Modernity…The answer to POVERTY is COMMUNITY

This is from another blog that I thought is interesting…just a point of view that could be switched to many other contexts…

Diagnosis: Modernity
The answer to POVERTY is COMMUNITY by Jurgen Moltan
It is no longer easy to avoid the ravages of poverty. A drive through any city today reveals the extent to which wealth and the lack of viable income can coexist within a single city block. Even a quick glance at the news in any medium reveals that homelessness is closer to all of us than we care to imagine.
The response is generally the same for any political group, regardless of culture war colors. Each party and interest group assumes that the answer lies in some sort of political solution, some act of government. Justice, they shout, comes through legislative decision. For these groups, it is the elected community which will solve the issues of wealth disparity and poverty is the American political and economic community, whether federal or local, free-market or government funded entitlements.
This assumption is rooted within the modern project. Modernity, through the likes of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, has sought to erase contentious religious systems from the public square to be replaced by a reasoned political system. The modern vision, then, is for all communities to be related and subsumed under a public politic, relegating religion to private belief. The over arching system of government is then, the one legitimate community. In short, the answer to any social struggle is the political/economic system. So whether Tea Party or Green, Democrat or Republican, even Libertarian or Socialist the Modernist assumes some degree of governmental response to the questions of the day. (Note)
The Church today, even those most rooted in a Post-Christendom model of Church and State, continues to follow this Modern assumption. It’s the one facet of Christendom that we cannot seem to shake off. But really, it’s not much of a surprise. In the Tercentennial study of the Church of the Brethren membership it became clear that we are more identifiable by our political party affiliation than by shaped by Brethren values. We are more Red and Blue than we are “Continuing the Work of Jesus.” Well, more accurately, and more respectfully, our senses of what it means to follow Jesus look more like our party affiliations than anything else.
Within the history of radical Christianity, from Acts through the desert ascetics all the way through to the Radical Reformers, the emphasis has fallen on the Christian community as the treatment for social ills. Poverty, disproportionate gaps in wealth, health care, even natural disasters all received the same response- The Church, not the State, came to the aid of believers and non-believers alike. For example, the great story of the Middle Ages is that more priests and monks died of the Black Death than any other vocation because they were the ones out tending to the sick and dying. Kings and Lords did not enter their streets to save the citizenry.
The effects of this Modernist infection are two fold. First, we assume that the proper expression of doctrine occurs within the secular political process. We simply translate our systems of belief and values into the agnostic realm of government. Second, and probably less obvious, is the translation of secular modes of politics and decision making into the life of the Church. Here we assume that votes and position platforms, uniformity of belief within camps, and even debates and sound bites are the norm for discernment and decision making. The irony is that as we look back on Church History and condemn the presence of armies at ecumenical councils such as Nicea and Constantinople, while at the same time we adopt the swordless system of Modern politics as our own.
It was recently asked why the Church of the Brethren today is so divided. The answer is simple- We are more defined by political affiliations and the idea that political processes will restore the Church. We expect the political systems of governments to resolve the needs and struggles of everyday life and unite the Church. We think that discernment is a 51% game, and that those in leadership or power have agendas to fulfill. We think our Church is the holy image of American representative democracy. The problem is that progressive and traditionalist alike have sold out to the wider political narrative and practices of Modernity, only to forget that we as the gathered Body of Christ are set apart, and must find ways of being together that are more reflective of God’s narrative of reconciliation.
Our diagnosis is simple we have an acute case of Modernity. The cure, not so simple: We cannot wait for the State to save us. Nor can we expect the practices of public politic to redeem the Church.
Note The nature of each of the these groups is really one of degree: To what extent need the government be involved for the well-being of the most number of people? Even here the assumption is that the government’s own self-limiting is a response to the problem. I also am aware that I assume the economic system is a form of the political, whether a laisssez faire or interventionist capitalism.
1. Chris Jones
February 21, 2011 at 4:42 am
In the land of the Mennos, we too are shaped more by modern politics than the Cross of Christ. I would push back a little on the idea that the realm of the government is a realm for the agnostic. I think when we embrace the radical, apocalyptic vision of Jesus and the early church we would see organized power for what it is: a satanic parody of the Kingdom of God and then we would refuse the temptation. What we need to hear is the call to come out of Babylon.
 Joshua Brockway
February 21, 2011 at 4:37 pm
Thanks Chris, especially for widening the scope from the CoB to Anabaptism. Having walked in both worlds, I think the diagnosis applies. When Stuart Murray Williams was with us on the east coast he emphasized the Christendom shift. He was always quick to hedge though that Christendom in America is more of a Cultural, rather than a legal, Christendom. One of the questions that loomed afterward was whether or not American Anabaptists really want to let go of Cultural Christendom. I think this diagnosis of modernity is part of the reason why most do not want to move out of the Christendom homeland.
I agree with you and Brian that “agnostic” is too soft of a term. At the same time, though, it is how the system would describe itself, at least as an areligious process. What I like about “agnostic” is that it carries just enough of a pejorative edge to raise the question. I too argue that the modern system of politics and economics is another Religion- with significant formative practices. Yet, I think to see it as such requires a prior confession of faith in another system. So to see it as Babylon means we have our homeland in Christianity. So with Brian, I think Cavanaugh and Taylor help us see the religious nature of modern politics….the task then for us as the Church is to take the prophetic position and name both our exile and our captive empire.
2. Brian Gumm
February 21, 2011 at 2:50 pm
Wowzers, Josh! This is a very Hauerwasian diagnosis, so of course I think it’s awesome. I affirm your diagnosis and would only push back on a few things, perhaps only semantic:
1) Like Chris, I would argue on the realm of government/public politic (good term there, btw) being described as “agnostic.” That’s too soft! Catholic thinkers have helped me a great deal here, especially William Cavanaugh, Charles Taylor, and Carl Schmitt, the last of whom said, that “all political thinking is inescapably theological.” Down at the core of any political theory is a metaphysical kernel, a “theological” account for how the world works and our place in it. Or as Chris said (and this sounded kind of like Wink) “a satanic parody of the Kingdom of God.”
2) On your statement that we’re (as Brethren) not shaped by “Brethren values”: Yes, but… Probably due to my experience in corporate America and also church organizations influenced by Western organizational culture, I’ve come to despise the “mission/vision/values” language. It sounds too rational and susceptible to idolatrous narratives providing content. The beauty in traditional Brethren liturgical practices is that they worked on our entire bodies. You read Scripture as you washed the feet and kissed your brother in Christ, the biblical narrative being etched into the very fibers of our corporeal bodies (which includes our brains). So I just squirm at that word “values”…
Chris mentions the Menno world struggling with this same kind of thing, and that’s true, but one thing that stands as a marked contrast between these two cousins, as I see it, is the fruits of missionary work. In other words, the struggles that we’re looking at here are primarily Western struggles (though they do have global impact, for sure: e.g. globalization). But because Mennonites have quietly encircled the globe and are growing in the Global South, that puts them in a different situation than the Church of the Brethren, which is a very American denomination (denominations themselves being a very Western phenomenon).
I’ve heard some Brethren attribute this to some weird kind of humility and not wanting “to put our name on everything like those Mennonites,” but I think that argument is terribly flawed and it shows in the work that Carl Bowman has done, which you’ve mentioned here. It’s an argument born out of cultural ignorance, trading our Brethren story (bad) for that of the broader culture (good), assuming that it’s somehow not a story but “the real.” Very Modernist thinking, and very damaging.
I do want to be careful, though, because it’s not like the pre-20th century Brethren tradition was lily white. There are some things we jettisoned that were worth jettisoning, which probably had a lot to do with a similar case of cultural ignorance (I don’t mean that pejoratively).
You offer a diagnosis, and I’ll offer a sketch of a corrective: We need great storytellers. I already tipped my hand earlier in terms of the rich practice of Love Feast, so I’ll just fold that in here too. So that storytelling needs to happen in ways that are biblical and liturgical, taking a good long read of Church history including (but not limited to) our own, and done in committed and serious local congregations who also have an awareness of the broader church including (but again not limited to!) our own Brethren tradition. Potential job title: Storyteller/theologian/historian/pastor. Is that too much?
Good stuff, thanks Josh! (Hope I didn’t go too soapbox on you.)
 Joshua Brockway
February 21, 2011 at 5:07 pm
I love the remedy of storytellers and enacted stories (liturgy). As I was posting this I knew I had come of short of offering an alternative. If there is one critique of some of Hauerwas, it is that it’s clearly an ideological community and few actual practices described. In a way this is where we haven’t jumped the modern ship yet…we like ideas way too much! It’s the same critique that historians of the liturgy bring to liturgical theologians- where does this Liturgy actually exist. Hopefully soon I will have a post bringing together some of Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and the Krieders’ Worship and Mission book.
I hear you about the faults of 19th century Brethren. As I’ve argued at Brethren Cultural Landscape and here, tradition is a living thing often expressed in transformation from one context to another. So, what was tradition in the 19th century morphed into us today. My underlying question here is simple: what are we morphing into now. How are we faithfully articulating the Brethren Dream, as Scott Holland called it earlier, in the 21st century. My sense is that we may recover some of what was lost in the modern shift without returning to the 19th century in practice.
 Brian Gumm
February 21, 2011 at 5:45 pm
I think the worship/liturgy stuff is there in Hauerwas’ work, definitely moreso than in Yoder’s, but you might have to go looking for it across his broad corpus. It seems like JKA Smith – in his own wildly awesome Reformed pentecostal way – has taken some cues from Hauerwas and really pushed it out in his “cultural liturgies” work now underway.
3. Robb Davis
February 21, 2011 at 4:19 pm
Thanks to Brian for sending me to this post. Excellent diagnosis and one I agree with. One example that in our local context that I am becoming painfully aware of due to my work with homeless brothers and sisters: Over many years it has been accepted as a given that the state (in the form of our county government) would care for those struggling with mental illness. It seems that the state (county) is increasingly unable to fulfill this expectation. Unfortunately the local church has for so long NOT seen a role for itself in this realm that there is little discussion (or even a sense of a need for discernment) about what it should do.
 Joshua Brockway
February 21, 2011 at 5:10 pm
Thanks for joining in! I really appreciate the clear example you’ve provided. Like I say in the post, the Church was often the single place for care and concern for most of its history….now we have ceded the ground to the state. Now the generations who were radically involved in those ministries have passed and we are faced with recreating the wheel.
 Brian Gumm
February 21, 2011 at 5:57 pm
Yay; thanks for joining the conversation, Robb! As you and Josh point out, the church in America really has handed over the keys to the “public political” systems for what Christians would call social justice ministries. Don’t get me wrong, I see tons of churches in America working at these, but it’s often around the fringes in church-affiliated orgs, and not thoroughly integrated into the liturgical life of congregations. Mission and liturgy should be inseparable!
The same has happened with the “peace witness” for the Brethren. It got kicked out of congregational life and into para-church ecumenical organizations that quickly got labeled as “liberal” and then ignored by the vast majority of Brethren in America. The whole Western phenomenon of professionalization has been devastating to missional worship in congregations.
Finally, one last note on the “public politic”: James Davison Hunter describes this as the “public” becoming conflated with the “political” in the American social imaginary, leading Americans (Christian or otherwise) to think that the only solutions to issues facing the general public are through the workings of the governing political systems. If Christians accept this – on the Modernist grounds that religion=private – the Church is impotent to provide any prophetic embodiment of a counter-narrative. Not cool!
4. danacassell
February 21, 2011 at 8:21 pm
Josh, you should skim Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition – you’ll disagree with him wholeheartedly, I think, but he names a lot of these problems pretty sharply.
And a big YES to Brian’s point about the political not being equal to the public – just because we refuse to cede power to the state does NOT mean that we refuse to act publicly or for the good of the whole. An important hedge to keep us from falling into sectarianism. I love Parker Palmer on this one – The Company of Strangers is a lovely theology of hospitality.
But, as with every idea I get behind, I do wonder how we go about translating this caution and diagnosis of modernity into local congregations (or BVS orientations, etc., etc.). What’s the hook that pulls us out of our political commitments and worldviews of modernity and gets us thinking in the Kingdom ways?
 Joshua Brockway
February 22, 2011 at 3:05 am
Dana, I haven’t read the Stout book. Sounds like I need to add it to the to-read pile.
Re. Public vs Political- that is exactly the problem I ran into when I taught Hauerwas’ After Christendom. He talks of the Church as a Political Community. For the class, and for others I have mentioned the idea to, it was hard to keep the difference between the political nature of the Church and American Politics. For Hauerwas, the idea is that the Church is public and as such offers a new vision for the political.
I do love your final question, especially how to reveal why it is important. The one way I have done that recently is to deconstruct the “Spiritual but not Religious” myth. In that setting, I start by saying “there is no such thing as being spiritual but not religious.” Usually that gets us talking about 1) how our cultural practices shape us and 2) how we can look for Kingdom practices.

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