Is Civic Life Dead in the West?

In the middle of Julian Assange’s long diatribe on Google, we have this:

The received wisdom in advanced capitalist societies is that there still exists an organic “civil society sector” in which institutions form autonomously and come together to manifest the interests and will of citizens. The fable has it that the boundaries of this sector are respected by actors from government and the “private sector,” leaving a safe space for NGOs and nonprofits to advocate for things like human rights, free speech and accountable government.

This sounds like a great idea. But if it was ever true, it has not been for decades. Since at least the 1970s, authentic actors like unions and churches have folded under a sustained assault by free-market statism, transforming “civil society” into a buyer’s market for political factions and corporate interests looking to exert influence at arm’s length. The last forty years have seen a huge proliferation of think tanks and political NGOs whose purpose, beneath all the verbiage, is to execute political agendas by proxy.

Following the Hegelian idea, society is said to be divided into three parts: the public/political sphere, the private sphere, and the civic sphere.  The one thing that separates a democratic society from an undemocratic one is the existence of a healthy civic life and the absence of one in the latter.  Assange states, with a good deal of justification, that civic life as we have known it in the west is being crowded out by a corporatist system (and the mentality that goes with it) where our lives are sucked into complete domination by the “system”.  In such a system real dissent is a positive nuisance at best and a dangerously unaffordable luxury at worst.  The demise of a democratic society follows.

As a Christian, I found Assange’s mention of the church as a part of that bygone civic life interesting.  That, in part, explains the growing hostility being drummed from the top towards religion of any kind: when it’s organised, it’s a threat because it dilutes the monopoly of the system being put together.  And technological wonder organisations such as Google are simply being a part of that system.  I don’t think that the techies started out to be that way but have taken necessity and made it into a virtue.

There’s a lot of back and forth these days in Evangelical Christianity (and Roman Catholicism is having this tug of war, as evidenced during the recent synod on the family) about how much of the faith is going to have to be compromised to survive and thrive in the West.  Given the general hostility towards a practical civic life that’s out there (and, as Assange points out, the NGO’s are in large part fronts) I think it should be clear that compromise is a waste of time; it will only stall the inevitable.

What Christianity in the West needs to learn in a hurry is what our counterparts in China know all too well: how to operate the church without the civic society we have had for so long.

The "Cult" of China Experts is Hardly New

Thorston Pattberg at Asia Times Online thinks he’s found something novel:

There is a cult of Western evangelists and self-righteous crusaders who are determined to dislodge non-Western nations and usurp their governments.

Unfortunately, Western “experts” have hung around China for a long time.

In the years immediately after the start of the People’s Republic, same People’s Republic would bring in foreigners to help them in their economic and technical development.  Think the Soviet experts who came in until things froze between Moscow and Beijing; the Soviets pulled them from the country.  Others came to “help out” and get caught in upheavals such as the Cultural Revolution.

After Mao’s death the experts became people who were basically self-proclaimed know-it-alls and marketed themselves accordingly.  As I noted in my series on doing business in China in the early 1980’s:

One of the lessons we at Vulcan took from China is that “experts” seem to gravitate towards the country. We found these experts in the U.S., too. They’d appear at international trade events, going on at length about how to deal with this exotic Chinese culture and how different it was from ours, and how with their advice we would do business.

The problem with many of these people is that they’ve never “done the deal.” Many of them have never sold or leased anything to the Chinese or anyone else for that matter. We found that such advice not to be as helpful as it looked. However, the one thing that those of us who have done the deal must avoid is to represent our specific experience as the only way to do business in China, then or now. But there are some useful lessons that can be learned.

The experts that Pattberg is referring to, however, are those who have aimed their advice towards China itself.  Instead of marketing themselves to the West based on the “weirdness” of Chinese culture, they impose themselves on the Chinese based on Chinese “weirdness”.

And the Chinese don’t always think much of Western opinion even when it’s well meaning, as I found out in this comment on my piece about the death of the Chinese author Mao Dun:

I don’t understand why the interview surprised that journalist that much. For someone who really understands his literary theories and political ideology, one should not be surprised at all. I don’t think what he said there was a show or some effort by him to keep in power. It was what he truly believed, or at least that was what he envisioned after his life-time devotion to the revolutionary cause.

American journalists tend to look at things from their own angle. They have a self-defined notion of correctness or ultimate truth, and if people do not agree with that, then there is a problem. This is very sad. They do not try to understand the path of other people’s development, neither do they respect others’ ideals, or if they do, they bluntly ignore it. They describe everything they disagree as “undemocratic”, “insincere” or “fake.”

Disagreement is too common and it is good that people are open about it. But I think it is a disgrace of turn a disagreement into character bashing. This is what the journalist did here. But nonetheless, it was good information that he revealed.

That’s pretty much Pattberg’s thesis in a nutshell.

China is an old civilisation which has done things its way for a long time.  Although people are people, it has an inner logic that has to be understood to successfully deal with the Chinese. For Westerners to come in and lecture/impose stuff on the Chinese is neither helpful for the West nor the Chinese.  It sets up institutions in Chinese society that don’t work and blurs the Western understanding of the country.

It also puts a new twist on this “white privilege” meme that we hear so much of these days.  Most propagators of that meme would like us to think that such is a purely right-wing phenomenon.  But this is not the case, as the list of experts Pattberg reels off shows.  It’s one thing to mouth a multicultural agenda; it’s quite another to actually do it successfully.  In the case of China, we’re nowhere near that point, and I’m not holding my breath on that changing any time soon.

Harriet's Secret…or Harriet's Revenge?

Last Friday evening my wife and I got to do something that doesn’t happen very often around here: go to a movie première, in this case that of the documentary Harriet’s Secret.

The film is produced and narrated by Dean Arnold, who is a well-known figure in this community.  As the trailer conveys, it’s an intriguing story.  For me personally, it’s especially intriguing for three reasons.

The first is that both Dean and myself had to answer the same question: what do you do when you rummage through your own family stuff and realise that you’ve got an interesting story on your hands?  The answer is simple: you do a lot more research and then figure out a medium to convey that to the public.  In his case, the film is the result of the research.  In my case, I took to the internet here and here to get the job done.  Which to choose–or select another path, such as a book–depends upon many things, but they boil down to the resources you start with and where you want to go: the nature and abundance (or lack) of records, access to financing and other resources, and your long-term goals.  In my case, part of the reason I went to the internet with the material, say, surrounding the family business was to intertwine the history with keeping the product line alive, something which has worked out very well.

The second is that, in watching the film, I think it’s pretty certain that his family and mine crossed paths along the way.  Harriet Thompson, the central character, was from Chicago, and until my great-grandfather moved to Washington just after the turn of the last century it was the centre of the family’s business and residence.  Chicago between the Civil War and World War I was the planet’s premier “new city,” at one point the fifth largest city in the world.  Only Berlin rivalled it.  Given its subsequent history, and the tendency of the media centres of New York and Los Angeles to talk about themselves endlessly, that’s easy to forget, but it shouldn’t be.  And of course some of my family made it out to Los Angeles as well.

The last point relates more to the present: what do you do when you find out (or know going in) that the values of the family members are substantially different from yours? That’s a problem that both Dean (a well-known Orthodox Christian activist) and I had, although it played out differently.  Harriet’s husband Percy was a full-blown radical, especially after they moved to California, with friends such as Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and Clarence Darrow.  With mine it was different: as I explained a long time ago, my people were practical people with little time for idealism.

The answer to that is simple: you tell it like it is, or was.  It’s tempting to excessively editorialise, but it’s best to avoid it.  There is one thing that Dean and I both end up doing on a personal level: putting paid to the idea that this country was a seamless Christian country until the 1960’s showed up.  That puts the “culture war” in a new context, one which is badly needed these days.

But yet…there is one interesting twist to both stories.  Dean does a more thorough job of documenting it than I do, but without doing a big spoiler I came away with the idea that twentieth-century modernity was more fun for the men than the women who had to live with them.  For Harriet it was a special agony with the radical version of the “girl next door” but while Chet was making aviation history my grandmother found herself stuck in neutral.  The term “martyr” has been applied to both; that kind of thing, as much as the usual religious meme beloved of the left, may have fuelled the feminist kick-back of the 1960’s and beyond.

That kick-back may also have driven those who came after to seriously re-consider (or consider) Christianity, with its higher idea of monogamy and (for Evangelicals at least) endless marriage seminars.  Many on the left will laugh at this, but it’s time for people who just moved to the city (literally or conceptually) to stop dominating the agenda.  History is a more complicated than the simplistic memes of either side.  Perhaps the dutiful “martyrs” not only get their due recognition, but in the end they get even too.

Making Canterbury Portable

Evidently Justin Welby stirred up more than this blog by his backhanded comments regarding the ACNA and the Anglican Communion.  It’s unsurprising that some of the provinces at least have taken offence to them.  In Australia, with their interesting system of provinces, dioceses and extraprovincial diocese (Tasmania) we have the Diocese of Northwest Australia warmly greeting the ACNA as part of the Anglican Communion.

The whole concept of Northwest Australia upstaging Canterbury is a heartening concept to those of us who like to remind the Brits that their isles are such as wonderful place they filled two continents with the people who wanted or had to leave.  That said, not to be outdone by the western extreme of the country, the Diocese of Sydney’s Mark Thompson has weighed in on why ACNA is part of the Anglican Communion: because the Anglican Communion is confessional in nature, the ACNA confesses the faith (as opposed to some provinces that, ahem, don’t) therefore they are in the AC.

Thompson’s idea is no stranger to this blog: he’s at the centre of his diocese’s musings over the subordination of the Son to the Father.  Like that theological adventure, his thesis that the AC is primarily confessional in nature is necessary but not sufficient; it needs some further thinking out to get Anglicans where they need to go and not to lead them once again to where they don’t need to go.

There are many denominational fellowships in Christianity.  We think first of the National and World Councils of Churches, united in their unbelief.  More germane to the topic are groups of denominations which are similar in their beliefs but not institutionally unified; Baptist fellowships, Pentecostal fellowships and the like.  These have doctrinal statements and commitments of the organisations which are similar to their own statements; a kind of confessional unity can be seen in groupings such as these.

The Anglican Communion, however, implies something stronger than that.  The obvious unity is communion itself, and we’ve seen that broken even at the primitial level for some time now.  Beyond that, any group of churches which claim the Apostolic Succession in one form or another (and I’ve been round and round on that topic too) need to have some kind of institutional unity that reflects their common origin.

This is where things get tricky.  We get back to the question that has haunted Christianity for centuries: what do we do when those who can trace their institutional lineage to those who walked the Earth with Our Lord depart from his teachings?  In a sense the Reformation centres around this question, and the answers weren’t univocal then and aren’t now.  The Anglican Communion is, in a sense, the gathering of those churches who believe that the results of the English Reformation were, and are, the optimal result.

Now we’ve seen further successors depart from the faith, and the same question comes back: what is to be done? Confessional unity is important, it’s something that Anglicans too often treat with benign neglect.  We’ve never really been able to afford that luxury, we really can’t now.   As things stand now, the Anglican Communion isn’t working, and pulling rank like Justin Welby is doing, with the state of the church in the Global North, will only put the Communion on hospice.

What Orthodox Anglicans need to do is to find a way to make Canterbury portable, whether the current occupant of that see likes it or not.

Pulling Rank on Who's in the Anglican Communion and Who Isn't

That’s apparently what Justin Welby is doing, or trying to do:

At the start of his 3 October 2014 interview with the Church of Ireland Gazette Archbishop Welby noted that he was surprised to learn that “virtually everywhere I have gone the analysis is that the definition of being part of the Anglican Communion is being in Communion with Canterbury  …  I haven’t faulted that [view],” he said adding that “most provinces of the Anglican Communion valued their relationship with Canterbury …  [And that] there remains in the overwhelming parts of the Communion an attachment to Canterbury.”

I don’t think it’s much of a news flash that being in Communion with the see of Canterbury is the most important piece of the puzzle in being in the Anglican Communion.  What Welby is doing is strengthening that relationship at the expense of the other pieces, i.e., the ACC and Lambeth (which has, for the moment at least, been cancelled).  That’s something one would expect a business executive like Welby to do: set up clear lines of authority.  And, if you’re at the centre of the spokes, all the better.

As far as churches such as the Lutheran “Porvoo Agreement” churches, Canterbury has a long history of being in communion with churches which it does not regard as part of the Anglican Communion because they are not Anglican in doctrine or worship.  (For a slightly dated summary of that situation, click here).

The real “slap in the face” here is at the ACNA.  Canterbury could extend communion in the same way it does with the Porvoo Agreement churches, but it won’t for two reasons.  The first is that the ACNA, as its name indicates, regards itself as Anglican, and thus would want to be in the Anglican Communion.  The second is not to antagonise TEC.

The whole idea of the ACNA being a formal part of the Anglican Communion has been a pipe dream from the very start, but one that has driven many North American Anglicans to put it together in the first place.  As I’ve said before, it’s time to cultivate the relationships with the Global South and forget about Canterbury.

In addition to centralising what it means to be in the Communion, Welby, for his part, is probably stalling for time until TEC elects a new Presiding Bishop to replace Katharine Jefferts-Schori next year.  While it’s unlikely that TEC will choose a less heterodox leader than KJS, their new choice may revert to a more traditionally Episcopalian mealy-mouth style and not KJS’s smash-mouth style.  If they do that, Welby may try to achieve a reconciliation while “holding the keys” to the communion.

In addition to the doctrinal chasm that’s been ongoing in the AC, there’s another looming problem: the years of liberalism have run down the Global North churches (and that includes the CoE) to the point where their unfavourable demographics and financial woes will make communion with them progressively less valuable.  The ACNA, for example, has already surpassed the ACoC in ASA; if they repeat this process with TEC, it will be clear to everyone (including Welby himself) that Canterbury has backed the wrong horse in the “colonies”.