A few nights ago I was outside commiserating with my neighbors after the snowplow had gone by, displacing large chunks of snow and ice from the street to our driveways. We’ve had more than 100 inches of snow this year, and we’re tired. Tired of shoveling and snow blowing, and especially tired of seeing our clear driveways piled back up with snow by the plows.
I took my grumbling to Facebook later that night, snarkily wondering if my favorite libertarian Ron Swanson would say that snowplows are a metaphor for the government: the help they offer simultaneously creates more problems. Some went along with my snark, while others offered pointed questions. Well, what would you suggest that we do? That’s a valid question. I didn’t have an answer, at least not a serious one.
This got me thinking. If there’s no easy solution to the problem of snowplows and clear driveways, maybe our “blame the government” attitude is missing something. If snowplowing creates problems, then wouldn’t we expect that other, bigger issues will be even harder to solve in a way that is satisfactory to everyone and doesn’t generate new complications?
For example, think of the health-care debates of recent years. I’m not going to debate the merits of the Affordable Care Act, but I think it’s safe to say that whether you like it or not, the rollout has not gone well. I’ve heard stories of people gratefully getting signed up for coverage who would never have been able to enroll previously. But I’ve heard stories of people who spend countless hours on the Internet and phone without making much headway. There are some great consequences of the law and some not-so-great consequences.
Christians can be persistent because our call to action is not rooted in human optimism, but God’s faithfulness.
These are the kinds of issues that have been termed “wicked problems.” Wicked here does not mean evil, but that these problems resist being resolved by normal solutions and techniques. The reality of these wicked problems reminds me of the need for two important Christian virtues that we ought to be developing as individuals, churches and participants in the social and political issues of our day: patience and persistence.
Christians can be patient because we are living from the reality of God’s kingdom rather than striving to create it ourselves. Jesus points out that the kingdom is like a leaven that often does its work in a slow and steady way throughout the world. Christians should care about public policy and the law of the land, but we should not treat those policies and laws as though God’s kingdom hinges on the passage (or not) of a law. If there are laws that are unjust, problems that seem intractable and issues that will not go away, those who are patient will make the biggest difference in the long run.
Christians can be persistent because our call to action is not rooted in human optimism, but God’s faithfulness. Christians of all people should be capable of sustainable social justice. If our commitment is based on instant results or quick fixes, our enthusiasm for addressing “wicked” social and political problems will quickly wane. If our action in relation to our neighbors (on a small and large scale) is sustained by our vision and worship of God, our cities and communities will be blessed by our presence.
Now, I still don’t know how to solve the problem of the snowplows. But after my neighbors and I were done talking, we grabbed our shovels and helped each other clear paths in our driveways. That much I know we can do.