The Common Good

What Congress Can Learn from a Town Dump

I went to the town dump today, and I found it open, functioning, filled with people doing the right thing in the right way, giving useful advice to a novice, and able to drive in and out without mayhem, all under the watchful eye of a single employee.

Its no-nonsense efficiency reminded me of church suppers, where everything seems to work because people are helping, not managing. Imagine Congress being that capable.

I suppose we should be thankful that Congress scampered out of town for five weeks. If they’re going to do nothing, at least they should do nothing out where the constituents who elected them can take their measure.

I suppose we should also be thankful that July 2014 only had 31 days. Imagine a longer month for suicidal conflicts and epidemics.

We should be thankful, too, that the world’s three great religions — wealth, technology, and the Abrahamic faiths — are getting on people’s nerves. Irritation might lead us to expect better.

Congress cannot be as capable as the town dump because Congress is designed to obstruct human progress. Whether the prevailing mood is liberal, conservative, libertarian, or just-show-me-the-money, the legislature reflects our deep divisions as a society and does the bidding of whoever is buying favors today.

Congress serves to frustrate the will of the people. That’s partly because the people don’t have a single will and often loathe and distrust their fellow citizens. That’s mostly because, while helping others might generate gratitude, corrupting the system for the few generates cash.

So why does the town dump succeed where the most expensive legislature that money can buy utterly fails? The town dump is like the church that has no money, no fancy people, no pretensions, just a heart for service.

First, it addresses a practical problem: getting rid of trash. Even when you dress it up as recycling, there’s no ideology required, just a job to get done.

It would be possible for Congress to see practical needs, such as strong highway bridges and adequate food, shelter, and health care. But the legislature, we must now realize, doesn’t exist to resolve practical needs. It exists to air competing ideologies and prejudices and to keep lobbyists dispensing cash.

Second, the town dump skips the superficial things. It has hand-lettered signs, unpainted bins, and bumpy pavement. The dump is like the church that is so busy feeding the poor that it never gets around to installing a stylish parlor.

The key to the dump’s efficiency, of course, is the single employee. Imagine if the dump had a crew of 10, each needing something to do, and a boss on a career ladder. Then we would have professionally lettered signs, procedures, protocols, and endless hectoring. A trip to the dump would take 30 minutes, not five.

Third, the town dump is basic democracy. There are no special rules that some self-important grandee paid to have promulgated for his benefit. There’s no ideology, no theology.

Think about the things in life that work: not only church suppers, but disaster relief (at least until the bureaucrats arrive), parent-free pickup games, dating, grocery checkout lines.

Left to our own devices without wealth trying to dominate, we tend to work things out. Maybe we should ask Congress to extend their vacation.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

Image: Taking out the trash. Photo courtesy of Rissy Story via Shutterstock.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Resources

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)