Ideas on Saving the World

by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

During a recent episode of CBC’s Ideas, Political Theologian William T. Cavanaugh shared:

The world has had enough of well-meaning American undergraduates going out and trying to change the world. Please don’t go out and try to change the world. Go back home to your little town in Minnesota and find your identity and your life in a place where you can be planted and take root.


Smalltown Minnesota never felt so small.

Maybe he’d been having a bad day. Maybe Cavanaugh had recently overdosed on Wendell Berry. It can happen to the best of us.

But move back to my hometown? The University adventure was all about getting out and moving up. It was about expanding my mind and my experience. It was about making connections and becoming my own person.

To go back now would be a betrayal of everything I’ve aspired towards. To go back now would be an end to that dream. How can you live that dream, that deep-rooted American dream in your small town when it’s all about New! York!

Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘Death of a Salesman’ – Photo from NY Times

Back in the day, perhaps even before I was born, that dream might have meant something to some people.

There might even have been some value to some version of the American dream, no matter what Arthur Miller, or my anti-imperial friend Brian Walsh would have us believe. And yet, if there is any value to such a dream, should it not be built on integrity?

What is integrity if it isn’t fiercely loyal, fiercely principled, and yes, fiercely rooted in place?

Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny, put it this way in an interview with Q’s Jian Ghomeshi:

My sense is that in my father’s generation, you wanted success and material wealth. You wanted a comfortable life, but that the way to achieve that was through commitment and a strong work ethic and personal integrity.

But these days, Cash goes on to say:

Sometimes some people want all of those things, but they want to get there no matter what.

This is all at the expense of integrity. Personal integrity (as if that means anything anymore), the integrity of our communities, and the integrity of the earth are laid waste at the feet of unbridled desires for acquisition.

Acquisition of new experiences, of new things, more, more, more.

Perhaps this is what Cavanaugh is getting at. When he writes books entitled “Torture and Eucharist,” or “Being Consumed,” it appears as though there might be something weighing heavily on his mind.

Whether it’s the broad application of the Chicago School Friedmanite economics in Pinochet’s Chile, or our own consumptive dis-integration in the west, Cavanaugh is pointing to the extreme disconnect between the cross of Christ, the Eucharistic feast and our exploitative behaviour.

Even the exploitative behaviour of changing the world.

We’re often taught, in our institutes of higher learning that we can change the world. That we should change the world. All too often, those unbridled ambitions are more about us, and our own fulfilment, than they are about responding to the needs of the real world.

Re-create the world in your own image. Find ways to change the world to your way of thinking, being, doing.

How often are we taught to live in the world with integrity? To seek the integrity of all of our relationships, with God, one another, and the world in which we live?

Throw in doses of that disruptive, prophetic imagination, sure. But do it with a deep sense of place. Do it as a member of a community. Recognise that relationships take time. That your ability to change the world is an ability to change, for good or for ill.

Image from PBS.org

It all may be a bunch of melodramatic bullshit, but what if we took that to heart? What if we committed to the integrity of the place where we lived, rather than jumping from country to country, city to city, in pursuit of the next project? What if we invested in the integrity of our relationships with this place, right here?

I know that this isn’t easy. I no longer live where I grew up. I live on the opposite side of the country, in fact. I sense the loss of relationships with friends and family. I sense the loss of relationships with my neighbourhood, and all of its dynamics. And yet, I sense the opportunity to invest deeply in this new city.

And I’m hopeful. Hopeful that my relationships in Vancouver, with the people of this city, my neighbourhood, will bear fruit. I feel settled here. I feel as though this is the place I will put down roots, even as I struggle with the hubris of thinking I can change the world.

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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as Director of Ministry Innovation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.

5 Responses to “Ideas on Saving the World”

  1. nev

    I immediately recognized your first photo as a place near my hometown – the Palace Theater next to the Pizza Ranch in Luverne, MN. Is it your hometown too?

    The Palace Theater is home to the Green Earth Players. Green Earth, of course, because Luverne was home to Frederick Manfred, who wrote intensely rooted novels with a strong sense of place. So it’s a great photo for your post!

    Reply
  2. andrew

    Nev – I’ve not had the chance to visit the Palace Theater in Luverne. I was looking for a compelling photo from some place in Minnesota, and this one struck a chord. Thanks for the comment! I’ll have to check out the works of Frederick Manfred.

    Reply
  3. Deborah

    This is very thought-provoking. I’m having a hard time making a cogent response, but I very much want to write something. Big noise vs. small steps — the feeling that we need to make a big impact in the world as opposed to a sense of living out our passion on a gentle scale. It’s a good thing it’s summer and I have the time to spend thinking about this! Thank you. I think.

    Reply
  4. earning a prophet's wage

    I grew up moving a lot. I remember moving to my Dad’s hometown when I was a teenager. I felt like we moved to our vacation. And then upon graduation, all my friends began moving away to college or military. I wanted so bad to stay put. But I felt deep shame when my friends came home to visit and I had not gone off to conquer a future.

    I finally went away. And now I miss “home” with a hole in my heart.

    I have a vision in my mind that has been with me since I was 18, that my friends and I would stay camped below the damn in the woods below McPhee Lake. Why did we have to split up? We lamented how we would not see each other for the next 20 years, but I kept thinking the reasons for it were so artificial!

    So much damage has been done now. There is no going back. But this post seems like a healing touch to me. I can work with this. I was not crazy, it was the world around me. I can make sane choices from here – five years after my Mom died, I lost my job, and my marriage all in a few months time. I am home making now. And I do not have to be threatened by the “wisdom” of those on the move anymore.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  5. andrew

    EAPW – Thanks for being so open and raw in your comments. I don’t know that there’s any going back, for any of us who have left home. What I do wrestle with, is what kind of life I would have, should I have stayed in my hometown growing up. I know that my moves, new relationships to different people in different places have all contributed to who I am.

    And yet I am drawn to the wisdom of stability, integrity and place. Perhaps I have some more wrestling to do. I have, for the past number of years, felt drawn to the City. As much as I write about New! York! I know that I feel more at home in Vancouver than I ever would in a suburban environment. Perhaps there’s something about God, God’s call in that too.

    As I say, it’s a journey, and one that has brought me here. Like you, I’m not sure I need to be threatened by the ‘wisdom’ of the constant move. I feel as though this is a place to put down roots, and I recognise that that would have been difficult in other places.

    Reply

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