Note: This post is a continuation of “The conservatism that gets you elected.” The first paragraph is repeated from that post, but the rest is new.
A student e-mailed me recently and asked how I thought Wendell Berry would respond to the use of human embryos for testing. The dilemma he was considering was whether someone with serious moral objections to others' actions ought to stand in the way of those who don't share their convictions. And he wondered whether the political arena was the way to go about standing in someone else's way. That is, even though he disagrees with Republicans on many issues, should the sanctity of human embryos compel him to vote for the so-called "conservatives" nonetheless. To respond to this question, I wanted to brush up on Berry's thoughts regarding our political parties, so I re-read a 1993 essay entitled, "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community," where Berry talks about the "conservative" and "liberal" political parties. Berry's thinking provides context for ways that the destruction of our communities has led to the self-contradictory stances held by both parties.
In this excerpt, as elsewhere, Berry argues from the premise that we have lost something vital with our moves away from agrarian society. We do not care for the land or for one another as we did when we lived and worked on farms. Small interdependent communities or "memberships" have gone away, and our people have become dis-membered. In the passage above, Berry is exploring the sexual and political implications of this dismemberment. Sexually, dis-membered people are not inclined to make decisions regarding sexuality and fertility that consider the needs of their would-be memberships; dis-membered people are inclined to only consider themselves. And it is only logical that a dis-membered people is represented by dis-membered politicians?
At this point, you might be wondering about the relevance of this discussion. The two political parties are all wet. So what? The public sphere is not providing useful answers for communities. Now what do we do? How does an explanation of the way these parties have gone wrong help anyone pursue societal justice? How does one person imagine living sanely in a thoroughly corrupted public context? In short, how does one imagine picking up the pieces?
It is the lifelong work of a dis-membered person to re-connect with memberships, or re-member, as we are able. It may be helpful to consider the nature of memberships by imagining concentric circles. The largest and innermost circle consists of the home place. This is our household and property: the specific people and places to which and for which we are most consistently and ardently faithful. The next circle consists of people and places just around the home, upon whom one relies daily: local families and a surrounding area. The people and places in these first two circles are never abstract; they are physically and materially proximal, the objects for which, and for whom we aim to live faithfully “for the long haul.” Re-membering means living a life in harmony with these actual people and physical places: considering how our day-to-day decisions help or harm our neighbors. The third and thinnest circle of membershp involves big issues of national and international weight: macro-culture, economics, federal politics, environmental crises, threats of war. Of course, the matters concerning this third ring are of critical importance. But our attention is out of balance when it places national and international concerns ahead of the local and familial.
With the groundwork of concentric Circles of Membership laid, let us again consider my student's question: Should someone who is opposed to human embryo research (a Big Issue) attempt to stop those who are engaged such research?
The answer is a very tentative "yes." The recommendation to address a Big Issue in a meaningful way makes a big assumption that the first two concentric circles—familial and local matters—are receiving proper consideration. I believe this is rarely the case. For most of us, these innermost circles receive far too little attention. We prefer, indeed we are led, to focus on big problems. After all, changing the world is more exciting than weeding your garden, raising your kids to be honest and kind, or considering the source of your chocolate bar.
But here we are. A byproduct of dismemberment is that our concerns are mostly misaligned. We can't see the trees for the forest. The lack of wholeness and sound thinking in our individual home places ultimately contributes to our collective crises: from disintegrating family life to the environmental degradation; from political incivility to corrupt global markets. But if one is working in her place, to align her fidelity first with her family, then with her community, she may then begin to imagine addressing a big issue (like human embryo research) even if the work is done alongside incoherent political actors.
At the Christian university where I teach, our students come poised to address large, outer-ring problems. Many of them spend their spring and summer vacations running kids camps or painting churches in other cities and countries. Many view their time in college as preparation for a life of service. By their senior year, our students are tired of talking about doing good. They are bucking in the stalls, ready to "be the change;" making big plans for big impact in the world. While this posture is beautifully self-sacrificial, it is also flawed. By and large, our students do not nurture a vision for home or locality that extends beyond the desire for a nice, Christian family. But eventually, the desire to attack Big Issues competes with the day-to-day work required to live faithfully in one’s place. One’s inability to fix the world’s problems can be frustrating (why don’t others care as much as I do?), embarrassing (why aren’t I awesome enough for Jesus?), and boring (who cares about American poverty in the face of clean water crises?). And those who strive to solve Big Issues without the foothold of localized faithfulness are bound for rootlessness.
It doesn’t have to be this way. All of us—the dis-membered lot of us—have it within our grasp to re-member. A dis-membered people desiring to re-member must not allow the extent of our dis-memberment to overwhelm our efforts to localized fidelity. We could pour our life’s work into curbing human embryo research or mountain-top removal or clean water problems, and come up empty. Yet the shifts toward membership are always within our reach. We can make a positive impact at home and in our community, and start by simply paying attention.
But beware. A focus on the innermost circles of membership requires and propagates humility. One hollow lure of dwelling on big problems is it allows us ignore our own. But you can’t work for long in solving familial and local problems without realizing how much you are causing them. And have faith. Faithfulness means, first, looking downward: living a life of steadfastness, constancy, and self-sacrificial fidelity. Second, faithfulness means being full of faith: looking forward to that which we cannot see, embracing new possibilities, new realities, and restoration.