Wineskins Archive

January 8, 2014

The DisUnited States of America (Oct 1992)

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A Call for Christian Realism and Action

by Perry C. Cotham
October, 1992

6One of the most familiar stories in our Christian heritage is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. While the highly placed Jewish official travelled on the Damascus highway, preparing to persecute even more new disciples of Jesus, he was blinded and laid low by a heavenly light and a startling voice. From this seeming catastrophe, Saul came to see reality more clearly. He experienced the living Lord, transferred his allegiance and loyalty to him, and became an apostle of good news and peace.

Occasionally, events in our nation impact our collective consciousness so dramatically that we feel blinded and laid low. Our only realistic choice is to consider what truths they reveal. Surely, last May’s verdict in the Rodney King trial and subsequent riots and destruction in Los Angeles – totalling more than 50 fatalities and a half billion dollars in cost – opened our eyes to some profoundly sad realities that we as citizens have conveniently tried to ignore. One wondres how differently we might have received a message about our cities and our fragile social fabric if those 81 seconds of videotape had not been recorded by a chance observer.

My own sobering conclusion, one to which I regretfully have been moving for the past few years, is that there is an alarming disintegration of the concept of community in our land. Our nation is experiencing wat historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, jr., has called “the disuniting of America.”

What is community? How is nationa community built? How is it maintained? What are the forces which destroy it? Can Christians who take citizenship seriously act constructively to build and maintain community?

Community is one of those popular buzzwords with a wide range of connotations, all positive. For some, any racial or ethnic group living in close proximity is a community. For others, an aggregation of occupied residences, pinpointed at the same region on a map, may be called a community. Little wonder that “community” has lost its rich meaning with such varied common use.

At the outset, the Christian thinker begins with one profoundly important insight: a community is not created by geography, heritage, law, accident of birth, or economic interdependence. All of these may be dynamics which serve to encourage a community’s viability but they alone are insufficient to produce genuine community.

“Community” is rooted in “commonalities” or “commonness.” A common life – life that is shared at the deepest levels of human experience – does not develop by accident, but is created by the will of women and men resolute in desiring and maintaining a genuine human community.

Several major elements exist within a meaningful community: (1) commitment to core beliefs, values, and ideas such as freedom, liberty, equality, and justice; (2) an awareness of duty owed by one person to another and, in our religious communities at least, an awareness of duty to God; (3) deep concern about the “common good” or “public welfare” which leads people to guard and protect zealously the core beliefs, values and ideals.

Jesus told a parable which illustrates the principle of community. a lone man travelling a highway is beset by personal disaster – the unfortunate, unnamed traveller is assailed and mugged. Then comes the dreary passage of conventional citizens, each with a sufficient sense of ordinary responsibilities which for them precluded personal involvement. How mistaken we would be to perceive the priest and the Levite as evil men. They were no worse than any other citizens equally ensconced in ordinary career life, personal responsibilities, societal stereotypes, and unimaginative, stifling legalism. Developing a rationalization for reneging on immediate involvement for the beleaguered traveller was sure no difficult task. Their service in the temple or synagogue was, after all, the greater good to which they, with certain regret, were summoned.

You know the story. Another traveller arrives on the scene of the crime. He perceives the victim compassionately. he stops. Perhaps with absolutely no thought about the historically entrenched animosity between Samaritans and Jews, this anonymous Samaritan perceives a duty and unselfishly performs it. Two men on one road. Two cultures. Two races. Two religious heritages. A ministry is rendered. A community is born. This Samaritan and this Jew are no longer strangers. There is a human society. Jesus hardly need ask, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the one who fell among theives?”

Historically, our nation has identified itself as a special community of many peoples, many nationalities, many races, many cultures. We have opened doors to the poor and politcally oppressed, those “huddled masses longing to breathe free.” Such self-identity provides a mix of both reality and myth, but it is authentic enough for us to consider the foundation and cohesive forces for such a unique political community.

The foundation for American community has been called by different names, such as “Americanism,” “the American way of life,” and, more recently, “American civil religion.” The great value of American civil religion has been its promotion of a keen sense of corporate identity and common good. No nation on earth owes its sense of community more explicitly to fidelity to an idea. Our country was born “dedicated to a proposition.”

Historically, the viability of American society has depended on the dedication of public officials and the general citizenry to the realization of certain “self-evident” moral propositions. “What holds the United States togther is not, as it is with other nations, geographic proximity, ethnic loyalty, dynastic loyalty, religious conformity,” declared political science professor hans J. Morgenthau, “but the common purpose, however inadequately conceived and ineffectively put into practice, of living up to certain moral propositions, which can be defined as equality in freedom. Put into question the viability of this purpose and you have put in jeopardy the very existence of America as a distinct social and political entity.”

Even a casual glance at news developments and crime reports or occasional consumer participation in our society’s entertainment offerings in the fields of theater, motion pictures, television, and pop music will lead Christian citizens to wonder if our nation is jettisoning its common core ideals and values.

Modern technology and engineering, providing ease of communication and mobility, have contributed to this threat to community. The quest for better salaries and upward mobility has led Americans to change careers and either dissolve marriages or move families from one locality to another. The placing and maintaining of roots in one local community, with devotion to community churches, schools, and civic enrichment, is a threatened tradition. Americans are dwelling among strangers, in apartments, condominiums, and suburban subdivisions where, even after several years, they may not remember the name of the person next door even if they have met him or her. In the same inner city neighborhood, some decent citizens, especially among the elderly, have become virtual prisoners in their own homes, afraid to venture out onto sidewalks and streets where the law of the jungle seems to prevail both night and day. Even in suburbs, prosperous citizens may arrive home at the end of the day and never have to put a foot onto the turf of an open yard as they drive into the attached garage with an automatic door enclosing them in privacy for the rest of the day.

We may pine for a simpler past – a time in which Americans lived mostly in rural and small town communities and enjoyed leisurely front porch repartee or backyard block barbecues. Or a time when the few local churches were a social center as well as worship center and preachers of all denominations delivered the same basic messages about the meaning of life, suffering, and death.

What a paradox! While our society is mobile, urbanized, and culturally diverse, and while the quest for an M.B.A. is like a crusade for the Holy Grail, most of our national myths and values are rooted in the rural past. We work in cities, live in suburbs, and dream of the countryside or rugged west. Our myths include wagon trains pushing west, courageous homesteaders conquering the plains, presidents born in log cabins, lonesome cowboys, plantation belles, and happy family life in the prosperous ’50s.

That past, to whatever degree it was real, is irretrievable. we can no longer expect our public schools to provide public Bible reading and prayer. With the increase in unwed motherhood and a 50% failure rate of first marriages, we can no longer expect the nuclear family of two parents and children under one roof to be the norm. The concept of family must be redefined. outside of our homes and churches, we can no longer assume a consensus about integrity in business, the sanctity of God’s name, extramarital and deviant sex, drug use, and the nature of ethics. Nor can we, short of a grand reversal, assume that our homes and churches will be our youth’s primary mentors about lifestyle and morals.

Television has done as much to diminish the concept of community as any other non-human factor. Television served to bring the nation together in the ’50s when it seemed all the nation was watching “Milton Berle,” “I Love Lucy,” “Life of Riley,” and “Ozzie and Harriet,” the latter an Eisenhower-era prototype for American marriages.

Today’s cable television has produced the opposite effect by fragmenting an audience of millions. Indeed, members of almost any identifiable subgroup – black, Jewish, rock fan, sports fanatic, political junkie, show-biz follower, trans TV devotee, romance and soap opera lover, news buff, porn consumer, fundamentalist – may retire to the privacy of their own rooms and be massaged by their own specialized magazines, advertisements, and cable television and radio stations.

we have always boasted that cultural diversity was our special strength because each race and ethnic group brings its unique special experiences and insights to the mainstream of society. In recent years, however, cultural diversity has threateneed some core values while fanaticism and intolerance have produced fragmentation.

While the loss of community is viewed as positive by those who seek to live lives of quiet anonymity and be free from the responsibilities of neighborliness and the judgments of fundamentalist fanatics, in general the disintegration of community is unhealthy. A community, as we have emphasized, is linked with moral consensus; withut moral consensus, a nation may survive in some sense, but it cannot be a real community.

The breakdown of community means disconnectedness, alienation, and anomie. With the loss of moral authority comes confusion, suspicion, distrust, and, eventually, chaos and perhaps anarchy. With the loss of community is the loss of uncontested right to apply moral standards to civil liberties or political issues. Consider, for example, that concerns such as pornography or abortion are viewed not so much as fundamental moral issues as they are public policy issues to be dealt with in courts of law and legislative bodies and decided by slim majorities.

As community spirit weakens, the American melting pot becomes a boiling cauldron of warring factions, each claiming its entitlements, each suspicious of the other, each making non-negotiable demands, each writing its own tribal code of rules and laws.

What is the message for Christian citizens as we move toward the 21st century?

First and foremost, the church bestows on “community” its deepest and richest meaning. Ideally, no community is any more closely-knit or more involved in providing insight and direction for life’s greatest issues than the community of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. The church is thus a super-community, for its members share the transcendent goals and values of a loving heavenly Father who created all the world and its inhabitants.

Second, this super-community, the church, can meet all our deepest needs and longings for association and inter-relatedness. The experience of first century Christians is evidence that the community of faith can survive in an environment that legally, politically, and socially is hostile to its purposes. Not coincidentally, the black churches in southcentral Los Angeles played an important role in stabilizing the riot situation and proved once again to be the most stable and positive forces in the black community.

Third, this super-community must ever be vigilant, like any other community, so that insidious evils do not destroy its esprit de corps. Jealousy, envy, pride, gossip, slander, power struggles, pettiness, and other “works of the flesh” can rob the church of its spiritual dimension and render it as worldly and limited in nature as any other human institution or affiliation. The church must be the answer to rather than the cause of individual alienation and disillusionment about the meaning of life.

Finally, Christians should derive their strength from walking in the light and from fellowship with committed brothers and sisters and yet seek to impact in a positive, healing way the larger community (nation) of which they are members. For some, this will mean their voting behavior reflects a commitment to spiritual life and ranscendent values; for others, thankfully, it will mean also signing petitions, running for office, boldly confronting evil-doers, demonstrating publicly, and/or seeking public forms to address vial issues.

Throughout it all, responsible Christians acknowledge the essential freedoms and rights bestowed by the larger national community and realistically resist imposing some minority version of morals or ethics on the larger majority. In the final analysis, good behavior cannot be legislated. Civic virtue, so vital in a democracy, requires what one philosopher has called “obedience to the unenforceable.”

The American dream still shines brightly for most people. Our diversity, which often keeps us embroiled in petty, contentious politics, can continue to be a source of our greatness if we attempt to resolve our differences peacefully and learn by listening to the voices of others.

Finally, the great gospel metaphors of yeast, salt and light underscore the unique quality of the Christian man or woman’s involvement in the larger community. The Christian is not simply an arm-chair critic seated close to a remote-controlled TV. Nor is he or she a spectator in some giant arena while the world’s events unfold safely below. Noble as the reading and discussing of current events may be, Christians are not citizens who are simply informed of the truth about a political community and major world issues.

As yeast is different from the dough in which it works, as light permeates darkness so as to change its essential character, and as salt penetrates the meat which it preserves, so then that super-community of redeemed believers in Christ provides the moral insight, which might be the salvation of that larger community among nations.

After all, the church is the one special community which exists primarily for the sake of those who do not belong.Wineskins Magazine

Perry C. Cotham

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