"Learning to Care: Elementary Kindness in an Age of Indifference," by Robert Wuthnow (Oxford University Press, 287 pp.; $25, hardcover).

Like many people, I am an inveterate volunteer. Since I was 16 I have helped in a Head Start classroom, coached Little League, taught writing in my children's elementary school, visited in nursing homes, taught Presbyterian Sunday school, acted as bouncer in a Catholic Worker dining room, mentored (or tried to) a fatherless boy, and served on numberless church committees. There have been few periods of my life when I was not actively volunteering, and most of the time I have been involved with several programs.

None of this seems in the least remarkable to me. I have no sense of great sacrifices, nor do I believe that I have accomplished great things. I hope my main motive for volunteering is concern for people with needs. But I also volunteer because I enjoy it, because I feel an obligation to share my good fortune, and because I think volunteering makes me a more rounded person. During the years when I worked in the Catholic Worker dining room, for example, I enjoyed knowing many of the homeless in my community by name, and I thought I was spiritually and intellectually better off for regular contact with poor people. I hoped I did some good for them, but I was sure I did good for myself.

Voluntarism is an old and well-worn path for Americans, but lately it has been attracting unfamiliar attention. The many books and articles calling on America to rekindle its civic spirit often mention the importance of volunteer efforts. President Clinton has staked a good deal of his political reputation on Americorps, a program to organize and fund full-time "volunteers." Some high schools require volunteering of students as part of "character education."

In "Learning to Care: Elementary Kindness in an Age of Indifference," Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow shines the careful light of scholarship on teenage volunteers. Through surveys and extensive interviews, Wuthnow has searched for the meaning of their efforts and has found just about what he might have found in me--nothing spectacular. Wuthnow emphasizes the mildness of charity. Kindness, he says, is nothing heroic. We have all received kindness from our families, and volunteering is a way to translate such elementary kindness into the world. Volunteering teaches us how to be kind in an institutionalized society where we must harness our caring impulses to somebody's program. It also teaches us to accept our limits--to be kind while not changing the world. "People who value caring," Wuthnow says, "learn that serving on committees and programs is a way of behaving in a caring manner."

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Wuthnow reminds me of George Bush, who wanted to create a "kinder and gentler" version of Reagan's free-market society through a "thousand points of light." This assigns an important but subsidiary role to churches and charities--as points that soften, energize, and humanize a tough world. It assumes, however, that the big engines of society are government and business. Voluntarism fills in the cracks, helping and comforting those who lose out in the system. This view does not expect churches or charities to change the world. It does not expect volunteers to be heroes.

As Wuthnow sees it, such a view is inevitable in a complex, developed society. America, he says, is a very different place from the country that lauded heroes. Pioneers needed to be strong and virtuous characters because they lived in a lawless, unprotected environment. For them, "temperance and prudence took the place of factory schedules and insurance schemes." Today, however, "people can . . . be relatively weak because of the strength of their social institutions. . . . The need for strong persons has declined in the same way that the need for strong muscles has declined."

This interesting but debatable historical position leads to some stimulating possibilities, namely, that "virtue is now more an attribute of institutions than of individual people," and that we "need to find ways not to engage in heroic deeds of caring but to behave kindly in the roles we play and to make sure that our institutions preserve and embody the value of kindness."

Wuthnow therefore sees the ordinariness of volunteering as a virtue. Volunteering teenagers have told him they have no interest in becoming the next Mother Teresa, that they are as materialistic as other teenagers, that they put money-making careers far ahead of any altruistic goals. Teenage volunteers are willing to sacrifice their time, but not their lifestyles, to help others, Wuthnow says.

Yet, he claims, we do not need to teach young people how to be saints. We need to teach them "to be kind in ordinary ways, to play roles, to be good citizens, to make a difference in small ways, and to practice kindness amidst the complexities of everyday life. This is the sort of kindness our society can bear--and the sort of kindness it needs."

If this is the sort of kindness our society needs, then Christians, and particularly conservative Christians, are doing relatively well by it. Wuthnow has found that Christians are more likely to volunteer than other citizens, more prone to give significant time to caring for others, and more likely to believe that they have a duty to do so. Those who attend church regularly, who are active in fellowship and Bible-study groups, who gain a great deal of satisfaction from their religion are far more active volunteers than those who have little church involvement and gain little satisfaction from faith.

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Furthermore, conservative Christians are far more oriented toward service than are liberal Christians. One question on Wuthnow's survey read, "I feel a moral duty to help people who suffer." The percentages of teenagers who strongly agreed, ranging from those who are very conservative religiously to those who are very liberal, were 43, 30, 27, 24 and 25.

Since liberal, not conservative, Christianity is known for an emphasis on social justice, these results are particularly striking. According to Wuthnow's data, conservative Christians are far more likely than liberals to come up with the right answer to Cain's question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" The stereotype of harsh and judgmental fundamentalists will have to be revised--and so will the stereotype of bleeding-heart liberals.

Before patting themselves too hard on the back, however, conservative Christians--and all Christians--should ask whether the mild morality Wuthnow found among volunteers really is the sort of kindness our society needs. A penchant for volunteering, according to Wuthnow, actually represents peace with the status quo. A thousand points of light do not challenge the system, they illumine it--softly. Is this all we need? Many Christians I know feel themselves too out of harmony with things as they are. Only grudgingly would they identify with "virtuous institutions."

Wuthnow's view of history--that earlier, less institutionalized societies needed heroic individuals in a way that ours does not--strikes me as far too simple. Ordinary farmers--and 90 percent of our forebears were farmers--had little time for heroic virtue. Hemmed in by the necessities of the land and the seasons, they kept noses as close to the grindstone as any government bureaucrat. Expectations of social conformity were profound. The strengths required for ordinary life were certainly different from today, but no more heroic. Real moral heroism was just as scarce.

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Then as now it was possible to live in conformity with society while ignoring some really glaring moral evils. Two examples will suffice. For hundreds of years, Protestant Christians had no idea of missions. They knew of numberless peoples in other places, but felt no urgency to tell them about Jesus. It took a few strong and virtuous characters to open up the idea that Christians were obligated to go and tell.

Slavery, similarly, existed among Christian people for centuries without greatly troubling them. Americans in slaveholding states lived kindly lives, vaguely aware of the evils of slavery. The vast majority of northerners were equally unconcerned. Only through decades of agitation by a small cadre of strong and virtuous individuals--the abolitionists--did concern for the slave become common.

Wuthnow seems to me most utterly mistaken in his contention that we have little need for such strong and virtuous people today, and in his idea that virtue has come to be a property of institutions rather than people. I strongly suspect that whenever a society believes it has no more need of saints, it has become complacently blind.

Today, at any rate, even the near-blind can see we have a moral crisis as profound as any in our history--the crisis of the urban ghetto. The level of social disintegration there, affecting millions, may be the highest in the entire history of the world. The root problems of the inner city--drugs, sexual immorality, violence, ignorance--are the same problems found everywhere in America, but they are greatly concentrated. To make matters worse, they are strongly linked to racism, America's most poisonous inheritance.

I am not suggesting that I know the answers to ghetto problems. I am suggesting that some moral heroism, some sainthood, is very badly needed. Clearly the ghetto is no mere technical or economic challenge, but a breakdown of people and culture that requires thorough moral renovation. Yet where is the passion to bring the gospel? Where are the missionaries and the crusaders? The churches and charities trying to help are few and struggling. They are indeed mere points of light.

Great Society Democrats posed a solution to ghettos that Wuthnow might find familiar--the virtuous institutions of government. Given enough money, given effectively designed programs, poverty could be eliminated. By now, this response is exhausted. Whatever virtues it may have are buried under its many failings, chief of which was not caring rigorously about results (which in the end amounted to not caring rigorously about people).

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The standard response of conservative Republicans today--that government programs are actually the problem, that nothing can be done until they are thrown out of the way--has at least the appeal of sounding new and untried. It seems plausible that if you stop the flow of government money, people will be forced to cope with their problems. Most of us would bring a similar strategy to a cousin or sibling who could not stop having babies, could not stop drinking, and was mixed up with bad characters. We would go a long way to help, but at some point we would insist on personal responsibility.

In the ghetto, though, many families have disintegrated or are too demoralized to apply such caring rigor. Can anything take their place? In "The Tragedy of American Compassion"--a book that Newt Gingrich has publicly admired--Marvin Olasky suggests that private charities can. Nineteenth-century religious groups had enough personal involvement with the poor, he says, to discern who used handouts well, and who abused them. They could offer spiritual confrontation where appropriate. In short, charities were able to act more like family than like check-writing agencies. Olasky hopes that when the government stops enabling misbehavior, a wave of such charity will move in among the inner-city poor.

To speed private contributions to this cause, Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana has introduced legislation that would let each citizen take off up to $500 from his or her tax bill and send it to a charity that works among the poor. Given the choice between giving $500 to the IRS and giving $500 to the Salvation Army, Coats figures, most people will do the latter.

Musing on this, I asked a friend what he thought would happen if such a bill passed into law. Suppose Christian charities that worked among the poor could get all the money they needed. My friend Frank is an attorney who practices family law and thus has an intimate view of the problems of American families. He has served on the boards of several Christian organizations. He scoffed at the notion that Christian charities would flood into the ghetto if they had enough money, or that they would be especially effective if they did. He described this scenario as a fairy tale. The Christian organizations he knows are mostly poorly staffed, lacking in both organization and vision. If they suddenly were given more money, Frank predicted, they would prove as wasteful as any government agency.

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I don't know. I am not so jaded about charities as that. But I certainly have my doubts that charities will transform the inner city, based on the lukewarm response Christians have made to the challenge so far.

Many people, I know, are fed up with ghetto problems. They feel exasperated with the lack of results. They believe society has plowed in too much money, and now they are in a mood to leave poor people to their pathologies, to let them sink or swim. To this response, Christians can say only one thing: It is our duty to care for the poor and the helpless. Their plight is our calling. If voluntary organizations and churches are to fill the gap, we will have to be considerably more heroic than we are right now.

Voluntarism as I have experienced it is not heroic. It takes no great risks, devotes no huge amounts of time, makes no tremendous sacrifices. As Wuthnow accurately says, it is not heroic or particularly virtuous. It represents "elementary kindness."

Wuthnow sees teenage volunteers as training to be caring organization people. And yes, I appreciate the occasional cheerful countenance at the Department of Motor Vehicles. But I can't think that this is the only kindness our society needs.

I like to think that "elementary kindness" can be a school for bigger risks. Volunteers can get an eyeful and earful of needs and observe what it would be like to give themselves to them. They can see models--"saints" who are honored for giving their lives and their lifestyles. Mother Teresa is not the only such person in the world today. She is just the only one we hear about.

Models are not enough, however, nor is experience. Real zeal depends also on the fervor of preaching. People need to see a grandeur in their calling if the calling is to be more than mild. They need rhetoric that parallels that of the nineteenth century, which spoke freely of rescuing the perishing, saving the lost. Once our churches spoke stirringly of the call to people in darkness far, far away (and that before international airlines). Today we seem unable to speak of people in darkness in our own town.

Thinking of this I got down from my shelf an old Presbyterian hymnal, published in 1933. I turned to the section on missions. What struck me immediately is how different these hymns are from any my church sings today. We sing praise songs and hymns, sweet words of love for God, but we have few of these bracing "sermons in song."

Old missionary hymns use archaic terms, but if you read through the language you find a blazing sacrificial passion. The hymns laud a difficult, dangerous, and distant calling:

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Go, labor on: spend, and be spent . . . Thy joy to do the Father's will. It is the way the Master went. Should not the servant tread it still?

Toil on, faint not, keep watch and pray. Be wise the erring soul to win. Go forth into the world's highway. Compel the wanderer to come in.

There is a persistent and dramatic visualization of the lost:

Behold how many thousands still are lying bound in the darksome prison house of sin, with none to tell them of the Savior's dying, or of the life He died for them to win.

And there is a high value placed on missionaries--"Christ's vanguard," they are called:

O Christ, forget not them who stand thy vanguard in the distant land. In flood, in flame, in dark, in dread, sustain we pray each lifted head. Thine is the work they strive to do, their foes so many, they so few. Be with Thine own, Thy loved, who stand, Christ's vanguard, in the storm-swept land.

Today the darkest and most fearsome place many of us can imagine is not Africa, it is not India, it is far closer in miles and in heart. It is in the city where we live. It is so close, yet somehow we do not sing of it at all.

The thought of singing missionary hymns for the inner city today is almost embarrassing. This is partly because we see the condescension in nineteenth-century missions. We understand that the "storm-swept land" missionaries visited was not by all measures worse than our own land; that Western culture, like all cultures, bears a mixture of godly and ungodly elements. A missionary must be humble.

I doubt that is the main reason why we sing no hymns like these, however. I think they are simply too radically out of synchrony with the way we believe and behave. We have lost the passion for the lost that could send men and women to dangerous places around the world, or dangerous places beyond the freeway. We are too fat and too comfortable. We are too mild. We do not want to be saints or heroes.

I am not pointing fingers. The loss of faith is pretty well the same with me. I am sure, however, that Christ does not want his people to be only a thousand points of light. I think he has more in mind a thousand tongues of fire.

Copyright © 1996 Christianity Today, Inc./CHRISTIANITY TODAY Magazine

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