Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Social Capital: Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God

Yet another thoughtful and thought-provoking piece in The Guardian is buzzing around in my head, especially in the context of last Sunday's Holocaust Memorial Day. Madeleine Bunting's argument is this: a pathological individualism is poisoning public life. Starting from seeing a mad scramble to get on board a school bus, her subsequent reflection leads her to voice a deep disquiet about the very nature of public life itself: "Amid such cacophony of attention-seeking "me, me, me", two things are in danger of being lost: first, the ability really to listen - rather than just wait with varying degrees of patience for your chance to spout off; and second, that grand old etiquette of liberal debate, the option to agree to differ. Both are vital ingredients of public debate as a process of learning and negotiation, both are much needed if the unprecedented diversity of our public spaces now is to produce civility or even conviviality." Christians should be profoundly disturbed by this. The ability and willingness to listen deeply to another person seems to me to be an absolutely crucial hallmark of anyone who claims to be a Christian because it entails a Christ-like disposition of mind and heart towards the other, which takes them seriously as a person who is precious to God. As Richard Gillard's modern hymn puts it: "Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you."

In St John's gospel (John 13:34; John 15:12), Jesus cuts to the chase as to how his disciples are to behave: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another........This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."  Loving as Jesus loves; its as simple and as daunting as that. Jesus is the human face of God, whom the Bible declares is Love. If we turn to the Book of Micah (6:8) with this in mind we find a simply stunning answer to the question, "what does God require of us?", an answer later embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus:

"He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?
"

Two extended quotes from the writing of the American feminist theologian Carter Heyward celebrate the truly radical nature of such godly love, within a theology of mutuality:

"To say I love you is to say that you are not mine, but rather your own. To love you is to advocate your rights, your space, your self, and to struggle with you, rather than against you, in our learning to claim our power in the world. To love you is to make love to you, and with you, whether in an exchange of glances heavy with existence, in the passing of a peace we mean, in our common work or play, in our struggle for social justice, or in the ecstasy and tenderness of intimate embrace that we believe is just and right for us - and for others in the world. To love you is to be pushed by a power/God both terrifying and comforting, to touch and be touched by you...To love you is to sing with you, cry with you, pray with you, and act with you to re-create the world. To say ‘I love you’ means - let the revolution begin!"

"Love is not fundamentally a sweet feeling; not, at heart, a matter of sentiment, attachment, or being "drawn toward". Love is active, effective, a matter of making reciprocal and mutually beneficial relation with one's friends and enemies. Love creates righteousness, or justice, here on earth. To make love is to make justice. As advocates and activists for justice know, loving involves struggle, resistance, risk. People working today on behalf of women, blacks, lesbians and gay men, the aging, the poor in this country and elsewhere know that making justice is not a warm, fuzzy experience. I think also that sexual lovers and good friends know that the most compelling relationships demand hard work, patience, and a willingness to endure tensions and anxiety in creating mutually empowering bonds. For this reason loving involves commitment. We are not automatic lovers of self, others, world, or God. Love does not just happen. We are not love machines, puppets on the strings of a deity called "love". Love is a choice — not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretence or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity — a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life."

Loving such as this is about building social capital; it is all about doing justice and loving kindness. Such a theology of mutuality is the counter to the me, me, me malaise about which Madeleine Bunting speaks so passionately, because loving like this confers and fosters dignity, which she says is something "as essential to human wellbeing as food and shelter, but in the public spaces of our lives it is in increasingly short supply. That prompts frustration and disillusionment and a retreat into our private worlds as we disengage even further from the brutal bear pit that so many aspects of our public life have become. The danger is that we withdraw into bunkers of the like-minded, vacating the territory of solidarity and common purpose. That's a brutally bleak picture, and that is exactly what the children in Edmonton bus station were being taught last week."

Loving such as this subverts the corrosive attitudes in society which do not see, do not listen to, do not value and do not cherish others. Lets make no mistake; such attitudes when taken to extremes have led to Genocide, be it the Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia or Darfur.  In his superb book "the dignity of difference", Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks asks these powerful questions: Can we make space for difference? Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger? It seems to me that unless and until we can, we will really struggle to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

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