Mary Kathryn Daigle was born and raised in a historic, inner-city neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Living among old buildings that housed modern problems made her interested in the study of history and political science and she currently studies these disciplines at Wheaton College in Illinois. She was a participant in the 2020 Summer Honors Program course “Renewing America’s Social Fabric: Faith, Community, and Public Policy” taught by Dr. Ryan Streeter.
I didn’t know Marvel movies provided relevant commentary on American society until I watched Thor Ragnorok. After finishing “Renewing America’s Social Fabric: Faith, Community, and Public Policy,” a class taught by Dr. Ryan Streeter as part of AEI’s Summer Honors Program, I sat down with my family and watched another world’s troubles, only to have it frame my thoughts about ours. It was the journey of walking in the shoes of another that made me reconsider the inner workings of human nature, community, and the true meaning of flourishing. Or maybe it was that I couldn’t get Chris Hemsworth out of my brain after the credits rolled and I went back to work. In any case, the story of how (spoilers) the god Thor is forced to destroy his homeland has something to teach Americans about our current predicament.
In the movie, Thor paves the way for a great evil to destroy his people’s enemies. However, that same evil decimates their land. As he watches the world go up in flames, he murmurs doubts about the justification for what he has done, but the sage Heimdall shoots him a penetrating look. “Asgard is not a place,” he says. “It’s a people.” Though songs extol the beauty of the American countryside and historians speak about the wonders of the Constitution, Heimdall’s words ring true here: our nation is neither a land nor a series of laws. Putting too much faith in our soil or government undermines the nation. When places or politics become the ultimate prize, they stop serving their real function: to provide a framework that helps us discover the treasure in the people surrounding us. This physical place and polity is defined primarily by its people. Despite our diverse backgrounds and differing ideas, it’s when we come together that society takes shape.
Unfortunately, defining the nation by its people makes our present moment seem pretty dark. During the week of my Summer Honors Program class, cities were filled with unrest and hospitals were packed with COVID-19 patients. However, painful circumstances are nothing new. On any given day a week, tragedies occur that don’t make the headlines: a young man overdoses when he turns to opioids to numb his pain, a retail worker loses his job, a single mother is diagnosed with depression, and a child’s parents get divorced. Over decades, these tragedies and more like them have become more commonplace for many segments of the population. Working and lower class communities are suffering, for whites and minorities alike. If we define our nation by the condition of our people, America looks to be in bad shape. My class convened to ask the question: how do we create conditions for human flourishing when the social fabric seems to be tearing at the seams?
The answer we landed on was counterintuitive. In the face of large-scale problems, we must determinedly invest in the little things. Our nation is more than government and individuals; we have a civil society of intermediate communities. In their famous essay “To Empower People,” Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus outline the power of localities by looking at those institutions of civil society: neighborhoods, houses of worship, non-profits, and families. They make a powerful case that individuals are more fulfilled, and society is healthier as a whole, when small mediating structures are strong.
However, most of us pay attention to national government and the big names of industry and entertainment more than we consider localities. We read thought-provoking headlines from national newspapers, buy sustainable products from mega-corporations, and post the right hash-tag on social media for the world to see, but we often neglect the needs of our immediate neighbors. When we face big problems, we should consider turning away from the national stage and going for a walk around town, to see how those issues manifest themselves in our local communities.
Though I don’t think Dietrich Bonhoeffer had American society in mind when writing his treatise on Christian community, Life Together, his principles transfer. Bonhoeffer warns against the danger of overlooking the small things. “We pray for the big things,” he says, “and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to the one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?” If we pray for an end to systemic racism or for the healing of the thousands on ventilators, but don’t stop to correct our language or cover a sneeze, we are hypocrites. I read in the Gospels what Jesus has to say to hypocrites (Matt. 7:21–23) and, personally, I want him to say something different to me. Let us be found faithful with little, so that we may be faithful with much (Luke 16:10).
Attending to small things does not mean government should be held at arm’s length. Rather, we should use government to protect and enhance civil society. Government can come alongside mediating structures, empowering them through funding or programming to meet the nuanced needs of their communities. Every feature of American life––government and individuals as well as families, neighborhoods, nonprofits, and businesses––must work together if we are to create a thriving society.
To heal our wounded country, we must commit to small details as well as big ideas. Think about reading the local newspaper before heading to the New York Times. Shop from the small business on the corner instead of scrolling through Amazon. Call the nice woman from your synagogue because she recently lost her husband and might feel lonely. Apologize to your children when you raise your voice in irritation. It’s counterintuitive, but if we start small, we could start stitching together a stronger social fabric.
Like Heimdall said, our nation is a people. But we don’t need to perform heroic acts like Thor to allow our society to thrive. Instead, we must commit ourselves to the local, the boring, the unglamorous small things. When we become intimately acquainted with the daily needs of our communities, we can better harness the power of our institutions. Focusing on the little details may actually result in the biggest impact. As we repair our social fabric, small stitch by small stitch, we will be better able to deal with national issues and create the conditions our nation needs to thrive.