Repairing the World

Repairing the World

There were times this week I felt like I was walking through the day trying to repair the world. One morning I put on worn-out jeans and painted in my son David’s house in Anacostia — for most of two generations, the most neglected part of the city of Washington. After some years of dreaming and working in that neighborhood, he is selling his house. A horrible mess when he bought it, completely full of junk and garbage everywhere, he slowly made it new, renovating it from top to bottom. He hopes to put it on the market in the next few days, so he has been working on it, getting it ready, and I wanted to help.

But as I walked in and out of the house, I saw the young trees now growing in front yards along the street and remembered that they were there because David took the initiative to get a foundation grant for “keeping Washington green” that was willing to pay for trees in areas where the tree canopy was less than it ought to be. And he got volunteers from service fraternities at local universities to come alongside his neighbors and dig holes, move trees, mulch the ground, making his hope and the neighborhood need into a reality. And now there they are, alive and well, on their way to making the street more than it was before. As he leaves, his own heart is there in his house, even as it is in the trees — and when I looked, I remembered. 

But I also remembered one very snowy night in December some years ago with a houseful of friends there for his annual Sanacostia party when a group of guys with masks came in with guns in their hands and violence in their hearts. Hearing the worst words that anyone should ever hear, David’s and his friends’ lives were threatened, and their belongings were stolen. No one left that night feeling very merry about Christmas. 

To care about the world is complex: full of hope we are, but before all is said and done, we will have heartache too. And the messes we find are not ones that we can leave behind very quickly or easily. Scars scar. But days have passed, years have come and gone, and now the house will be sold; David’s fingerprints are still there, and will be.

My plan was to come home after my work with him, get cleaned up, and then go to my afternoon meeting at the headquarters of a global corporation that I work with. But painting “one last section” kept me longer, and I decided to just go “as is.” It was okay, as we met offsite in a restaurant that didn’t mind.

This company makes things that people all over the world enjoy, by the billions of dollars worth. For years now I have worked with them on rethinking the way that business is done — in fact, rethinking the way that economic life is ordered — and as the months pass, that work only becomes more intriguing and complex, with collaborative partnerships developing with the most respected academic and financial institutions in the world. Serious people are becoming more interested as the project moves forward — but with every step forward, there are more difficulties too. 

Since this is not a romantic outing full of rose blossoms and sweet-singing birds, but instead a decision to challenge deeply-held beliefs about money — what it means and who gets it — it is one of the most dangerous activities in the world. Most people will do just about anything to hold onto money and the power to control it. That is true for dollars; it is even more true for billions of dollars. But, even with the push and shove of realeconomik, there is an honest desire to try, and that is what has kept me at it now for most of ten years, hard as it is. 

One summer I took some of the executives to spend time with Wendell Berry on his farm in Kentucky, wanting them to think with him about different ways to imagine economic life. At the end of the day, he said this to us: “If you want to make money for a year, then you will ask certain questions; but if you want to make money for a hundred years, you will have to ask other questions.” In many ways, I have seen my work with this company to be one of asking those “other questions,” but perhaps even more so, helping them ask those questions themselves. I have spoken to the board of directors, to their corporate think tank, and to symposia focused on the global marketplace, each and every time setting forth questions about moral meaning and the marketplace, wondering about ideas and words like vocation, ethics, and meaning, and what on earth they might mean in a 21st-century global economy. 

Some time ago, I offered my colleagues there the vision of tikkun olam, a long-ago Hebrew way of describing our vocation as human beings to step into history “to repair the world,” seeing ourselves as responsible for the way things turn out. For years, I have been intrigued by what the image means and what it assumes.

What do I mean? Most of us see the sorrows and horrors of life and groan. Things are not the way they are supposed to be. But “supposed to be” makes assumptions. There are really only a few ways of seeing life that can make sense of “supposed to be.” Not all ideas are equal; they just can’t be. Not all stories tell the same story; how could they?

For example, drawing on the analysis of my favorite philosopher/poet, Bono of U2, who sees “karma” written into most ways of making sense of life and the world — whether the materialism of the West (“I am my DNA, and therefore the wiring has already been done . . . and I have no responsibility”) or the pantheism of the East (“The fates have already decided what is and will be . . . and therefore I have no responsibility”), he argues that without “grace” we are stuck, metaphysically and morally, in moments we cannot get out of. And that’s a problem.

To speak of repairing the world assumes that we see some things as “wrong.” But how do we determine what’s “right”? Personal preference matters, but not very much. At the end of the day, what I “like” bumps up against what you “like” — and anyway, “It is what it is.” Whether a broken house or a broken economy, things are as they are — and sometimes we figure what is is right. But something in human beings cries out. We groan. We sigh. We protest. And sometimes, we long for something more — maybe even for the way “things are supposed to be.”

Much more could be said, of course, especially about the reality that every effort at repairing the world costs us. Even with the best hopes, the truest motives, we will get hurt, because the world is very messy. Stepping in, even with responsibility born of love, is never neat-and-clean. To take up the wounds of the world will wound us, as it did God himself — which is why the heart of our vocation must be the imitation of the vocation of God. Nothing else can so form us, nothing else can so sustain us. 

This past week I went further up and further in to the vocation of tikkun olam, a calling that belongs to all of us, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are. The vision makes sense of the brokenness of life, of everyone’s life, of life for everyone — whether my son’s house or the global economy, whether your hope or the heartaches of neighbors a world away. We yearn for things to be made right, for life to be as it could be, as it might be, as it should be — as it is supposed to be.

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