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The Church and Us


I was recently in Europe, partly for a vacation and partly for a series of talks in Austria. During the trip I had the pleasure of touring a major church and hearing the guide answer questions. Someone asked, why did people of the distant past support the church so stupendously, with so much of their time, nearly all their income beyond subsistence, and, really, their every life product?

The guide answered, I think brilliantly. She said, you have to try to imagine being back there yourself. There was no sewage, no electricity, no color, no music, no entertainment, not even cleanliness, in people’s daily lives. It was harsh, harsh, and more harsh – except when you went to the church. From dumping waste out windows and working to the bone in colorless and anti social contexts, in church, one entered into a bit of heaven on earth. In church people were friendly and socialized. In church it was clean. In church the windows were incredibly colorful, the seats better than bearable. In church there was music from the organs, an incredible experience beyond anything available anywhere else, and there was even an element of intellectual engagement, also absent elsewhere. In church there was relative safety…color….sound….life. It was what people lived for, around, and in.

The church wasn’t just rhetoric, it was literally heaven manifested today. The church was hope and inspiration, color and cleanliness, activity and more activity. And so, of course, given that the church was what made life worth living, and given the church what promised better in the future, people coughed up their first and last pennies for the church. Even more than in modern times. Way more. And they weren’t tricked. Given the constrained settings they inhabited, their perceptions were accurate, and their choices sensible – that is, short of completely transforming the history.

Think about the growth of the fundamentalist church in recent years in the U.S. and, say, in Pakistan. People aren’t giving as much – true – but the logic is the same and what you might say is people are part of the church and supporting it more or less in proportion as the church is contributing to their material, spiritual, emotional, ideological, and inspirational, existence in return.

And what is the lesson in all this? I don’t see how it could be clearer – from the angle the tour guide illuminated, and many other angles as well.

If the campaign to create a better world – which is the left – wants to have support from huge numbers of otherwise jammed up and restricted folk, then that campaign has to incorporate the seeds of the future in the present. The left has to aid to people’s lives now, adding color, compassion, creativity, and especially a sense of belonging and social joy, and it has to at the same time promise even more, much more, in the future. People must come to see and feel the left as being at the core of who they are, what they can enjoy today, and what inspires them to seek more tomorrow. Short of attaining that degree of centrality in people’s lives, the left will not have sufficient membership that is sufficiently committed to win even major reforms, much less fundamentally new social relations.

Okay, is that claim true or false?

If it is false – fine, dispense with it and move on.

But if the claim is true, then doesn’t it follow that a left which isn’t addressing this agenda is a left that isn’t even trying to achieve its destiny? No wonder we aren’t winning yet. On the other hand, if the claim is true, then since the implication is so evident, isn’t it time to get on with recreating our efforts in a far more uplifting and humane and socially engaging and intellectually stimulating and artistic and creative shape and substance?

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