My travel schedule has slowed down a little bit allowing my Catholic guilt to catch up with me. In response, I relented to the persistent requests and volunteered to teach Sunday school to 5th graders for the duration of November. The church elders are apparently short of volunteers and so were willing to turn a wretch like me -- I'm not a very good Catholic -- loose to share teachings of the faith with young minds. Poor kids.
This week's lesson began with a short and beautiful snippet of Psalm 139.
1 O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.
This is song of deep humility. I thought it was a beautiful way to start a conversation on a Sunday morning. Even though the lesson contained only this short piece, I went on to read the entire psalm and get the full context. Maybe there was more in the passage worth discussing. It went on quite beautifully for another fifteen versus and then took a sudden turn in the nineteenth.
19 If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!
20 They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.
I'm not the right person to comment on what happened in Paris last Friday. I am guessing that most of you are as saddened as I am and probably feel as helpless as well. I have nothing but fond memories of Paris and genuine admiration for the French. I don't have any great geopolitical insight; it just breaks my heart to see people suffer in this way.
What I would like to attempt to address today is our reaction -- the reaction of those in the Strong Towns movement -- to difficulty. As the Suburban Experiment unwinds and our society experiences the deep cultural and political stress that will inevitably accompany this transition, what is our role? How are we to lead in our places?
My bio -- which I had more than a little to do with -- says that I'm an "obsessive reader". It is likely that some people -- maybe most people -- interpret that to mean I read obsessively, that I have an obsession that compels me to read. That's actually not what I meant. I obsess about a topic and then I devour everything I can about it. I'm a reader driven by obsession.
My obsession for the past while has been World War I, the complex events leading up to it, the brutal way in which it unfolded, the distorted way in which a peace was forged and then how it all fell apart. In 1914 Europe, the affluent societies were coming off a long period of peace and prosperity. From the heights of civilization they descended into barbarity in a month.
The scary thing about it is that the path they took -- the choices that were made in the years before Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated as well as those made in the months and years immediately following -- were very logical. You can see many places where tragedy may have been averted, but no clear line of demarcation between cause and effect. These were not evil people -- they were just humans like us -- but they put into motion the slaughter of millions. Leaders who were literally cousins succumbed to hatred and vengeance.
I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.
As I read the end of that psalm, I saw an uncomfortable part of myself in it. If only you would slay the wicked, O God is a seductive thought. It's very human. Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? This is also a very human reaction, certainly one that I have succumbed to in other ways. The people who wrong us are evil. Slay them and don't let them hurt anyone else.
Did I not support our military action in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11? I did. I even tried to get back into my National Guard unit.
Did I not support the war in Iraq? I did. At the time, I bought all the propaganda and believed -- to my embarrassment today -- that it was America's rightful place, our moral duty, to protect the world from evil people. If only we could slay the wicked the world would be a safer place for all the good people, right? I'd even go, if needed.
Last week during our member drive, I sent out an email asking people to join us. One person replied with this statement (and I'm going to not share his name in the hopes that he will become less ignorant someday):
Can we ban Islam from these strong towns and all other forms of oppressive government?
In other words, let's use government oppression to rid ourselves of oppressive government?
If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!
My friends, we can see what's coming. We know our cities are vastly overextended financially. We know that help is not on the way. We know that what can't be maintained won't be maintained. And when we put this all together, we know the America of 2015 onward is a recipe for cultural distress and social upheaval.
Things are going to change over the coming generation. The American Dream -- our cultural identity -- is going to be severely stressed along with all it's supporting social beliefs. There will be winners but there will be a lot of losers, people who will rightly believe that they worked hard, followed all the rules and yet are ending up in a desperate state.
We see this coming and so it's our responsibility to be the level head, the calming influence, during times of stress. As I've said before, we're not going to fix these problems; it is our role as Strong Towns advocates to make the landing softer.
We need to be the ones pushing to avoid the irrational hysteria that so often accompanies times of transition. We need to meet our neighbors. Start a dialog about difficult issues. Listen. Be understanding and compassionate. Reveal hard truths in a confidently gentle way that doesn't alienate people but recruits others to our cause. This is going to be hard; we need to do what we can to make it easier.
My heart goes out to the French and everyone directly impacted by the attacks in Paris. As Strong Towns advocates, let's take time to reflect on what we can do to make our communities stronger and more resilient, not just financially but culturally as well.