What is America?

First Things Foundation is building an investment fund that allows us to offer zero interest loans to our impresarios and their most brilliant ideas. These loans will have terms, but they will not demand interest payments of any sort. The currency is loyalty, and the notion that all of us are free to honor what is good. All of our investment loans, when repaid, will return to the fund, to be loaned out to new impresarios who qualify. In the old world these types of loans have real potential. We are looking for business minded individuals who love these kind of projects. We are not investors by nature. We need help. Does our project interest you? Can you help us build our fund? Contact us and let’s talk. The blog that follows from John is about our fund, but not really. It is about why we need such a fund, a way to connect the old world to the new in redemptive ways.

And now from a desk somewhere in the Carolina’s, or Florida or wherever, John Heers offers up:

Our Beloved America: New and Old

Recently a friend of mine in Chicago wondered aloud about our work at First Things. “C’mon John, do you really need that roving band of ineffective, backpack toting, American hippies part to do your poverty alleviation thing? I mean, why two years in poverty and all of that?”

Besides being a really honest sounding board, my buddy was giving voice to the thoughts of many Americans we run into, and many others we do not. In that sense, his comment was a gift and a challenge for us.  Why bother with this work, this deep immersion thing we do? Here is one answer we are proud to offer.

But first some history. 

In 1776 the world changed. Chief among a set of cataclysmic changes was the incarnation of an idea. Let’s call that idea the miracle of individualism. Let’s call it the New World, or better yet, America. Like all ideas, however, it wasn’t entirely new. Folks had tinkered with it in ancient Greece and to some degree, in Rome. The Byzantines used Christianity to deliver certain laws meant to protect individuals, and of course the British and French (among others) had contributed much to the nascent notions of modern individualism during the Enlightenment. And then we Americans chased the British off and went all in on the concept of the individual. A bill of rights was born. Independence and individualism became more than a rally cry for nationhood; it got into our blood. I mean, do you really think teenage rebellion is a natural phenomena, like gravity or cyclones? It’s not. The kind of rebellion we associate with teenagers here can’t be found in most African and Central American societies. No, in so many ways our teenagers are the new world, and we the parents. We old people are old King George. We breed individualism and independence into our young people because we love and trust the rebel in ourselves. 

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We love the idea that I’m on my own. That I can do it myself. 

And well, it is true on many levels. The shame of having to “own” our mistakes has made us very competent people. A love of reason has made us efficient and rational. We believe that we are the creators of our own destiny. New Worlder’s believe in progress. We believe in ourselves.  With these powerful notions we’ve created a brave new world, not to mention a very wealthy and affluent one. Those cultures which experienced the Enlightenment are unique, and in many ways, exceptional. But there have been some bloody casualties along the way, and chief among these is tradition.

“I ye mun ye?” is Bambara for “You are of what?” Bambara is the local language of millions of West African people. The typical response to this question can be, “Ne ye Heers ye” or, “ I am of Heers”. You can see something similar in old Russia. Russian middle names almost always include “son of” or “daughter of”. Nikiolaevich means son of Nicholas, Nikolaovna, daughter of Nicholas. In fact, this sort of thing is found all over the world, though in new world cultures it is no longer a part of the collective consciousness. (If you are a Johnson are you likely to be the son of a John?). The old world is all about tradition, and tradition is most often about family. In the developing world  it’s rare to meet someone and have them inquire, “What do you do?”. It’s far more likely that you would be asked who your parents are.

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See, the old world demands that people think humbly. In that world you are never fully responsible for anything, because after all, you are much more than what you’ve become (and much less too).  The old world demands a bent neck, a sense of smallness, a reverence for the past, an acknowledgment that you are a product of something far greater than yourself. Empathy, too, is deeply valued. Your needs are never your own, not fully. And the needs of others are, in many ways, your needs as well. Relationships are everything in the old world. I mean, think about it. The worst thing that could happen to someone in the old world was banishment. Worse than death even. A lack of relationship with your people was death in many ways. I can still see Madou, the kid my village friends would send to my hut at night, sucking on a sugar cane stalk, staring at me for hours while I read a book. He’d been sent by the elders to watch me because, as they would tell me all the time, “It is bad to be  alone John. You mustn’t be alone.”

So what’s this got to do with my buddy’s question about creating a roving band of hippies? So why do we do all this poverty stuff anyway, deep in the thick of it, with no running water but plenty of malaria?

The short answer is that we seek balance. We embrace fully the rich sense of self the new world has given us while seeking what our culture has collectively forgotten: The existential need for deep, abiding relationships. We endeavor to make a project of our own souls, to create a way to serve others and their material dreams (the new world), while also returning balance to our own selves. We seek a place somewhere between the new and old worlds, somewhere between complete disintegration and total integration. We seek the royal path. 

St. John Chrysostom, a really badass guy from late antiquity, challenges us to reconsider the very notions of wealth and poverty:

“Let us learn... not to call the rich lucky nor the poor unfortunate.  Rather, if we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who [serves only} his desires. [Homily II On Wealth and Poverty]. 

Great projects. Balanced people. Uniting two worlds within us, new and old. May it all be of some use, and may your continued support lead to more great projects and more balanced people.