Which values do you think make for a thriving and productive society?
Would you say it’s things like hard work, integrity, meaningful relationships, and compassion that create a healthy and prosperous society? Or do you believe that laziness, infidelity, disrespect, and substance abuse are the keys?
Which societal norms are most advantageous for a nation desiring to reclaim world leadership in technology, science, and industry?
These sound like ridiculous questions, right?
But when an article came out on August 9, 2017 in the Philadelphia Enquirer titled, “Paying the price for the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture” the public response could make you wonder.
Authors Amy Wax of University of PA Law and Larry Alexander of University of San Diego Law wrote the op-ed describing old-fashioned and now controversial values which were prevalent during the 1940’s- 1960’s, arguing that we must return to these “bourgeois” cultural principals before it is too late.
It is a fascinating read as they lay out a broad description of the social maladies in America today: decreasing workforce participation among working-age males, disintegrating families, poor education and diminishing hard work ethics, waning patriotism, civility, and civic-mindedness, intensifying inner city violence, and epidemic substance abuse. I doubt many can dispute these common observations of American society today.
What many DO dispute are Wax and Alexander’s attributions to such declines in our present culture and the remedy they suggest.
They argue that old-fashioned values once practiced and preached by our parents’ and grandparents’ generation such as:
- marrying before having children,
- education for gainful employment,
- hard work,
- avoiding idleness,
- national loyalty,
- civility in speech and action,
- avoiding substance abuse and criminal activity— all “contributed to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.”
Public figures and the media seized upon this article and the strong message promoting traditional conservative values. Both University of Pennsylvania Law and San Diego School of Law received complaints and calls to remove these highly esteemed professors for stating their opinions surrounding these formerly accepted cultural principals and the results their decline from society today have produced.
What does this criticism say about American society today? Have we become a culture without character?
Interestingly, Wax and Alexander’s observations line up rather closely to precepts taught and emphasized in Biblical Scriptures— especially those found in the book of Proverbs. Highly regarded by Christians as THE Book on Wisdom and often referenced or rephrased by secular and other spiritual leaders, the teachings are sound and have withstood the test of millennia. Written over 3,000 years ago, the Proverbs address personal, social, and general issues common to all societies whether they existed in 1000 B.C. or today in 2018 A.D; whether one lives in a small village in Africa or a major American metropolis.
Our problems at their core are still the same.
The social problems addressed in the Proverbs were infidelity, laziness, unethical leaders, greed, dishonest business practices, drunkenness, violence, and corrupt or perverse speech, just to name a few. These are issues of personal character which affect the greater society and have a striking resemblance to the very problems cited in the Wax and Alexander op-ed.
It seems that the problems in ancient Israel, were much the same as ours today, but in our modern culture, many simply do not like the solution. It is offensive and not very forward-thinking or progressive. In fact, it is antiquated and unfashionable. Which is why Wax and Alexander were ostracized by colleagues and publicly castigated by countless others.
So, does character really matter? Most would admit that persons of good character, generally speaking, are necessary if not integral to a society seeking peace and prosperity for its people, but that would be dependent upon agreement of what consists of good character. What is the standard? What defines good character and why?
This is where the Proverbs can offer insight to the student (and society) willing to listen and learn.
In fact, there are many passages of Scripture supporting the very cultural script laid out by Wax and Alexander. I will share just a few.
Marriage and Fidelity
Wax and Alexander stated that previous generations were taught to wait until marriage to have children and then to do their best to stay married and faithful to their spouse. The Proverbs also urges fidelity in marriage and describes children as blessings (Psalm 127:3) that result from that union of a man and his wife.
“Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well…May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.” (Prov 5:15,18) NIV
This and other passages, (Prov 5:15-20, 9:17-18, 6:20-7:27) all urge faithfulness in marriage and warn against infidelity, as it may cost you your most important human relationship as well as significant financial loss as “strangers feast on your wealth and your toil enrich another man’s house” (Prov 5:10).
In the article, Wax and Alexander implied that the decreasing workforce participation among working-age males is indicative of an increase in laziness but that previous generations had discouraged idleness and the un-productive wasting of time. The Proverbs contain over 25 verses/passages dedicated to those resisting or refusing to work.
“How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest— and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.” (Prov 6:9-11) NIV
The brazenly slothful are cautioned and condemned for their failure to prepare for the future, to properly manage their property, and for indulging in too much sleep. Sharp warnings paint a grim future for the sluggard including unfulfilled desires, public disgrace, scarcity, poverty, and eventual slavery. But for diligent and hardworking citizens, the future holds wealth, security, and honor.
Other related passages: Prov 10:4, 20:13, 6:6-8
Avoiding “coarse” language in public is another example of the “bourgeois culture” that Wax and Alexander identified as beneficial to society. Today, cursing and vulgarity have permeated nearly every facet of our lives: entertainment, athletics, politics, the workplace, and in general public. But it is no longer acceptable to ask strangers who may be using offensive speech around sensitive listeners to refrain from such impudence without risking even greater direct verbal or in some cases, physical assault.
Yet it always goes better for those who exercise restraint— for those who guard their lips, guard their lives. (Proverbs 13:3,18:6)
“The mouth of the righteous bring forth wisdom, but a perverse tongue will be cut out. The lips of the righteous know what is fitting, but the mouth of the wicked, only what is perverse.” (Prov 10:31-32) NIV
Other passages on coarse language: Prov 4:24, 10:11, 10:32, 19:1, 10:31
Respect for Authority
Here is yet another example of a widely-held virtue that contributed to the social cohesion of previous generations. Respect for authority was requisite of all children, students, employees, and the general populace, and is necessary to maintain a truly civilized society. The Apostle Paul urged the Christians in Rome to submit to and respect their governing authorities (Romans 13:1-5) likely drawing on this passage from Proverbs:
“By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just: by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth.” (Prov 8:15-16) NIV
It was surely difficult to respect authority during the rule of Roman emperors. Yet, for us today, in spite of the privilege of our American democracy, it has become socially acceptable to despise and disrespect unpopular and polarizing elected officials, law enforcement officers, or those with whom we disagree. Respect has now become conditional upon favor and preference rather than for the office held and the leadership or authority it represents.
Eschewing Substance Abuse and Crime
Here are two more examples of behaviors that the influential majority taught our predecessors to avoid: the use and abuse of substances and involvement of any kind in criminal activity. Obviously, Scripture has much to say about both of these issues, but one obvious caution emerges again from Proverbs citing the dangers of intoxication and overindulgence:
“Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.” (Prov 23:20-21) NIV
More on drinking too much…. Prov 20:1 NIV
Interestingly, a caution against criminal activity, against being enticed, is the very first subject of the entire book of Proverbs! The student is warned of the temptation to join with others in targeting and stealing from the innocent. The effects of a society rampant with crime and violence are not hard to imagine- we can see that in the local, national, and world news. What is difficult to imagine and convey is the harm that involvement with crime brings to the individual! The prediction and universal truth is that those who seek to harm others, inevitably harm themselves.
“Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain: it takes away the lives of those who get it.” (Prov 1:19) NIV
So What Do We Do?
If we truly are paying the price for the breakdown of bourgeois culture, when do we stop paying?
Wax and Anderson suggested a return to the cultural values and precepts of our parents’ generation. But what if that is not the best remedy for what is ailing our present society?
What if the answer is not just a return to conservative culture or character development per se, but rather a return to wisdom?
Wisdom is more than decorum or a set of rules. And it is not behavior modification, but rather, thought modification. Because our thoughts drive our actions and our actions produce outcomes, wisdom is not focusing just on the actions, but is the system of thought that will drive and influence our action.
The primary foundation for wisdom and understanding is stated here:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Prov 9:10) NIV
When we think and act from a reverence of and relationship with a Holy God, our decisions and outcomes change decidedly. We develop qualities of character which benefit not only our individual self, but impact our entire society because we are living out the truth of wisdom and experiencing countless blessings as it guides our lives.
Wisdom helps us cultivate a “disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair” (Prov 1:3).
Wisdom produces the character we have been lacking in society. It will provide the foundation for us to be hard working, faithful in our marriages, respectful of others and those in authority (even those with whom we disagree), civic-minded and charitable, and to avoid destructive substances and persons who would lead us along the wrong path. It is the best way for us to move forward again, no longer relying on shifting cultural ideals, but building on a firm foundation securing for us, and our children, a better future.
“Listen, my son, accept what I say, and the years of your life will be many. I guide you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths. When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble.” (Prov 4:10-12) NIV