The widespread Chinese practice of binding women’s feet, one many Chinese writers deemed abhorrent and some governments sought to suppress, persisted for a millennium before collapsing rather suddenly in the early twentieth century. Partly in response to the efforts of Christian missionaries, Chinese elites launched a public campaign portraying footbinding as a stain on Chinese national honor, advocating the benefits of natural foot growth and forming associations whose members publicly pledged not to bind their daughters’ feet or marry their sons to women with bound feet.
Political scientist Gerry Mackie offered a convention account of how an abhorrent and abhorred social practice can endure for generations and the kind of effort needed to overturn it. The convention framework offers a fresh guide for Christians who are hoping to achieve broader cultural influence. This framework clarifies how the early church succeeded in transforming pagan culture, and it offers a path for correcting the more pernicious conventions that prevail in the West today.
Understanding Conventions and Norms
A convention, in terms economist Thomas Schelling described, is a solution to a recurrent coordination problem. Footbinding, for example, was created to enforce loyalty among the members of the imperial harem, which would establish the paternity of the emperor’s offspring. But conventions can spread beyond the setting or class in which they originate. Conventions can take root and persist even when they are unintended, unpopular, or ideologically opposed by many. Footbinding became normative, even among those who opposed the practice and knew about the health problems and unnecessary pain associated with it. Why? Well, most people wanted their daughters and sons to marry; as long as the men who might marry them and their families expect the customary practice, the convention persists. Conventions not only respond to needs for coordination; they also can provide shared expectations that help communities navigate the social world together. Philosophers, social theorists, and social scientists debate whether there is a useful distinction between social conventions and social norms. Some suggest that norms are more about social approval or disapproval of behaviors for the sake of accountability, while conventions solve coordination problems that lack any obvious normative content, such as driving on the right side of the road. In this essay, I’ll use these terms more or less interchangeably to refer to the broad complex of informal rules and mechanisms for solving coordination and cooperation problems.
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To learn how to escape maligned conventions, we can look, in part, to historical models of successful transition between conventions. There is an “art of social change,” as philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah put it. In addition to an advocacy campaign based on national honor and an educational campaign on the benefits of natural feet, anti-footbinders formed associations offering exit options from footbinding for their daughters and sons. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, association members pledged not to bind their daughters’ feet or let their sons marry women with bound feet. As Appiah writes in his 2010 book The Honor Code, the campaigners not only spread ideas; they built associations in which men and women lived by the new norms they sought to promote. The reformers helped Chinese society reach a tipping point at which a new convention became normative. To alter, abolish, or escape a convention requires committed people—social entrepreneurs—to associate, defy the dominant convention, and replace it with a new convention.
Christianity’s New Norms
Likewise, the rise of the Christian church spelled defeat for pagan conventions, the triumph of a new conventional order. According to sociologist Rodney Stark in his 1996 The Rise of Christianity:
Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear, and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world. . . . Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments.
Counter-cultural groups and networks are best positioned to establish new conventions and drive social revitalization, as history suggests. Christianity can once again be a revitalizing force in our cities if we will embrace the norms Jesus gave us. Christians can achieve this influence most effectively not by using state power, as many suggest, but instead by building and reinforcing communities that reflect its norms.
What were the new norms that Christianity offered? In the gospels, Jesus addresses the way people conduct their lives in common, providing instructions on how to deal with sin and interpersonal conflict (Matt. 18: 15–19). Paul enjoins Christians to practice confession and forgiveness, pray, meet for worship and encouragement, and live chastely. Paul admonishes Christians not to take each other to court but rather to settle disputes among themselves. And he goes further, saying it would be better to be wronged or defrauded than to rely on civil courts (1 Cor. 6:1–8). The instruction points to the church’s grundnorm: love one another (John 13:34). Church members are to share with each other, honor one another, live in peace and harmony, and contribute their gifts to the life of the community (Rom. 12:9–21; Gal. 6:10).
The church is a community based not on ethnic or national identity, but spiritual unity in Christ. Paul and other missionaries formed local communities under the church’s umbrella, bringing together Jews and Gentiles, men and women, citizens and slaves. What brought them together was a common faith and a distinctive set of norms; better, a common faith that entailed a distinctive set of norms.
Bound by these norms, Christian communities attracted converts and grew the church, which became the dominant social force in the Roman world by the fourth century. As Robert Louis Wilken said in a Christianity Today interview, the early church’s mission was integrally connected with building communities participating in its own “way of life:”
The church was not something that spoke to its culture; it was itself a culture and created a new Christian culture. There were appointed times when the community came together. There was a distinctive calendar, and each year the community rehearsed key Christian beliefs at certain times. There was church-wide charity to the surrounding community. There was clarity, and church discipline, regarding moral issues. All these things made up a wholesome community.
Rituals, notably of initiation through baptism and the common meal of the Eucharist, were especially important to the early Christians. Becoming a Christian was a lengthy process requiring evidence of commitment and adoption of the behavioral expectations of life in the church.
Writing in First Things, Wilken expounds on his point that the church is not just an influence within culture, but is itself a culture, a city with its own common life and its own sovereign authority. Christians engaged the broader culture, but their focus was on community-building:
The early church didn’t try to transform its culture by getting into arguments about whether the government should do this or that. As a small minority, it knew it would lose that battle; there were too many other forces at work. Instead it focused on building its own sense of community, and it let these communities be the leaven that would gradually transform culture.
The church transformed the broader culture by establishing communities of committed members who embodied the new norms Jesus gave the apostles and disciples.
Stark likewise argues that the doctrines of the Christian faith, as incarnated in actual communities, spread the faith and revitalized Roman culture. The high cost of entry, including strict standards of behavior and duties to the group, actually increased Christian communities’ attractiveness, screening out the less committed and increasing the quality of communal life. Along with the benefits of belonging in this life was martyrs’ credible witness to the eternal benefits of participation in the church. Most fundamentally, the grundnorm of love became, in Stark’s words, “the cultural basis for the revitalization of a Roman world groaning under a host of miseries.” That love was exhibited internally in Christian communities, but also in the practice of hospitality and mercy extended to outsiders in the midst of plagues and calamities.
Cultural Christianity Isn’t Enough
The example of the early Christians’ success in building and spreading the church as a new conventional order stands opposed to “cultural Christianity,” a prominent form of political witness in our day. Cultural Christianity is the appeal to Christianity’s moral vision, drawing inspiration from and championing Christianity’s profound influence on the ethical and political ideals of Western civilization. Its aims are to orient whole societies and cultures toward the common good, understood materially and spiritually, to preserve and expand the humane effects of Christian teaching for the benefit of all citizens of a polity, not just Christian believers, and to decrease the distance between the church and the norms of the broader society, easing the path toward conversion for some.
I’m not denying cultural Christianity’s benefits—though it has costs too—nor am I counseling withdrawal from efforts to shape laws in conformity with Christian teaching about the human person and natural law. Rather, as the early church and other social movements have shown, transformation happens when we build thriving associations that adopt new norms and conventions. Deep, broad cultural change often results not primarily from government imposition or propagation of ideas, but from committed social entrepreneurs who pilot alternative conventions. Public pronouncement of Christian values, absent change in underlying social conventions, is a poor substitute for deeply rooted cultural change, beginning internally with the church—equivalent to the Chinese government’s bans on footbinding, which were ineffective. Christians in the West face a lot of political and cultural resistance. But the most promising path is for the church to build attractive communities and networks amid this opposition from the state and the broader culture.
In fact, our culture is in desperate need of the church’s witness. American society is caught in a variety of malign conventions that Christianity can address. We seek to be independent from our obligations, and we eschew longstanding relationships in pursuit of individual self-fulfillment. Yet public figures across the political spectrum have long spoken of a gnawing spiritual emptiness. Public health officials document increases in anxiety, loneliness, and suicide. Many in our culture groan under old and new miseries.
Relatedly, the social acceptance of a general overreliance on and addiction to social media and dopamine is a concrete example of a malign social convention. Walking the grounds of the university where I teach, I frequently see heads buried in smartphones, rather than up, prepared to greet others silently or verbally, to connect with others personally—and no doubt I’ve contributed to the maintenance of this convention on many occasions. In Public Discourse, Joshua Pauling draws a connection between this digitization of human interaction with the growing acceptance of transgenderism, another increasingly powerful and malign, though hopefully fleeting, social convention.
As Pauling mentions, our social conventions and the way we live together are grounded in—and in turn produce and reproduce—what Charles Taylor calls a “social imaginary,” an intuitively shared vision of society and human life. James Rogers has used the term “social semiotics” to describe “the social and personal possibilities people can conceive or imagine” in order to explain “how social relationships construct the cognitive world in which people think and live.” We are dealing ultimately with an impoverished social vision and sense of how human beings can live and flourish together, under God.
The church can offer hope and community amid isolation, depression, despair, and confusion. But the church must first ask more of Christians. In practical terms, renewing catechesis, expecting more community involvement, and cultivating bonds of trust among church members will be important steps toward renewal. Charity toward outsiders is another. Reviving monastic life and other forms of communal living would also help strengthen the church. Finally, to preserve the integrity of the faith, the faithful must defend the church’s teachings from fellow Christians who distort them.
I don’t mean to instrumentalize the church in the interests of social renewal. Christians should preach the gospel and live in light of it regardless of the prospects for broader cultural transformation. But part of the church provides a suite of life-giving norms and conventions that honor God and help us love our neighbors well. The church’s norms transform us, fashioning us into new men and women fit to live in the new heaven and earth, for union with God. The church is the body of Christ, the remedy for the moral and spiritual ills of our age and every age.
Christians can be the social entrepreneurs and pioneers of a new conventional order, showing our neighbors the benefits of life according to the norms Jesus gave us. Perhaps they will say of us, as Tertullian reported early Christians’ neighbors saying, “Look . . . how they love one another.”
The featured image is in the public domain, courtesy of Mart Production and pexels.com.