Thursday, November 22, 2012

Saints & Citizens

In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer worries that American society is losing the virtues, the basic qualities of character, esential to living as a free society. The trainers at my community organizing training last week expressed the same concern. Palmer and they both saw the decline of “civic life” as the problem.

By “civic life,” they mean the intermediate institutions that stand between the family and the massive power of the market and government. Take for example the influence of marketing and media on children and youth. Those are powerful rivals to the authority of parents.

Since 1973, the influence of the market and government has grown by leaps and bounds while the influence of civic institutions has declined. Civic institutions include schools, service clubs, churches, and others – think of 4H, the Grange, VFW, etc. Civic institutions buffer the family from all sorts of destructive economic and social pressures. And they do something more: they are the context in which we learn and cultivate the virtues essential to life in a free society.

This is not a new or novel idea. Benjamin Franklin wrote in his essay “On The Necessitie Of A Publique Religion” that a republic is possible only if churches instill virtues in people that insure that most of us will behave well most of the time without the watchful eye and heavy hand of a totalitarian state. From the founding fathers through sociologists like Robert Bellah and theologians like Stanley Hauerwas in our time, we have known that living together in freedom requires capacities for empathy, restraint, compromise, etc. We learn those virtues in civic institutions, most particularly, churches.

The Epistles are first and foremost guides to how to be a community. They are full of teachings about the virtues we have to master in order to be the Body of Christ – which coincide with the qualities of character essential to life in a free society. If the church is to do its job of forming saints and citizens, we have to get intentional again about teaching people how to deal with each other.

For example, as I write this article, Congress is looking for a way to steer the budget away from the fiscal cliff. Whether this needs doing is beyond debate. Whether it is important is beyond debate. The only argument is over whether failure to avoid the fiscal cliff will be a disaster or just really, really bad. The only way to save the economy from this mishap is compromise. But among the constituents of the Congress only 46% of one party and 53% of the other support any kind of compromise. A substantial percentage of our population is bullheaded to the extent of being self-destructive. We complain about Congress but they merely reflect the populace. We get the government we deserve.

The business of the church is not to teach political or economic ideologies, but it is our job to teach wisdom, common sense, empathy, and forbearance that enable people of good faith to bridge their differences.

I am particularly impressed by Parker Palmer’s Five Habits of the Heart (derived from Quaker Spirituality) that he says are necessary to democracy:

                 1. An understanding that we are all in this together
                 2. An appreciation of otherness
                 3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways
                 4. A sense of personal voice and agency
                  5. A capacity to create community

The practices of story-telling and identifying our deep self interests (things we want and need that go deeper than money, power, and prestige) and finding ways to meet those needs for both sides – all part and parcel of community organizing – are also crucial to being church and being a democracy.

One of our priests just finished training in conflict resolution with the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. I have not had this experience yet. but from what I have read and heard, it may be another rich source for helping us be the kind of community Paul urged us to be in all his letter, especially 1st Corinthians.

Often church folks do not behave toward one another with the kind of wisdom, patience, and kindness one would expect of Christians. If we cannot behave virtuously in church, what can we expect of human behavior in the rough and tumble world of politics? I hope in the coming decade or so we will renew our efforts to teach and practice relational skills, that we will grow stronger in the capacities we need in order to be good citizens and good church people, and that we will cultivate the strengths we need if we are going to get on with God’mission.

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