Covenant and Contract
By now folks know I like the writings of David Brooks. I find him to be very thoughtful and challenges me to ponder more deeply the things of my heart. His most recent article in the newspaper I read does this once again. The piece is called, “How Covenants Make Us.” I am sure it was the word, covenant that quickly drew me to his piece.
I know a fair amount about covenants. As one who has worked with both the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament, I know how central this idea is. In fact, the word, testament, is translating the Greek word which could just as easily be translated, covenant. If you know something about Old Testament history, you will know there are a number of covenants in that big book. There is the covenant with Noah after the great flood. An interesting fact about biblical covenants is there typically is a sign associated with covenant. We can guess the rainbow is the sign of the covenant with Noah.
I engage Brooks’ article half assuming he would reference some of these biblical covenants, but he did not. I can guess this kind of information is pretty close to the surface of his thinking. Brooks is Jewish, so I am confident he knows something about this. But clearly, he was more interested in going in a different direction. Brooks’ piece is a critique of contemporary society. His critique is a realistic portrayal of the way things currently are. And then he uses the idea of covenant to offer a creative way to go forward to transform some of society’s ills. In doing so, I think he sets us up to see the key role religion and spirituality can play in this process.
Brooks identifies “four big forces coursing through modern societies.” These include global migration, economic globalization, the Internet and a culture of autonomy. This has led to some very good things---especially for the people who are educated and have means. But is has not been good for the poor, uneducated and sometimes minority groups. For everyone, Brooks posits, there has been a “weakening of the social fabric.”
I very much agree. Any of us who lived in the 50s or, even, 60s remember a different time. It was not perfect, but it was a more socially cohesive people prior to the Internet, global migration, etc. Brooks is exactly right when he says we can never go back---even if we wanted to. History marches forward. If we do better, it will be tomorrow, not turning back to yesterday.
Covenants can help us in that forward march. I was intrigued, then, how Brooks linked social problems and social solutions to identity---the question of who we are. He says, “Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric. They can come only when we have defined social roles---father, plumber, Little League coach. They can come only when we are seen and admired by our neighbors and loved ones in a certain way. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, ‘Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds.’”
Covenants are those bonds that create a strong social fabric. Contracts, on the other hand, do not. We live in a contract-driven world. We even make learning contracts in the educational world. We do contracts with business—banks, car dealerships, etc. I like how Brooks differentiates contracts and covenants.
“A contract protects interests…but a covenant protects relationships. This insight Brooks gets from a new book by Marcia Pally. He continues to offer insights from her book through his own thoughtful process. He notes, “A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another.” The next sentence is where I want to end, because it is Brooks’ oblique introduction of religion into the solution.
Brooks rightly says a covenant “involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love: Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people.” If you know the Bible, you know this is a quotation from the book of Ruth. It is about relationships. It is about relationships between people and relationships between people and their God. This becomes a key to a strong social fabric.
Brooks is not saying directly that we all ought to get religious again. But he knows, and I agree, that religion offers a wonderful way to re-build social fabric. What is also true is we can’t do religion the way it used to be done. We will never again be in the 1950s. This is what the millennial generation is telling us loud and clear.
All the studies indicate a growing number of people see themselves as spiritual and less and less see themselves as religious. I am confident God is doing new things in our midst. It is up to us to discern the times and see what role we have to play. We don’t need to build a church. But sorely need to build community; covenants do that.