Resist the Irresponsible Culture

This post is part of the 4th monthly Spirit of the Poor synchroblog. This month’s link-up can be found at

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Our situation
In our discussions of the Spirit of the Poor, we have stated that we believe there is a connection between economic justice and living a spiritual life. We recognize that our culture measures progress as material gain. We recognize that this culture of global capitalism has created poverty for the majority of the people in the world, and spiritual poverty for all, especially those who have benefited materially from the culture.

We also recognize the reality that this culture, this economic system, cannot continue. We have reached the limits of our natural resources and are facing increasing environmental disasters as well as political instability resulting from the growing divide between rich and poor, and the resistance to the culture of materialism which is being imposed on people of all faiths throughout the world.

What we in this synchroblog are struggling with is how we, being totally immersed in this culture, can make any changes in our lives that will be meaningful. It is an incredibly difficult task, and the word “resist” is the word we have chosen to help us in this task.

I believe the first step, one we have been taking, is coming to the realization that our culture is irresponsible, and conforming to this culture is being irresponsible. Doing the work of examining the culture from the perspective of our faith gives us the courage to name our culture as irresponsible: gives us the courage to resist cultural norms which falsely claim to be responsible action.

John Dominic Crossan has put it this way: Civilization is always defined by empires – that which threatens the empire (our culture) threatens civilization as we know it. But revelation is the radicality of God breaking the norms of civilization. We must believe in this revelation and be willing to resist civilization as we know it.

Community
I really believe that we will only be successful in changing our lives if we do it communally. In my life I have seen many “communities” which have tried to provide a model of living intentionally outside of the norms of our culture. I have briefly been a part of such communities. Most of them start with people of the same age. They inevitably fall apart when children are born and require attention, or when people start aging and need care. I am convinced that any community, to be a viable alternative to our culture, needs to be intergenerational. The places where I have seen the beginnings of such communities are:
-family
-church
-neighborhoods (especially rural neighborhoods.)

My advice is start wherever you are and build community wherever you can, to the extent that you can. And be aware that you will be faced with the charge of being irresponsible. Only if you have a strong enough understanding of the irresponsibility of the dominant culture will you be able to resist this charge.

I was once in a small Sabbath Economics group from my church that looked at the biblical view of economics. After reading several books and talking about the biblical view, we shared our economic autobiographies. Then we did an exercise of listing all of the things that we needed to live a good life. After listing these things, we looked at how much money it would take to fulfill these needs. It was an astounding amount of money. It was clear that 95% of the people in our country, let alone in the rest of the world, would never have the money to fill these needs through money. Then we looked at how many of these needs could be filled by community, and how much time and effort it would take to invest in building a community which could fill these needs. It looked possible. But at that point it also looked too radical for the group to actually become that kind of community. The group was not willing to resist voices of our culture which say:

The responsible thing to do is save money for your child’s college education – to give them every opportunity to fulfil their full potential.

The responsible thing to do is to save enough money to make sure that you will have enough money to pay for a nursing home for yourself or your spouse, and not be a burden for your children.

Resisting the temptation to acquiesce to this kind of “responsibility” is what is required of us.

If you really believe that a spiritual life is more important than a life of material goods, then that is what you should strive to give your children. We need to rename concepts like “fulfilling your full potential.” It should not mean going off to the best college wherever it is and taking a job, wherever it may lead you. It should mean being part of a family and community, and giving your gifts to your community.

One of the biggest mistakes of our past generations in this country is sending our children off to colleges far away from our homes. They inevitably find friends and life partners from different parts of the country, or world, and live lives far from their parents. This requires money for childcare and elderly care. If families stay close, grandparents can do childcare and grown children can take care of their elderly parents.

RESIST this concept of “providing opportunities for your children.” Name these opportunities as opportunities for material gain. Talk with your children about a life time of family connections. Build family connections. Get involved in your children’s schooling, whether home schooling, or in an institution. Yes, even in junior high. It was the convention in my children’s school that parents shouldn’t go into the junior high classrooms. “My child won’t let me come into the classroom” the parents would say. I volunteered to work with the students in music and spent two hours every day in my daughter’s eighth grade humanities class. I got to know their friends and they got to know me. My house became a place where my daughter’s friends felt comfortable. Resist the cultural norms that separate us.

And of course, resist the cultural norms that say we need to buy things for our children so that they feel accepted by their peers. RESIST this “obligation” from our irresponsibility society. Learn to sew their cloths and teach them how to sew. The most important thing you have to offer your children is your values, and if you give in to the “cultural values” of materialism, which this culture calls being “responsible” to your children, you have lost the ability to make real change.

Resist the cultural norms, and help your family members, your church members, and your neighbors resist them as well. Resisting our culture as an individual makes no sense. It has to be as a community, and this will always bring up conflicts because the culture will tell each of you that you are being irresponsible. It is hard to find unanimity in the face of such charges.

My mother is 100 and has lost interest in life. She will probably die soon. I have cancer in my bones, but it now looks like I will outlive my mother. I will receive money from my mother’s savings. The world says I should keep that money for my wife so that she will have an easy time without me when I die. My values tell me I should give away my inheritance, and let my daughters, who live nearby take care of her. Is that being irresponsible to my family? Only if you accept the values of this irresponsible culture. Resisting our culture puts us in exactly this kind of uncomfortable position. It isn’t an easy road, but it is possible. My elder daughter once told me to give away all my money. When I asked how I would live in my old ages, she said “I’ll take care of you.” That was ten years ago. She is now married with a child and husband who also has an elderly mother. But I think the moral thing to do is to hold my daughter to her word. I know that when her husband has designed houses for their family, he has always included a place for my wife in them.

I am blessed with a family that stayed close to home. My wife and I take care of each grandchild one day each week. It was not by accident that they live nearby. It was a lifetime of resisting the culture. I think I will give away my inheritance – that would be the greatest gift I could give my family.

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About Newell Hendricks

I have lived a good life. Maybe a counterculture life, maybe a normal life. I have written operas, built houses, been involved with cross-cultural education between Latin America and the U.S, and hardly ever had a job I have helped raise two wonderful children with my amazing wife. It's been a good ride. And I go to church. I've just finished a book of stories from my life, I am still connected to an organization in Nicaragua that promotes sister relationships between communities, faith communities, or schoold, and to the extent that my cancer doesn't pull me down, am attempting to share some of what I have learned, or at least tried out. Welcome, and let's share.
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10 Responses to Resist the Irresponsible Culture

  1. Joanna Hoyt says:

    Thank you for this rich and challenging post.
    I continue to struggle with the call to community. I know that we are members one of another. I know, at least in part, the practical and ethical value of mutual interdependence, tool-sharing, skill-sharing, ride-sharing, mutual support and accountability… I also feel clearly called to live an alternative to the consumer culture, an alternative that is widely seen as irresponsible–farming not college, giving food away not selling it, etc. And I have not yet found a community larger than my family that is willing to go that journey with me. I am very grateful for my mother and brother, for the ways we are able to care for, complement, challenge one another as we live and work together day after day. I am grateful for the positive connections that do arise–neighbors who come to help in the garden and take vegetables home, or to get their kids into the woods and away from the tv; guests who come to help out and to learn sustainable-living skills to take back to their own communities; bloggers and correspondents sharing similar questions.
    I keep ending up leaving churches–not because we disagree on some things (that is all right with me) but because my fellow members of the body and I are working toward fundamentally different goals and at some point they let me know that we don’t have much left to say to each other. I know I am mistaken in many things, but there are a few things of which I am very certainly and when those look irresponsible or irrelevant to the body I don’t know how to function as a constructive part of it.
    If you have time and energy at some point I’d be glad to hear more about how you balance the call you yourself feel with the discipline of the body, the community.

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    • Joanna, I respect all that you do and are and am not sure I have much wisdom to add. My elder daughter left college and farms, along with teaching children to dance. There are 2 other households on the farm, so they have a kind of community that is fun for me to watch. As for church, I do struggle with the way church reenforces the dominant culture of empire, even my progressive church. I am old enough now that I don’t try to push my opinion, but just serve where I can. I sing in the choir and am on the board of deacons, which does the good work of caring for the less fortunate in the congregation and those suffering loss. There was a time when I was at odds with the leadership of the church, but that changed somewhat, and I decided church was not a place where I expected to receive much, but where I would invest my time, whether or not I received. That attitude helped me. I think emphasizing community is a vision thing. It will not happen in any substantial way, but all of the neighbors you describe who are influenced my your family are helping move the vision along a little. I live in a crowded part of Cambridge, but any land that gets sun grows food. My neighbors have all taken up growing food in their yards. It is a little thing, but it does help build community in the neighborhood.
      I have long since given up hope of seeing results from my actions. What little activism I have done has mainly been in education where one doesn’t see results, but I have seen too many result driven actions achieve a small result only to be destroyed by something much worse. So I believe in doing the right thing whether or not I see results. It is the big picture I am interested in and no one knows how it will unfold.

      But thanks for reading and thinking with me.
      Newell

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      • Wow, I would love to figure out how to build community by starting a community garden in the neighborhood in which I both live and serve in ministry. I have been thinking about this for a while and continue to envision dream about it, but I’m not quite sure how to start it. It would definitely be a wonderful place to bring about community, as well as a place that could help many of my struggling families who cannot always afford fresh produce. But now I’m really thinking about this and am very inspired by both of you. Keep on inspiring me and pushing me to start one. It could truly be a powerful way to bring the community food pantry and the multiple churches/other faith communities together in the neighborhood. Now, where to find the green space and the people who know how and where to start…? My wheels are turning.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Newell, this is a fascinating call to resist, and I think that a lot of your argument for community is an argument against the self-centeredness that pervades our society and is perpetuated by social media. We are leaving true connections behind for fake, meaningless ones. I have certainly found a community of believers and supporters through blogs, but checking facebook a dozen times to see if someone liked my status is ridiculous. I also think that you make some good points, even about college and family. It seems to be a sign of status in this country that a person goes to a prestigious college and educates him or herself. But you’re right – often that moves people away from their roots and connections to home. Could we begin to change the way our country looks at people who support their families? The middle aged woman who is raising teenagers and caring for an aging mother? The young couple with children who move in with her grandparents to help them? These things are happening – I’m speaking of two families in my own church – and yet society ignores that work. Thanks for this, Newell!

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    • Karissa, You are absolutely right that a great way to start is by not only supporting families that stay together, but lifting them up as models for the rest of us. What an incredible boost that might be to such families as you describe in your church. I, too, have tried to make the internet work as a place for community, and this synchroblog is an attempt, but there is a lot of ego involved even in this attempt. I don’t believe that community can really exist without committment, and that is a hard concept to engage in internet communications where each person comes and goes as he or she feels the ned or desire. I love your common sense approach, and appreciate your valuing what I have written. Newell

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      • Such good points. I agree. It can be so difficult to find a healthy balance of building “communities” in which we can challenge and be challenged via social media and letting our echoes take over as we count the number of likes, follows, etc. This synchroblog has been really great for me. I am truly feeling blessed to have met and learned from each person involved in the conversation. But like you both say: there is only so much that come from an online community. And if we focus so much of our time at our computers, we miss out on our God who is present in and through God’s creation – God’s nature and God’s children – who are around us… And we miss out on the people who we so much need to hear from and be blessed by daily. We just have to keep each other accountable and keep asking ourselves what our motives are and how much time are we devoting to social media and is that getting in the way of our in-person relationships and communities. Thanks for a good discussion here.

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  3. This is a post I want to read over and over again. It’s hitting on what I’ve only dreamed of and imagined… concepts that I though were too idealistic, but yet I loved to think about them. I’m afraid today’s culture is still so deeply imprinted on my soul that resisting to the level you describe will take some time… but I am holding it, in your words.

    I like these words … “It should not mean going off to the best college wherever it is and taking a job, wherever it may lead you. It should mean being part of a family and community, and giving your gifts to your community.” and in fact I was thinking of this today – how I did just that… I went to college far away from home and met a man my family did not know… and lived in a place who didn’t know me… and so on…

    It’s not right. I don’t know how to correct it in my generation, but maybe I can make a difference by addressing the wrongs now… and so I weep for what has been lost. I weep that I allowed the culture to be so deeply imprinted on my soul, but even when I was living in the Chicago suburbs I thought about these things constantly. I resisted, mentally…. but not enough to make the needed changes. You are right – we can’t change individually – it takes a community.

    Your mother is 100 years old… how precious. I am glad you are outliving her, for it would be so hard for her to lose a son. I’m so glad your wife is taken care of, too… and she will have her family to help heal the sorrow. But at the same time, I do hope you will live much longer than you expect, if it can be pain-free. We need your vision and your voice in this world. Thank you for writing!

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    • I just returned from spending two days with my mother. I had to fly across the country to sit with her for two days. It is crazy. We are always starting over, but that is what we can do and what we have to do. I’m glad we seem to have compatible visions. We will continue to inspire each other as we resist when and where we can. Thank you for this response.

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  4. Newell, you continue to inspire and challenge me! This is so good… and yet, so difficult. Resisting these societal pressures and “ideals” is really really hard. And yet, you and your family are really doing it. I think you are so right… We focus so much on emphasizing material items and consumerism at such young ages. It’s tough to want to give your children “everything” that their friends have in order for them to not be excluded. And yet, it’s amazing how much more rich life can be when children/youth learn about and understand that life is so much more than stuff! In my own experience, it was difficult at times growing up in a lower-middle class home and not getting all the things that my more well-to-do friends had and having to wear a lot of hand-made clothes or hand-me-downs. However, when my parents started exposing my sister and me to people and neighborhoods that had less than I did (we did habitat-for-humanity projects and teamed up with other churches in under-served communities a lot), I started to realize how great I really had it and how much more to life there was than “stuff” and status. I believe this kind of exposure from a young age and the choices my parents made about not completely feeding into a consumer-driven lifestyle made me who I am today.

    I really try to teach my youth this in my ministry, as well… Although, many of them have very little in the first place. And yet, it’s amazing how much they still give away, share with one another, and get excited about volunteering their time at the local food pantry or community kitchen. I have been particularly blessed and inspired by the kind of community you talk about that is so prevalent amidst the Karen and Karenni families I work with (who are recent refugees from Burma.) They have very little, but they share and pass on clothes and food to one another. They take care of the elderly in their community and help watch each other’s kids. Many of the youth and kids I work with have lost parents in the war back in Burma, and other adults took them on as their own children – even when they had several of their own children already. It’s beautiful. I can only continue to be blessed and inspired by them. Thank you, again, for another inspiring and challenging post. You are a blessing!

    On another note: I hope you had a lovely time working in the garden last month!

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    • Emily, I think you are right in being inspired by the families from Burma. When I was in the hospital I had a nurses aid named Fatima who was from Cape Verde who was an inspiration to everyone in the hospital, nurses, doctors, and patients. People who come from a culture of taking care of each other can inspire us, and we need to lift them up and include them in our attempts to build community in this culture.

      I was able to prepare enough of the garden for my winter squash, potatos garlic and onions. I also was able to repair the deer fence and thin the raspberries. I also just took a very brief trip to spend 2 days with my 100 year old mother who is failing.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses to all of our writings. You are a wonderful addition to this conversation.

      Like

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