October 15, 2010
by Gideon Strauss
In our new “30,000 Feet” column, Capital Commentary will reach toward the biggest questions of political life … and those questions that are bigger yet which necessarily inform our politics: questions about human purpose, identity, and belonging; questions about the sources of trustworthy knowledge and wisdom; questions about divine revelation and the order of things. At times, the Center for Public Justice has been dismissed for hovering in the rarified air of political philosophy without ever “landing the helicopter” in the fray of policy conflict. But if one never looks at the terrain from a strategic height, you cannot understand the landscape in which the debates of the day are to take place. While we are grateful for our critics, we will nonetheless maintain some intentional attention at the 30,000-foot level.
The Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland’s book The Gum Thief (2007) is made up of a series of diary entries shared between two people who work at a big box stationary store in the suburbs of Vancouver, British Columbia. In one of the entries the character Roger writes:
“A few years back I had to organize my son Brendan’s funeral. Joan was completely wrecked, and I was barely keeping it together. I remember sitting there with the funeral director, trying to think of what to say in the death notice or whom I could invite to speak. I drew a blank, and the director, an older guy—white hair, a head shaped like a stone dug out of a Scottish field, a guy who’d been through a trench or two—suggested that no-one had to speak and we could recite grade school stuff like The Lord’s Prayer. He said that most people know it by heart and we could all get through the proceedings with a sliver of dignity.
“He must have smelled my breath—tequila—because he looked at me a moment, then went to his desk and pulled out some very peaty Scotch, almost like soil syrup, and poured both of us a few fingers. He told me that most people who come to arrange services don’t believe in anything. He said that if he’s learned anything from doing his job, it’s that if you don’t have a spiritual practice in place when times are good, you can’t expect to suddenly develop one during a moment of crisis. He said we’re told by TV and movies and Reader’s Digest that a crisis will trigger massive personal change—and that those big changes will make the pain worthwhile. But from what he could see big change almost never happens. People simply feel lost. They have no idea what to say, or do, or feel, or think. They become messes and tend to remain messes. Having a few default hymns and prayers at least makes the lack of crisis-born insight bearable. That man was a true shepherd of souls. Why don’t men like him run for public office?”
This column is a conversation about spiritual practices in good times. Roger’s funeral director is, of course, right: we are not going to have the opportunity to quickly develop them in moments of crisis. As the British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch wrote, “at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.” Over the next several months I will recount how particular psalms served as “a few default hymns and prayers” for me in 1996 and 1997, while I worked as an interpreter for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the telling I will try and tease out some of the biblical beginnings for a spirituality of political practice, suggesting that graceful citizenship and wise statecraft depends not just on the study of the God’s Word and world, but also on a regular devotional reading – in particular – of the Psalms.
—Gideon Strauss is CEO of the Center for Public Justice and editor of the Capital Commentary.