Category Archive: Ethics
“Christmas trees have pagan origins, so they’re bad. For that matter, Christmas and Easter have pagan origins, and so they’re bad. The theater has pagan origins, so it’s bad (and so are any other forms of acting).” And so on and so on.
Heard anything like this? Godly people should have nothing to do with anything that (allegedly) has pagan origins.
How about this one: Musical instruments have pagan origins, and so they’re bad. Truly godly people would stay away from them.
Here’s something we’re told explicitly in the Bible: It was in the line of Cain, among the ungodly, that we first find musicians with instruments. Cain’s murderous descendant Lamech has three sons, one of whom, Jubal, is described as “the father of all those who play the harp and flute” (Gen 4:21). So there you have it: According to the Bible, expertise in musical instruments springs from the family of the ungodly.
But does that mean that the godly must never use musical instruments? Certainly not. David plays an instrument. David, under the inspiration of God, designs and commissions instruments for the Temple that Solomon will build. The Levites play instruments from that time on. The Psalms commend the use of instruments, even in the worship of God.
In fact, notice that it’s not just music that the ungodly develop in Genesis 4. It’s also metallurgy and agribusiness. Lamech’s son Jabal “was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock” (Gen 4:20). And Lamech’s other son Tubal-Cain was, literally, “the sharpener of every craftsman in bronze and iron” (Gen 4:22). As Jubal was the “father” of musicians–that is, the one who taught and trained and developed them–so Jabal and Tubal-Cain trained and taught all those who excelled in their fields. If “pagan origins” mean that we have to stay away from something, then we ought to stay away, not only from music, but from agribusiness and blacksmithery, too. But, of course, that’s not what Scripture teaches.
And therefore this argument — “If it has pagan origins it’s bad and godly people should abstain from it” — fails on biblical grounds. It adds to Scripture, setting a standard higher than the one God sets, and therefore ought to be rejected and condemned. (For more, see James B. Jordan’s “The Menace of Chinese Food.”)
It certainly is true that these skills were developed first among the wicked, and that’s worth thinking about. One of the patterns we see in Scripture, not least in Genesis 4, is what Jim Jordan calls “the Enoch factor,” which is this: The wicked get there first. It’s in the city of Enoch, Cain’s city, that we first find a lot of wonderful things. That poses a temptation to the righteous, the temptation to intermingle with the wicked and to forsake bearing faithful witness in order to enjoy those good things. But we fight that temptation by remembering what Jordan (somewhere) calls “the Jerusalem factor”: the righteous get there in the end.
So musical instruments and agribusiness and metallurgy may start in Cain’s city, among the wicked. They may have “pagan origins.” But they end up in David’s city, even being employed in God’s Temple. As the Proverb says, “The wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous” (13:22).
I got a kick out of novelist and poet John Updike’s review of Paul Tillich’s Morality and Beyond:
The last two chapters, which discuss ethical systems in the context of history, are especially brilliant. Yet the net effect is one of ambiguity, even futility–as if the theologian were trying to revivify the Christian corpse with transfusions of Greek humanism, German metaphysics, and psychoanalytical theory. Terms like “grace” and “Will of God” walk through these pages as bloodless ghosts, transparent against the milky background of “beyond” and “being” that Tillich, God forbid, would confuse with the Christian faith (Assorted Prose, 283).
Said Shakepeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” But what do we do with things, experiences, powers that we can’t explain? J. Douma’s book on The Ten Commandments is helpful in this regard.
In his treatment of the First Word, Douma brings up the question of “unusual” powers, such as clairvoyance, along with such things as acupuncture, reflexology, yoga, and so on. How are we to view such things? He points, first, to the type of people described in Deuteronomy 18:10-11:
If they are indeed false prophets who seek to predict our future and tell us how we should arrange our lives in terms of that future, then they certainly do belong in that category. If not, however, then although we might still have many other reasons for criticizing acupuncture, reflexology, and the like, we should not allege that they come from “the domain of the Devil.” If a clairvoyant can help solve a murder, or if a technician applying unorthodox treatments can ease someone’s pain, then we could view these as special abilities that can obviously be used to a good end. In any case, these have nothing to do with false prophecy (26).
One might think that only a modern ethicist would deal with things such as alternative medicine and clairvoyance. But Douma goes on to cite the distinction made by the seventeenth century Reformed ethicism, Gisbert Voetius: “He spoke first of magia bona, referring to the art of knowing the hidden properties of natural things. Using that knowledge, people with deeper insight into nature could effect wonderful things. But even though they appear supernatural, these are phenomena of nature” (26).
Voetius distinguished this sort of “magic” from magia vana (playful, slight-of-hand magic: the kind of thing that a stage magician does for entertainment) and from magia superstitiosa (superstitious sorcery; the sort of thing condemned in Deuteronomy 18, Leviticus 19, and Acts 13:10, which identifies “Elymas the sorcerer” as a “son of the devil”).
Nor is Voetius alone. Douma also cites the great Reformed theologian Klaas Schilder, who pointed out that many people condemn these sorts of things “because of their inherent mysteriousness, albeit fallaciously, as nothing short of the work of the devil.” Schilder’s own view is quite different:
Many individuals seem to have an immediate certainty about something that happened far away, a certainty too remote and too exceptional for the ordinary, everyday paths of knowledge. Everything in the domain of the so-called “occult,” insofar as it makes use of potentialities present in God’s creation, is nothing more than a very normal employment of what God has put in creation. In many cases the intention with which people in so-called occult circles operate with such divinely given potentialities may well be wrong, and people may well pursue those things for selfish purposes, so that for these reasons such use and pursuits are worthy of condemnation, but we are dealing here ultimately with things that belong to nature itself (cited 26).
In short, there’s a lot about God’s world and about the capabilities of humans (to say nothing of animals!) that we don’t understand. Used wisely and used well, such things may be received with thanksgiving as good gifts from God. Or they may be rejected as unhelpful. But our inability to explain things doesn’t mean that we should view them with suspicion, as if they’re probably evil.
In his The Beginning of Wisdom, Leon Kass argues that the Bible is not just “not a work of philosophy”; rather, it is actually
antiphilosophical, and deliberately so. Religion and piety are one thing, philosophy and inquiry another. The latter seek wisdom looking to nature and relying on unaided human reason; the former offer wisdom based on divine revelation and relying on prophecy (3).
Kass sees a relationship between this distinction and the distinction between the sense of sight and the sense of hearing. Philosophy, according to Plato and Aristotle, starts with wonder and wonder is provoked by sight:
It is especially those natural wonders manifest to sight — for example, the changing phases of the moon or the wandering motions of the sun and planets through the zodiac — that prompt the search for wisdom: “for of all the senses, sight most of all makes us know something and reveals many distinctions” [Aristotle, Metaphysics, 982a22-29] (3).
But the Bible, unlike philosophy, begins with hearing, not sight:
For the Bible, in contrast, the beginning of wisdom comes not from wonder but from awe and reverence, and the goal is not understanding for its own sake but rather a righteous and holy life. True, the Psalmist sings that “the heavens declare the glory of God and the sky proclaims His handiwork.” But “the beginning of wisdom is the fear [awe; reverence] of the Lord, and good understanding comes to all who practice it.” The path to wisdom and happiness lies not through wondrous sights seen by the eye but through awesome command heard by the ear…. Not the attractive, beautiful, ceaselessly circling, and seemingly imperishable heavenly bodies, but the awe-inspiring, sublime, ceaselessly demanding, and imperishable divine covenant and commandments provide the core of biblical wisdom. The wisdom of Jerusalem is not the wisdom of Athens (3-4).
There is, of course, much more that could be said about philosophy and revelation as two competing paths to wisdom.
One might wonder if Aristotle’s view of philosophy is really determinative for all philosophy. Aristotle says here that philosophy starts with seeing (though he himself, famously, stated that women have fewer teeth than men [HA 2.3.501b19-21], which suggests that his theory didn’t proceed from seeing at all). But leave Aristotle aside. What about other philosophers? What about Descartes? Surely not all philosophizing starts with sight and with wonder.
One might also ask if these two paths must compete, if one must necessarily choose. After all, the “wisdom” that Aristotle is speaking of has to do with figuring out what we would call “astronomy,” not with the sort of wisdom we think of in connection with day-to-day living here on earth.
Scripture is not antiphilosophical in this sense: it does not oppose learning about the natural world by examining it — that is, by looking at it with our eyes. God sees what He has made and evaluates it in Genesis 1, and from then on, sight in the Bible has to do with judgment. God expects Adam and all his descendants to see the world (which is why He gave us eyes) and to make judgments about it, to learn how it works, and to learn wisdom from it. Adam, for instance, might have learned what fruits are especially delicious by observing how the birds or animals flocked to those particular trees.
It seems to me, too, that Kass is partially right when he argues, along these lines, that we cannot learn how we ought to behave by watching the animals. Few animals are monogamous, but God designed man and woman to marry (Gen. 2). But on the other hand, the Proverbs, which surely are all about learning wisdom, instruct the sluggard to go to the ant to learn how to work (Prov. 6:6). Here the sluggard is to observe — to see — and thereby to learn wisdom about how he is to live.
Nevertheless, this passage in Kass did intrigue me because it seems to me that there is a difference between seeing and hearing, between sight (where the seer is in control) and hearing (where the hearer cedes authority and control to the one making the sound, the speaker). When it comes to wisdom, we are not to do “what is right in our own eyes” (i.e., make our own independent judgments about things, let alone judgments based simply on sight) but rather we are to live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Hearing is primary because we are not autonomous; only when we submit to the Word are we enabled to see and judge correctly. Hearing-wisdom comes first; seeing-wisdom follows.
I’m greatly enjoying Charles Spurgeon’s John Ploughman’s Talk. Here are a few choice bits about lazy people:
The ugliest sight in the world is one of those thorough-bred loafers, who would hardly hold up his basin if it were to rain porridge; and for certain would never hold up a bigger pot than he wanted filled for himself. Perhaps, if the shower should turn to beer, he might wake himself up a bit; but he would make up for it afterwards (10).
Idleness is the key of beggary and the root of all evil. Fellows have two stomachs for eating and drinking when they have no stomach for work. That little hole just under the nose swallows up in idle hours that money which should put clothes on the children’s backs and bread on the cottage table (13).
I like leisure when I can get it, but that’s quite another thing; that’s cheese and the other is chalk: idle folks never know what leisure means; they are always in a hurry and a mess, and by neglecting to work in the proper time, they always have a lot to do (14).
Men ride stags when they hunt for gain, and snails when they are on the road to heaven. Preachers go on see-sawing, droning, and prosing; and the people fall to yawning and folding their arms, and they say that God is withholding the blessing. Every sluggard, when he finds himself enlisted in the ragged regiment, blames his luck, and some churches have learned the same wicked trick. I believe that when Paul plants and Apollos waters, God gives the increase, and I have no patience with those who throw the blame on God when it belongs to themselves (18-19).
Oops! My wife just got home. I’d better get busy with my Saturday projects!
I’m currently reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith. It’s not at all a good book, for several reasons, which I won’t go into here, though it is helpful in making very clear the direction McLaren is going on a number of issues — though McLaren still seems to present himself as more interested in questions than answers and often fails to come straight out and say what he thinks the church ought to believe and teach and practice.
But in spite of the serious problems I have with McLaren’s books, starting with his approach to Scripture, I almost always find something worth thinking about in them somewhere and this was no exception. His seventeenth chapter is entitled “Can We Find a Way to Address Human Sexuality?”, and most of it deals with homosexuality and calls for (well, McLaren doesn’t often “call for” things so much as suggest or imply them) greater openness to homosexuals, less emphasis on heterosexual marriage, and so forth.
But in the midst of this discussion, the gist of which I do not agree with, he talks about how “being a human being at this time in history makes it all the more difficult to navigate our sexual lives. The opportunities for promiscuity may never have been greater, and the supports for chastity and fidelity have seldom if ever been weaker” (187).
I wonder if that’s really so. I suspect that there has been little support for chastity and fidelity and great incentive for promiscuity in many pagan societies. Be that as it may, McLaren goes on to provide a helpful list of various “realities” that we ought to consider when thinking about today’s bent toward promiscuity:
We’ve moved from villages where “everyone knows your name” and where nearly everyone is committed to the same moral standards to cities where we’re all virtually anonymous and where anything goes. So sex and community are less connected than ever before.
We’re the first human beings to have low-cost, readily available birth control, making sex and pregnancy less connected than ever before.
We’re the first humans to have condoms and antibiotics readily available, making sex and disease less connected than ever before.
We’ve created an economic system that increasingly requires both men and women to work outside the home, in company with members of the opposite sex, thus increasing the possibilities for extramarital attractions to develop and become sexual.
We’ve created an economic system that rewards education and punishes early marriage, pushing the average age of marriage higher and higher. As a result, we’ve put the biological peak for sex and reproduction further out of sync with the cultural norms for marriage than ever before.
Meanwhile, a number of factors are bringing the average age of puberty lower and lower, leaving more years than ever during which sexually mature people are likely to be single and therefore likely to engage in sex outside of marriage.
The Internet has made pornography ubiquitous, the advertising industry continuously exploits on-screen sex to sell everything from hamburgers to lawn mowers, and the entertainment industry uses sex to sell movies, books, TV shows, magazines, and related products and services. As a result, sexual stimulation has become increasingly virtualized and universalized.
The print, on-screen, and online ubiquity of “perfect” bodies in “virtual reality” — partially or fully exposed, often cosmetically and digitally enhanced — can create images of sexual perfection copared to which nearly all actual partners will disappoint, thus increasing sexual tension in actual relationships.
The combination of poverty, unemployment, and life in refugee camps or slums puts millions of people together with literally nothing to do, day after day, increasing the likelihood of casual sexual contact among people without the resources to raise the children they conceive (187-188).
This morning, I finished reading Keri Wyatt Kent’s Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity. I read it because I was interested in any suggestions she might make for making Sunday a restful and enjoyable day, but also because I was interested in seeing her approach to and defense of a Sabbath.
She talks a bit about the Fourth Commandment, though she stresses that she doesn’t want to fall into legalism and often seems to equate rules with legalism, which would surely be strange in other areas of life, wouldn’t it? “‘Thou shalt not murder’ gives us a good impetus to avoid taking other people’s lives. But we don’t want to get bogged down in all sorts of rules, such as ‘Don’t pull the trigger when the gun is pointing at your wife.’ We don’t want to be legalistic.” Why are modern evangelicals so scared of commandments?
Most of her book, in fact, seems to me to ground a practice of “Sabbath-keeping” in the benefits such a practice has for us and for our families. I suspect that’s an approach that many books on Sabbath take these days (as opposed to older books that grounded Sabbath keeping primarily on God’s command). So she talks about the dangers that come from a lack of rest, the way in which even a workout coach tells you that your muscles have to work and then rest again and again to grow strong, how taking a day to rest can empower you for the week to come, and so forth. A lot of that is good and true, but I wonder about this whole approach.
Sometimes you find the same approach taken in defenses of other things that Scripture requires. For instance, when asked to justify “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” a Christian might go on to say that God knew, when He gave the commandment, all the bad consequences of such behavior. Fornication and adultery lead to all sorts of misery. They damage us and they damage other people, for generations to come. The implication is that God decided to forbid such behavior because He knew that it would be bad for us or for others.
But it is God who so rules the world that there are such consequences — and not just consequences, but outright judgments. Imagine telling a child that he shouldn’t backtalk. “Why not?” the child asks. “Well,” you say. “I’m telling you this for your own good. Backtalking leads to all sorts of bad consequences.” “Like what?” “Well, like a sore bottom.” “Wait a minute,” the child might respond. “If I have a sore bottom as a consequence of backtalking, that’s only because you’re going to spank me. How about this? I backtalk and you don’t spank me. Now is it okay to backtalk?”
It’s not as if God is locked into a certain world He doesn’t control, a world in which fornication automatically hurts people, so that the best He can do is warn people not to commit fornication because of those consequences. The consequences don’t just happen; they happen because He sends them. He rules things so that there are consequences. He could have done otherwise, but He doesn’t want to.
And so, when He forbids something or commands something else, He doesn’t do so because He foresees that the one behavior will lead to misery and the other to happiness. It is not the consequences that make adultery evil; adultery would be evil even if there were no consequences. And there are consequences only because of He so rules that there will be.
So with the Fourth Word. God didn’t command His people to “remember the Sabbath” because He knew that if He didn’t they’d get all tuckered out. After all, God Himself “Sabbathed” on the seventh day of creation, and it wasn’t because He needed a break from His hard work. Nor did Adam, who had been around for a little less than a day at that point and hadn’t done any real work yet. That Sabbath wasn’t about catching your breath after a hard week’s work; it was about drawing near to God at the center of the world to say “Thank you” and to be nourished by Him before going to work.
If we want to defend “Sabbath keeping” today, we need to present a biblical argument, not a pragmatic one. If we replace “Do it because God says to” (which requires us to discuss whether Sabbath keeping really is required in the New Testament and if it is, in what form and what the divinely mandated rules for Sabbath keeping are — the very topics you don’t find in Kent’s book) with “Do it because it’s good for you,” don’t we end up making the Sabbath — or any other obligation we defend that way — really about ourselves and our own sense of personal fulfillment? It’s good to go to church and take part in the service, this book says, but sometimes you might end up skipping church if your son has soccer — that is, if you’ve determined something else is just as or even more fulfilling for yourself than church would be today. And then who really is the authority in our lives?
I’ll add quickly that I have a couple more beefs with this book. First, it’s disconcerting to me to hear Eugene Peterson’s The Message quoted as if it is Scripture. No, Jesus did not say, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest” (Matt. 11:28, cited on p. 9). Nor did He says, “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions” (Mt. 6:33, cited on p. 201).
Second, I’m not a fan of Rob Bell’s approach to Scripture, which seems to find new meanings by drawing on (likely post-AD 70) rabbinic interpretations or … from who knows where? For instance, it simply isn’t the case that (as Kent cites Bell as saying) the name YHWH is “actually four Hebrew vowels” (200). Those are consonants. It isn’t the case that “the name was so sacred, it was actually unpronounceable” (200). True, the Jews stopped pronouncing the name, but we have no reason to think that it wasn’t pronounced by Moses or David or Malachi or any of the Jews in the Old Testament. The failure to pronounce the name wasn’t a matter of obedience or because it was really too sacred to say. God taught Israel to say it. And where in the world does Bell get the idea that “the name of God … is the sound of breathing” (200)?
Third, several times in this book, Kent cites Jewish writers, as if the Jewish understanding of the Torah is really the correct one. In the light of the things Jesus says about the Pharisees and their traditions and understanding that Judaism after AD 70 was quite different from anything Moses taught, I find this approach generally unhelpful. Of course, the rabbis may shed light on Scripture as they expound it. But I don’t assume that an interpretation is correct because it’s a Jewish interpretation.
That said, there are some suggestions for making Sunday a special day in your home, which Christian families might benefit from, as well as some practical tips on rest throughout the week.
In Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong, William Kilpatrick criticizes both “Values Clarification” and the more sophisticated “dilemma” approach to moral education developed by Lawrence Kohlberg. In the latter approach, the teacher presents students with a moral dilemma and then encourages the students to debate and discuss what they would do if they were in such a situation.
Here’s one of Kohlberg’s favorite dilemmas: “Your wife suffers from an incurable and potentially terminal disease for which she must take regular doses of a very expensive medicine. The medicine is manufactured by a single company, and you have exhausted all of your financial resources in past purchases of the medicine.” Now, should you let your wife die or should you attempt to steal the drug to save her life?
Interestingly, when Kohlberg presented this dilemma to a bunch of prisoners, the discussion did not go the way he expected:
The convicts were unperplexed. To a man, and without hesitation, they said, “Steal it.” “But why,” Larry Kohlberg asked them, “would you do that?” Laughing, they answered, “Because we steal things. We wanna know why the stupid husband didn’t steal it in the first place” (cited p. 87).
I had heard about this approach before but hadn’t thought much about it. Kilpatrick’s treatment of it is helpful. He points out that “the decision whether or not to steal is only a dilemma for those who already think stealing is wrong” (p. 87). And that is part of the problem with this “dilemma” approach to moral education. It presupposes that the students are already committed to being people who want to do the right thing. But if they don’t care to do what’s right, if they think that it’s okay to lie or cheat or steal or commit adultery, the “dilemma” is no dilemma at all.
Moreover, as Kilpatrick points out, dilemmas are not the best way to teach students morality. Difficult dilemmas can engage students’ imaginations and lead to lots of discussion and even disagreement. The result may be an entertaining class (and even popular teachers), but the result is not moral education. Why not? Because most of the decisions we have to make in life are not difficult moral dilemmas:
The danger in focusing on problematic dilemmas such as these is that a student may begin to think that all of morality is similarly problematic. After being faced with quandary after quandary of the type that would stump Middle East negotiators, students will conclude that right and wrong are anybody’s guess. They will gain the impression, as Cornell professor Richard Baer has pointed out, “that almost everything in ethics is either vague or controversial…” (p. 85).
Furthermore, the “dilemma” and discussion approach does not provide students with guidance. As a result, it gives the impression that there are no right and wrong answers, not only to the particular dilemma being discussed but to all moral questions. The answers given by the Bible (or, for that matter, by a student’s parents) are accorded no more weight than the answers given by a kid who wants to be controversial or who wants to justify his own rebellion or whatever.
That doesn’t mean it’s always wrong to talk about a moral dilemma. But, as Kilpatrick’s discussion of this approach suggests, such discussion ought to take place in the context of a commitment to rigiht morals, to moral guidance, to (though Kilpatrick doesn’t say it outright) the Bible as the standard. Commitment to Scripture doesn’t free us from all moral dilemmas, of course, but it does provide a context in which we can evaluate the various options.
Furthermore, it would seem, dilemmas shouldn’t be the primary focus, lest the students focus on rare exceptions instead of on the choices they must make every day. As Kilpatrick says,
Before students begin to think about the qualifications, exceptions, and fine points that surround difficult cases they will seldom or never face, they need to build the kind of character that will allow them to act well in the very clear-cut situations they face daily (p. 88).
Another parable by Doug Wilson from a few years back:
When David was preparing to meet the Philistine giant Goliath, we are fortunate that he did not have his marketing agent with him.And David said, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
And his agent said, “David, I really do not think that this language is suitable for an already polarized situation. Being uncircumcised — that is merely their custom. And although his language is perhaps provocative, it becomes us as Christians to rise above this. We need to be building bridges, not walls.”
But David ignored his marketing agent, just as he had ignored his brothers, and went and selected five, smooth stones from the brook. Goliath advanced out into the place between the two armies, his armor bearer with him. David walked out toward him, his agent tagging along behind, plucking worriedly at his sleeve.
“David, remember your musical and literary gifts. How can you expect to finish all the psalms that God has given you if you put it all at risk in this way? I am concerned not only that you may die, but also that, if you live, you may have quenched that gift by your pugnacious behavior.”
And then Goliath taunted David once more, saying that he would feed him to the birds. “Now, David,” said the agent hurriedly, “remember to let your speech be gracious, seasoned with salt.”
But David said that he had come in the name of the Lord of armies. “This day will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will use your carcass to feed the birds and all wild beasts.”
“O dear,” said the agent, “that is essentially the same thing that Goliath said. You are returning evil for evil. We are called to be peacemakers, David. Remember the oil in Aaronâ€™s beard. Think of what you are throwing away!”
“A stone,” David said. “Watch this.”
Wendell Berry on enjoying good things even though you know others are suffering:
The solemnity and ostentatious grief of some implies that there is a mystical equation by which one man, by suffering enough guilt, by a denial of joy, can atone or compensate for the suffering of many men.Â The logical culmination of this feeling is self-incineration, which only removes one from the problem without solving it.Â Because so many are hungry, should we weep as we eat?Â No child will grow fat on our tears.Â But to eat, taking whatever satisfaction it gives us, and then to turn again to the problem of how to make it possible for another to eat, to undertake to cleanse ourselves of the great wastefulness of our society, to seek alternatives in our own lives to our people’s thoughtless squandering of the world’s goods â€”Â that promises a solution.Â That many are cold and the world is full of hate does not mean that one should stand in the snow for shame or refrain from making love.Â To refuse to admit decent and harmless pleasures freely into one’s own life is as wrong as to deny them to someone else.Â It impoverishes and darkens the world. â€”Â “Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience in Honor of Don Pratt,”Â The Long Legged House, pp. 82-83.
A couple quotations from Wendell Berry’sÂ 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â It is patriotism in the abstract â€”Â nationalism â€”Â that is most apt to be fanatic or brutal or arrogant.Â It is when charity is possible only through institutions that it becomes indifferent, neither ennobling to the giver nor meaningful to the receiver.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â But what could he do if he were to try to exercise the same charitable impulse in an urban slum, or in Appalachia?Â The moral dilemma is suggested by a walk on the Bowery, equipped with common decency and a pocketful of change.Â What is the Samaritan expected to do when he meets, instead of one in need, hundreds?Â Even if he had the money, he would not have the time.Â Now, in America, I think he is likely to feel that he is expected to do nothing.Â 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.Â 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.Â Elsewhere in this essay, Berry also talks aboutÂ 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.Â 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.Â But Berry himself recognizes that that isn’t possible or likely.Â So what is the solution?Â In particular, what is our responsibility as Christians?
Let’s face it: the church can become another ghetto.Â We can talk a lot about community and build community with each other, and that may be attractive to those who long for community.Â But it’s also possible that in building the church community we turn our backs on our own neighborhoods.Â 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?
No one, I think, welcomes the intervention of federal power in the affairs of a state, except as a last resort.Â That seems the crudest of solutions.Â It is not a moral solution at all.Â In being forced to do what is right, men lose the dignity of being right.Â The right itself is debased as an aim and incentive â€”Â Wendell Berry, “The Landscaping of Hell: Strip-Mine Morality in East Kentucky,” The Long-Legged House, p. 22.