Category Archive: Community

January 26, 2007

Institutions and Charity

Category: Community,Ethics,Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

A couple quotations from Wendell Berry’s essay “The Loss of the Future” (in The Long-Legged House):

I cannot avoid the speculation that one of the reasons for our loss of idealism is that we have been for a long time in such constant migration from country to city and from city to city and from neighborhood to neighborhood.  It seems to me that much of idealism has its source in the relation between a man and the place he thinks of as his home.  The patriotism, say, that grows out of the concern for a particular place in which one expects to live one’s life is a more exacting emotion than that which grows out of concern for a nation.  The charity that grows out of regard for neighbors with whom one expects to live one’s life is both a discipline and a reward; the charity that, knowing no neighbors, contributes to funds and foundations is, from the personal standpoint, only an excuse.  It is patriotism in the abstract — nationalism — that is most apt to be fanatic or brutal or arrogant.  It is when charity is possible only through institutions that it becomes indifferent, neither ennobling to the giver nor meaningful to the receiver.  Institutional neighborliness can function as the very opposite of neighborliness, without impairing the moral credit or the self-satisfaction of the supporters of the institution.  There is good reason, for instance, to suspect that the foreign mission programs of certain Christian denominations have served as substitutes for decent behavior at home, or as excuses for indecent behavior at home; in return for saving the soul of Negroes in Africa, one may with a free conscience exploit and demean the lives of Negroes in one’s own community (p. 49).

In a society of ghettoes many of the vital labors of our duty to each other cease to be personal.  They are necessarily taken over by institutions; the distances between the giver and the receiver, the asker and the answerer, are so great that they are simply no longer negotiable by individuals.  A man living in the country or a small town migiht aid one or two needy neighbors himself; the most obvious thing for him to do would not be to phone some bureau or agency of the government.  But what could he do if he were to try to exercise the same charitable impulse in an urban slum, or in Appalachia?  The moral dilemma is suggested by a walk on the Bowery, equipped with common decency and a pocketful of change.  What is the Samaritan expected to do when he meets, instead of one in need, hundreds?  Even if he had the money, he would not have the time.  Now, in America, I think he is likely to feel that he is expected to do nothing.  He is able to reflect that there are organizations to take care of that sort of thing.

My point is not that these agencies do their work badly, but that having contributed to one of them, or even having heard of one, the citizen is freed of a concern that is one of the necessary disciplines of citizenship.  And the institutionalization of charity has its counterparts in all aspects of life, from the government down (pp. 52-53).

I suspect that Berry is right, that there has been a loss of community, due in part to increased mobility but also to television, which keeps people home at night and away from their neighbors, and to other factors, not so easy to trace.  Elsewhere in this essay, Berry also talks about specialization and the way that specialists tend to form their own ghettoes, all focused on the same area, even if they don’t actually live in the same vicinity.  A lot of what Berry is getting at is that life in cities tends to be relatively impersonal, and that has effects on our charity and our care for our neighbors.

If Berry is correct, one might think the solution would be to have everyone move to small or medium-sized towns.  But Berry himself recognizes that that isn’t possible or likely.  So what is the solution?  In particular, what is our responsibility as Christians?

Let’s face it: the church can become another ghetto.  We can talk a lot about community and build community with each other, and that may be attractive to those who long for community.  But it’s also possible that in building the church community we turn our backs on our own neighborhoods.  Isn’t it often the case that Christians don’t have non-Christian friends, that all our close relationships are with others in the same church community?

Let me hear your thoughts: In the face of the impersonalization brought on by charitable institutions, in the face of the general lack of neighborliness in our larger “communities,” what should we as Christians be doing to reverse these trends and to create not only close-knit relationships with each other but a true community that is attractive and healing for our larger towns and cities?

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Posted by John Barach @ 12:29 pm | Discuss (2)