Moynihan’s Law: The Better Things Get, The Worse They Seem image

Moynihan’s Law: The Better Things Get, The Worse They Seem

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"The amount of violations of human rights in a country," argued Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "is always an inverse function of the amount of complaints about human rights violations heard from there. The greater the number of complaints being aired, the better protected are human rights in that country." In other words: the better things get, the worse they seem.

It holds true in numerous areas with significance for today’s church. For instance:

Politics. The fieriest (and most destructive) protests against fascism to be found anywhere in the world today are in Portland, Oregon, which is probably the most left-leaning, hypertolerant, unfascist city in the entire world.

Religious Freedom. It is hard to think of a nation with more religious freedom than the US. It is also hard to think of a nation where the violation of religious freedom is talked about more loudly, or weaponised politically more often.

Economics. When people in the Middle Ages, or the ancient world, were genuinely starving for lack of food, people hardly referred to poverty as a problem (because it was taken as a given). People talk about it far more in contexts where absolute poverty is all-but-eliminated.

Education. Complaints about oppression, exclusion and injustice are loudest today in the most privileged environments in human history: elite university campuses in the world’s richest countries. This point is central to Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book The Coddling of the American Mind.

Apologetics. The less a generation has experienced suffering, the more likely they are to see the problem of suffering as a reason not to believe in a loving God. This is why C. S. Lewis encouraged people to “reflect for five minutes on the fact that all the great religions were first preached, and long practiced, in a world without chloroform [= anaesthetics].”

Pastoral Care. The same is true pastorally. People in our generation have probably had fewer genuinely traumatic experiences than any generation before us (whether we measure it by plagues, invasions, stillbirths, World Wars, or whatever it is), yet references to the trauma we have experienced, and the therapy or pastoral care we need as a result, are greater now than ever before.

This does not mean we should dismiss what people are saying, or roll our eyes at the snowflakes, or anything patronising like that. But it might prompt us to respond with gratitude in unexpected ways. It might incline us to pay closer attention to areas where few people are complaining (I originally wrote a few suggestions in here, but it might be more helpful to reflect on what you think they are), and not just areas where everyone is (see above). And it may mean that we need a bit of historical context before responding to the cries of our own generation with panic, or blind obedience, or both.

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