On Forming a More Perfect Union
How can we develop the character required for social change?
In the past year, as a tumult of civic unrest has waxed and waned, I’ve been reminded of the story of the Little Red Hen. In the story, the Hen begins a baking project. Throughout the day, she asks the other farm animals to help her gather the ingredients and participate in her baking project. Each time, they politely decline. Yet at the end of the day, when the aroma of warm, fresh-baked bread wafts past their hungry faces, they all gather to share in her hard work. Of course, the Hen is less than enthusiastic about sharing the fruit of her hard labour with those who would rather sit and watch her sweat. She reminds the farm animals that they turned down many opportunities to help her and respectfully rejects their offer to share in her feast.
Call me a cynic, but it seems that activism itself has become all too easy in the age of the internet. It is easy to post one’s outrage or expressions of solidarity on social media platforms to a smattering of followers who already agree with our basic premises. It is easy for many of us to drift back into life as usual, returning to the comforts of our segregated enclaves. We are quick to raise our voices in indignation when we see the heinous acts of others, but when it comes time to plant seeds, cut wheat, and grind flour, we’d rather not. In other words, we desire the goods of social change without the actual effort required to realize them.
Such activism only goes so far, and “so far” is not far enough. As Wendell Berry argues in The Hidden Wound, our communities are maimed and fragmented, they are in need of healing. But journeying toward this healing involves striving to become a new type of people. This healing begins with the cultivation of new virtues, new habits and qualities, and new ways of seeing and imagining our common life. In short, we need to begin cultivating a certain kind of character that will shape our communities around a pursuit of peace and the common good. But what habits and qualities do we need to cultivate, and how then do we go about that process? Four in particular come to mind: temperance, accountability, ingenuity, and hope.
In an age when we rush to put out statements and demand immediate reform, temperance is not a virtue that finds itself appreciated. In Aquinas’s Eschatological Ethics and the Virtue of Temperance, Matthew Levering notes that temperance is the ability to submit passions such as anger and grief to the light of reason. With every evening spent lamenting another body lying dead in the streets, it is natural to be blinded by anger and hurt. It is good and right that injustice moves us, that it leads us to wish that things were otherwise. However, recognizing that both rage and grief will quickly fizzle out, temperate citizens are able to weather the storm of their passions so that their actions will be measured. It enables us to be studious, carefully assessing problems so that we can better know how to address them. Moreover, temperance prepares us to deal with frustration when change is slow in coming. Societies tend to move at a glacial pace, but temperate citizens are better able to restrain knee-jerk reactions and push through the torrents of discouragement that accompany the slow and unrewarding work of social change, until the seeds they’ve planted begin to sprout.
So how do we cultivate temperance? Traditionally, Christians have viewed the discipline of fasting as essential to our growth in temperance. We desire things that appear good and pleasurable to us, but in fasting we reach out, past our immediate desires for something better. Applying this practice to social change, we can take steps to moderate our intake of pleasure, whether that is food or acts of leisure, and then direct our attention, time, and money to acts of service. In other words, we need to couple our fasting with a posture of generosity and self-sacrificial service. In giving generously, we are forced to surrender some of our immediate comforts in order to support those who serve the needs of others. In self-sacrificial service we starve the self of comfort and offer up time that could be spent in leisure to contribute to the flourishing of another.
Temperance paves the way for ingenuity, a disposition toward the world that sees and pursues creative possibilities As we wait, we are able to take stock of the complexity of our environments and then, prudentially, we are able to seek ways to address those situations effectively. Ingenuity actively pursues new imaginative possibilities and refuses to allow the way things are to constrain our vision of the future. Simply put, we need to develop the habits of thought and action that will give rise to envisioning new possibilities.
Ingenuity can be fostered in two steps. First, we need to ask: What are the pressing needs in our context? Then, we can learn from how others are engaging in similar work in their communities. John Wallace Jr., the vice provost for faculty diversity and development at the University of Pittsburgh and the founder of the Homewood Children’s Village, developed his vision after learning of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. Assessing the needs of his own area, Wallace partnered with local residents, government officials, and faith-based organizations in order to establish what has now become a centre of urban renewal in his hometown. Whether working to start new health-care initiatives for underserved communities (Lawndale Christian Health Center) or nurturing urban renewal through affordable, classical education (The Field School), there are plenty of organizations we can apprentice under as we seek to address the concerns of our own environments. Of course, new obstacles will inevitably arise. However, we will have the resources to engage these impediments and adapt to encounter them in creative ways.
We must hold ourselves accountable. Normally, we think of accountability in terms of holding others responsible for the reprehensible things they’ve done. We should indeed call on our governing bodies to act justly. However, in developing the habit of accountability we hold ourselves accountable and accept the responsibility for shaping our communities and their failures. The issue is rarely “those bigots over there,” strawmen we can easily lambast. Rather, the issue is how we as a community and a nation have failed to be and become the people we ought to be—that is, how we have failed to develop the habits and virtues requisite for pursuing the common good together.
In order to develop the habit of accountability, we must both change the nature of our public discourse and begin to participate in the process of forming a better people. We must avoid caricaturing our fellow citizens as “woke” or “bigot,” “Uncle Tom” or “social justice warrior,” a tactic that shuts down dialogue and ossifies an us-versus-them mentality. Yet a change in language is insufficient unless it is accompanied by a change in our actions. We must roll up our sleeves and engage in the hard work of democracy. We must participate in our local and national elections, extend the olive branch of friendship to those with whom we have disagreements, and reclaim public space. We must begin attending schoolboard and city-council meetings, vote for sheriffs and district attorneys, and then take time to meet with our representatives in order to voice our concerns. However, we must also recognize that all of our agency need not be relegated to our governing officials. We can do something to address issues in our communities, whether that is through volunteering in afterschool programs, offering free test-prep classes to our neighbours, or serving as mentors in youth centres. We are bound to our neighbours. If we want our society to be different, we must recognize the role we can play in achieving that end.
Last, we need to be a people of hope. As abolitionist Theodore Wright remarked in “The Progress of the Antislavery Cause,” “Praise God and persevere in this great work. Should we not be encouraged? We have everything to hope for, and nothing to fear. God is at the helm.” If Theodore Wright and others like him can remain hopeful in the midst of chattel slavery, we too can stand in the stream of that great tradition and remain resolute in our current context, even when the problems of police misconduct, incarceration, and poverty seem insurmountable.
How do we nurture hope? We must first look backward and remember. While no nation or people is perfect, we ought to take the time to read the accounts of former slaves and sharecroppers and sit at the feet of our elders who fought for women’s rights. In so doing, we equip ourselves to stave off the venomous poison of pessimism. Second, we can lament the ways we continue to fall short. We must acknowledge that our conceptions of justice and equity have often failed to incorporate those who exist on the margins of society. As Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson observe in The Justice Calling, lament “honors the honesty of pain and anger while also honoring the truth that God is the one who reigns.” In other words, lament recognizes that the world is not the way it is supposed to be. It confesses the emotional pain of injustice while begging our Lord to do something about it.
Finally, we need to prime our imaginations with a fresh vision for our communal life. What might it look like to see communities and neighbourhoods transformed economically? What is the society that we are seeking to build, and why is it one worth pursuing? This is not a call to naive optimism. Rather we must strive to see how the Spirit of God is active in the world, communicating the blessings of divine providence through the various communities, institutions, and governments that exist in his world, even as it seems to sag beneath the weight of sin.
A few years ago, a friend approached me to apologize. She confessed that she had never read a book by an African American author and asked that I would forgive her for ignoring their contributions. At first, I was taken aback. I wondered what on earth made her think that I needed an apology or, for that matter, why she believed that her apology would be significant to me. But suppressing my acerbic inclinations, I instead asked her why she didn’t simply google some authors and engage their work. In retrospect, I believe that latter course of action is simply harder. It’s safer to offer an apology than it is to wrestle with the ideas of John Oliver Killens and Zadie Smith, and then treat these ideas as worthy of both engagement and critique. It’s easier to patronize or pity the plight of African Americans than it is to invest your life in a community and undergo the long, thankless work of leveraging your life for the sake of someone else.
To be frank, I’m not terribly interested in any more apologies or symbolic acts of contrition, the gesticulations of political theatre. I am, however, enthralled by the possibility and hard work of social change. We can become a people who don’t merely bemoan the incarceration system, but offer financial literacy classes, employment, and housing opportunities to our recently released fellow citizens. We can become a people who refuse to simply decry the lamentable educational options in low-income communities, and instead spend our evenings tutoring and mentoring those in need of assistance. We can become a people who are unwilling to float passively in remorse, and instead actively seek to engage in the difficult work of democracy. But in order to do so, we must cultivate communities of character and do the hard work pursuing the common good together.