Audio Series: A Conversation with Andy Crouch
Andy Crouch shared about the role of education and the common good.
Andy Crouch is a Christian author, speaker, and partner for Praxis, an organization that works as a creative engine for redemptive entrepreneurship. Andy Crouch is the former editor of Christianity Today.
COMPLETE AUDIO TRANSCRIPT
The audio recording shared on this site has been edited for time. The full transcript of the conversation between MTR Executive Director David Montague and Andy Crouch is below for full context and reference.
DM: Talk about the idea of the common good: Where does the term come from? And then Biblical support for the common good and expand on that idea.
AC: The common good is a very old idea–a very ancient idea, and it partly comes from the Greeks, the Greek political philosophers, Aristotle, thinking about what do we gather in communities for, what is a what is a city for what’s a nation for, or a state for. Then interestingly, Paul, the Apostle Paul, picks up on it when he’s talking about the gifts that are given in the Christian community [Paul] says these various spiritual gifts are given for the common good so he actually uses that very phrase that would’ve been present Greek political philosophy as well and you know it sort of sticks around and in the minds of philosophers, and political theorists, but it really enters the modern vocabulary as the Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic church, in the nineteenth centuries is trying to figure out what Christians have to say to a political environment that is no longer just a Christian environment. So at one time, all of Europe is Christian, at one time all of Europe is Catholic and then that begins to disintegrate and then in the nineteenth century Europe becomes what we now call secular. That is the national governments and the centers of power are no longer aligned with the pope, and so this pope Leo comes to comes into his office in the late 19th century at the time when the Vatican has finally lost its last bit of political power it’s actual ability to command, to run a nation ends with the taking away of the Papal States, so called. And so Leo was the first pope in history who has to ask what does the church have to do with the world that no longer is run by the church and what he decides to do is to start teaching his own people, his own Christian community about how to relate to the tasks of government and political life and he writes all these long letters that are called encyclicals which are designed to educate the Catholic Church and its leadership and how to relate to all kinds of questions including the question of our participation in public life when public life is no longer just Christian life and his most important encyclical.
AC: The most important of these encyclicals that Leo writes is called Rerum Novarum all encyclicals are just known by the Latin version of their first couple words and Rerum Novarum just means new things, and the new things that Leo was talking about is the secularization of the pope the pollock (?) that is the new secular public square and also the rise of communism and of labor movements that advocate for the rights of workers and often are doing in a highly secular way so communism or Marxist thought is taking over Europe at this time and Marxist thought says we need a completely secular state. Religion has been the enemy of especially the poor or the the working class and in fact we should take over all private property and the state should the state in a way should become a new kind of church that has its own complete ideology, its own complete vision of the good and we should exclude christians from public. So think about what it’s like to be this pope: your predecessors ran public life, they were in charge of public life, and suddenly the most powerful social movement in your time is saying that religion should be completely excluded from public life and has nothing to do with any kind of flourishing–it’s the opposite of flourishing. So Leo writes Rerum Novarum and many other encyclicals to say “No, Christians have a distinctive contribution to make to public life and to public flourishing and it’s not that we want to take it back over. It’s that we want to be distinctively Christian in the way that we participate in our societies, and it’s a better alternative than what the Marxist, the socialist, and then eventually the communist, though communists come later It’s better than that alternative and the phrase that he uses to sum it all up is this very ancient phrase the common good. So what is the common good as Leo defines it? I should say also the Catholic Church has continued to reflect on this and we now have a hundred years of what’s called Catholic social teaching and most of it is really just Christian social teaching that is it’s not narrowly Catholic so I’m not Catholic, I’m a protestant, but 98 percent of what Catholic social teaching offers is really just rooted in scripture and careful reflection on public policy, on politics and political theory and so it’s really just an offering to the whole Christian community of a way to think about Christians in public life. It’s not little of it is specifically Catholic and the way that it’s ended up being summarized saying the Catholic catechism the summary of Catholic teaching is the common good is the sum total of social conditions that allow persons individually and as communities to reach their full potential or their full flourishing. The common good is about everything that we create together socially that is in our shared life politics, business, education, government, anything we do sort of collectively when all those collective activities create the conditions where human beings can flourish individually and in communities then the common good has been realized we’ve arrived at the common good. It’s a way of measuring how well a society functions and Leo’s claim and the Christian social teaching claim is that Christians have a particular contribution to make to that.
DM: One of the last you referenced was this idea of measuring. How does the church measure the common good? How do we know if we are increasing the common good? From that, can we talk about that specifically into education.
AC: So generally the common good is the extent to which our society is realizing the common good is measured by the flourishing of the people within it and I think it’s helpful to think about flourishing as arriving at the fullness of what you were created to be, arriving at the fullness of what you could be. None of us can be everything, none of us is unlimited, but all of us have certain possibilities or potentials when we’re born and the conditions we were raised in, our own natural gifts and abilities. I think it’s a significant connection back to Paul where Paul realizes different members of the community have different abilities. So, for each of us to flourish it’s going to look, it’s not gonna all look the same. We’re not all going to become clones of one another.
AC: As we flourish we actually become different from one another in really interesting ways. And this actually ultimately goes back to creation where God creates a world that has the capacity for differentiation and abundance and wants all kinds of species in the world. Then with any species wants diversity within those species. Even human beings were created at the very beginning male and female. There’s difference and different possibilities even within just the first two human beings in the Genesis story. Let alone what’s gonna happen as they reproduce and as human beings multiply, the nature of (you’re gonna find this helpful for your book or not, but I think it’s really interesting). The nature of sexual reproduction is that it never produces copies of the parents. It always produces a new human being with new combinations of their parent’s genetic material that creates new possibilities.
AC: Flourishing is the full realization of those possibilities in every person, but one of the other really important insights from Catholic social teaching and the whole Christian tradition is that actually flourishing doesn’t happen when you are just individualistic. Individuals matter a great deal. Every individual person matters, but individual persons don’t flourish unless they’re a part of a community. This community starts with a family. The family is the first community that we’re a part of as human beings. It’s the most important community. It preexists other forms of community, even the church for example. There have been families a lot longer than there’s been the church. There have been families much longer than there have been cities, states, or nations. But as human society becomes more complex, there are all these different layers of community. What common good thought has always said is every layer of community matters and every layer of community needs to be able to flourish, to have its own flourishing. It’s not just enough to ask actually, am I flourishing, but am I flourishing in a family, and then am I flourishing in a neighborhood?
AC: Is my neighborhood this block that I live on in Pennsylvania, is this block reaching its potential? Is it being cared for, is the natural environment being cared for, the built environment being cared for? Actually if my neighborhood stops flourishing, it will be almost impossible for individuals within it to really flourish. We see this all over the world and in our own cities and in lots of suburbs too. When neighborhoods are neglected, then families become weaker, families have to turn inward, children don’t flourish in the same way, partly because they can’t go out and interact with the natural world, they can’t go out and interact with their neighbors safely. The common good says, the test of the common good is flourishing generally speaking, both the individuals and communities. It’s not just about each of us becoming our own special snowflake. Our snowflake melts if we aren’t connected to other human beings and other larger structures of community.
AC: Then, there’s one more layer to this, which is the Christian tradition and the Biblical tradition always goes back to this question: are the vulnerable flourishing? So it’s not just about the flourishing of the powerful, not just the flourishing of the affluent or the privileged. The real test of the common good: is every person flourishing in this shared public setting, especially those who are at most risk of not realizing their potential. This goes back to the Biblical themes of the three most vulnerable categories of people in the ancient Near East: widows, orphans, and strangers, that is people who are outside of their kind of cultural community, foreigners, immigrants, travelers, and God over and over says I measure your faithfulness, Israel by how you treat these most vulnerable communities: women who have lost their husbands, children who have lost their parents, and people who have lost their national community or perhaps their linguistic community, their cultural community. One of the things I like to say is God grades on a curve. The fate of the vulnerable in a society are how God measures, how God judges the society.
DM: Why is something that clear, so difficult to do?
AC: In other words, we should be able to just look around and see who’s vulnerable and get to work serving them, and why don’t we? Is that what you mean?
DM: I think serving the poor and vulnerable, loving your neighbor as yourself is like if you took the whole Bible and smushed it like an accordion, you just smushed it down to a sentence, it would be that idea. So why does our education system look like it does and why does Camden look like it does? Why is this so hard to do?
AC: So if our only vulnerabilities were our natural vulnerabilities as human beings, one of the interesting things about human beings is how physically weak we are compared to other animals. We have cats in our neighborhood who at least have some visual memory. They’re fed. They’re fed from bowls, but still you see them prowling and hunting. They sometimes can catch food, right? If you asked me to catch food, it’s much harder for me to catch food than a cat, actually the cat can provide everything it needs out of its environment, at least its ancestors could. Other creatures are actually able to survive amazingly well in the world. Human beings are oddly, poorly adaptable for the world we find ourselves in; we need each other to survive in the world. If all we had to do was eek out substance and subsistence from the world, I think actually that wouldn’t be that hard. We could protect our children, we could protect our older people, and the way you see this even now is when there’s a natural disaster, it’s amazing how generous people are, especially if it’s dramatic frankly: an earthquake, a tsunami, and you look at just the incredible outpouring of generosity towards people who are very vulnerable in that moment. Those are actually the easy cases. But we don’t just live in a world of natural challenge.
AC: We also live in a world of social systems that have created vulnerability–the Christian word for this is sin. In other words, we don’t just live in a neutral environment or even a difficult environment that would require cultivation and care. We actually live in a profoundly distorted social environment that has systems, and what is a system it’s just a pattern of life over time that’s become taken for granted, that makes some people vulnerable. When you start asking, “How do we care for the vulnerable?” in our societies, when we look at certain neighborhoods or cities or certain ethnic communities and we say “Oh these people are way more vulnerable than they ought to be” and it seems much harder than it ought to be to actually intervene, it’s because we’re not just dealing with natural evil here. We’re dealing with human evil, we’re dealing with deeply-embedded structures that have kept some people safe and flourishing at the expense of other people not being able to flourish. The answer to why it’s hard is that you are doing ultimately, Christians would say, not even just with social systems, but with demonic powers. This is the Biblical language of the principalities and powers. There are cosmic forces at work that seek to deny the image-bearing capacity of human beings.
AC: So why is it hard? because we are wrestling against the Devil and all his angels embedded in multigenerational, often multi-century systems, of neglect of the vulnerable and protection of power powered by those who had access to power and then with like little that’s the big frame and then within communities of vulnerability there are valid mal-adaptations to vulnerability.
AC: So let me give you another picture of this it it’s helpful or not one way to think about a flourishing human being, is that a flourishing human being actually has authority and vulnerability together, well matched. So we both are thinking about a really healthy, like a healthy marriage. In a healthy marriage–my wife and I, by the grace of God have been married for twenty-one years I wouldn’t necessarily call us the perfect marriage but by the grace of God we’re married and we love each other and what is that? It is to both have authority. Each of us has a kind of authority in our home and each of us is vulnerable in our home. It’s balanced. What happens in the human story is that human beings decide that they don’t really want any vulnerability so they try to become try to have authority without having vulnerability. It turns out the only way to do that is to outsource your vulnerability to someone else so that you by having more and more authority and less and less vulnerability actually that choice to pursue that ends up meaning that someone else is going to have to have more vulnerability and less authority. I just turned in my next book which is all about this and what I do is draw two-by-two and so authority on this axis vulnerability on this axis and so none of these are meant to be up and to the right high authority, high vulnerability. But we try to move up and to the left high authority, low vulnerability. that always moves other people down to the right–that’s injustice a few people who have authority without vulnerability at the expense of many people having vulnerability without authority. So what is authority without vulnerability? It’s tyranny. It’s exploitation. Its abuse. So think about a broken family. Let’s think about abuse within the family I as a father if I don’t use my authority well with my kids I start abusing them, that is I take total control of their lives I exploit from them rather than vulnerably giving to them what they deserve as image bearers. They become highly vulnerable, I become highly authoritative and that’s a very broken system. the reality is people who grow up in communities of vulnerability to manage that they resort to their own kinds of exploitation and violence and so it gets reinforced even within a vulnerable community. You end up with additional patterns of exploitation. This is what makes it so hard is patterns of exploitation deeply rooted in history replicated in every generation and then that generate their own patterns of sort of sort of mallied adaptation to vulnerability.
DM: Let me stay on that for a second. We’ve got this massive achievement gap, academically in America. I’ll go talk to groups and I’ll explain the difference in ACT scores and graduation rates in different communities in our city. You just see this massive difference and I’ll ask the group, “Why do you think this is? Why do we have it?” The Number one answer always, particularly with the groups I’m more likely to be speaking to which often are white and middle class and Christian, without a doubt the first answer is always the breakdown of the family, families don’t care, they don’t value education. If you don’t have any leadership in the home, this is what’s gonna happen. How would you respond to the audience that says the reason kids are making fourteens on their ACT is because their families don’t care?
AC: I have found that brilliant things about the common good tradition that talks about the social conditions that create flourishing for individuals and communities is that actually it provides a way to both affirm that the family is a very important unit of flourishing. It really is one of the most important. So when certain audiences say, “Well it’s about the breakdown of the family,” they’re not wrong at all. It is very much about the breakdown of that most fundamental community in which all of us are meant to initially find our identity, grow into our potential, but the brilliance of the common good tradition is it recognizes that social unit, the family, is embedded in other social systems and they impinge on it and they make it possible for the family to flourish or not to flourish, so you can’t just stop at well that family isn’t flourishing as if they’re completely able to choose. I don’t know what’s wrong with them, but they just decided not to flourish. It’s not like that at all. The family is embedded in a neighborhood. The neighborhood is embedded in a city. The city is embedded in a political structure, an economic structure, and all of those things either make it possible for a family to flourish or not. It’s not just the individuals who are vulnerable. It is families that are vulnerable. To be a family in many neighborhoods in many American cities is to be highly vulnerable.
AC: So, think about all the dimensions of vulnerability that come with crime in your neighborhood. Your family may never commit a crime and may be absolutely opposed to committing a crime. But when crime is all around you that introduces all kinds of stresses into your family that in my neighborhood which is a low crime neighborhood we don’t experience. So, you can’t just stop with the explanation “well the family has broken down.” It’s true the family has broken down and I think this is why this is not a liberal or conservative…what tends to happen is conservatives say, “Well it’s a problem of family breakdown” and liberals say, “well it’s probably big social systems.” They’re both right. You can’t neglect any of those levels but the common good asks what is our society doing to help families flourish and help vulnerable families to flourish.
AC: What does it mean to be a vulnerable family? It’s to perhaps have a history of violence in your family. Now that isn’t just violence as in parents towards children or family abuse. We have a history of violence against black families in America that goes back to the importation of slaves from Africa and the refusal to let them form families. We’ve got four hundred years of history of violence against specifically black families. That makes a family vulnerable. So it’s crazy to blame that family if they have that whole multi-hundred year history of systems that inflicted violence on them to just stop with the exclamation, “Well it’s because the family is broken up.” No, it’s because there’s all these other layers of society that are meant to lead to the flourishing of the family that are not doing that job and there’s a whole history of preventing the flourishing of that family.
DM: That is so helpful, thanks for sharing with us, it’s just another way of communicating. Yesterday, when we were speaking with Doug Logan we had a similar conversation. His comment to that was that those four hundred years has created what he called, African American families have been within their DNA, in survival mentality and that survivors act differently than people who are achievers. Even if you put survivor mentality….a guy walked through the hallway yesterday, he said, “He’s in our church, his parents are Phd’s, he’s college educated, but he’s a drug dealer and he’s got this survivor mentality even though he’s well educated. He still acts like a survivor. That term was a very helpful term for me. Let’s relate this, so we’ve got Christian teachers who are moving into public urban schools that are largely very low income, minority, very low performing academically, yet it’s a public sponsored, state run school. So there’s always this tension between ‘I have this zeal and passion for the Lord and I’m going into being a 7th grade math teacher. How do I reconcile my faith and my desire for my students to know the Living God and yet I’m bound by law to not speak about it? How does the idea of the common good inform the teacher in that way?
AC: So I think it would be really helpful for that teacher to have a very comprehensive picture of what it means to serve God wherever they are–including their classroom. Because what we sometimes end up with is, is a narrow understanding of what God asks to do in the world and you can have so narrow an understanding us to think really my job in the world is to actively, explicitly introduce people to Jesus who is the son of God of the Incarnate presence of God of the world the redeeming, healing presence of God in the world and that is part of being a Christian and that is a huge part of our calling but it’s not the only thing we’re called to do. If that’s the only thing you’re called to do you can’t do that legally in a public school or classroom. I would actually argue you can’t do it responsibly, because you as a teacher have a kind of power, a state sponsored coercive power that makes that not a free relationship with a student and so you…it wouldn’t be appropriate to use your coercive power in a student who didn’t/isn’t a part of your family isn’t part of your church and hasn’t freely come to you. It’s not appropriate to use that to indoctrinate. Just as I as a Christian don’t want public school teachers indoctrinating my children if they happen to be nonbelievers, atheists, because I realize how much power a teacher has and I don’t want that teacher imposing their beliefs on my child.
AC: So if you think the only thing I can do with my passion for God is speak the name of Jesus and invite people to know Jesus you’re not going to know what to do as a Christian in that classroom but in fact that’s only one part of what you’re called to do and in a way the broader frame for what you’re called to do, is in fact the common good. Now, the proclamation of Jesus does contribute to the flourishing of the vulnerable. This is not an alternative to evangelism and proclamation. Naming the name of Jesus, telling people the story of the Creator God sending His Son to become a vulnerable human being in a highly oppressed community actually and the flourishing he brought and the injustice that was visited on him and his triumph over the powers of injustice that’s one of the most flourishing-bringing stories you could possibly tell. But telling that story is not the only thing we’re called to do. We can’t do it in public settings where we’re given power, in a responsible way. But if you are in the world as part of God’s mission to restore flourishing to the vulnerable then just by teaching seventh grade math in a setting where people are at risk of never being given the opportunity to learn mathematics and given the opportunity to flourish in that part of human capacity. Just doing that job well and doing it with particular attention to students and families and communities who are at risk of not doing well that is in itself answering the passion of God for His world which is “I wanna see my image bearers flourishing everywhere.”
AC: So the common good gives us a way of understanding the end by the way this why Leo went back to it because he needed a way of saying, “What are Christians doing in the world? Are we in the world just to take power? Are we in the world just to evangelize?” Leo said, “No we’re not here just to try to reclaim our power. We’re not here just to, in a narrow sense, evangelize or proclaim. We are here with our neighbors who may not share our faith in order to see that the vulnerable flourish.
AC: Now this leads [back] to the question, “What’s flourishing?” As a Christian I believe ultimately flourishing is about being reconnected in relationship to the one who made you and who can fill you with his life and his identity and his purpose. My neighbors don’t necessarily agree with me about that. I have to ask are there things my neighbors and I do agree on? Are there aspects of flourishing we all can come together on? I would say discovering the glories of math and actually it’s a measure of how tragic our world is that many people don’t think about math and glories as going together at all. But actually this is an amazing thing human beings have come up with and it’s useful in the world and it’s also just beautiful in its own right Even if you never use it you should have a chance to discover how beautiful algebra is. My neighbors don’t agree with me that a relationship with Jesus Christ is the ultimate flourishing. But my neighbors probably do agree that math is useful and maybe even beautiful and so ok let’s work on that together. That’s part of flourishing we can agree on. So we collaborate with our neighbors whatever their faith and we collaborate with our public systems that don’t enforce a specific faith on the aspects of flourishing that we find that can agree and work together on.
DM: That’s again incredibly helpful. Talk about if you can as we’re working in those common areas where we agree, let’s use instead of math, let’s use reading and literacy. Talk for a little bit about how you go about that work and areas that you both agree, the character, the display of how you go about the actual work and how that can contribute to the common good or what’s the role of the way you interact with people, the way you speak with people, the way you treat people in this idea of advancing the common good? I say that because part of what we want people to think about is you do have this opportunity. You’re not simply teaching reading to third graders. There are other things that you are communicating that have a greater good.
AC: let me see if I can put this to words. let’s say you’re teaching reading to third-graders. Even though in many ways you’ll do this in many ways a Christian will teach reading the same way someone of another faith or no faith will teach reading. We just learned some good basic strategies, but that’s not at all, all that we do. Because actually we come all of us, all teachers all human beings come into a room as our whole persons. We don’t just come with a narrow set of technical abilities that we apply especially when you’re teaching kids. Kids are not they’re not little machines that just need a little tune up. They are whole persons and they draw out from us our whole person. As a Christian teacher teaches reading they’re not just applying these good well tested evidence based strategies that we’ve learned help children learn to read but that teacher is also bringing their whole being and in this way I think Christians have something very particularly to offer. Because our own vulnerabilities have been addressed by at the deepest level by our salvation and our incorporation into the body of Christ and into the story of Jesus, his redemptive story of the world, because our identity is secure and our vulnerabilities have been met, we are able to more wholeheartedly meet other people in their vulnerability perhaps than anyone else, at least we should be. Because we don’t have to get anything from the world. It’s already been provided to us in Christ we come into even the situations of the greatest need and deprivation with a confidence and an abundance. What you find — I think the reason it seems to me that so many well-intentioned people burn out, especially actually people who are not Christian believers burn out when they try to serve in situations of great need is that they do not have a constantly replenished well of abundance in their lives and their relational lives and their spiritual and emotional lives. You step into a situation of great vulnerability and need and it’s just overwhelming. You actually become captive or prisoner to the dynamics of scarcity. The amazing thing about being a Christian is in my daily life of prayer and my weekly worship with a gathered community and hopefully in my family and my friends and my intimate relationships with Christian community I’m constantly replenished with the sense of abundance. That allows me to go to dangerous places to go to very poor places to go to the least satisfying child in that classroom the one who seems to be making the least progress and bring abundance into that relationship rather than need to get something from that relationship, some sense of identity some sense of success, effectiveness. If you try to get your sense of identity, success, and effectiveness in a very low resourced situation you’re going out to end up burned out. But if you come in every day having been replenished in that you have something to offer.
I think people get stuck especially in fairly technical subjects and I think math is a really good example people often ask, “Well what difference does it make if you’re a Christian teaching math?” and the answer is it doesn’t in the very narrowest frame of the subject and the strategies. It probably doesn’t make hardly any difference. Math is math you know the Arabs figured it out long before Christian Europe figured it out. but that’s not what teaching is. teaching is not just a narrow technical application of something. It’s the whole person with whole persons and that’s where being a Christian in that classroom makes a huge difference! Think about the vulnerability of a child who finds math hard. That’s not a technical problem and yes there are educational strategies that can help manage that students discomfort or sense of frustration, but that’s also really a whole person a little person, a whole third-grader who is just feeling totally lost and who better to meet that little person in his or her vulnerability than someone who knows the one who went to the cross: ultimate vulnerability, who has been raised from the dead, ultimate authority and thus has this kind of freedom to love that comes from the gospel. That’s all about teaching math actually because helping students overcome that sense of frustration, failure, I’m never going to get this, you know essentially providing hope there’s no simple strategy for that and that’s where being a Christian—Can non-Christians do that? Absolutely, there’s all kinds of resources for hope in the world, but the Gospel is the deepest resource for hope.
DM: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the idea of scale, critical mass and scale. I’ve read that you’ve written this idea about culture making is people, a group of people making something, but there is this tension between the larger the culture, the harder the change and so you make the comment that the easiest place to affect and create culture is in your life and in your family, but education is this massive system. How do we as Christians, how do we think about changing culture or serving the common good in education when we’re talking about a system that is massive?
AC: I’d say one big mistake we make at least we when I say we when I say we, one big mistake people with privilege and power in the dominant culture make, that is people can imagine who sort of see themselves as at the center of things is that we try to go too big too fast. That is we think, “Oh, if I could just be in charge of the system, then everything would be fine.” That is vastly underestimating how entrenched every human system is for better and for worse. How hard it is to actually change big systems. They rarely change quickly and it’s definitely overestimating your own ability to withstand the temptations and pressures of being “in charge.” Look at how the most beneficial social movement in history worked. The most beneficial movement in history, I think you could make a very powerful, secular case for this, is the Church of Jesus Christ: more relief of poverty, more creation of healthy social structures has come out of the gospel spreading its way through cultures than any other social movement and the amazing thing about it is how small it starts. Jesus has three closest disciples: Peter, James, and John. He has twelve, nine who kind of represent the tribes of Israel, perhaps a similar number of women who travel with them provide for them judging from some of the scenes we see, maybe twenty people around Jesus. Those are perhaps the ones who are in the Upper Room with Him or near him on Thursday night of Holy Week. After his resurrection there are 120 people who still believe total in the whole world gathered in a room fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, the day of pentecost. From that one hundred twenty people comes a movement that has completely changed the course of history. So, from this I’ve concluded that what you need to change the world is three, twelve, and one hundred twenty. You need an inner circle, a very, very small inner circle, a pretty small secondary circle, and then your maximum size for effective, coordinated action never is more than about a hundred fifty. In the case of Pentecost it was one hundred twenty and this relates to something called the Dunbar number, which is this British social scientist Robin Dunbar has studied how many connections can human beings sustain, meaningful connections can human beings sustain within social groups and it turns out throughout history, across cultures and every kind — from advanced cultures to very non-technological cultures it turns out the maximum size of a social group is about a hundred fifty people. That’s just our limit. It’s almost maybe a neurological limit in our brains. This means that all action, even very large scale action, has to be decomposed into circles of three, twelve, a hundred twenty. Even huge corporations divide their work first of all, think about how even a very large business is run. There is an executive team that is usually not much more if you look at the people with a ‘C’ in their title, it’s maybe a little more than three these days because now we have chief front officer and whatever. But still, CEO, CFO, COO would be a typical leadership that’s the three. They have a boardroom, you know I don’t care whether it’s ford motor company or for that matter the Ford dealership in your town which is a much smaller scale thing has a board room that hold about twelve people give or take, maybe fifteen and then and then those twelve people in some direct way work with about a hundred twenty and then each of those, if it’s a big organization, each of those that has their own three, their own twelve, their own hundred twenty and that’s the way you scale. You actually scale through the replication of small relationally connected teams, or cells you could say. What we tend to do, what naive people tend to do when they try to change systems is they try to go straight to the top and get into that boardroom. But in fact, the most effective way to bring beneficial social change is to start small in some setting where you actually have enough capacity for meaningful action and enough capacity for meaningful relationship that you can work together and do something differently. This is why very counter-intuitively, the best place I think, in my opinion, to change the whole vast system of American education is a single school, because in fact what the people at the top of the system are doing is they are desperate for models of innovation that they could replicate using their institutional power. They actually don’t know how to do it. Arne Duncan does not know, and he knows he does not know how to fix American education. What he can do is look at the whole landscape and look for islands of innovation and health. What a good leader in Arne Duncan’s position does is actually look for existing models and then figure out how to educate other people about how to use those models. Who has the real power in that system? It’s actually not the Secretary of the Department of Education. It is the circle of three, twelve, one hundred twenty in some specific school that has solved complex of problems no one else managed to solve in a way that can be replicated and that offer that the wider world. So, the wonderful thing about this is you start looking for this pattern and you realize it is everywhere. You realize no change happens without very small circles of people. So Margaret Meade famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world because in fact it’s the only thing that ever has.” The only way anything has ever changed is a small group of people. Here’s one more thought on this, here’s why, it’s because of how hard it is to bring cultural change. It’s so hard you can only do it with people you know personally and trust deeply. I compare it to mountain climbing or hiking. If I want to just go for a walk I can do that by myself and actually I could even take a very large group of people on just a very simple walk. However, if you have ever supervised a field trip, like a school field trip thirty kids you know like that is at the edge of possibility. Just to get thirty kids safely to some little zoo or something, a very basic trip. That’s at the edge of human competence to keep thirty fourteen year olds all alive, all well-fed, and all returning safely at the end of the day. Imagine taking that group to climb K2. You could never do it and you can’t climb K2 alone. The only way you can climb K2 is in a small group, because it’s the hardest form of human travel using our two feet, basically what God gave us. So you can’t climb K2 by yourself, and you can’t climb it with a huge group. You have to climb it with a small enough group that you can know each other, implicitly trust each other and do something really hard together. Cultural change is as hard as climbing K2. That means it can only be done, it will only be done by small groups of people who’ve grown to know and trust each other. But then you ask, how does scale happen? We don’t all get to climb K2. When a small group can create a new pattern of life, a new way of doing things, the genius of human culture is we can learn from each other. Other groups, other circles of three, twelve, one hundred twenty can adopt to that. You did this. You went to Boston and you learned from some group of three, twelve…three initially. I know, I guarantee it was two to four people said, “We need a teacher residency program in Boston.” Then they mobilized the twelve and then there’s maybe a hundred twenty people actively involved in it. You went and learned from that and now you’re doing that with your three, twelve, one hundred twenty. That’s the way scale actually happens.
DM: All of that is incredibly affirming. I want to ask you about, let’s talk about the idea of serving the common good actually serves the church. You mentioned it in one of your books, so much of what I fear that so much of what we talk about is here’s the church with people with resources and there’s great need in education so we’re gonna come and gonna do, gonna teach some people and do good for the community and I do think that’s right. I think that can happen. I think it’s a really great conversation to say, I’m very needy and it’s good for me and us, the church to do this. It’s essential to the church’s health to look out for the vulnerable. Why and how is it important for us? How can we help and not hurt ourselves or others? How can we help in humility?
AC: One way to think about this, why is the common good measured by the flourishing of the vulnerable? Why that? I think one answer is that those are the hardest cases by definition. To be vulnerable means you’re at risk, extra risk of not flourishing. Another reason that’s important is actually that all of us have been vulnerable and all of us will be vulnerable. All of us were young. To be young is to be vulnerable. Most of us will grow old. To be old is to be vulnerable. Most of us will be profoundly ill at some point in our lives. To be sick is to be vulnerable. Many of us will lose members of our family, we’ll become widows or orphans, widowers or orphans. So the vulnerable are not a small category of human beings that the rest of us need to certainly be especially cared about. The vulnerable actually describes every single human being at some stage in their life. Given that, at some stage I’m going to be intensely vulnerable, I really want a culture that serves the vulnerable well. At this moment I’m 47 and as far as I know I’m very healthy, I’m white, I’m male. I speak English fluently. I’m not a very vulnerable person right now, but I have been and I will be. I could be tonight, profoundly vulnerable. I want a society that will care for me when I reach that moment.
There’s something else here. When we are privileged, we are able to conceal our vulnerability from ourselves. We’re able to pretend even for long seasons of life that we actually have no real vulnerability. The problem is that not only it leaves you not serving your neighbors well, it actually it eviscerates the spiritual life because the spiritual life comes…our lives as spiritual creatures come alive when we come to God with our vulnerability and need. One of the things we say, so we have teenage children and we’re raising them in a very affluent environment here. One of the things we’ve tried to drill in them is, we have a phrase, “The only thing that money can buy is bubble wrap.” That is, the only thing money can buy is insulation from vulnerability. The problem is the more affluent bubble wrap you wrap yourself in, the less human you become. Think about it. A human being wrapped in layers of bubble wrap, it’s not just hard to poke them or hurt them. It’s hard for them to feel anything. It’s hard to act in the world when you’re insulated by layers of protection. You actually become less effective as a person. All of us kind of think, “Oh that would be a good life not to be vulnerable. I’m so glad I’m so blessed that I’m not vulnerable.” It’s actually not right at all. You’re actually missing out on blessing when you don’t expose yourself to need, because it’s in need, in vulnerability that God’s power is made known. It’s in weakness that God’s strength becomes evident. When we, who have certain kinds of privilege and power, choose to empty ourselves of certain expressions of that and put that power at the service of the vulnerable, we become vulnerable ourselves. If we do it right. The wrong way to do it is just to go in with all our authority intact and all of our bubble wrap still on, and from within our bubble encasing throw out the little gifts of resources. That’s very dehumanizing to the people who are receiving it and that leaves us encased in our bubble wrap. When we go and open ourselves up to the reality of the world, “Oh my gosh this is what children suffer, this is what families struggle with,” and then we struggle with our own reactions to that, our own self-protection of the anger that rises up within us, the need to control that we suddenly discovered in us. Well suddenly you’re taking off the bubble wrap, you are now becoming available for God to work in you in a way that you never were before. This is not just a gift to those needy people. It’s a gift to this needy person to actually to be willing to expose my need and get in touch with my need in such a way that God is acting in both of our lives. Both the obviously vulnerable person and the person who had to choose vulnerability. God is now working in both of us. A bubble wrapped church is boring. Our worship is boring. Our conversations after church are boring, because we are not exposing anything at stake. A church that has chosen to meet the world and its vulnerability and therefore discovers its own vulnerability, suddenly worship is going to be powerful. Our conversations with each other are going to change. Our relationships with each other are going to change, they’ll become real. That’s what’s in it in a sense for the privileged. It’s the relief of your privilege and the exposure of your self to the real world.
DM: How can a Christian public school teacher create, cultivate, and advance the culture in the classroom, in education, in the field which they’ve chosen?
AC: So I think the amazing thing about being a teacher is you actually have a context where you can create culture. What is culture? Culture is….one way to think about culture is artifacts and patterns. We know that we’ve stumbled upon ancient culture when we dig up something they made. It’s tangible. An artifact is some, pretty concrete thing you can see it, taste it, sense it, hear it, feel it. Also, cultures creates patterns of life. One of the cool things about being a teacher is that every new class that comes in you get to create the culture of that class. You don’t do it in a vacuum. Those students come in with expectations and patterns they’ve learned. Especially those first couple of days in your classroom, really what every good teacher is doing is creating here, and you do it through literally physical changes in the environment. So every teacher needs to be asking and can ask what changes can I make to this physical environment to create the kind of life together that we want to have. That may be the arrangement of desks. That may be bringing in a painting. That may be what you write on the board. You’re going to make physical interventions in your environment that create new possibilities for you and the students that you teach. Then you ask, “What patterns do we want to have?” Every time that we come together, every time we come to the classroom, “What’s the pattern?” Every time I ask a question, “what’s the pattern?” Sometimes you just work with the patterns people come in with, you raise your hand to ask a question. Is there some change you need to make to that that will help the vulnerable flourish? So you think about raising your hand to ask a question. The problem with that pattern is that the confident students get all the attention. A good teacher thinks, “hey we can have that pattern sometimes, but let’s create a new pattern where the less confident students get an opportunity to contribute and see that they have something to offer.” The way you change culture is you create more of it. You don’t change culture by just wishing it were different. You don’t change it by just saying, “I wish we could do this instead of this.” You change it by saying here’s this new thing in our lives, this new actually tangible reality. Let’s try to learn this new pattern. When you have artifacts plus patterns and they’re different from what people expected, then you have cultural change. Is that what you wanted?
DM: Speak into the role of suffering in creating change for the common good because this is very, very difficult work. What I deal with the most is teachers who come back to me in a state of stress and suffering. So how do we speak to them to encourage them to know that it is a reality and what is the role of it?
AC: The people of Israel, the ancient people of Israel, lived surrounded by empires. An empire is a highly integrated, large scale social system that commands a lot of power. They can do things often very effectively, especially in the military and economic realms …Israel, the nation of Israel lived really their whole existence surrounded by empires. An empire is a highly organized, vast political and economic system that commands tremendous power and is very effective in the world. Babylon, Assyria, eventually Rome…all these impressive, highly technologically accomplished for their time empires surround the people of God. The people of God, in the Bible, are constantly asking in one way or another, why can’t we be like those empires? Why can’t we have that level of power and capacity? Instead God chooses this small nation. He says, “I did not choose you because you were the largest nation, actually you were the smallest nation I could find,” essentially in Deuteronomy. God names Israel, which means he, namely Jacob, he wrestles with God. What happens in that encounter with God at the ford of that river in Genesis? Jacob engages in this wrestling match with God and he’s left wounded at the end of it. For the rest of his life he limps because his hip has been put out of joint. This is the people of God in the world. The people who have a limp in the world are God’s redemptive agents in history. Isaiah picks this up and sings these songs toward the end of Isaiah that are called the “Servant Songs.” The most tragic and beautiful is Isaiah 53, the suffering servant in which Isaiah says the one who would eventually be the fulfillment of God’s plan was not evidently powerful, was not attractive, was someone from whom people hid their faces he was so disfigured by his suffering, and this is God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed. Isaiah, I think, is both referring back to Israel’s vocation and forward to Jesus’ fulfillment of that vocation. There is something transformative about the willingness to embrace vulnerability. Vulnerable just means woundable, able to be wounded. Bearing the wounds of the world, there’s something that that accomplishes in history that power does not accomplish. I think what it accomplishes, is it actually breaks the power of the lie that is at the heart of sin, which is that I can be invulnerable. The reason we have these systems that have distorted human life, that have undermined flourishing, that create oppression, that perpetuate injustice is that people create those systems to build empires, to be powerful. The presence in that story of people who are willing to suffer and to bear the suffering in a redemptive way undermines and unmasks the power of those idols and those oppressive systems of injustice. This is why Paul says that Jesus disarmed the principalities and powers, not in the empty tomb, the rising and resurrection and vindication, but at the cross. The cross shows you that the way to true life is not invulnerability, it’s not empire, it’s not infinite authority. It’s vulnerability. The hard, good news is that our vocation as Christians in the world is distinctively, actually, to bear suffering. By the grace of God, we are not out there alone, we are not meant to bear alone, we have to have community. We have to have spiritual disciplines to survive. But we do bear and we are called to bear it. That is redemptive. It shows the world that actually suffering is not something that you have to categorically fear or deny or avoid.
DM: If you would speak to the primary ways to combat suffering, how do you handle suffering?
AC: The christian vocation in the world as part of the fulfillment of the suffering servant is to suffer. The only way you will bear that is if you don’t bear it alone. You need community. You need worship. Once you start really entering into vulnerability, suddenly you need worship in a new way. It’s not just a nice thing Christians do on Sunday. it’s the replenishing of the well springs of our ability to go out into the world and give ourselves away again. We need the spiritual disciplines in our life of solitude, silence, fasting, prayer, as well as feasting, rejoicing, celebrating, and those practices are what equip us to be people who can suffer faithfully in the world.
DM: Why does urban education matter? Why would a book that addresses the topics that we’re talking about be important—a book that seeks to answer the question of how do we think and act in response to that education, why is that an important book?
AC: Urban education matters, it seems to me, because our public schools in our cities concentrate vulnerability to a greater degree than almost any other system in our culture and in our nation and concentrate opportunity in a greater way than anywhere else. There’s more vulnerability in the public school system than almost anywhere else, but there is so much opportunity for Christians and everyone who cares about the common good to see real dramatic change. It seems to me that’s why it matters.