Re-Imagining Public Life

09/27/2005 08:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What sorts of communities do we want for ourselves and our children? I have been arguing, in a series of posts, that our captive imaginations have been rendered unable to envision a future radically better than the present. In reflecting on the sorts of communities we want, two further issues suggest themselves. First, if current trends continue, will we end up at a different and better future? If you are like the majority who say the country is not on the right path, then of course you will answer this question “no.” Second, then, what vision and infrastructure will be required to get us where we want to go?

While I write as a Christian theologian, the vision laid out in what follows will be largely consistent with the great religious traditions–a vision rooted in a very strong sense of community, and it might include (the following is a brief summary, for the longer version, go here):

1. A respect for the dignity of our common humanity. Miroslav Volf, in Exclusion and Embrace, observes that we prepare for violence toward others when we begin to demonize the other. To forge strong communities we must move beyond exclusion to embrace.

2. Recognition of the errors of both the “dependence” and “independence” as models of the right relationship between humans. Rather, the right relationship is one of mutual inter-dependence where our gifts are utilized for the community and, in particular, for investing ourselves in “the least of these.”

3. A recognition of the appropriate place of both public and private institutions in a future that prioritizes communities. We have allowed the stilted and dangerous vision of the Grover Norquists to blind us to the delicate balance necessary between public and private institutions required for a healthy vision that empowers a better future.

4. A recognition that caring for “the least of these” is complex but is also an obligation. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” A great vision, but one that implies a teacher and various support mechanisms. To pursue this vision will likely cost more in the short term, but pay off in the long term.

5. A recognition that, left to themselves, economies have a tendency to become increasingly aligned with existing power relations. Without proactive steps, economies will be increasingly slanted to favor those already wealthy and to exclude others.

The recent tragedy of Hurricane Katrina has forced us to ask: what kind of people do we want to be and how might we organize ourselves to make that a reality? Competing visions are already being proposed, and please do not make the mistake of thinking you can withdraw from the debate, for that also has its consequences. Consider, for example, the proposal put forward by the Heritage Foundation (analysis here) which gives their vision, essentially repackaged lassiez faire economics of the early 1900's that resulted in poverty approaching 50% in the 1930's, solidly 1/3 in poverty by 1940. What alternatives might we consider? Well, I won’t pretend to propose anything as creative as a larger group might, but some examples might include:

1. Integration rather than gentrification. Gentrification pushes the poor and the marginalized out. Why not planned communities that revitalize urban areas by bringing well-to-do folks into poorer communities to live side by side?

2. Creative public/private sector cooperative efforts that do not merely give money to businesses trusting they will do the right thing. Rather, let’s connect specific obligations in hiring, community support, etc. with business tax cuts and grants.

3. Remember that corporations are granted certain protections and that these are granted to serve the common good, not private wealth. There is no obligation inherent in societies that require that these protections be granted.

4. Re-establish a truly progressive tax code. It should be no suprise that the period of most rapid growth which saw relatively equal economic gains across the spectrum came during the 50's when marginal rates where relatively high.

5. Churches should begin to preach responsibility, across the board. Too easily, churches have become aligned with the power structures in society rather than expressing a prophetic voice for those marginalized.

These are only offered as fodder for the much needed dialog. Will you join in the creative imagining of a different and better tomorrow?