Little Platoons

This year's Olympic games have ended, but already the athletes are turning their eyes to 1996. That year the games will be held in Atlanta, Georgia--right next to one of America's poorest neighborhoods: Summerhill. There's a story to tell about Summerhill--a story that shows how government policy sometimes hurts more than it helps. Founded after the Civil War, Summerhill was once the proud home of freed slaves. Only a generation ago, it was still a bustling neighborhood, alive with block parties, church socials, and local businesses. But in the 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood began to show signs of aging, and was targeted for urban renewal. The government promised to transform the neighborhood into a modern mecca, with new homes, schools, and community centers. Federal agencies poured nearly $200 million dollars into the project. Yet today Summerhill is a mere ghost of the vibrant community it once was, a place of boarded-up buildings, weedy vacant lots, crack cocaine dens. What went wrong? Urban renewal was based on a political philosophy that looked to the state as the only instrument for meeting human needs. It ignored social groupings like family, church, and neighborhood--what the great British statesman Edmund Burke called the little platoons: the groups where we meet people face to face, and form our most intimate relationships. With total disregard for the little platoons, urban planners brought their bulldozers into Summerhill, and razed houses and local businesses to the ground. They built a highway that cut right across the neighborhood. They built a stadium for the Atlanta Falcons that displaced some 5000 residents. After that, they tried to build a new community from scratch. It was an abject failure. Today the area is such an embarrassment that Atlanta officials are groping for ways to spruce it up before the Olympics come to town. Cases like Summerhill are forcing government to rethink its philosophy. A few years ago, a minor government official created a stir by calling for a "New Paradigm." He said government must now decentralize power and return it to Burke's little platoons. Christian statesman Abraham Kuyper said the same thing back at the turn of the century. He said a biblically-based political theory should give equal respect to all the social structures ordained by God. Family, church, school, business--each has its own distinctive task that no other group can do. The role of the state is to protect these little platoons so they can carry out their God-given tasks. Instead the modern state tries to usurp those tasks. And the attempt has left behind broken families and shattered neighborhoods--like Summerhill. Yesterday we talked about the limits of the state. Now we see where those limits must be drawn. The responsibilities of the state end where the responsibilities of the little platoons begin. If we want to be a nation of vibrant, caring communities, we can not look to government to solve all our problems. We have to tend the smaller structures where real relationships and real love can grow.


Chuck Colson


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