Tolstoy knew something about shalom that many churches don’t.
In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond cites the famous first sentence of Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Diamond goes on to write, “By that sentence, Tolstoy meant that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those essential respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients needed for happiness.”
In other words, lots of things all have to go right.
In the next paragraph of Guns, Diamond connects this reality to the fates of human societies and cultures: “This principle can be extended to understanding much else about life besides marriage. We tend to seek single-factor explanations about success. For most important things, though, success actually requires avoiding separate possible causes of failure.”1 In other words, lots of things all have to go right in changing the world. Disconnecting any one thing leads to failure. It works this way in all institutions, including marriage, the church, commerce, education, the arts, media—you name it.
That’s what’s so hard about shalom. It’s almost all or nothing. When you see shalom as systems, you remember that one missed block can blow up a football play. One missed pass wipes out a basketball assist. And in a book called The Logic of Life, British economist Tim Harford describes what happens in a world consisting of 20 men and 20 women—all of them heterosexual and in search of a mate—when one man is removed. In a scarcer market, women must “up their game” or face the prospect of spinsterhood. So they do, perhaps dressing more seductively or making an extra effort to be obliging. Somehow or other, she “steals” a man from one of her fellow women. That newly single woman then ups her game, too, to steal a man from someone else. A chain reaction ensues. Before long, every woman has to try harder, and every man can relax a little. The results are systemic and catastrophic.2
This is what’s happening in the African-American community. Between the ages of 20 and 29, one African-American man in nine is behind bars. One African-American man in three can expect to be locked up at some point. Removing so many men from the marriage market is why the proportion of U.S.-born married black women aged 30-44 plunged from 62 percent to 33 percent. Kerwin Kofi Charles of the University of Chicago and Ming Ching Luoh of National Taiwan University found that a one-percentage point increase in the male incarceration rate produced a 2.4-point reduction in the proportion of women who ever marry. And it gets worse.
This collapse of the traditional family has made African-Americans far poorer and lonelier than they would otherwise have been. In 2007 only 11 percent of U.S.-born African-American women aged 30-44 without a high school diploma had a working spouse, according to the Pew Research Centre. Their college-educated sisters fare better, but are still affected by the sex imbalance. Because 96 percent of married African-American women are married to African-American men—they are ultimately fishing in the same shrinking pool. This is why more women offer sex on the first date, making it harder to combine romance with commitment and increasing out-of-wedlock births with no father in sight. It’s systemic. The solutions are not simple.
But the starting point for faith communities is simple. To get back in the game, faith communities have to start in the game—not observing it or talking about “engaging culture.” If the church ever started to get lots of things to all go right and reduced out-of-wedlock birthrates in the black community, they would be taken seriously. The church would become a resource for the knowledge of reality in center institutions. To accomplish this kind of shalom however is almost all or nothing.
This is why shalom is not easy. “In any hard discipline,” writes Matthew Crawford, “whether it be gardening, structural engineering, or Russian, one submits to things that have their own intractable ways.”3 Working to renew, or innovate seemingly intractable patterns is the only way to gain knowledge of reality. It keeps churches away from abstractions. This kind of dirt-under-the-fingernails knowledge reminds us that shalom, like happy families, is having lots of things all going right.
Tolstoy’s wisdom also reminds us why many faith communities worldwide try to get lots of things all going right each week. They follow the same liturgy, read the same scriptures, and share the sacraments week in and week out. They are generally churches committed to making culture. They develop an appetite for disruption by taking and eating, the weekly Eucharist. They develop a habit of self-suspicion by weekly public confession. They share the Peace and receive a Benediction every week as a way of making a habit of shalom. These congregants become practitioners of the craft of shalom, not theorists. This kind of genuine renewal, or innovation, writes Lesslie Newbigin, “can only be responsibly accepted from those who are already masters of the tradition, skilled practitioners of whom it could be said both that the tradition dwells fully in them and that they dwell fully in the tradition.”4
Hard work, isn’t it? Tolstoy knew something about shalom that many churches don’t. Like happy families, lots of things all have to go right. That’s why the churches that are good at shalom are generally all alike.
1 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York, NY: Norton, 1999), p. 157.
2 “Sex and the single black woman: How the mass incarceration of black men hurts black women,” The Economist, April 8, 2010, p. 36.
3 Matthew Crawford, Shop Class As Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2009), p. 65.
4 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 35.