Time To Take Stock

Just about every day I seriously consider coming off social media. I vaguely envy those who’ve managed to make the break. I’m beginning to think there’s a stigma attached to even trying to do this. Why is it so difficult? There are of course all sorts of valid reasons for staying with it and, to be honest, the fear of isolation and loneliness is one of them, but I also realise that being caught up with facebook and twitter, neither increases or diminishes that particular state of mind, or perhaps it does both. Therein lies the confusion many of us experience in regard to social media.

The illusion of freedom that social media bestows makes us all vulnerable – and hence hurtable. We may feel impregnable, behind a computer screen alone against the world, but there is no telling who is out there, or how they will read us, what tender vulnerability we will touch on, wittingly or unwittingly, and how they will reciprocate, when we have taken one too many risks with a tweet or a post, and left ourselves momentarily exposed.

So the media, and social media especially, is encouraging a kind of ghetto mentality, one with which people can identify by being part of a group which will keep them safe, or at least provide support and refuge when what is said or half said hits them where they are most vulnerable. But we are all vulnerable to being hit, or excluded from the group, one way or another. We are all on the defensive. As a result of this none of us is truly free.

As I ponder whether or not to come off social media, I also have to ask myself what this fundamentally defensive attitude of mind does to us as a society. What kind of society are we becoming? Are we truly free? Embodied in the idea of freedom is that of liberality, which also means generosity, generosity of spirit. There is a growing antipathy towards these two ‘graces’ which are often cynically conflated and written off as ‘liberal elitism’.  Bearing in mind that November is the month of remembrance, it is worth recalling the sacrifices made in recent history by two generations in the name of this very freedom, this liberality, this generosity of spirit.  

How do our notions of being a free society sit with theirs? Perhaps it was easier for them to think of themselves as a free society, one which was about belonging together in freedom of spirit, because they had a visible common enemy to defeat. We have many enemies, but they are not visible in the same way as those of our grandparents and great grandparents. Our enemies thrive on isolationism, on the sovereign power of the individual. Without a visible common enemy they translate into nationalism, identity politics and the cult of celebrity leadership.

As a result of this we allow ourselves to be identified with the kind of people who embody our fantasies. We want stardom, because it is the opposite of vulnerability and of wisdom. It makes few demands on our intelligence or sense of right and wrong. It evokes a certain kind of impregnability, often pertaining to an imagined past. But in reality it speaks of rootlessness and of a people which seems to have lost all sense of purpose, because it has lost sight of its own history. It does not seem to be rooted in anything that gives meaning or shape to its life, still less to its future as one of a wider global society.

The celebrity leader appeals to the rootless because, like any other celebrity, he has no time for anyone or anything other than himself and his immediate short-term objectives. Stay focused on him and on his fantasies and all will be well. Celebrity leaders seem to be largely male, perhaps because the male leader, when he is intoxicated by power, plays to our fantasies, and feeds on our complacency, as he persuades us that his objectives are all that we could possibly need or want.

The celebrity leader succeeds through lies and duplicity because we have given up on the real meaning of freedom, on the kind of liberality which allows us to believe in our capacity for right judgment and goodness. We have given up on ourselves. More importantly, the celebrity leader succeeds, and will succeed again, because we, as a society, have little sense of belonging to the wider sociality which makes up the planet we inhabit, and of the responsibilities we bear to it. We have also given up on the infinite source of goodness itself. Perhaps it is time to take stock of these things and turn back before it is too late.

The Latter Times

‘In the latter times’ writes one of the contributors to the book of Daniel ‘Many shall be running back and forth and evil shall increase.’ (Dan. 12:4) Whoever was writing may have borrowed the words from elsewhere and re-worked them slightly to fit the times he or she was living in, times when a people were being oppressed by a powerful ruler. The point of the book lies both in its poetry and in its prophetic witness. Prophecy is concerned with history – specifically, God’s involvement in history and the extent to which God may or may not play a part in shaping it. In the bible, poetry gives voice to God’s passionate love for his people.

Prophecy discerns how his purposes are to be worked out in their life together. There have been many ‘latter times’ in the history of the human race, some of them arguably within the reaches of our own memories. One, perhaps, being experienced right now. There will undoubtedly be more.

If we stick with the book of Daniel as a basic blueprint or model for what these ‘latter times’ might be taken to mean, or what they might look like, we see not just individuals speaking into the future, but whole populations moving and acting. We see migrations and mass movements, the movements of dissent and sometimes of revolution.

Right now, in the UK, we are watching two movements of dissent as they appear to converge on one another. They are unprecedented in their size and remarkable for what can only be described as their solemnity. They are, for the most part, more like religious processions than political demonstrations. Prayer is seen to be going on in at least one of them. It is as if God is not simply being invoked. He is present to the moment, involved in the course of history. In this particular instance I think especially of the Extinction Rebellion protests that have been taking place in London and elsewhere in the UK. But I am also thinking of the one million people who turned out on those same streets a few days later to demand a final say in the Brexit process.

There was a certain stillness about the march which ought to have struck fear in the hearts of the powerful. A riot would have been frightening, but this steadiness of purpose, this silence at the heart of things, spoke not so much of the power of the people pitting itself against the power of government, as of authenticity.

Authenticity is the mark of the genuine authority which comes with what the bible calls righteousness. Embedded in the word ‘righteousness’ are two other words, both pertaining to the character of God. They are ‘mercy’ and ‘justice’. Both of the massive demonstrations we have seen speak of this righteousness. The one in the context of our planet and the lives of future generations, the other in the context of resistance, resistance to a dangerous fragmenting of the  unity of purpose that exists between 27 European nations and that has sustained peace between this country and its neighbours for over 70 years. Relatively few people alive in Britain today have known war, so this particular protest is also a resistance to the price we might yet pay for wilfully ignoring history. The price would be huge and long term.

The purpose of prophecy then, lies in remembering and in reminding those who are prepared to learn, of the need for ‘knowledge’, knowledge being a kind of divinely graced common sense. Common sense is common, not because it is obvious, but because it serves the good of the greatest number of people, rather than of the powerful few. So the first thing that is required of any political leader is a healthy dose of this ‘common’ sense. The two demonstrations that have taken place in London over the past two weeks have been an expression of, and a demand for, common sense, properly understood, to be deployed by those in government or who have the means or the power to change the way we use the God given resources of this planet. So the two events are of a piece. They are also continuous and open ended.

By this I mean that for as long as anyone engages with the urgency of the Extinction Rebellion, and with those who value peace and prosperity in Europe, the marches will continue. They will continue to take place in streets and cities but, more significantly for those of you reading this post, they will continue through the hearts and minds of every individual who consciously abandons complacency, cynicism and despair in regard to both these areas of human survival and wellbeing.

They will also continue from within the life of God, which is neither limited nor finite. Every heart that is concerned with the common good, seeks the knowledge that ultimately comes from God. The bible calls this Wisdom. It is an attribute of God’s own nature, but it is also ‘common’ sense. It is God acting from within the human person, prompting the freedom given to us to exercise our free will in righteousness, justice and compassion. These three stand in direct opposition to the three prevailing evils of our time, the evils of complacency, cynicism and despair. Complacency and cynicism stifle hope and blunt creativity. Despair is about lifelessness and death.

The demonstrations that we have seen stand against this triple evil. They suggest that what appears to be our end, can become our beginning. T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem Little Gidding, that ‘We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ The solemn coming together of peoples who are confronting human folly and greed for the sake of our common survival is part of a new creation, a new thing being created out of the ashes of complacency, cynicism and ultimate despair.

These great demonstrations of a people’s will to the common good are also a ‘knowing’, a knowing which pertains to each one of us, if we are willing to own it. So we are each called from wherever we are at this moment, with whatever we have to offer, to engage with this new beginning for the common good, to ‘know’ it for the first time from deep within ourselves and take responsibility for it, as a matter of utmost urgency.