Recently as any opening discussion in my Everyday Christian, Everyday Justice class I posed the question “What did Frances Bellamy mean by the words ‘…with liberty and justice for all.’ as he included them in the pledge of allegiance?” In researching the pledge in advance of class, I found that Frances Bellamy was expressing the ideals of his cousin, Edward Bellamy (see http://www.oldtimeislands.org/pledge/pledge.htm). Edward Bellamy put the core of these ideas into writing in his classic novel Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887 (available online from Project Gutenberg). The novel was written in 1887 imagining the world as it might exist in the year 2000. Like some of the best science fiction works that I have read over the years, what is far more important than the imagined technological innovation is the imagined social innovation that might occur. Indeed, Bellamy’s novel speaks very little of the changes in technology. In learning about the history of Looking Backwards, though, what struck me most was that it was the third best-seller of it’s time, creating a political mass movement almost immediately upon it’s publication. My appetite was whetted!
The book was every bit as thought provoking as I anticipated. Indeed, I understand now why it inspired so many Utopian societies to sprout up; I find it most frustrating that I don’t have a set of peers who have also just read it afresh and with whom I can struggle to unpack some of what I found within. The book explores the balance between individualism and living for the good of neighbor and society. What happens when life is a scramble to take care of one’s self and one’s family regardless of it’s impact on others. The description of 1887 society rings all too true for society today in a number of key ways! Reading Looking Backwards in 2010 is a good reminder that technological innovation which far outpaces social innovation may allow a few individuals opportunity for improved economic success, but ultimately does not lead towards a society in which liberty and justice is available to all.
The Bellamy’s were Christian Socialist Utopians. Their Utopian ideals came from an understanding of the Christian faith which leads towards highly transformative life. This transformation in Christ leaves the Christ follower out of sync with the common metrics of the world. Consider if Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoffer, Corrie Ten Boom, Sister Teresa, Martin Luther King, and the so many others were looked at as the role models for a successful life. In a just completed message series at New Horizon Church, the pastors described this as being “Divinely Ruined” as we look at our own life and how we live it in relation to others in a completely different way.
The question comes to mind whether this transformative view of ourselves in relation to others of necessity leads us towards a political and economic system as reflected in Bellamy’s Utopian society described in Looking Backwards. I must admit that I find it hard to imagine such a social transformation at a national let alone global scale.I do not see a national socialist government the answer to all our ills. But I do not see that it can be implemented either at a local level alone, as too many who have been traditionally marginalized by our society would again be left out. While I long to be transformed to live more like Christ in my daily life, I find that too often I evidence a selfishness that is far from Christ-like. In this I don’t think I am exceptional. Indeed, the writings of any of the aforementioned spiritual role models are filled with such struggles of falling short from the ideal set by Christ. Edward Bellamy describes a benevolent national system that is the employer for all, that is the landlord for all, that is the social service for all. Bellamy also describes a set of checks and balances that assures an isolated individual who has not fully bought into the understanding that living for the good of others is also living for the good of oneself does not derail the entire system. But I still find it impossible to imagine this would be adequate to bring about the Utopian society described given who we are and how we live today.
While I find the Utopian society impossible to imagine I also feel compelled to work to see it brought into being as a Christ follower. Each time I corporately pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” I find myself adding emphasis to the phrase on Earth. A majority of Americans still claim to be Christian. What if we lived a sacrificial, Christ-like life that put others first in all we do? How would business be conducted differently? How would our commutes to and from work be conducted differently? How would our political campaigns be conducted differently? How would our social policies be crafted differently? How would our international presence be different? Perhaps we would see “liberty and justice for all” at last!
Read Looking Backwards: 2000 to 1887 then let’s get together and talk it through!