John Lilburne's journal about Broken Windows theory, how little things matter, and how it applies to the Church's liturgy.



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0810 L Mon 26 Nov 2001

I have just been watching Australia fail to qualify for the World Cup in soccer, losing to Uruguay 3 - 0.

The first reading for Mass today is Daniel 1:1-6, 8-20.

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched on Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hands, with some of the furnishings of the Temple of God. He took them away to the land of Shinar, and stored the sacred vessels in the treasury of his own gods.

They are defeated, utterly humiliated. Yet just as the Lord gave Jerusalem to David, here he has given it to Nebuchadnezzar. But in the face of defeat there is triumph, as the rest of the reading describes:

The king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to select from the Israelites a certain number of boys of either royal or noble descent; they had to be without any physical defect, of good appearance, trained in every kind of wisdom, well-informed, quick at learning, suitable for service in the palace of the king. Ashpenaz himself was to teach them the language and literature of the Chaldaeans. The king assigned them a daily allowance of food and wine from his own royal table. They were to receive an education lasting for three years, after which they were expected to be fit for the king's society. Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, who were Judaeans. Daniel, who was most anxious not to defile himself with the food and wine from the royal table, begged the chief eunuch to spare him this defilement; and by the grace of God Daniel met goodwill and sympathy on the part of the chief eunuch. But he warned Daniel, 'I am afraid of my lord the king: he has assigned you food and drink, and if he sees you looking thinner in the face than the other boys of your age, my head will be in danger with the king because of you.' At this Daniel turned to the guard whom the chief eunuch had assigned to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. He said, 'Please allow your servants a ten days' trial, during which the which we are given only vegetables to eat and water to drink. You can then compare our looks with those f the boys who eat the king's food; go by what you see, and treat your servants accordingly.' the man agreed to do what they asked and put them on ten days' trial. When the ten days were over they looked and were in better health than any of the boys who had eaten their allowance from the royal table; so the guard withdrew their allowance of food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. And God favoured these four boys with knowledge and intelligence in everything connected with literature, and in wisdom; while Daniel had the gift of interpreting every kind of vision and dream. When the period stipulated by the king for the boys' training was over, the chief eunuch presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king conversed with them, and among all the boys found none to equal Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. So they became members of the king's court, and on whatever point of wisdom or information he might question them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his entire kingdom.

It reminds me of some scenes from the movie The Bridge of the River Kwai which is set in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II. The Japanese commandant cannot understand the prisoners: "You are defeated, but not ashamed." The character played by Alec Guinness says in a speech to his troops: "You have turned defeat into victory."

In the reading what is the victory? Simply to maintain their dietary laws. What difference does a little thing like that make? The message from the book I am reading, The Tipping Point, is that little things can make a big difference.

The author Malcolm Gladwell describes Broken Windows theory.

If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. ...

This is an epidemic theory of crime. It says that crime is contagious -- just as a fashion trend is contagious -- that it can start with a broken window and spread to an entire community. (page 141)

It is explained how this approach led to a dramatic decrease in crime in New York, with David Gunn applying the theory in rebuilding the subway system:

Many subway advocates, at the time, told Gunn not to worry about graffiti, to focus on the larger question of crime and subway reliability, and it seemed like reasonable advice. Worrying about graffiti at a time when the entire system was close to collapse seems as pointless as scrubbing the decks of the Titanic as it headed towards the icebergs. But Gunn insisted. (page 142).

The book describes how the approach worked. I see my approach of promoting obedience of the liturgical laws as similar. The liturgy is the Church's public ceremonies. If the liturgical laws are not followed, then that is a broken window: people will conclude that no one cares, no one is in charge, and the problems spread. So an important way of fixing the Church's problems is simply to have the liturgical laws followed.

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, 26 November 2001. Bible extract from The Jerusalem Bible.