Late in the Game

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry’s been saying it for years, in the context of culture, agriculture, and community: America is on an unsustainable trajectory. The soil– literally the earth, and metaphorically the source of moral and emotional nourishment– is wearing thin. In the midst of material excess and frantic busy-ness is spiritual depletion and physical exhaustion. We have lost our way.

There exists no shortage of people in the political realm who have the answer for what ails us: the Tea Partiers are ascendant for now, having supplanted the Obama-hopers, who in their ascendancy supplanted the Cheney/Rumsfeld neoconservatives. Such political lability in itself suggests that, politically speaking, no one really knows what to do.

Much of what passes for religion in America today offers two kinds of response to this age of anxiety, neither of which is satisfactory.  The first offer is personal salvation (and I mean that broadly to include not just Christian notions of “accepting Christ” and “going to heaven,” but also New Age/Western-inflected Eastern philosophies of “enlightenment”), a spiritual stance that looks inward and emphasizes the individual’s relationship with the Transcendent One (or Transcendence in general). This way is unsatisfactory because it doesn’t address the wider cultural system that generates our anxiety and depletion. It’s a way to cope, but not to transform.

The second response of religion in America today is to be more outward-looking, and to engage society from a religious point of view. While pointed in a more helpful direction (outward), the way religion in America generally engages society today is to join political battles on political battles’ usual acrimonious, highly partisan, highly anxious terms. Politics calls the tune; religion sings its assigned part, “conservative right” and “liberal left.” This is unsatisfactory because it unreflectively engages the wider cultural system as it is. It replicates the patterns that lead to anxiety and depletion, rather than offering an alternative narrative.

There is no easy answer, no tidy prescription. Part of what’s helpful is to sit with the dissonance, the unresolved chord– and listen, and wait: listen and wait in the hopeful expectation that God knows what’s going on, even if we don’t.

The Importance of Describing the World: Maan News Agency and the Jerusalem Post

Compare the following reports coming out today, regarding settlement construction in Israel/Palestine. The first is from the Maan News Agency, a Palestinian news source; the second is from the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli news source. You don’t need to understand the intricacies of the current conflict to see how descriptions construct reality. Language is not neutral. (In the following citations, the emphasis is mine):

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved Friday more settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, the PLO’s top negotiator said Israel had all but declared an end to negotiations.

via Maan News Agency: Netanyahu `chose settlements over peace`.

Compare the above, with this from the Jerusalem Post:

Palestinians reacted negatively to the Housing Ministry’s announcement to build 240 housing units in Jerusalem neighborhoods Pisgat Ze’ev and Ramot and accused Israel of attempting “to kill” any chance to reignite peace negotiations, AFP reported on Friday.

By JPOST.COM STAFF
10/15/2010 12:51

The Palestinian news outlet calls a particular piece of land “occupied East Jerusalem;” the Israeli news outlet calls the very same particular piece of land a “Jerusalem neighborhood.” The descriptions are different not because one description sees something factually, physically, materially, different than the other. The descriptions are different because one ascribes different meaning to that piece of land than the other. And that makes all the difference.

Several points could be made here; I will simply say this: the religious (broadly defined) calling of our day, is to pay attention to how meanings are ascribed; to expose meanings that are ultimately destructive, life-negating, empty, or exploitative; and to proclaim a word that has the power to shape a new world grounded in a hope that all can participate in. That’s the calling of the peacemaker in the Middle East; that’s the calling of leadership in an imperial America that has lost its way.

Real Change?

 

Could this gesture of giving mean more than the food on the plate?

 

I’ve got nothing against letter-writing campaigns, and I don’t know anything about Bread for the World’s David Beckmann. However, I do think it’s worth questioning the premise of the following paragraph:

Beckmann believes real change comes through politics, not soup kitchens, which is why Bread for the World encourages its member churches to launch letter-writing campaigns on such unglamorous issues as tax credits for the working poor. Moses, he points out, was not sent by God to pick up a few cans and warm blankets at Pharaoh’s court. He was sent to change the world.

via Miller: A Minister’s Mission to Fight Poverty – Newsweek.

The question that author Lisa Miller begs is, “What counts as real change?” As James Hunter points out (post here and others), most of us– including those of us who profess that God’s rule is ultimate– readily go along with the popular notion that “real change” is the province of politics. In the spirit of confession, I’ve been one of those people.

That unspoken assumption needs aired; it doesn’t withstand examination. Politics, in fact, might be the very last place to look, in order to find “real change.”

Lisa Miller gives us a false choice: that churches must choose between acts of compassion (which, in her reading, are well-intentioned but naive), and acts of lobbying (which, in her reading, are savvy and worldly-wise). Both can be good and helpful things to do, and both can effect some kinds of change. But real change?

Moses wasn’t changing the world– God was. Real change , while inevitably involving human actors, will be deeper and broader than any end we might imagine.

Missing the Mark

We’ve been reflecting on the work of James Hunter in recent posts (here, here, and here), on the limits of political power and the flattening of public life that results from reducing “the public realm” to the merely political. As Hunter himself acknowledges, this is cultural– and culture doesn’t change quickly. To use a meteorological metaphor (as he himself does), cultural change is more like a change in climate than it is like a change in weather. And while we can very well imagine what tomorrow’s weather will be, we can not so very well imagine what a different climate might be like, or how– or whether it’s even possible– to help bring it about. Cultural change, while a human artifact, resists human manipulation.

Hunter’s criticism of American Christianity is that both the Christian left and the Christian right have bought into the politicization of public life, thereby squandering the unique authority of the Christian worldview to provide an alternative way of being a society together. For example, politicization by its very nature leads to a public conversation marked by zero-sum outcomes: I’m right; you’re wrong. I win; you lose. An alternative– which is, as Hunter points out, one mark of a healthy culture– is a public sphere characterized by affirmation rather than negation. His words:

What’s even more striking than the negational character of political culture is the absence of robust and constructive affirmations. Vibrant cultures, healthy cultures, makes space for leisure, philosophical reflection, scientific and intellectual mastery, [and] artistic and literary expression, among other things.

Within the larger Christian community in America, one can find such vitality in pockets here and there, and yet where they do exist, they tend to be eclipsed by the greater prominence and vast resources of the political activists and their organizations. Once more, there are few if any places in the pronouncements and actions of the Christian right or left, where I could find these kinds of affirmations, [where] those kinds of gifts are acknowledged, affirmed or celebrated. What this means is that rather than being defined by its cultural achievements, its intellectual and artistic vitality, [or] its service to the needs of others, Christianity is defined to the outside world by its rhetoric of resentment and the ambitions of a will in opposition to others.

I think Hunter is largely correct. I think those of us who have hope for what a different kind of Christian contribution to public life might be, have a lot of work to do– both in bringing down the hyper-politicized barriers between so-called liberal and so-called conservative Christianity, and in building up a richer public life that is not collapsed into the merely political.

Conservatism and Liberalism

The working assumption for most of us, is that liberalism vs. conservatism is a zero-sum game. This assumption is reinforced most visibly in the sport of news cycle politics, where a Republican (supposedly conservative) win, means a Democratic (supposedly liberal) loss, and vice versa. We can barely, if at all, imagine liberalism and conservatism being complementary; as having correctives for the shortfalls and excesses of the other; as being in creative tension rather than in win-lose, zero-sum competition. We cannot expect politicians to articulate or practice this complementarity, because their goal is total victory in the next election.

American religion ought to be the place where liberal-conservative complementarity is articulated and practiced; ought to be the place where we learn how to have strong, passionate disagreements that lead to deepening and new possibilities; ought to be the place where people who call themselves liberals, and people who call themselves conservatives, and people who call themselves neither, can find community over a shared meal.

None of this is easy. Freud’s insights (first articulated by the Greek tragedians, especially Aeschylus) are helpful here: broadly speaking, unacknowledged powerful forces are at work in us and in our culture. These forces work against community, connection, and meaning; these forces get their energy from anxiety and fear; and these are forces that political life really cannot tame. Religion– understood as systems of belief and bodies of observant practices whose authority is derived from a real connection to the Higher Powercan tame these forces. Every day we’ll need to begin again.