Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Upstream (Part Two)
October 7, 2011
by Gideon Strauss
This is the conclusion of a two-part essay on the relationship between cultural transformation and justice in public policy.
People matter. Community matters. We need less cynicism, more hope. These are convictions that we need in our culture if our politics is to be healthy, and if we are to enact wise policies. How do we nurture these convictions?
I want to suggest three cultural settings outside of politics in which we can nurture these convictions, for the sake of politics: in our everyday behavior and conversations; in the life of our churches; in the popular art that we create.
Ordinary Christian citizens can make a considerable difference from the grassroots up through the nature of their conduct. When we respect and nurture the individuality of the people with whom we interact directly, when we speak with respect of others—including our business and political leaders—and to others, even—perhaps especially!—when we criticize them, such respect reminds our culture that people matter. When we recognize the relational character of human life in our own decisions as friends, colleagues, and employers making room for the relationships in which others flourish, we remind our culture that that community matters. When we honor the callings of business and political leaders, recognizing and celebrating the common grace marvels of political and economic life, we challenge the cynicism rampant in our culture.
Ordinary lives lived with hope while cherishing our neighbors and our communities constitute the scaffolding of a society in which hope, human dignity, and human community can flourish. There is a long history of humble heroism in America in which ordinary people, sustained by the hope that faith nourishes, have treated fellow citizens with dignity in the face of the powerful forces of prejudice and oppression—forces sometimes entrenched in law, as in the case of slavery and segregation—and have built and sustained a myriad of associations for the common good.
Despite the shifts taking place in American culture with regard to both faith and our means of communication, the practices of churches continue to be hugely influential in the lives of congregations, and in the case of a few churches, far beyond. When preachers open up the teachings of the Bible on the human person, human relationships, justice and government, stewardship and commerce, they deeply nurture our society. Members of congregations disciple one another, in the process nurturing an intensive sense of the value of community that can be transposed into a more extensive appreciation for the value of communities beyond that of the church. And the celebration of the sacraments anchor congregations in a deep sense of hope, because of the great acts of God represented in bread, wine, and baptismal water.
The ever increasing number of Christians working in popular culture as song- or scriptwriters, performers on stage or screen, producers of film, or television, or music, or game designers, can make a very significant cultural contribution by celebrating the fullness of our humanity in both our individuality and our social character, and by being bearers of hope rather than purveyors of cynicism about the core institutions of our society, again, especially when exercising cultural criticism.
A television show that shows the slow, hard work of forgiveness taking effect, salvaging respect by means other than revenge, might have a real influence on the sense of human dignity—with positive political consequences. A protest song that affirms the importance of neighborhood or citizenship, of workers collaborating in the face of hardship, or of some other form of community, can help shape the sentiments of those who hear it and learn to sing it. A novel—perhaps especially a slightly trashy airport novel!—that communicates a sense of hope, rather than cynicism, can help sustain or recover a culture in which people have a sense of agency that can also find expression in the way in which we respond to the calling of citizenship.
It is within the reach of each of us to affirm that people matter, that community matters, and that hope is stronger than cynicism. We can do so in our everyday lives, we can do so in the lives of our churches, and some of us can weave these truths into our songs, stories, shows, and game designs.
—Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Public Justice.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”