps for our society as a whole.

    Unfortunately, I also recognize that the reason this role increasingly fell to the government (at whatever level) is largely because churches failed to (or were unable to) meet these needs in their local communities (or even their congregations). No answers here, just questions and quandries, and some worries for our future (but hope in our God).

    • A hearty 1+ to this. I would only add the following:

      “I do agree that our greatest weakness as a society is our individualism (it’s almost our national religion)”

      I would just push this one over the edge and remove the “almost”: in the USA, our national religion is the US Constitution and specifically, the whole “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness”, which has translated in the long run into a terminal selfishness that’s pervasive in the culture.

      As far as what to do, I would agree that it starts out small: with ourselves and our children, and even with children there it’s an uphill battle against the siren-song of the selfishness culture around us. I say this like I’m doing an amazing job myself. It’s really hard to resist serving myself when everything and everyone around me is telling me that I should do just that and it’s just so damned appealing. Having a kid has really helped me have to put my own wants aside and exercise those weak servant’s ‘muscles’.

      • I’m not sure there is a problem with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, so much as the fact that we always put my right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ahead of our neighbor’s.

        • Christiane says

          if the ‘common good’ is threatened, everyone will experience the fall-out

          get rid of regulations that protect the air and food supply, the water, and supervision of fuel production and controls on getting rid of nuclear and chemical wastes and you get results that can’t be limited to ‘the poor’ and ‘the marginalized’ . . . the effects of that kind of greed will go far beyond the people of the ’47 %’ and also affect those who hold the poor in contempt.

          Sadly, it is usually the poor, the elderly, the very young, and the mentally-challenged who receive the brunt of greed . . . but unholy avarice, once fully unleased, is a beast that, having feasted on the innocent, will not hesitate to turn on its masters in the end.

          There must always be a tension between government and aggressive capitalism . . . there are historic reasons for safety rules and the right of labor to organize . . . when history is forgotten, and those historic reasons are lost to us, we may have to ‘re-live’ the suffering of our past, only this time, the outcome may not be as we would wish.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > If the federal goverment had shut down 100 years ago, I doubt that most
      > Americans would even have noticed.

      And you wouldn’t have those pesky freeways, clean water standards, institute of health, or any of those other problems.

      100 years ago the average person died within 20 miles of where they were born; soon that will not be true, as that was true up to about ~1920. Henry Ford changed everything [well not really him, but it is vogue to give him the creds].

      Now we can travel, communicate [we know what is beyond that line of hills], and live longer [and much much safer – people even die with their real teeth!!!].

      This just is not a government thing, it is a technology thing. There are also just a crap ton more of us around [partly due to those aforementioned advantages – hasn’t been a real plague in a long time – God Bless the NIH].

      >the reason this role increasingly fell to the government

      Because that is its job. That is why ‘we’ created it. Managing all that stuff is simply outside a priest’s wheelhouse, the didn’t do it, and they cannot be expected to.

      • Completely agree. The world is so much more complex and needs so much more management and oversight. I’ve been to countries where this is not sufficiently present. Few of us would want to live in those conditions.

        • flatrocker says

          CM,
          And the rub comes at us with acceptable degrees of governance.
          How much management? How much oversight? What services are in? Which are out?

          For fiscal conservatives – how much is too much?
          For social liberals – how much is sufficient?
          For all of us – You mean we really can’t have it all?

          Vision at its most basic is the ability to define who we are and who we want to be. The gap between these two points sets our course. Our system of governance is failing in this most basic function. An absent strategy will always emanate in poor tactics.

          Welcome to democracy at its messiest.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > Our system of governance is failing in this most basic function.

            It fails in large part because a large number of people want to have vague ‘pure’ ideological discussions. None of your three questions are serious questions. Anyone asking questions that vague is best ignored.

            > Vision at its most basic is the ability to define who we are and who we want to be

            This I believe is a fundamental misunderstanding of our system of government, and the wide-spread adoption of this view a primary contributor to the current dillema. It is just wrong; wrong historically.

            Our system is one of squabbling and compromising on each and every single last issue over and over and over again. Approaching government ‘strategically’ is the problem, not the solution. Strategy requires me to draw lines, and win or loose. But in the real messy world with lots of overlapping problem domains – it just does not work that way.

            This also wasn’t, at least by my reading, the focus of the post.

          • I kind of disagree, Adam. Only in that we lack the social prophets who once presented a broad view of an expansive and civilised future. I believe that the members of our government would be well served to have this kind of long-distance vision and telos as guard-rails around their necessary squabbling.

          • Flatrocker,

            You ask three questions — and therein lies the rub. The members of the government, and much of the society at large, won’t discuss these and other questions. Maybe they don’t know how to discuss anything any longer. How can we aim toward better, more balanced government, when we can’t even discuss how much federal involvement is optimal? Discourse is essential to democracy; without it, what do we have?

          • flatrocker says

            Adam,

            > Anyone asking questions that vague is best ignored.

            It isn’t the type of questions we should be concerned about. Our concern resides in the lack of our need to even ask. For in our need to ask resides our desire to learn about each other. It’s in this need and in our attentiveness to actually listen that we can be moved to new understanding. Maybe we have stopped asking questions because the answers are meaningless. Which leads to one of the big questions – Why?

            Adam, your response illustrates this issue. Just dismiss and move on, nothing to be gained here. It’s so much easier than to engage and listen. The questions listed above are the questions that need to be asked (and there are many, many more). They represent the beginning of dialog, not the end. They move us away from authoritative statements and half-baked conclusions. Intriguing that we are even having this conversation.

            > This I believe is a fundamental misunderstanding of our system of government.

            I agree it is a fundamental misunderstaning – if you see government as nothing more than a deliberating body ensconced in its own electorate passions. How about we elevate the squabbling and compromising as a procedural necessity for a group tasked with providing leadership, vision and directional course-setting? The squabbling and compromising are part and parcel to our system of government – and that is a good thing. However, this doesn’t relieve them of leadership responsibility. Deliberating is not the goal. Deliberating is the tool.

            > This also wasn’t, at least by my reading, the focus of the post.

            Then why the need to come off point?

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > It isn’t the type of questions we should be concerned about.

            No.

            > Our concern resides in the lack of our need to even ask.

            No, lots of people are asking those questions. But those questions have no answer, because in there substance they have no meaning. “How much government?” is not a useful question. Because government is in the doing of governing, making decisions when faced with problems. The answer to that question can only be “more for some things, less for others”. These questions only divide people into groups arguing about fictions.

            > For in our need to ask resides our desire to learn about each other.

            No, I do not believe that all. The answers to these questions will not tell you anything about me; except if we are in the same ‘camp’. These questions are nothing more that a shibboleth.

            >It’s in this need and in our attentiveness to actually listen that we can be moved to
            > new understanding.

            Yes, but not these questions. Understanding is a much more banal and grease covered thing. Lets sit down and talk about tax policy and the financial constraints faced by municipality X. That will bring understanding. Lets talk to the local non-profits and hear what infrastructural and bureaucratic obstacles they face. That will bring understanding. Lets talk to the a local developer about what obstacles he faces [and possibly also discover that he really cares about his community in many of the same ways the activist does]. That will bring understanding.

            The “big picture” questions are interesting in the academy, and useful *there*. Otherwise they only serve to bring strife and pointless conflict.

            >Maybe we have stopped asking questions because the answers are meaningless.

            Exactly. And Millennials show a real disaffection for -isms. That I feel is an over-reaction, but an entirely understandable one. But the way back to -isms is through the bog of politics, not over it. The -isms need to be chastened and purged of their ideologues and reminded that they exist solely for the purpose of achieving a real-world end.

            > Just dismiss and move on, nothing to be gained here. It’s so much easier than to
            > engage and listen.

            Sorry, I listen, allot. And I discover smart, informed, and well intentions people from most of the academies. And I discovered the academies are less important than many people want to believe. Flight up the tower into the academy, that is just another form of disengagement. The talk is ‘high’ and unencumbered by concerns over what is achievable in a term short enough to actually be of use to anyone.

            > However, this doesn’t relieve them of leadership responsibility

            They cannot be relieved of a position they never held. Who looks to their senator for what they should do? Or how they should live?
            > They represent the beginning of dialog, not the end.

            No, This is backwards. These questions should be left for the end; after one has lived in the bog of the politic for a long long time. Only by that experience can they be tempered with wisdom. If they are the beginning there will be no end, they will freeze the conversation, there will just be us and them, you and me.

            > They move us away from authoritative statements

            They empower and produce authoritative statements, often wielded by those with no merit to hold authority; witness the chattering class.

            > for a group tasked with providing leadership, vision and directional course-setting

            It is proof that these are very strange times that I, as pro-governance Socialst, constantly argue that vision is not the role of governance. Vision lies in the hands of the people, and their leaders [whom one prays they choose wisely]. Government is the mechanism of the conflicting wills of the people. Vision is the business of artists, authors, priests, and all manner of civic leaders. The academies can provide vision. The government never can. And this is at it should be. Should the government provide a vision then those who disagree with that vision can only be enemies of the state. This is the most c-conservative of Visions.

          • Adam,
            Nothing like two diverging viewpoints.
            One of these days we need to talk about the sky being blue and water being wet.
            Peace Brother.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I’ve been to countries where this is not sufficiently present. Few of us would want to live in those conditions.

          Unless WE got to be Comrade Dear Leader.

          And that’s where the problem lies. Every one expects to be Comrade Dear Leader, living like a god on top of all the others.

        • +1 s one who has visited countries with impotent federal governments, I can say honestly that I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

      • Yes, I understand and agree. The world is much more complex that it was 100 years ago, and we need certain services provided by government, at all levels, that can’t be done any other way (though some of what the government does could probably be done by the private sector, and more efficiently, but don’t want to get into that).

        My question was simply does this level of government services and interaction with the individual make for a more individualistic society where we are more disconnected from one another? I’m not saying that we turn back the clock (again, I don’t believe the last century, or any for that matter, was a golden age, and I like clean water and good roads); I’m simply asking if this has contributed to our becoming a society where we look to some remote government to solve our problems than working with each other at local, more personal levels, to do so. Are there not some problems people working together (relationally) in the local community (or the church for heaven’s sake!) could solve without expecting somebody in Washington to push a new law or provide funding to fix them?

        I have been involved with a ministry in Africa for a number of years, whose focus is economic development. The founder is an African (with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics!) who believes that Africans must reach their communities for Christ, but don’t have the economic or social resources to do it. They are living so close to subsistence, and have so many barriers to economic growth and stability (from lack of education to bad water) they simply can’t think beyond their immediate problems. So our foundation works with local groups of Christians to solve problems in their communities. We provide seed money and expertise, and the locals provide labor, land, and so forth, and manage the projects (which they own – literally). We conduct economic development seminars to teach people how to profitably manage their resources and market their crops. We have started internet cafes in remote areas, provided grain grinders to communities, set up solar charging stations to charge cell phones, funded schools to teach job skills, and a number of other projects. The goal is to help people in their communities solve their problems in creative ways. Each project is an ‘enterprise’ and the profits are used to fund ministry and further development in the communities. These are projects these communities ‘own’ (both literally and figuratively, as opposed to many failed, and abandoned, projects started by the UN over the years because once the experts left nodoby was around to maintain them). It gives the local people a sense of accomplishment, and demonstrates in a tangible way that God loves and cares about them and wants them to have a better life.

        Granted, there are some problems (particularly in developed countries like ours) that only government can solve, and the quality of life would certainly be better for all Africans if governments would address some of these problems. But when local people work together to solve their own problems, can it not bring a sense of accomplishment, and dignity, as well as building community, in a way that just isn’t possible when we read about the government awarding some contract to fix some problem?

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        >the reason this role increasingly fell to the government

        Because that is its job. That is why ‘we’ created it. Managing all that stuff is simply outside a priest’s wheelhouse, the didn’t do it, and they cannot be expected to.

        Seeing caring for people in need as ‘outside a priest’s wheelhouse’ is viewing the church as most protestants do – a place to meet on Sunday. If the church is viewed as the community of God’s people, then that is certainly not out of its ‘wheelhouse’. In his book, ‘The Rise of Christianity’, Rodney Stark (a sociologist) argues that one of the reasons the early church grew to be the dominant religion of the Roman empire in less than 300 years was because it did just that – it cared for its own, and those around it (as epitomized by Julian the Apostate’s letter to the pagan high priest in Galatia complaining that Christians take better care of their own than the pagans do, they even take better care of the pagans than the pagans do). This was especailly true in times of plague and famine. In our day (with some exceptions) we just leave it to the government because that’s its job, not ours.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > Seeing caring for people in need as ‘outside a priest’s wheelhouse’ is viewing
          > the church as most protestants do

          Really? That was not implied in any way. But **caring** involved roads, transportation, working sewer and water systems, and disease control [NIH], airspace management [FAA], financial oversight [SEC], and much much much more in a *very* crowded world. To suggest the church can provide those things is absurd. And it is equally absurd to suggest that the church can replace Social Security, etc… the scale in enormous. And what happens to everyone outside the church?

          The priest certainly cares, but he cannot build or manage society in the way government can.

          Yes, we depend on government for these things; an always will.

          • Adam, you are missing many of the major points by a mile….your advocacy for the preeminence of the role of the federal government has valid points that are unfortunately obscured by your radical faith in the value of said government.

            For example, the role of Social Security….surely you are not unaware of the fact that the elderly were cared for, fed, and housed prior to the 1930’s? The role was filled by family, extended clan, community, and yes, Church. I am not suggested that this model is feasible in 2013, but it is quite clear that the vast majority of government roles, outside of the “guarding the borders and printing the money” categories, were filled by other agencies, formal and informal, during the first 150 years or so of the nation.

          • Prior to the 1930s, and the advent of social security, the poor were far more likely to die of hunger or disease. That is *why* we came up with social security, because the system in place without it was FAILING.

      • Greg makes a good point. I’d call it “key dependencies”, and at the top of the list is electricity.

      • Our technological development has also brought us Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a massive glut of instantly accessible pornography, and cable pundits. I’m grateful for many of our technological advances that I take for granted every day (I work in IT after all!), but it does not come without its costs.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > (I work in IT after all!),

          As do I.

          > but it does not come without its costs.

          Certainly true. I’ve developed profound misgivings about technology and civil society; but I am also not a Luddite. In any case it is not going away, and we have nowhere else to go, so here we are.

        • I’m not a Luddite. However, just because technology is available to do something doesn’t in and of itself mean that something SHOULD be done.

          About 20 years ago, at the height of my animal agriculture career, I came to an understanding of a question I had been asking about the traditional Mennonites and Amish; “Why did they freeze their technology at about the 1900 mark?” For quite a while I thought that decision was arbitrary. A specific answer did emerge. Because they could see that in the not too distant future developing agricultural technology would make it possible for one man with some help from the immediate family could easily do everything BY HIMSELF, that is, operate as a sovereign individual without need of community.

          The Anabaptist were prescient.

          • Tom (aka volkmar) – Just curious – where in the US do you live? I’m in a very heavily Anabaptist area in the East, and there are more than a few Mennonites who sue modern tech and agricultural techniques, as well as many Old order Amish who don’t.

            afaik, each Amish church (they meet in each others’ houses; there can be quite a few different churches, even in a small geographical area) has its own rules – literal rules -a bout what members can and cannot do regarding many kinds of tech. Example: the most hardcore Old Order church in my area refused to allow members to put reflective tape and triangles on their buggies, even at the cost of accident prevention. While they finally caved on that, they still insist that members use *oil* lamps* on their buggies. On the other hand, there are more than a few Old Order Amish in Lancaster Co., PA and environs who have absolutely no problem with using reflectors, and even battery-powered flashers (the battery fits under the dashboard of the buggy) to help prevent accidents and try to promote the safety of those driving after dark. (Which is, believe me, a lot of people!)

            And there are levels and levels re. the use of tech of all kinds. Their communities seem more like the adjacent squares of a patchwork quilt (one made with many different prints) than all of a piece, though I know it usually seems the opposite to those who are (like me) outsiders.

          • numo,
            Now that I live in Lancaster county, I see much the same thing you do. The approximately 105 different Mennonite orders (which include the Amish) are very fractured from each other in terms of community and the types of technologies and lifestyles they follow and allow. They are not unified or united in their decisions as churches and communities. There are very deep and bitter divisions between the multitude of communities.

            In addition, in order to thrive, the various “plain” communities have come to depend on the wider technological community around them. I think that at this point the majority of Mennonites do not work at agriculture for a living but are employed in other vocations, many of them involving the tourist industry. Many use cell phones and other technological devices as part of their work, and even many Old Order Amish communities charter buses and go on vacation together (they love to play and watch baseball, so it’s not unusual to see them in Florida at the training camps).

            I’m not sure we can learn much from them about forging real community in a fractured technological world, since they are so fractured as communities themselves, with varying dependence on contemporary technologies and economies.

    • But you don’t have to go back 100 years. You can go back to pre-1940, before there was Social Security. There is documentary film footage of what it was like for farmers in the Dust Bowl, and what it was like in cities with tenements. Really, a person in need was as likely not to receive help as to receive it. Not everyone had family, friends and a caring church. The only difference between now and then is that then people could *only* rely on the community, and often the community flat-out failed them. Even with Social Security, there are many, many elderly poor who live in deplorable conditions and do not have anyone else to help them. We are still “the local community” in our own neighborhoods – and often I do not see, nor do I want to see.

      I’m with Ch. Mike.

      Dana

  7. David Cornwell says

    This article by Chris Smith strikes to the heart of the problem we face today as the supporting foundations of society decay around us. It is really sad to behold, and to see those things we once be considered important enough to be almost sacred tumble away so rapidly.

    Liberal Jeffersonian democracy, as we have come to know it here in the United States, is in deep trouble. Anyone can see that. It was based on a number of things, cobbled together by our founders, not always neatly, and always based on compromise. They believed certain common things, or “goods” held us together as a nation. (Don’t get technical on me here, because I’m not a scholar in this area, just a concerned citizen.) Religion, to them, was important in a general moral sense of the meaning. Religion was to help us be a good people, unselfish, and concerned with the “other” as much as with the self. It was not to be particular, that is in spelling out denomination, or doctrine, or orthodoxy. Thus it was to be “civil.” Spelling out all those other concerns was left to the particular church, individual, preacher, or priest. When one looks back at our history, it is a strong wonder that this was ever accomplished.

    In doing this foundational work, many things were left undone. One of them was the built-in basic problem we had with slavery. This was left to be settled later, at great cost in blood, money, and trust. Many would say that we still suffer from a terrible hangover inflicted by this intrinsic wrong.

    We managed as a nation (US) to hang together for many years, more or less on the basis of this original settlement. When we approached problems the “common good” became the overarching consideration. It meant looking for that which was good for not just one of us, but for many of us. But even then, we had to leave room for those who disagreed. Respect and “rights” had to be maintained for minorities.

    As Christians, how do we help repair the situation we now find ourselves?

    First, we are given life here on this planet. It is a gift from God. We have not been placed here to just sit or stand like someone in a train station, waiting for the train to pick us up and haul us away to a better location. This place is our abode, a gift from God’s hand, a part of Creation. It is here we learn to value life, to love family, and to care for those around us. When we live in any other way, or think about the world in any other way, we dishonor God and Creation.

    And of course this is where it can become complex. But when we pray with millions of others in church every Sunday, “Our Father… thy Kingdom come on earth…” this is not just mumbled words and an empty phrase. It is the way Jesus taught us to pray. If we believe in prayer this becomes for us an affirmation of faith, and a voice joined with those millions of others wherever they gather and pray.

    What does the Church, today, teach us about living with each other? If you listen to many preachers, the words of advice we receive are not very encouraging. For rather than healing they preach discord, self concern, and even violence. They pull us up into our own little walled-off corners, where we stand and scream at those who pass us by.

    This is where it can mess with our thinking. Because as Christians we are part of a new Kingdom. It is to this Kingdom that we are called to give first allegiance. So sometimes we must be prepared to witness against the worldly rulers of the present era.

    So, how do we live together and citizens of a nation and yet be faithful to the Kingdom? There are many Protestants who write in various ways about these problems. Yet, it would be hard to name one or two that we know about or to whom we listen. Some offer very strange and insular solutions. So, to me, a good starting point is to look at what the Catholic Church is teaching about these problems. For here is a world voice, an over arching word of authority that on the whole is unattached to a single nation, nationality, or racial origin. It is an ancient voice, that speaks from a range of tradition that spans down through the centuries to our present age. And it is not one that calls on us to withdraw, retreat, or dig moats around our fortress. I’m not saying it is perfect, but to me at least, it is a starting point.

    For instance read “Seven Principles of Catholic Social Teaching” by Christopher Kaczor. Or read “Charity in Truth” by Pope Benedict XVI, where he writes about the “common good.” Pope Francis continues this teaching in a way that is easy for all of us to understand. I am not Catholic, but I am glad to hear and read something that goes beyond the divisive words of Pat Robertson or Doctor James Dobson or one of our insular denominations. I’m not willing to give up yet, because I have children and grandchildren. The world they will be part of scares me. I think we can do better.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Liberal Jeffersonian democracy, as we have come to know it here in the United States, is in deep trouble. Anyone can see that.

      According to Prof. David Gelertner’s 1939: Lost World of the Fair, there was an identical sentiment during the First Great Depression — at least among the Intellectual Chattering Classes. Jeffersonian Democracy’s time had come and gone and a new system must take its place. Superior Intellects were divided among which system should obviously replace it: Fascism (“Sieg Heil!”) or Communism (“Urra Stalino!”). For only the uneducated, unwashed rabble still believed in democracy.

      First, we are given life here on this planet. It is a gift from God. We have not been placed here to just sit or stand like someone in a train station, waiting for the train to pick us up and haul us away to a better location.

      “This world is not my home. I’m just passing through…”
      — Larry Norman, “Only Visiting this Planet”

      When you have no future and just sit around waiting for God to beam you up, the Future has a way of happening anyway — without you. And you WILL be Left Behind, just not in the way you think.

      If you listen to many preachers, the words of advice we receive are not very encouraging. For rather than healing they preach discord, self concern, and even violence. They pull us up into our own little walled-off corners, where we stand and scream at those who pass us by.

      “For in the Devil’s theology the most important thing is to be Absolutely Right and to prove everyone else to be Absolutely Wrong. This does not lead to peace between men.”
      — Thomas Merton, “The Moral Theology of the Devil”

      Some offer very strange and insular solutions. So, to me, a good starting point is to look at what the Catholic Church is teaching about these problems.

      You actually think Protestants (not even mentioning the Truly Reformed) would listen to Romish Popery(TM)? On this blog we had a couple commenters still fighting the Reformation Wars with Absolute Righteous Zeal, proving Luther, Calvin, et al to be Absolutely Right and Romanism to be Absolutely Wrong no matter what the collateral damage.

      • David Cornwell says

        “You actually think Protestants (not even mentioning the Truly Reformed) would listen to Romish Popery(TM)?”

        Most would not, I agree, but I think that is sadly indicative of part of the problem. The Reformation was about certain areas of disagreement. However it should not be used as a base from which to hate forever and ever those from which we came.

        We love our divisions, our renting of the Body of Christ into bits and pieces. So we have our little preachers and small theologians of a certain sect or school claiming an exclusive hold on truth.

        • I’m certain that not ALL Protestants would listen to wisdom from Rome, but many of us have and have been doing so for some time now. However, I know first hand of what HUG is saying.

          To be followers of Jesus Christ the King does not guarantee or promise either the thriving or survival of any particular polity. However, Jesus does show us and train us in what it is to be genuinely human–to bear the Imago Deo.

          Augustine’s experiences can be a guide in this.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          The Reformation was about certain areas of disagreement. However it should not be used as a base from which to hate forever and ever those from which we came.

          “VATICAN! WE HATES IT! WE HATES IT FOREVER!!!! (gollum! gollum!)”
          — the Truly Reformed (including a couple of IMonk commenters)

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > So sometimes we must be prepared to witness against the worldly rulers of the present era.

      It is MUCH MUCH MUCH more effective to sit down with worldly leaders, listen to them, and *hear* them. They are not all devils. And they are much closer than Washington. You have them where you live. And most of them, in my experience, will be glad you came – if you listen and have speak *calmly* with any real suggestions.

      Sadly I haven’t seen any sign that churches or faith communities [outside of the notable homeless shelters and non-profit mental-health facilities] are present. It appears they are divided themselves amongst themselves over which of the kings they should root for in the great contest. It baffles me, but from what I remember I am not surprised.

      > The world they will be part of scares me.

      Ditto. I was very sad for years, I began a church-hiatus driven out by the screech of Evangelicalism. I’m not so sad, or even pessimistic anymore. I see good things, defiantly beautiful things, and communities preparing themselves for the oncoming storm [1]. The kings and would-be kings will do what their kind do, squabble and in-fight like the bastards they are; we need to do the best we can do with what we have, where we are. There is no shortage of allies willing, even eager, to be had.

      [1] Literally a storm in at least one case. Everyone knows the mighty kings are not going to do anything meaningful concerning climate change. So the city has implemented a plan to improve all the flood-control and other services that help deal with the increase in severe weather. Who would argue about such a thing? This year high water inundated some buildings in our downtown with a record breaking river rise – but infrastructure already in place and competent people at the helm responded rapidly and minimized the damage. A call for volunteer sand bag fillers and levies appeared overnight.

      > I think we can do better.

      I do not think so, I *know* so. I’ve watched it happen. Turn your gaze from the burning heights and look around you.

      I’m sad about what happens on the heights, but there is nothing substantive I can do about it; and I am tired of arguing about it and I do not want to be yet another complainer. But I am impressed by what I see around me. My only sadness there is, as far as I can tell, the absence of any representative of the people who should be there. ‘My people’ seem either utterly captivated by those kings and their machinations or else lost in despair. I’d stand on the street-corner and do my best James if I thought it would help; admonish them not to be blown back and forth on the winds of the times, that we have a kings who will put all those kings under his feet, and that our king’s mandate is to love our neighbor, who is right here, not up there.

      • David Cornwell says

        “It is MUCH MUCH MUCH more effective to sit down with worldly leaders, listen to them, and *hear* them. They are not all devils. And they are much closer than Washington. You have them where you live. And most of them, in my experience, will be glad you came – if you listen and have speak *calmly* with any real suggestions.”

        Very true. Most will listen, sometimes reluctantly, but in the US at least we have access to them.

        I was thinking about concerns such as war, where there can be extreme differences among Christians. And where we need to examine closely the claims of those who rule. Whether we be “just war” Christians or pacificists, we need to know that which of we speak and be prepared. There are consequences to these kind of understandings.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > I was thinking about concerns such as war, where there can be extreme
          > differences among Christians.

          Again, you are looking too high. If we agree on the justness of a war [and we probably will not] probably doesn’t have much bearing on if we can agree on aspects of a zoning change or a community redevelopment effort.

          We cannot let those things constantly create us-them you-me contests out of all the things we can work together on.

          > we need to know that which of we speak and be prepared.

          Agree. But we also need not make *everything* about those issues.

          > There are consequences to these kind of understandings.

          Absolutely.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            There is great value in holding one’s tongue when appropriate and productive. Otherwise divisive issues taint everything, it is too easy to put people in a position where they cannot work together; often just because someone cannot keep their mouth shut concerning an entirely unrelated issue.

            Speaking truth is important. Telling someone to “shut up!” is important too.

          • David Cornwell says

            “Again, you are looking too high.”

            True, but sometimes the large issues overshadow everything else.

            Aiming lower, a group is being formed that will meet in the church I attend to discuss the broad attack on public education that we have been seeing in this state for the last 4 years. This is very destructive to local communities, even rural ones. I’ve witnessed it first hand. Anyway we are meeting to discuss the new book “Reign of Error” by Diane Ravitch.

            The purpose is a long range one. Not just discussing the problem, but working toward solutions. The work will continue later with a broader coalition of organizations involved under the title “Whose Business is Public Education?”

            Some will think this is not the work of churches, and to an extent I agree. But it is our work as citizens, and especially Christian citizens.

  8. Steve Newell says

    I see that we are moving to a form of “tribalism”. We live in tribal enclaves in terms of where we live physically, what we read for information and ideas (we read what reinforces our beliefs not what challenges them), our friends are only those who share our beliefs (religious and political), etc. We vilify those who don’t agree with us and we only ascribe the worse motivations to them.

    This is not just a “conservative” issue but also a “liberal” one as well. How often do “liberals” have friends who are theology conservative friends? When did a “conservative” read a book written by a “liberal” for the purposes of understanding a different point of view, even though they will not agree with?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Remember most tribes’ name for themselves translates as “The People” and their name for all outside “The People” translates as “The Other” or “Enemy”…

    • Maybe I’m a contrarian, but I consume a steady diet of those with whom I either disagree (Crossan) or don’t understand (Barth). As for politics, I’m not very political, but I pay attention to the gun-toting nuts and the high-brow liberals alike. In their own ways, all are trying to pursue what they think is best. I believe a balanced and considerate approach is the best option. As St. Paul said, charity covers a multitude of sins.

    • Steve, I just got a subscription to the NYT so I can follow the rationales and important issues from viewpoint of those who are about 180 degrees away from MY worldview. It can be both enlightening and infuriating, but never boring!!

  9. The stuff going on economically with my generation is pretty troubling. I’m a computer programmer, so I’m doing pretty well and not really speaking for myself. But I see it all around me. I know way too many intelligent, hardworking, college-educated people in their late 20s or even 30s (sometimes even graduate degrees) who are working dead-end jobs (often multiple ones) and don’t really have prospects for an actual career. They’re getting by, but not much more.

    And our generation will have to spend additional time and sometimes money to support our boomer parents as they age – many of whom will not be able to retire easily. This financial stagnation will also make it much more difficult for millennials to raise children, especially as Western culture really stigmatizes relying on your extended family for support. The hyper-complementarian idealization of the 1950s family as God’s Perfect Will does not help this situation all (I realize not all complementarians teach this) – many men today don’t make enough money to support a family, through no fault of their own.

    The problem is that you increasingly need specialized skills in today’s economy. I can program computers – lots of people can’t. They may be just as gifted in other ways that would have once gotten them at least a decent career, but a lot of those opportunities have dried up now.

    And yes, I am speaking of mostly-white people who come from good families, probably finished college, and are in at least the lower middle class. I realize there are poor people who are worse off, but I am speaking to what I have the most experience interacting with.

  10. Randy Thompson says

    “When you have no future and just sit around waiting for God to beam
    you up, the Future has a way of happening anyway — without you.
    And you WILL be Left Behind, just not in the way you think.”

    Yes indeed.

    A vivid mental image from a Ron Cobb cartoon of 45 years ago captures this well. In it, there is nothing by rubble as far as the eye can see. In the middle of it, a panicky looking man holds a small TV, with the cord in his hand, looking for a place to plug it in.

    It does strike me, though, that if the Rapture doesn’t happen according to plan, then the same folks will latch on to some other apocalyptic hope. The apocalyptic broad road and wide gate are indeed broad and wide and easily accessible, and Christ’s way of the cross, rejection and suffering is very narrow indeed.

    What will happen when we’re offered the cross and are looking forward to the Great Escape?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      What do you mean, “will happen”?

      John Nelson Darby and Hal Lindsay have already destroyed Protestant Christianity in America, and we’re seeing the results. Up on the roofs (so they won’t have as far to Ascend) with their End Time Prophecy charts all marked up.

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Thing is, Struggle for the Throne At All Costs has become what’s normal these days. I can remember fifty years’ worth of “Armageddon Tomorrow (at the latest) — IT’S ALL OVER BUT THE SCREAMING!!!!!” From Inevitable Global Thermonuclear War from the Sixties to the Nineties to every None Dare Call It Conspiracy(TM) theory from the Birchers on. Fifty years without letup, standing and screaming from their little walled-off corners about The End of America, then disappearing back into their fortresses and underground survival bunkers and barricading the gates.

    Oh, and in an MSNBC newsfeed today, China was calling for the “De-Americanization” of the world economy, as the current mess in DC has shown America cannot be trusted to lead. Guess which Superpower they see taking America’s place?

  12. Thanks for the review of the Jane Jacobs’ book. I read her earlier, more famous book, which became a seminal urban planning text. Apparently, this later book is just as significant.

  13. Fascinating post, today. Thanks, CM. That Bill Moyer interview with Wendell Berry should be required listening for all here. He speaks of hope and characterizes what reborn community might look like. By the way, “individualism” as I know it does not conflict with any realistic concept of community. Pride does. Sometimes the words just get in the way.