Restoring Broken Connections
Citizenship depends on connection. Constructive membership in any group is rooted in the belief that there is space in the institutional ecology for a person’s engagement and contribution. Novelist, poet, farmer and cultural critic Wendell Berry put it succinctly “Connection is health.”
Berry says that it is “only by restoring the broken connections in our society that we will be healed.” It is not just the edges of institutions that are frayed and fractured today; there is a disconnection at the very center. Nor, is it only a brokenness between individuals. Linkages between institutions and their members, and linkages among institutions are also broken.
- Yesterday, thirteen United States Senators emerged from secret meetings to propose a heath care reform package. Amazingly the proposal is opposed by the hospitals and/or university health research institutions in their home states.
- Polling shows that fewer than one-fourth of the citizens in these states support the proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act, still this proposal is moved forward.
- A majority of American Roman Catholics in the United States do not support the church’s views on birth control, remarriage, having married priests or women priests (Pew Research on American Catholics) and yet change seems unlikely in the short-term.
- There is growing evidence that human caused Climate Change is a dangerous emerging phenomenon. (This research has been done not only by independent university or industry based scientists but also by researchers at government-funded institutions like NASA or the U.S. military); yet, recent government policy actions move us away from healthy responses regarding environmental degradation.
- The opioid epidemic, with increasing death and higher HIV-AIDS rates, is at crises levels. Local police and healthcare providers now find their own health threatened by the powerful fentanyl powders being used and potentially inhaled by the persons providing care. These service providers make specific recommendations to address this fentanyl problem; however, our political leaders respond by doubling down on the failed policies from the 1980s. This disconnect is about life and death for our healthcare and law officers, our neighbors and the communities in which they reside.
The list could go on and on: there is a disconnect between many trade union leaders and their “members,” between the governor of Illinois and the legislative leaders, between the gentrifying neighborhoods in our cities and the people who are losing their residences and communities.
I have long been disheartened by the brokenness in my own denomination, the United Methodist Church. Not just the divide between those with theological differences, or the young and older members, or the urban and rural ones, but also the divide among our institutions and between institutions and the people. My work has led me for example to see the brokenness between our seminaries and the local churches they were designed to serve.
I recall the day when serving as a seminary president I spoke with a talented young woman, encouraging her to seek ordination as a pastor. She paused a moment and said, “I don’t think I can trust the denomination with my vocation.”
I mention this young woman because she represents, in my experience, a growing number of our younger folks. Still we seem slow to reconnect with them. The “disconnects” in the church among institutions, and between our institutions and individuals, some days seems insurmountable to me. Having been both a pastor and seminary administrator, I understand. And, I believe there is productive work to be done in healing such broken connections.
More recently, I joined a group of persons seeking to encourage the church to take seriously its commitments of care for God’s creation. We proposed legislation to the annual meeting of my regional body, known as an annual conference. There were persons eager to see the church begin to make a difference regarding our environmental actions. To my sadness, this genuine enthusiasm was met by denominational leaders who sought to avoid any conflict by moving to table the proposals. It was both astonishing and sad for the group, many of them younger folks, who saw these proposals as a way to seek healing in the divisions between our words and actions, between our local churches and the need for better care for creation.
When all of these signals are flashing danger, how might we respond?
Well, this is for you to decide, dear reader. It is also an opportunity to join with others, in existing institutions, and the creation of new ones, to offer places of citizenship and membership.
For me, I will continue to challenge, and build new relationships, with the leaders of my regional body who seem so opposed to proposals regarding how our congregations might respond to climate change. I will speak out on issues related to the opioid epidemic and get to know the persons on all sides of this challenge so that I might help make new connections. I will challenge the efforts of my congressman and senator to strip medical coverage from more that twenty million persons in our nation, while giving large tax cuts to the rich. I will challenge these congressmen to listen to hospital administrators and university researchers who may provide creative, alternative approaches to providing health care.
We are not alone. Others are seeking to build connections as well. Let me tell you about my friend. A young pastor, serving in a small and conservative town in my state. What is remarkable is that this young man would be considered by many to be too liberal, too concerned about the poor, too invested in environmental justice to fit in this small town parish. So, when I asked how he was doing, I was prepared to hear about his difficulties, his disappointments. Instead, I saw a broad smile and heard him say, “It’s great! This is just where I am supposed to be!” He acknowledged that he had his differences with some folks, but that he was enjoying learning from them and they from him.
I have known this young man for many years now and seen him mature. He completed his undergraduate and seminary work as an honors student — top of the class. He becomes for me a sign of hope. He understands Wendell Berry’s call to restore broken connections.
How can I not strive to do the same?