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Strengthening the Community

An essay by Robert Waldrop

A healthy society is characterized by an intricate, interdependent, and cooperative network of structures that connect individual human beings and families with ever widening circles into the entire community. Thus, a person might be a citizen of the United States, state of Missouri, city of Kansas City, county of Jackson, a member of the Harris School PTA, the Catholic parish of St. John, a Cub or Girl Scout group, a university alumni organization, the Rotary Club, a neighborhood association, an employee at a particular business (or the owner) and the stamp collectors association.

All of us depend on these kinds of networks and communication pathways for our temporal existence (and in the case of the Church, our spiritual life as well). We shop at stores that are stocked from warehouses supplied by factories who use raw materials grown, harvested, mined or otherwise produced by still other networks of production and distribution. People in New Zealand can buy stocks on Chinese stock exchanges of African companies doing business in Europe.

All of this is human action carried on with the assistance of technology (some high, some low, some in between) and power (in the form of electricity, gasoline, nuclear power, diesel, etc.).

Such systems are subject to disruption. This history of the human race has been the rise and fall of civilizations and peoples. War, violence, famine, pestilence, greed, oppression, injustice -- all of these things have disrupted life throughout human history. In this century alone, well over a hundred million people have lost their lives due to causes related to war and oppression. Europe, Asia, and Africa in particular have been hard-hit with widespread destruction of human communities, sometimes on multiple occasions (e.g., in the last 120 years, Russia has been invaded three times from Europe, each time with utterly devastating results for the Russian people).

Could such things happen again? Could they happen in places previously immune to such problems, such as the United States of America? This question is being asked with increasing frequency. We wonder about the stability of systems and how we are dependent upon them. Many of our systems are brittle; they can be shattered easily. Social injustice exists, and people willingly participate in the sins of their class without a lot of interference from their consciences; our solidarity with others is not what it used to be. We live in large anonymous cities; people are often alienated from each other. Complicated systems can fall to surprisingly small errors. Just this past winter, large urban areas have experienced long power losses due to severe winter weather, especially in Canada, where some places were without power for as long as a month.

All this feeds a sense that something is not quite right, even as we frantically pursue economic prosperity and a good quarterly profit figure. While it is true that the guilty flee when no man pursues, sometimes a guilty conscience can make itself known in surprising ways. Frankly, something isn't quite right in the United States and many other countries; we have tolerated too much injustice, and one thing we learn from both Holy Scripture and human history is that societies that tolerate injustice are not always stable. Intuitively, we know that we reap whatever it is that we have planted, and the United States and other "developed" societies have planted quite a bit of bitter seed these past hundred years or so. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind, people are asking questions about how resilient our communities are.

Comes now the "Millenium Bug", slowly working its way from obscurity into the national and international consciousness. Many computer systems (especially those running large systems) have computer chips embedded in them that control various aspects of the system. There is serious and well-founded concern that many of these systems won't work after midnight on December 31, 1999 due to a popular programming convention of the past, which was to list the year date only by the last two digits. Thus, a system seeing "00" for the date would think it was 1900 rather than 2000. The computers break, and this in turn causes other systems to break -- e.g., electricity generating and distribution systems break down, telephones go dead, street lights won't work, can't pump gasoline, cash registers don't work, etc. Perhaps most importantly, city water and sewage systems might not work. Perhaps it is already too late to get everything fixed that needs to be fixed (many of the situations involve politics at the local, state, or federal level, and we all know how shortsighted politicians are, not to mention problems with corruption).

This in a nutshell is the problem.

Some people are expecting disruptions of "normal life" from a few days to several months.

I don't have the technical expertise to know if the y2k bug is real or not. Lot's of people who know a lot more about computers than I do think it is. What I do believe in, however, is prudence and preparation as a part of orthopraxis -- that is, right living of the justice and peace teachings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I and all Christians are called to involvement -- to engagement -- to be a useful and active part of those myriad inter-connected networks that we call our community.

We face many challenges, not the least of which are injustice and oppression, but a common thread runs through them: stronger and more resilient communities would help make things better all around. If there are going to be disruptions of normal life due to y2k, then now is the time to strengthen our communities, our parishes, the organizations of civil society to which we belong. If y2k turns out to be mostly hype, we are still ahead because we have worked to strengthen our community, and that always brings a higher quality of life, not to mention obedience to the Gospel imperatives. Solidarity and participation are two key virtues that when practiced widely, help build strong and resilient communities able to deal with major challenges -- whether it be disruptions due to y2k problems or drug dealers invading an area or economic deprivation.

Ways to Strengthen Community

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