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January 19, 2012

Productivity vs. the Bramble Man

Category: Politics :: Link :: Print

In an election year, there are a number of temptations we need to beware of.  We may be tempted to think that the only way to avert catastrophe is by getting the right man elected as president. We may begin to think that what’s happening with the candidates is the “real action,” as if the race to the White House is the most significant thing that will happen this year in the battle between right and wrong, good and evil, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man.  We may even begin to wonder about other Christians who don’t seem to get as excited about politics as we do, who carry on with their ordinary lives as if they’ve never heard of any of the candidates:  “Don’t they care?  Don’t they see how important this stuff is?”

In Judges 9, Gideon’s son Jotham tells a parable.  His half-brother Abimelech has murdered all of Gideon’s other sons and is in the process of being acclaimed king, but Jotham wants Israel to know that Abimelech is a bramble.  The trees, says Jotham, wanted a king and so they asked the olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine, but each time the tree they wanted turned them down.  Why?  Too busy with productive work and no desire to “go and wave over the trees.”  Finally, they ask the bramble — Abimelech — and he’s only to glad to “wave over the trees.”

We learn a lot from this parable, and it’s surprising to me that there’s no reference to it in the works of political theology I’ve consulted.   Jim Jordan summarizes the teaching of the parable this way, and I quote it because it explained a lot for me:

The point of the parable is that good men do not desire to lord it over others.  Good men are happy being productive for God and for their fellowmen.  They realize that the road to greatness is the way of the servant, as their Lord taught (Mark 10:42-45).  The only kind of men who desire political authority for its own sake are bramble men — unproductive men who seek to attain fame and fortune by taking it from others who are productive.

The political inactivity of Christians and of their sometime fellow travellers, the conservatives, in our modern society is partly explained by this parable.  Christians are oriented to serving God and  man through work in the marketplace.  Their satisfaction comes through productivity.  They believe that the solution for modern social problems is faith in God and hard, productive work.  Unfortunately, most modern men look to the state, to the bramble, for answers.

Those who greatly desire to be kings are usually the least qualified for the post.  Far wiser government generally comes from those who only reluctantly shoulder the heavy burdens of office.  The good wise trees were reluctant; the bramble was anxious to rule.  — James B. Jordan, Judges: A Practical and Theological Commentary, 166 (emphasis added).

While all three paragraphs here are important, the second one in particular jumped out at me.  Why aren’t more Christians worked up about politics?  Why don’t more Christians run for office?   One answer may be that they’re involved in other important stuff.  Christians are doing their jobs, but their time and strength is also taken up with worshiping God, teaching their kids, playing with their kids, working in the garden, reading a good story, taking care of the needy, cooking meals, cleaning up messes, having coffee with friends  — doing all kinds of things that bring joy to God and man (like the vine in the parable, whose wine makes God happy when poured out in worship and makes man happy at a feast).


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Posted by John Barach @ 1:38 pm | Discuss (1)
September 14, 2010

Captive Audience

Category: Education,Politics :: Link :: Print

Did you hear about the protests today in connection with President Obama’s address to the nation’s schoolchildren?  It wasn’t related to the content of the speech; rather, it began even before he spoke.  What the protesters were objecting to, it seems, was not what the president said or even what the protesters thought he might say but the very fact that President Obama would say anything to their children.  And so, as one headline said, many conservatives were enraged over the Obama school speech.

Oh, wait.  That was last year.  This year, President Obama addressed schoolchildren again.  Were there protests?  No.  At least none that made the news.  Did some parents keep their children home?  Maybe, but certainly not in enough numbers that it drew the attention of NPR.

What made the difference between last year and this year?  Was it that conservative parents realized that President Obama was not the first president to address schoolchildren and concluded that they had no real reason to protest?  Was it that these parents heard last year’s speech, figured it was harmless, and though that today’s speech would be more of the same and hence not worth protesting?  Maybe.

But it occurs to me that what upsets people the first time it happens (in this case, the first time with a president some find particularly objectionable) barely makes them bat an eyelid the second time it happens.  If it happens often enough, in fact, it becomes a matter of course, not concern.  Before long, it’s just the way things are done.

The other thing worth noting, it seems to me, is that last year’s protests don’t appear to have had any significant effect.  They certainly didn’t deter the president from making another speech to the public schools.  Maybe some parents who protested last year or kept their children home have figured that their actions weren’t going to change anything and so they gave up.  Why bother?

Now I’m not saying that these parents ought to protest, whether by writing letters to the school board or by wearing anti-Obama-speech sandwich boards and parading up and down outside schools or even by keeping children home for the day of the speech.  If you’re going to hand your children over to the government to educate, then on what grounds can you legitimately protest when the government — in this case the president — procedes to do just that?

But what if you really wanted to make a statement?  Better, what if you didn’t care so much about “making a statement” or catching the attention of the government as you did about bringing up your children as Christians?  What if you didn’t turn their education over to the government, regardless of whether that government includes President Obama?  Then pulling your kids out of the public school for one day is hardly enough.  Why not make it permanent?

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Posted by John Barach @ 2:06 pm | Discuss (0)
March 24, 2008


Category: Politics :: Link :: Print

The candidates’ names are from the last election, but the point Doug Wilson makes here is still important:

In all cultures, at all times, a great deal can be learned by looking at what everyone assumes together — left wing, right wing, moderate, libertine, conservative, or anarchist. In our day, virtually everyone assumes the legitimacy of polling as a way of spot-checking what demos, the people, has to say at any given moment.

To make up an example, suppose we learn that three out of ten teenagers have had sex by the time they are fourteen. Conservatives descry it, liberals call for more sex ed, and our responses differ one from another. And sometimes these surface clashes can be quite sharp. Hannity and Colmes can go at it all they like, but underneath it all is what can only be described as profound agreement. Virtually no one says, “How could you know something like that? I don’t believe you.”

But this activity called polling serves a great didactic and manipulative purpose. For example, homosexual activists are still (successfully) circulating the Kinsey howler that ten percent of the population is homosexual, proving, yet again, Mark Twain’s dictum that “the history of our race, and each individual’s experience, are sown thick with the evidence that a truth is not hard to kill and that a lie told well is immortal.”

Polling is represented to us as a means of measuring what the god Demos is thinking, when in reality it is a powerful tool for manipulating what this figurehead Deity is going to do in the future.

Think about it. The basic assumption (question it and you’re an idiot) in modern political campaigns is that Kerry is down in the polls this week, and then Bush is down. The whole thing is treated as a horse race, in which one is ahead and then another, and then, into the backstretch! Neck and neck! Bush caught up! Whoa! Photo finish! We can see the strength of this assumption in this: if Bush were down in the polls by ten percent the week before the election, and then won the election by five percent, the ruling assumption would be that “Bush caught up” and not that the polls are “radically unreliable.”

Unlike a horse race, where one horse really is in front of the other one, as all can see, political polling consists of speculation grounded on very small “scientifically selected” sample sizes. In short, you talk to 2,000 Americans and purport tell us what 250 million Americans are thinking. The next week you talk to a different 2,000 Americans, and, son of a gun, there is a ten percent difference in the answers. Then you represent that as an instance of the 250 million changing their minds! Beautiful! Elegantly done! But bogus, of course.

But this speculation (for that is all it is), once accepted by the masses as scientific, is a great way to herd everybody along in the general direction you wish them to go. Polling is less a finely-tuned and calibrated instrument for measuring as it is a cattle prod to keep the voting public mooing contentedly.

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Posted by John Barach @ 5:39 pm | Discuss (1)
January 28, 2008

Political Speeches

Category: Politics :: Link :: Print

It’s election year here in the United States, and I’m sure some of my readers are already tired of the speeches, campaigns, phone calls, and so forth to which they have been subjected.  On this subject, as on so many others, G. K. Chesterton had something to say.  (The Buffs and the Blues to which he refers, by the way, were the two political parties in the town of Eatanswill in Charles Dickens’ novel The Pickwick Papers, though here they represent any two political parties.)

A party meeting is frequently a machine for the cooling of party ardour.  A man comes to a Buff meeting already an enthusiastic Buffer; if he were not an absurdly enthusiastic Buffer he would not come.  The first three speeches, let us say, increase his Buff enthusiasm.  The great eternal Buff verities can bear being said at least three times.  When said the fourth time they detain and worry him.  Said the fifth time they bore him.  Said the sixth time they enrage him.  By the seventh or eighth time the Buff verities have been said he does not believe in the Buff verities at all.  He has, in every sense of the word, gone over to the Blues.

This is a psychological perversity which it would be well for practical politicians and wirepullers to realise much more seriously than they do.  Tell a man the enemies’ opinions as often as you like.  The more often he hears them, the more monstrous and bizarre they will appear to him.  Tell a man the absurd opinions of his opponent again and yet again, if you will.  But beware of often telling him his own opinions.  When he has heard his own opinions for the nine hundred and ninety-ninth time, he may suddenly scream and adopt some other opinions.  State the wrong views, but be a little afraid of stating the right views.  Exaggerations, fallacies, false statements are in their nature vulgar, and grow familiar every time they are mentioned; as does the vulgar refrain of a music-hall song.  But the truth is sacred; and if you tell the truth too often nobody will believe it. — G. K. Chesterton, “On Long Speeches and Truth,”  Collected Works 27: The Illustrated London News 1905-1907, pp. 130-131 (paragraph break added).

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Posted by John Barach @ 4:00 pm | Discuss (0)
September 19, 2007

The Nursery of the Kingdom

Category: Politics,Theology - Ecclesiology :: Link :: Print

In Trees and Thorns, James Jordan points out that on the Sixth Day God creates man first and then plants the Garden.  God did not create Adam already in the Garden.  He didn’t create the Garden first and then create the man and move him into the Garden.  He created Adam first and then He planted the Garden.  That order must be significant.

It appears that God wanted Adam to see Him planting the Garden.  After all, Adam was himself going to be a gardener and would start out “serving and guarding” Yahweh’s own Garden.  Later, when Adam went out into the world, he would serve the ground, growing grain.  But later still, he would be able to plant his own garden, his own orchard, where he would grow his own fruit.  First God builds His sanctuary-house; later, Adam would build a house for himself.  By creating Adam first and then planting the Garden while Adam watched, God was establishing patterns for Adam to follow.

Jordan writes:

So, God sets up the garden-sanctuary and puts Adam into it, just as God sets up the Church and puts us into it.  Adam watched God build His garden-house, and learned something about building his own garden-house.  Similarly, from studying how God has set up the church — her structure, government, financing, etc. — we learn how to set up our own domestic and national governments.  This is why the Bible spends so much time on Church government and law, and comparatively little on national government and law.  The Church is the nursery of the Kingdom, and the principles we learn in the Church are to be carried forth in the transformation of family, state, and other institutions (p. 27).

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Posted by John Barach @ 3:42 pm | Discuss (0)
July 31, 2007

The Intellectuals and the Masses

Category: Miscellaneous,Politics :: Link :: Print

At several points in The Ordeal of Change, Eric Hoffer deals with the intellectuals.  He points out that in the past, the intellectual (or the equivalent thereof) was often a member of the ruling elite or part of a privileged sector of society.  So in India, the highest caste of the Brahmins was the educated caste.  In classical Greece, the influential men in society were often philosophers, poets, historians, and artists.  But beginning in the fourteenth century or so, various changes took place, among them the introduction of the printing press, which made education no longer the privilege of an elite class.  As Hoffer says, “There emerged a large group of non-clerical teachers, students, scholars, and writers who were not members of a clearly-marked privileged class, and whose social usefulness was not self-evident” (p. 15).

That last clause is particularly significant because one of the characteristics of the intellectual, according to Hoffer, is his desire to be socially useful:

In the modern Occident power was, and still is, the prerogative of men of action — landowners, soldiers, businessmen, industrialists, and their hangers-on.  The intellectual is treated as a poor relation and has to pick up the crumbs . He usually ekes out a living by teaching, journalism, or some white-collar job.  Even when his excellence as a writer, artist, scientist, or educator is generally recognized and rewarded, he does not feel himself one of the elite.

The intellectual’s passionate search for an acknowledged status and a role of social usefulness has been a ferment in the Occident since the days of the Renaissance.  He has pioneered every upheaval from the Reformation to the latest nationalist or socialist movement.  Yet the intellectual has not known how to retain a position of leadership in the movements and new regimes he has done so much to initiate and promote.  He has usually been elbowed out by fanatics and practical men of action (p. 15).

In Communist countries, mind you, things are a bit different: “In a Communist country writers, artists, scientists, professors, and intellectuals in general are near the top of the social ladder, and feel no doubt aobut their social usefulness” (p. 16).  But in the United States, in particular, intellectuals have a harder time, Hoffer says.

The intellectual, seeking an elite status and a role that’s socially useful, makes alliances.  He makes alliances with the downtrodden and underprivileged.  And, as Hoffer says, “his most potent alliance has been with the masses” (p. 39):

The intellectual goes to the masses in search of weightiness and a role of leadership.  Unlike the man of action, the man of words needs the sanction of ideals and the incantation of words in order to act forcefully.  He wants to lead, command, and conquer, but he must feel that in satisfyin these hungers he does not cater to a petty self.  He needs justification, and he seeks it in the realization of a grandiose design, and in the solemn ritual of making the word become flesh.  Thus he does battle for the downtrodden and disinherited, and for liberty, equality, justice, and truth, though, as Thoreau pointed out, the griveance which animates him is not mainly “his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest son of God, is his private ail.”

Once his “private ail” is righted, the intellectual’s ardor for the underprivileged cools considerably.  His cast of mind is essentially aristocratic….  He sees himself as a leader and master.  Not only does he doubt that the masses could do anything worthwhile on their own, but he would resent it if they made the attempt.  The masses must obey….

There is considerable evidence that when the militant intellectual succeeds in establishing a social order in which his craving for a superior status and social usefulness is fully satisfied, his view of the masses darkens, and from being their champion he becomes their detractor (pp. 39-40, one paragraph break added).

So various intellectuals have spoken out against the masses.  Hoffer quotes Emerson, who says that the masses are

rude, lame, uonmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered but to be schooled.  I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide and break them up, and draw individuals out of them….  If government knew how, I should like to see it check, not multiply, the population (cited p. 43).

In fact, when the intellectuals have gained power and elite status, as in Communist countries, they often become the fiercest slavedrivers:

And what of the masses in this intellectual’s paradise?  They have found in the intellectual the most formidable taskmaster in history.  No other regime has treated the masses so callously as raw material, to be experimented on and manipulated at will; and never before have so many lives been wasted so recklessly in war and in peace (p. 42).

And yet the intellectual still needs the masses.  For one thing, he needs their money.  For another, he craves their worsihp: “He has a vital need for the flow of veneration and worship that can come only from a vast, formless, inarticulate multitude” (p. 45).

Summing up, Hoffer says:

The intellectual’s concern for the masses is as a rule a symptom of his uncertain status and his lack of an unquestionable sense of social usefulness.  It is the activities of the chronically thwarted intellectual which make it possible for the masses to get their share of the good things of life.  When the intellectual comes into his own, he becomes a pillar of stability and finds all kinds of lofty reasons for siding with the strong against the weak (p. 46)

The trick, then, according to Hoffer, is to keep the intellectuals “chronically thwarted.”  That’s the recipe for creativity.  Real intellectuals, real artists and writers, are often not much good at statecraft and rule, so it is usually “the pseudo-intellectual who rules the roost, and he is likely to imprint his mediocrity and meagerness on every phase of cultural activity” (p. 47).  Besides, “his creative impotence brews in him a murderous hatred of intellectual brilliance and he may be tempted, as Stalin was, to enforce a crude leveling of all intellectual activity” (p. 47).

But if the intellectuals aren’t given rule and authority, they end up at their creative best:

The creativeness of the intellectual is often a function of a thwarted craving for purposeful action and a privileged rank.  It has its origin in the soul intensity generated in front of an insurmountable obstacle on the path to action.  The genuine writer, artist, and even scientist are dissatisfied persons — as dissatisfied as the revolutionary — but are endowed with a capacity for transmuting their dissatisfaction into a creative impules.  A busy, purposeful life of action not only diverts energies from creative channels, but above all reduces the potent irritation which releases the secretion of creativity (p. 47).

In short,

the chronic thwarting of the intellectual’s craving for power serves a higher purpose than the well-being of common folk.  The advancement of the masses is a mere by-product of the uniquely human fact that discontent is at the root of the creative process: that the most gifted members of the human species are at their creative best when they cannot have their way, and must compensate for what they miss by realizing and cultivating their capacities and talents (p. 47).

I pass all of this on to you because I found it fascinating.  But I also wonder whether it has any application to the life of the church.  The church also has her intellectuals and her pseudo-intellectuals, her men of creativity who are often not given positions of leadership but who — maybe precisely by virtue of their marginalization — produce great and important work (I think of men such as James Jordan!), and men who crave power and leadership and who work to rise to the top so that they can impose their ideas on the masses of the church.  It’s possible, for instance, for a pastor to denigrate his elders as if he’s the only one with the sense to know what ought to be done, or for a seminary professor to castigate pastors in his denomination because they don’t know sound doctrine the way he does.  At any rate, Hoffer’s understanding of the intellectuals should provide food for thought, not only as we look at the world around us (why are so many politicians these days lawyers?) but also as we look at the life of the church.

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Posted by John Barach @ 3:17 pm | Discuss (0)
January 24, 2007


Category: Ethics,Politics :: Link :: Print

No one, I think, welcomes the intervention of federal power in the affairs of a state, except as a last resort.  That seems the crudest of solutions.  It is not a moral solution at all.  In being forced to do what is right, men lose the dignity of being right.  The right itself is debased as an aim and incentive — Wendell Berry, “The Landscaping of Hell: Strip-Mine Morality in East Kentucky,” The Long-Legged House, p. 22.

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Posted by John Barach @ 5:28 pm | Discuss (0)

What’s More Important?

Category: Politics,Theology :: Link :: Print

It strikes many modern Christians as surpassingly odd that, with the Roman Empire collapsing about their ears and the barbarians invading from the north and east, Christian leaders of the first centuries were preoccupied with debates about whether the Son’s eternal relation to the Father should be described as homoousion (“same substance”), homoiousion (“like substance”), or homoion (“like”).  Unless we are Lutherans, we might think Luther a fanatic for his ferocious defense of his formulation of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament at the Marburg Colloquy.  (In Luther’s Small Catechism, the body and blood are said to be “in, with, and under” the bread and wine.)

While the church fathers and Reformers are hardly above criticism, the contention of this book is that we are the oddities, not they; we are the ones obsessed with trivialities.  The church fathers and Reformers had a more biblical sense of priorities than we have.  We have permitted the idolaters of power and mammon to set our priorities for us; we have let them convince us that the really big issues confronting the world are political, and that they can be solved through political means….

Our forefathers knew better.  They would tell us that the debates over homoousion are of vastly greater significance — ultimately, of vastly greater political significance — than the debates over Saddam Hussein.  They would warn us that Arius remains a greater threat to our social well-being than acid rain.  Reforming the welfare state is important, but our forefathers would have insisted that reforming worship is a more pressing need.  Liturgy is closer to the heart of the church’s concern than a hundred pieces of legislation.  The next assembly for communion will have a more profound effect on the world than the next assembly of Congress.  Baptism is a more crucial reality than the size of the federal budget. — Peter Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power, pp. 21-22.

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Posted by John Barach @ 1:23 pm | Discuss (0)
August 23, 2006

The Consequences of Indifference

Category: Politics :: Link :: Print

Robert Putnam says that when people drop out of civic life, it is increasingly dominated by extremists (Bowling Alone, p. 342). After all, those who are passionate about issues don’t drop out. If someone is passionate about abortion — pro or con — he is more likely to vote, write letters to politicians, join a lobby group, run for office himself, and so forth. If someone doesn’t care about that or any other issue enough to motivate him to get involved, he’ll drop out, leaving the field in the hands of those who care strongly.

Strange policies may be passed because the guy who wants them shows up at the meeting. He speaks up. He presents the case. He strives to get elected himself or to get his friends elected. He gets his friends worked up so that they show up, too. And there may not be enough people who are passionately opposed to his position to outvote them.

But, more than that, there aren’t enough people who will say, “Hey, this issue just doesn’t grab me. It doesn’t strike me as the most important thing we could do or the best cause on which to spend our money.” People who are indifferent can be persuaded to become passionate. They can sometimes stand in the way of good decisions (e.g., a law against abortion) as much as in the way of bad ones. But they can also be a good balance so that extremists don’t have the field to themselves. “If you want me to vote your way, you have to persuade me first.”

Politics, Putnam is saying, is too important to be left in the hands of the passionate.

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Posted by John Barach @ 8:58 pm | Discuss (0)
August 21, 2006


Category: Politics :: Link :: Print

Robert Putnam talks about how, in the last third of the 20th century, interest in politics has been waning among the rising generation (Bowling Alone, pp. 35-36).  Those who grew up in the first two-thirds of the century are, generally, more interested in politics than those who grew up in the last third.

I have to admit that that’s certainly true of me.  While certain issues interest me, I find most things having to do with government — municipal or federal — pretty dull.

Perhaps part of that is the sense that there’s little I can do to change things.  Growing up in Alberta I was aware that once Quebec and Ontario voted, the whole thing was over and how I voted in Alberta wasn’t likely to affect the final outcome.  Add to that a sense that in voting I would simply be choosing (to borrow a phrase from someone) “the least objectionable among a field of undesirables.”

I suppose you could also take into consideration my general dislike of meetings.  I recall an episode of the Canadian comedy series Wayne and Schuster, in which they played Hollywood consultants called in to help the TV show “This Week in Parliament” improve its ratings (which, they pointed out, were lower than those of the little dot that stays on your TV after you turn it off).  Certainly I’d rather watch that little dot than subject myself to watching a debate in parliament!

But to top everything off, I simply find other areas of life far more interesting.  Given the choice, I’d rather read a novel than a newspaper.  If I do read a newspaper (or World magazine, for that matter), I’m more interested in the comics and the entertainment news (movie reviews, book reviews, music reviews) than in the news of the world or anything having to do with the government of the country.

All of this makes me wonder a bit about Putnam’s positive program (if you’ll pardon the alliteration).  I’m interested in the growth of what he calls “social capital,” but I can’t say that I feel much desire to get involved in politics or to read about current events in the newspaper.  Is this a flaw in my character?  Or am I correct to sense that there are more important things — and certainly more enjoyable things — than politics and the operations of the government and its debates?  How important is it really that I keep up with world news when there’s a Raymond Chandler novel calling to me?

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Posted by John Barach @ 11:13 pm | Discuss (4)
August 5, 2006

Bowling Alone 1

Category: Miscellaneous,Politics :: Link :: Print

I think it was Mark Driscoll‘s The Radical Reformission which first pointed me to Robert Putnam‘s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  I’m now about halfway through it.  It’s not the most exciting reading — analysis of statistics probably bores most people, in fact — but it is important reading (or at least skimming) for pastors.

Bowling Alone is about the decline in social capital in the past few decades.  While physical capital includes things such as money and property, social capital has to do with networks, connections between people, bonds of reciprocity and trust.

In the first section of the book, Putnam examines political and civic involvement, religious participation, workplace relationships, informal social gatherings, volunteering and philanthropy and more.  Time and again, he finds the same pattern: a gradual increase in the early part of the 20th century, with a dip around the time of the depression, followed by a steep increase after the war, but culminating in an increasingly rapid decrease beginning in the 70s and speeding up from about 1980 on.

And again and again, the changes don’t appear to be related to education or finances or ethnic background or geographic location.  Rather, they are generational.  The generation(s) that came of age more recently than the 70s have less interest in politics, church attendance, social gatherings, volunteering, and so forth than previous generations did.

There are, of course, lots of new organizations, but many have relatively few members and few have local chapters.  Many “clubs” and “associations” and “organizations” are actually nothing more than mailing lists.  You don’t attend meetings or discuss issues.  You simply send in your donation and you join the organization which then mails you info about the group and the occasional demand for more money.

Interestingly, Putnam points out that “religious” people tend to be more involved, though they often get involved in their own circles and not so much in the society around them.  But those who aren’t interested in being involved in the activities of the church and in its community are less and less likely to attend, so that there is an increasingly clear polarization between believers and unbelievers (p. 74).

I plan to write more about this book, but if this first taste interests you I’d recommend tracking the book down in a library and skimming it.  I don’t think it’s worth your time for a detailed, leisurely read nor do I know if I’d want to own the book.  But if you’re a pastor,you ought to read this one because part of your calling is to draw hurting isolated people into a warm, loving community and that involves understanding not only that people around you are isolated and withdrawn but also why they are that way and how that can change.

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Posted by John Barach @ 8:25 pm | Discuss (4)
April 17, 2006

Learn English?

Category: Politics :: Link :: Print

Every now and then, especially in connection with the current controversy about immigration here in the United States, I hear someone say that all immigrants should have to learn English. No English, no immigration. “If they’re going to come to our country,” someone might say, “they should have to learn to speak our language.”

Really? Why?

It certainly would do nothing to preclude terrorists from immigrating. If learning English were a requirement for immigrating, learning English would be one of the first things a terrorist would do.

So what is the reason (in people’s minds) for this requirement? Do immigrants need to learn English so that they can communicate? What if all the people they want to communicate with speak their own language? If you spoke and understood nothing but Dutch, for instance, you could still get along pretty well if you lived, say, in Neerlandia, Alberta, where a high percentage of the people in the community speaks or understands Dutch.

Do they need to learn English so that they can understand the laws of the land? Well, no. You can learn the laws of the United States by reading a translation.

What, really, is the point of requiring immigrants to learn English? I just don’t understand it. More than that, it seems to me that such a requirement would be not only unnecessary but also unjust.

Elderly people often have a very hard time learning a new language; in fact, elderly people tend to revert to the language of their childhood anyway. Making learning English a prerequisite for immigration would mean that you’d have to tell a man that he can’t sponsor his elderly mother to come and live with him and his family unless she first learns English, which isn’t likely to happen. Is that righteous?

Mentally handicapped people would not be able to meet this requirement. But then, neither would a lot of people. Lots of people aren’t good with languages. And lots of people don’t have the time, money, or opportunity to take classes.

The requirement for immigrants to learn English, then, it seems to me, would preclude a lot of elderly people, mentally handicapped people, developmentally challenged people, and other people who don’t have the ability, time, money, or opportunity to learn English from immigrating to the United States. Which is to say that it would also preclude many people who are needy or poor from immigrating, not because they wouldn’t be good citizens, not because they wouldn’t work hard, but simply because they can’t afford English classes or aren’t good with languages.

Again I ask: Is that righteous? Is it merciful? Is it necessary? What’s the reason people keep proposing this strange requirement?

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Posted by John Barach @ 12:46 pm | Discuss (0)

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