What Does Civic Responsibility Mean to You?

A few other bloggers over at Patheos are starting what they are calling a “Values Development Project.” The project is reacting to the conservative argument that those who question established values (often thought to be grounded in religion) are against any sort of values whatsoever. The idea is to elicit responses from bloggers to a series of questions in order to get a richer sense of how “forward thinking people” respond to important these issues. I’m not sure I fall into that category, but when I saw the first question and cringed, I knew I should definitely write about it. (Increasingly I transfer my fitness mentality to other areas of life—if it’s going to be painful and you don’t want to do it, you should probably do it. Metallica said “What don’t kill ya make ya more strong,” and I’m fairly certain that’s a paraphrase from somewhere…)

The question is “What does civic responsibility mean to you?” To be honest, civic is a word I use so infrequently that I had to make sure I understood the definition correctly. When I think of civic, I think of obligatory words like “duty” and “responsibility,” societal mandates that all must perform. That is probably part of the reason the post-Baby-Boomer generation inculturation in me cringes instinctively. I don’t like to owe anyone anything, though we all have incurred debts greater than we can repay. I also vaguely thought of civic responsibility in terms of one’s country, like patriotic duty, but it refers to your local area, the city or town where you reside. It comes, like much of our language, from a Latin root, civis, which means citizen. The most accessible example is the corona civica, the garland wreath pictured on Roman emperors. It was an honor bestowed on someone who had saved a citizen of the city, typically in battle. It was a physical symbol of a citizen who deserved the honor of others because of (sorry, it was ancient Rome) his self-sacrificial performance.

I suspect I am not alone in identifying with—or partially resisting an identification with—my country rather than my municipality. I have often thought of myself as an American, but not often an Idahoan, much less a Boisean. When I lived in California, I thought of myself as Californian from time to time, mostly because I was labeled that way when I returned to visit family and friends up north. My primary self-identification for most of my life was—you guessed it—Christian. As I alluded to in my previous post, this identity trumped all others in my mind, and I concluded that it was so expansive I needn’t worry about other possible obligations or identities. I obviously participated in several other social spheres, and they didn’t all jive readily with my Christian identity, but I assumed that they should. (That caused me no shortage of consternation at work, but that’s a different topic).

To perpetuate a sense of civic responsibility, one has to have care, care for those around you, care for the environment you consider yourself a part of. There are practical limits to our ability to care. Care begins with self, typically extends to immediate family, extended family, friends, village, city, and so on. I envision civic responsibility as the first “imagined” step in social community. Self, family, friends, church, and social engagements have historically been levels of care based upon physical interaction and at least passing knowledge with the ones cared for. At the civic level, however, one likely does not know all who consider themselves part of the group. Nonetheless, artificial and sometimes physical boundaries are established to connect these people one to another for shared benefit. Of course, most of us are simply born into these already existing webs of community and thus may not feel the same sense of ownership and participation as those who forged the bonds.

As a Christian, I was taught a distinction between types of love. (Christians “love” to exploit the fact that Greek often has multiple words to describe what is translated as a single word in English. I can’t tell you many times I’ve heard, “In Greek, the word actually means…”) There is erotic love, brotherly love, and agape, selfless love. The latter is the love Jesus has for Christians, and that is the love, as Christians, we are supposed to imitate. For me, this meant that in a practical sense my love was spread so thin that it didn’t have energy to manifest in any concrete way. I loved the whole world. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud talks about the impossibility of maintaining this kind of love. The act of loving, he counters, is predicated on it being bestowed on some and not others. Loving everyone equally is not significantly different from loving no one at all.

Thus it was a revelation to me to begin to physically act out of care for my community and not just talk about it within the walls of a safe environment. I began to participate in an organization that provided meals and connections to vital services for the homeless. Later I participated with a friend in a project called Laundry Love, which washes clothes for those who can’t afford to do so. It turns out that caring for those in your community is actually more difficult than loving the entire world. It is humbling to be constantly reminded that my daily concerns are trivial compared to others. I participated in these activities in Isla Vista, an undergraduate enclave right next to the University of California, Santa Barbara. I didn’t like the place very much, and generally avoided it, although I lived right on the edge of it for six years. Once I began to get involved with the homeless, though, I was much more invested in the community. I cared more about what went on and took the things that happened in it more personally. I began to gain, in short, a sense of civic responsibility.

I have yet to nurture that sense of responsibility in my new community, and this likely has something to do with my general sense of disconnectedness. I have read people discussing the advent of virtual as opposed to physical communities, and I would be interested to hear from others for whom this has worked. It seems (ironically, since I am utilizing this virtual forum,) one cannot cultivate a sense of responsibility virtually in the same way. For me, it was valuable to physically participate in my local community, and that meant going beyond the narrow confines of my faith community.


Religious Planner

I was struck yesterday with the thought that part of the reason I’m such a bad planner may have to do with my religious background. (I do tend to think that everything has to do with religion, both because of my background and because of graduate school, which tends to make you think that everything in the world has something to do with the très interéssant topic you happen to be studying. “Global warming? That reminds me of my research on…!”) I admire people who are decisive, who assess a situation, commit, and don’t look back. I don’t know if those people actually exist or not, but it looks like it from the outside. I have usually made decisions by waiting for options to limit themselves so my job is made easier. Of course, I don’t think that way at the time, but I always find some reason to delay. There was a time when I filled that space (or thought I should) with prayer.

I remember being both amused and a little freaked out by those Christians I knew who seemed to pray about everything. “Should I do the dishes right now, or mop the floor?” Then there are those who bring it up in conversation. I’ll admit, it’s a good way to put someone off if you don’t want to do something. “Uh, yeah, I’m gonna need to pray about that first.” Doesn’t work as well with your boss, but in Christian circles, it’s a conversation stopper. “Who am I to interfere with the voice of God?” the asker thinks. To most, the command to pray without ceasing is taken allegorically, but it does raise the question of where one should draw the line in terms of listening to God and making decisions on your own.

Since I no longer hear from God, I bear the weight of every decision I make and its consequences, anticipated and unanticipated. I never would have been able to predict how existentially different the normal process of decision making is with no divine safety system in place. As a Christian, I of course believed I was fully capable of making wrong decisions, but even if I did, it was comforting to know there was someone looking out for me. In my more self-assured moments (fairly rare for me), I could step out with confidence knowing I had prayed and made the right decision. Now there is no fallback. Heidegger calls this our anxiety at “being-in-the-world.” In other words, the simple fact of our having been born into this existence that we have little control over and faced with having to make our way, we get nervous, especially when we have to take an active role.

There are different ways, better or worse, to respond. We can confront decisions with the knowledge that we will bear their consequences, right or wrong, or we can construct a variety of systems that lessen some of the burden of our responsibility. This might be a religious system that says it doesn’t ultimately matter because this is not our real home, or that we will get a chance to correct ourselves in another life. It might be a legal or a social system that encourages us to blame our actions on society, or parents, etc. Any combination of these factors shape our choices and distribute the burden of our decisions. You will notice, for example, how we feel we deserve more individual credit for good decisions or circumstances, such as financial or social success, fame, etc. (People use God in this respect too. Just think of any awards ceremony or sports victory. The winners obviously had God on their side, and I guess no one else did.) Yet when bad circumstances or bad choices visit us, we tend dilute our accountability with other people, environmental factors, or…God. “Well, I guess God must not have wanted me to have…” or, “I guess God had other plans.” Does that really help in making decisions, or does it help you deal with the consequences of choices and the reality that you have little control over the things around you, and yet you are responsible for your choices?

So, my suggestion is that with the notion that there is a God who is interested in our individual lives and to a certain extent directs them (Proverbs 16:9), our sense of the significance of our daily decisions is skewed. We may overanalyze and never pull the trigger, so to speak, for fear of a catastrophic mistake; on the other hand, we may act before thinking because of some notion that God has our backs and sanctions our actions. Both of these can produce disastrous results. As for me, I am in the retraining process of how to most accurately measure the weight of my decisions in the world.