Social Infrastructure

Sermon by guest preacher Rabbi Gregory Marx on Sunday, January 26, 2020.

Exodus 6:26, “The Lord said “Bring forth the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop.” Usually mentions 12 tribes, but in this case, the Torah takes a deep dive into the tribes of Levi. Mentions the sons of Levi Gerson, Kohath and Merari. Then we learn of sons of Gerson, Kohath and Merari. Sforno observes that the entire community including all their respective members, simultaneously marched together, as individuals. We are one and we are many.

This morning, I want to speak to you about the wisdom of the sacred text and its lesson regarding community. Indeed, the text tells us that we march to redemption not as individuals but as a community. Even the design of the church is that of a ship; we are all rowing in the same direction….towards redemption. Having said that, we are witnessing, all across this country, before our very eyes a decline in our communal efforts.. We are witnessing a staggering number of synagogue and church mergers and closings. Reform, Conservative Orthodox, mainline Protestants and evangelical houses of worship are all contracting. Ironically, as the Middle East is becoming increasingly religious, we are seeing a marked decline in our civic and religious communities in the West. Some will tell you that its only liberal houses of worship that are in decline and that more fundamentalist institutions are growing, but this is not the case. We are all witnessing a dramatic decline in membership and engagement. I wish it were not true, but it is.

Churches and synagogues are not just places of faith, but rather of social capital and community. Here, we meet each other. Here we debate each other. Here we tear down the walls of loneliness and build what is essential for our world.

I want to talk about the importance of a term I call, “Social Infrastructure.” I learned it this summer at Chautauqua from an NYU professor, Eric Klinenberg. He argues quite convincingly that our day and age is being transformed from a society where we used to have social networking to a world where everyone is essentially alone and civic life is rapidly becoming a phenomenon of the past.

Of course, we need physical infrastructure to function. We need good roads and bridges and we are rightly concerned that our bridges are decaying. Our roads are filled with potholes and our transportation system is so antiquated and in need of expansion that it is costing commuters billions of dollars in lost business opportunities. Well, we need to worry about our crumbling social infrastructure too. In fact, I sometimes think that this is more important. Social infrastructure is our oldest and most powerful resource for turning disconnected “I”s into a collective “we”. It’s the alchemy that turns selfish genes into selfless people, egoists into altruists, self-interested striving into empathy, “just me” into sympathy and compassion for others.

Public engagement is down in favor of a more self-centered life. We are shifting from a world of faith and communal involvement to a life that is defined by our jobs our posts and our LinkedIn profile.

We are taking more selfies than photos of others. A life of service is being replaced by one of entitlement. For generations our social fabric was built on public institutions like churches, synagogues, community centers and libraries. Now they are disappearing and we are becoming increasingly lonely.

Public spaces are closing and apps are opening. We are looking up less into the face of each other and increasingly looking down into our cell phones. Take a look at people walking down the concourse at the airport or walking down the streets of Philly. So many are just walking like Zombies starring into their screens. So much looking down has resulted in an evolutionary change to our skeletons. Recent studies have observed that in the bodies of the young, we are growing a bone spur at the back of our necks, because of continuous downward gazing. It’s not just our culture that is changing; it’s our very evolution, our posture, our outlook. We are congregating less in communal places where we engage our neighbor and are moving to places of isolation. Our public places of civic engagement are being replaced by Amazon stores, Starbuck’s coffee shops, charter and cyber schools and for a while, until they started closing, malls.

You may so, “so what?” What does it matter if or where people congregate? Societies change and we should adapt to that evolution of culture.

Well it does matter. At the malls people talk about merchandise. At the coffee shops people speak about their job prospects and resumes. They stare in isolation into their computer monitors or phones, rather than engage with each other. In charter schools, rather than public schools, the values taught might be devoted to a particular religious practice, ethnic culture that can run contrary to our American unity and civic priorities. In Libraries we discuss the arts, sciences and literary ideas. At places of worship, we discuss matters of politics, and civic engagement and yes, God.

As a child, I remember my mother making coffee in a large percolator. She would invite neighbors over for a cup. She kept a frozen Entenmann’s coffee cake in the freezer just in case company would stop by? I was told to never touch that coffee cake just in case, she would open her doors to a neighbor just stopping by. Now, no one just stops by. And if you do, you have to call from the driveway to make sure you don’t get shot walking up the driveway. I’m exaggerating, I know. But it has changed. Today, should someone just stop by our home, we hide and pretend that we are away. We crouch low and crawl in our kitchens so that the person standing outside doesn’t see that anyone through the window. Instead of coffee cake, we have a ring doorbell that communicates with the intruder from wherever we may be without having to actually be there. How our social contract has changed.

While so many are rightly focusing on the opioid crisis, I want to bemoan another often ignored problem, that results ,in many cases, from loss of social infrastructure.   Almost a quarter of 14-year-old girls have self-harmed in the course of a year? This is a deeply disturbing trend. A fascinating book, iGen, is a thoroughly researched study of American children born in or after 1995: the first generation to have grown up with smartphones. Jean Twenge, its author, observes that rates of life satisfaction among American teenagers has plummeted since 2012, while depression and suicide has rocketed upward.

It’s no surprise, but the author notes what we intuitively know; social media and smartphone addiction has played a significant part in this pathology. Young people are spending between seven and nine hours a day on their phones. The result has been a loss of social skills, shortened attention spans and sleep deprivation, but above all, anxiety. There is a new fear among teenagers today. It’s called, (FOMO), which stands for “Fear of Missing Out.” Kids are constantly comparing themselves with the glossy images of their contemporaries, they are constantly posting pictures of themselves doing fun things often staged, to create the impression that they are on the “in circle.” And it is making them according to Twenge, “scared, maybe even terrified.” They are “both the physically safest generation and the most mentally fragile.”

Alone we are so ….. alone. Without a shared history or community, we are left as anxious individuals, lonely, vulnerable and depressed, struggling to survive in a world that is changing faster than we can bear and becoming more unstable by the day.

Elie Wiesel once asked: “What does it mean to be a congregation? It means to care about each other. Pray? We can pray at home. We come together as a congregation in order to share in each other’s lives and in order to share in the life of the Jewish people — past, present and future.” We come together to listen to each other and respect each other’s differences.

The great British author, Henry James called America a “hotel culture.” A hotel is where you eat and sleep, but never fully unpack and move in. You never set down roots. You never really own the place. You can mess up your room knowing that while you’re out, someone else will come and straighten up. You care nothing for the people who live next door for soon you’ll be checking out and moving on. Sovereignty matters; not responsibility. The customer has no attachments, only a series of limited-liability partnerships… In a moment of crisis, he’ll call for Emergency Roadside. Otherwise, he keeps his distance.

As a country, as individuals, as citizens….we needs to reject the hotel culture in favor of the “church and synagogue culture.” We need to reject the hotel culture in favor of the St. Thomas culture, where we care about each other. Help each other. Talk to each other. Cry with each other and fight with each other. We need congregants who are more than just a consumer of services who check in and check out. We need congregants who come together and value, create and support the foundation of our civilization and build a lasting social infrastructure.

This is a place of social infrastructure. It is not only vital to this church’s future; it is the bedrock of America, the foundation of society. It will keep our children happier if they are a part of the community. They may not know it, but they need it. My friends, together, in places like Christ Church, we are stronger, safer, healthier and, believe it or not, we are better off we have an Entenmann’s frozen in the freezer just in case.