Finding the Art in Everything

06 February, 2008


In my AP class, we have been digging at the nature of Progressivism, a time in the early 20th century heralded for its tremendous social, political, and economic reform.

  • Was it really a movement by the people to curb powerful interests? (The actual success of the efforts indicate otherwise).
  • Or was it just an effory by a small, displaced elite to restore its authority?
  • Was it a product of status anxiety in the middle class, representing the efforts of a nationalized middle class to secure their place in society?
  • Or was it a movement where corporate leaders use the government to protect themselves from competition?
  • Was it just a quest for women to attain cultural and political prominance?
  • Or was it a broad effort by professionals and other middle-class people to bring order and efficiency to political and economic life?

We have been going over the causes and effects of the developing capitalist hold on American society from this period, and the by-product problems of the excruciating changes brought by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. We have also been looking at the dire poverty of the tenements and the graft and corruption of what is supposed to be the most democratic economic and political systems.

We are taught how free competition is what's fairest, and that controlling the equality of outcome produces defective results. But it seems like the defective results of the current system go ignored. Where is the part of this glorious system that protects the voice of the broken, displaced, and destitute?

I am reading Isaiah again for the first time in five years. Its poetry and language has always moved me, but now, with the historical and political preoccupation that is one of my professional hazards, I am struck by how relevant it is. I am startled by the way its identification of defects in side-tracked Hebrew society so clearly reflects the ones in ours.

Isaiah 1:16-17 says,
"...Stop doing wrong,
learn to do right!
Seek justice,
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.

Various social experiments have offered solutions that eliminate the competition in society as a way of preventing the creation of a group of "losers"--the poor and powerless. In Isaiah's first chapter, he identifies the qualities of societies that truly follow God and those that don't. It is important to note here that Isaiah doesn't call for the elimination of outcasts, but insists on their protection. It's not the system that is defective, it is the people.

The ambiguity and long-term ineffectiveness of Progressive reform is a function of the systemic approach to change instead of a personal one. The Progressives saw the need to take care of the oppressed, the fatherless, and the widows; there were so many, they could hardly be ignored. But I think they failed because they kept trying to change the system instead of the people. Is. 16-17 reveals that true reform is a process directed by God. "Wash and make yourselves clean." "Stop doing wrong [and] learn to do right." "Seek justice [and] encourage the oppressed." These are not synonyms, but steps.

It is not enough to just behave well personally, but good behavior must overflow into an outward acting against oppressors. The application of true justice doesn't just mediate the effects of the oppressor, but it fights to restrain him. Good works are not enough to make a real change in a broken society. Isaiah reveals that deep, lasting reform comes from an individual righteousness that overflows from a covenant with God.

On our best day, we might be able to wash away the grime of materialism and competition, but we won't be truly cleansed until we individually submit to the righteousness of God from the inside out.

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