Long before President Barack Obama and hundreds of pundits popularized the notion of “playing the long game” in seeking societal change, a 1917 editorial in the Times Literary Supplement stated: “The long game is the Church’s game.”
Having only seen this quote second hand, I do not know what exactly prompted a London editor, living through the slog of World War I, to turn to this saying. Yet the context of millions dead in Europe’s trenches – and with them, a civilization’s optimistic illusions about the inevitability of its moral and cultural march toward “progress” – gives a good clue. It’s not hard to imagine specific sources of discouragement during the savagery of the First World War and, a hundred years later, most of us can supply a ready list of our own disappointments with the current state of the world.
We too need a reminder that the Church, indeed, is always playing the long game.
Scripture tells us that, “in the beginning,” creation is God’s gift. Its ultimate purpose, end, or telos must be God’s to complete. Jaggedly unfolding in between is history – a path marked by switchbacks, obscured by setbacks, often inscrutable. Yet humans are purposeful creatures and cannot embark on any project without hope of progress, hope of making a difference, hope of bettering what we turn our minds and hands to. So deep is this desire to make a difference that we are not simply drawn to the idea of progress; we’re prone to the Myth of Progress—a myth that would have us believe that the course of history is ever onward and upward. We are tempted to think that maybe, just maybe, we reform our way to the Kingdom of God.
Even when Christians join with other people of goodwill in working strenuously for a better world, however, progress cannot quite be the Church’s goal. At most, the Church’s long game within history involves progress in hope – not hope in progress itself. After all, Christian hope rests in the One whose promise of betterment passes through bitter cross and unlikely resurrection. Anyone who hopes for progress in this world must resist illusion and look beyond history for resources, or else that hoped-for progress will falter.
Because, you know, we die. Not just you and me, individually. All the works of our hands die. Imagine the most solid, stone-constructed building in which you have ever worked or studied, a thousand years from now, or ten thousand, or a hundred thousand. Sooner or later, it will be rubble. The best-case planetary scenario is that vegetation and animal life will have survived human folly and overgrown our rubble with a new surge of life. Meanwhile, our institutions, our cities, our civilizations, all will pass away. Progress – at least human progress – will be a thing of the cosmic past. Only what God saves and completes will last, and how that happens will have to be God’s Great Surprise.
Now before you decide that the direction of my thought points to apocalypse, or dystopia, or a theology of cultural declension that eviscerates social engagement in favor of Christian survivalism, let me assure you otherwise. If anything, my intention is quite the opposite. Bloggers purvey enough bleakness; we don’t need more. But we do still need to face reality. Our work is to love our neighbor, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” – always with enough of humility to trust the completing to God. To work courageously, patiently, and steadily without becoming disillusioned in hard times, it is crucial to avoid illusions in the first place.
Consider the practical struggle that many of us experience over prioritizing the urgent in relationship to the important. In the formative years I spent working in Nicaragua and Honduras during the 1980s, this tension tested my mental health. Somehow my wife and I were supposed to help the church organization we represented promote a deepening commitment to peace and justice among often quite fundamentalist churches, and respond to the growing needs of people displaced by war. Somehow we were supposed to take the time needed to write interpretive news pieces for North American activists, and to have the time for coffee with Central American pastors who knocked on our door.
And somehow, I guess we did all of these things. But it was never obvious when we should put aside the urgent as a distraction, and when we had to attend to the urgent out of essential love for neighbors. What became clear was that if we allowed frenetic activism to burn us out, or war and politics to disorient or disillusion us, we would be of little use to either neighbor or Church or the Kingdom of God. We had to discern our responses to the urgent in light of the important. We didn’t call it playing the long game then, but looking back, that’s what we were doing—finding our place in that long game. And we had to recognize the long game as God’s not ours.
In the last few years a movement has been gaining attention by calling on North American Christians to reset the balance between the urgent and the important by making the “Benedict Option.” With other commentators I have been critical of the way that some of its advocates are weaponizing the Benedictine charism for use in the Church’s culture wars. But what the Benedict Option gets right is this: Whenever Christians allow the latest news cycle or political issue of the hour to take our priorities captive, or are lured into thinking they can control the social order as though providence is ours to manage, we have less to offer society. Unless we stay rooted in prayer, liturgy, and local community, we will fail to “be the change we seek in the world,” as Gandhi put it.
Actual Benedictines and other monastic communities offer lessons in how to play the long game, even as they spring into action in response to the urgent. They have done this through contemplation, steady local community building, and laborious scribal work, preserving the Scriptures for the centuries. Their liturgies of hours and church years have provided the soundtrack for all the other work of the Church. By dedicating entire lives to attending to the long game, they have risked being criticized for an irresponsible fuga mundi or “flight from the world.” Yet the Rule of St. Benedict also calls monks to prepare at any moment for hospitality, and they are good at it. The neighbor who interrupts is always to be received as Christ himself.
All Christians would do well to develop an interior monastery of the heart. Call it mindfulness. Call it trust. Keep its doors of hospitality open, and in so doing remain ready to walk out to act in the world. But always remember, as a friend and mentor used to say, “We just work here.” The long game is God’s.