The Fractured Republic: Part 4, The Scale of Christian Social Action

Last post pondering Yuval Levin's book The Fractured Republic.

Here's why I'm thinking this book. As I have written about many different times on this blog, I'm concerned about the scale of Christian social action, especially among my progressive Christian tribe.

As we've described it in these posts, the scale Christian social action today is either too small or too large.

With the middle, mediating institutions in America weakened or gone, only two scales remain: the individual or the state.

On the one hand, the scale of the individual is too small. This is why it seems like so much of our social justice activism takes place online. An individual can use a Twitter account. But Twitter, as good a tool as it can be, especially for marginalized voices, is no substitute for being out on the streets working alongside others to improve your city and neighborhood.

On the other hand, the scale of the state is too large. The state can help, and it most definitely can stop doing harm, but many of our problems are best faced as local problems requiring local solutions.

The scale of Christian social action seems to be in the middle layers of American society--face to face, eye to eye, neighbor to neighbor--the exact layers that increasingly require attention in America.

And what's interesting to me is how both liberals and conservatives seem to agree on this point. To be sure, we might not agree on what we think the state should or should not do. But when it comes to investing in local organizations working to address needs and problems liberals and conservatives tend to work side by side. That's my experience--from work in the prison to dealing with systemic homelessness in our town to churches working toward racial reconciliation--the liberal/conservative divide drops away in our shared work.

When we work in the middle layers of society we find common ground.

After I read The Fractured Republic I read Tattoos on the Heart, the story of Father Gregory Boyle and Homeboy Industries. You likely know Fr. Boyle's story, how he started Homeboy Industries to help give jobs to gang members in LA.

Homeboy Industries is in the middle layers of society. Homeboy Industries isn't a lone individual, and it's not the sate, but Homeboy Industries does connect with both individuals and the state. It's a mediating institution.

So if you read Tattoos on the Heart in light of The Fractured Republic a couple of things jump out at you.

First, the state can't immediately fix what a gang member faces in the home and on the street. For example, as you read Tattoos on the Heart you are overwhelmed by the stories of familial chaos and abuse. True enough, there are systemic forces behind those broken families. But what can Congress do today for the kid being beaten with a metal pipe? That kid needs a mentor, guide and friend in their life today.

How's the state going to provide that mentor? And how's your Twitter feed going to help that kid?

Further, as you know if you've read Tattoos on the Heart, what the gang member has internalized is crippling self-loathing, guilt and shame. Again, there are systemic reasons why that shame exists, but today, for that kid right now, what law speaks heart to heart into that shame in credible and intimate ways?

The only thing that can speak into that shame is someone like a Father Boyle. Someone who loves you through the years as you make the unsteady journey toward the light. And that journey is unsteady. As anyone who has worked at the interface of law and human tragedy knows, rigid federal regulations lack the nuance, sensitivity and mercy required to address the particular case by case needs that human beings present. Laws are crude, one size fits all, cudgels. Yes, federal assistance is needed, but federal programs lack the flexibility, perspective, wisdom, and grace that local organizations possess.

Only people, looking at each other eye to eye, on a first name basis, can offer that flexibility, grace and wisdom. Only people like Father Boyle can do this sort of work. Yes, the state can help Father Boyle, but the state can't replace Father Boyle.

Homeboy Industries represents the scale of Christian social action.

This is not to say social action can't exist on the scale of the individual or the state. By all means, use your Twitter account and use your vote. But let both liberals and conservatives agree that the scale of Christian social action is at the human scale, the local, community scale.

Fire off your Tweet. Head to the polls every two years for the midterm and the general elections. But more than anything, if you're a Christian, let's walk into a local organization like a Homeboy Industries and get to work.

In our neighborhoods and towns, standing shoulder to shoulder, looking eye to eye. That is the scale of Christian social action.

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