[Note: This entry was written yesterday, while my internet was down at home.]
As I was driving to work today I listened to a fairly new song that asked some very reflective questions about our world and what sort of options we have to make the world at least a little better of a place. The song presents these options as beginning with the rubble of our world or with our sins. The difference between choosing what to focus on first determines what sort of people we are, and whether our approaches to problems is the same as that of our creator or not. Perhaps also of interest is the fact that these two solutions also represent a very powerful difference in worldview between different ideologies that have at times presented themselves rather forcefully in history, with sometimes very dramatic results.
In the period before the American Civil War, the Whig agenda (ably represented by Abraham Lincoln) and the Democrat agenda (ably represented by Stephen Douglas) had opposite beliefs about where the United States should focus its energies in a time of great division that eventually led to war. The Whigs were firm believers in internal improvements, arguing that no external expansion of the nation would be useful or beneficial until and unless its internal issues were dealt with, whether those internal issues were the construction of infrastructure and transportation networks to tie regions together, the development of towns and cities and trade, as well as the gradual extinction of the national sin of slavery. The Democrats, on the other hand, argued that expansion, including the provocation of external warfare with other nations (like Mexico and Great Britain) over that territorial expansion and the wealth and resources and space that would flow from that expansion would serve as a glue to unite the United States together and avoid conflict over deeper and more fundamental disagreements as to the nature of the American Republic. Naturally, slaveowners in the South sought to use that expansion to increase the territorial expanse of their corrupt and peculiar institution, which only exacerbated the divisions with the North even further.
At its heart, this disagreement was about whether external development or internal development was more beneficial to the well-being of the nation as a whole. In the end, the decision was made for internal improvement through the painful means of a brutal Civil War that ended slavery but did not end the hatred in men’s hearts concerning issues of race from either blacks or whites or anyone else, sins that we still have to wrestle with as a nation (particularly coming from the side of those who have considered themselves to be victims of history). This disagreement is still present in our own societies and many others around the world, even if we usually do not see this disagreement in the stark terms that were most obvious in the time preceding the Civil War.
For those who believe that focusing on the rubble is of paramount importance to the neglect of any questions of virtue, there is the appealing but inaccurate belief that by improving physical matters that we lead to moral and spiritual improvement. Such people believe that by improving the environment that people live in that we improve the moral capabilities of people automatically. Such people think that by providing health care for all, under the benign oversight of a technocratic and paternalistic government, or providing education for others that focuses on the intellect (as well as on political correctness) that we can lead to moral development without the need to tackle the obvious and serious moral issues of our time. Others, on the other hand, argue that economic growth and the betterment of society depends on a moral reformation that precedes any sort of external development, and that no economic development that is divorced from growth in character and morality is going to be lasting or ultimately beneficial. Our own political debates are usually not phrased in this light, but there is a stark difference between believing that external changes can induce moral growth and believing that moral growth is an essential precondition for any sort of external societal development, even if that difference is largely unexplored.
As might be expected, the Bible is somewhat critical about those who would focus on rebuilding the rubble rather than repenting and seeking moral growth. For example, the Bible is intensely critical of those who focus on economic growth and physical construction without moral development, as we may see from Jeremiah 22:13-17: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness and his chambers by injustice, who uses his neighbor’s service without wages and gives him nothing for his work, who says, ‘I will build myself a wide house with spacious chambers, and cut out windows for it, paneling it with cedar and painting it with vermillion.’ Shall you reign because you enclose yourself in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink, and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him,, he judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Was not this knowing Me?” says the Eternal. “Yet your eyes and your heart are for nothing but your covetousness, for shedding innocent blood, and practicing oppression and violence.”
That said, the Bible clearly shows that the rebuilding of ruins is a good thing, provided it comes from a renewed heart, as might be seen from Isaiah 61:1-4: ““The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, Because the Eternal has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Eternal, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for aches, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planing of the Eternal, that He may be glorified.” And they shall rebuild the old ruins, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations.” In short, in the Bible, regeneration of the heart and spirit precedes the rebuilding of the physical ruins that are around us.
We even see this focus in the best of our self-help books. For example, in Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People, we see that private victory precedes public victory. In improving our own character we lay the groundwork for more effective behavior and success in the public realm. Before we can be truly successful and effective in our public lives we must mature and develop virtue and righteous character within. Sometimes we are internally mature and righteous long before that capability becomes generally known and seen by others. Sometimes people try to short-circuit that development by assuming that character development and maturity can be induced by external circumstances, such as the giving of offices and titles long before someone has demonstrated the character and maturity to handle them well. This solution usually ends up puffing people up and turning them into tyrants and bullies, rather than leading to any moral development. Worse, this tyranny is often related to a great deal of insecurity about the wide gap between public authority and visibility and the lack of private virtue that would merit such respect in public. This wide gap tends to increase the difficulties of an unrighteous person rather than alleviating them as was the original intent.
Therefore, if we desire to improve our external conditions, which we wisely recognize as being imperiled and under threat, let us resolve first to improve our internal character, to submit to such discipline as is necessary to overcome our weaknesses and shortcomings and to purify our character and show our conduct as blameless and honorable before God and men. Let us resolve to become better people so that we may then help to better our world around us, for we can make the world no better than we ourselves are inside. Mere physical development and growth cannot induce or substitute for the time-consuming and difficult work of maturity and moral improvement. As we become better people on the inside, so too our works will become improved and our service will be more beneficial to others. If we truly desire to help the sorry state of our world, we must first become better models and examples of moral behavior so that our instruction may be by deed and not merely by word. We must repair the rubble of our hearts and character before we can rebuild the ruins of the broken world around us. May God help us to rend our hearts so that we may be better fit to mend our surroundings.