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Thinking Out Loud

Community or Chaos

by Michael Jinkins | Aug 01, 2017


Lake LambertEditor’s note: Today’s blog post is written by Lake Lambert, Ph.D. (pictured) who is president of Hanover College (Hanover, Indiana). He has also served as dean of Mercer University’s College of Liberal Arts (Macon, Georgia) and professor of religion and Board of Regents Chair in Ethics at Wartburg College (Waverly, Iowa). Additionally, Lake was the founding director of the Center for Community Engagement, a $2.5 million program funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc. His research has focused on workplace spirituality, professional ethics, and church-related higher education. He is the author of Spirituality, Inc.: Religion in the American Workplace (NYU Press 2009).

Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed 49 years ago in Memphis. The year was 1968. It was a time of incredible tension in our nation and a period when a great political divide was also present. Our nation was divided over an escalating war abroad, protests at home and especially in our cities, a growing awareness of economic inequality, a continued desire to end racism but division over what was still required, a feeling by many in the heartland that a so-called “silent majority” had been ignored, and a feeling there and elsewhere that the American dream was increasingly unattainable.

Not long before he was shot in 1968—and in the midst of this social and political turmoil—King published his last book. The title seems to speak to both our time, and King used a question as the starting point. The book was entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

King knew that there could be different answers to the question. The subtitle of his book named the two he could foresee. He said that America and the world could choose chaos or community. I am amazed how this choice still seems to be the one that faces us now—and perhaps it always has been and always will be—but I am also convinced that it is not only a societal and global choice but also a personal and even existential choice as well.

As individuals, we have before us the choice to make a positive difference in the world, the choice to fashion a life of meaning and purpose in service to others, the choice to nurture bonds of community in multiple settings or the choice to pursue self-interest at all costs, the choice to leave the concerns of community and the world to others, and the choice to deny the entire idea of vocation, meaning and purpose in life apart from the acquisition of personal wealth, power, satisfaction and privilege. As a people, our choice may be community or chaos, but as individuals it seems that our choice is between community or nihilism.

To describe his vision of community in the book Where Do We Go From Here?, King offered his own parable, the story of a novelist who left at his death the outline for a new story as stated thus: “A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.” King goes on to say:

"We have inherited a large house, a great 'world house' in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who because we can never live apart, must learn how to live with each other in peace" (167).

Joining King, I would say that we have been given a false choice today between valuing a global community or valuing local community. A liberal arts education has long sought to encourage global perspectives and engagement. We have embraced the Stoic idea of being “cosmopolitans,” literally “citizens of the world.” This is what liberal arts colleges should and must continue to do.

However, I worry that we may not have done enough to teach the skills and values of local citizenship. Small-town Indiana does not sound as interesting as Brussels or Taipei, and I fear that college students who have been detached from local communities may not be prepared for or even interested in engaging the communities where they find themselves after graduation. I must add that indifference is just another path to chaos.  It is not chaos with a fist or gun but chaos with a shrug.

As higher education becomes almost exclusively focused on individual career development, church-related liberal arts colleges must stand apart as places for vocational discernment and preparation. An individual’s work can be part of living out that vocation, but it cannot be all of it. Community life is an equally important place of vocational responsibility, and it too requires discernment and preparation. This is a form of institutional vocation and one not without risks. Students and families may conclude that education for citizenship isn’t worth the investment, threatening our financial solvency, and colleges cannot determine the life paths of their graduates, meaning that we may provide skills that can be used just as easily to foster more chaos. No calling is without risk, and even an institution must have a form of faith. We must have hope.

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