Practicing for the Society We Want

By Paulsell, Stephanie | The Christian Century, July 4, 2018 | Go to article overview

Practicing for the Society We Want


Paulsell, Stephanie, The Christian Century


FOR THE PAST year, we have been living through a national seminar on the relationship between beliefs and practices. One after another, men who have supported women's political candidacies and called themselves feminists have been exposed as dangerous to women. Often, their professed beliefs in women's rights have protected them. Reporting on the recent accusations against Eric Schneiderman has revealed that women were sometimes urged by friends not to report the violence the former New York attorney general allegedly perpetrated in the private sphere because of the good he did for women in the public sphere.

Obviously, it's not enough to believe in the right ideas. Beliefs don't guarantee behavior. If we are going to undo our formation in misogyny, in racism, in a Christianity warped by nationalism, it won't be enough to think our way out of these ideologies. Thinking our way out of them is certainly necessary--but we will also have to practice our way out of them, deliberately.

At Harvard Divinity School's commencement in May, the student speakers--Denson Staples and Lindsey Franklin, newly minted M.Div.'s--challenged us to bring more intentionality to our life together, especially in the classroom. It's not enough, they said, to gather a diverse community. We have to develop practices that don't replicate the old hierarchies. We can't simply believe that we are welcoming; we have to learn how to be welcoming. Denson and Lindsey called us to cultivate greater attention to the pedagogy diverse classrooms require and to who is included or excluded by the forms of education to which we are accustomed. They reminded me of Simone Weil's fierce insistence that a lack of attention in prayer cannot be made up for through "warmth of heart" or "pity." It's not enough to wish each other well and then carry on as before.

Timothy Snyder's book On Tyranny makes a similar point about our national life. The subtitle is Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, but it could easily have been called Twenty Practices for the 21st Century. Snyder, a historian of authoritarian regimes, worries that Americans have seen liberal democracy as our inevitable future for so long that we are unprepared to respond to the possibility of an authoritarian future. It's not enough to believe that all will be well, he insists. We have to practice shaping the society we want and resisting the kind of society we do not.

Some of the practices Snyder commends are grounded in the public sphere: defend institutions, practice ethical conduct within your profession, be active in voluntary organizations. But many are grounded in private life. For example, he encourages the practice of making eye contact and small talk with people we encounter in the course of daily life. …

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