On Saturday, January 28th, Martin Flanagan wrote a brilliant piece in The Age newspaper, offering an analysis of the current situation in Australia – reflecting a little on the ‘Australia Day’ rhetoric and on some of the articles over this holiday. But he also had much to say about the political and social malaise in which we find ourselves: in which there is basically no debate.
The absence of debate, he suggests, is one of the fundamental consequences of the policies (evident in governments all over the world) which assure us that all is well provided we just keep on spending, borrowing and spending, building houses and spending more …
But somewhere along the way here, Flanagan says, we lost a thing called community.
I have some new things to say about this all-too-familiar theme – and I don’t want this to be a gripe!
What does it mean to say that we have lost community?
We still live in streets, suburbs, towns. We still see people every
day, talk to them, deal with them, ‘text’ them, work with them, play
with them … etc.
We have dealings with each other; and yet, it is true, in some really
basic sense we do not, in a way we used to, have that quality of
‘community’ which means that we care: not just care for each other, or
care about each other. In a really interesting sense, there are now
so many things about which we just don’t care.
Over my summer break I read a book my son gave me for Christmas, called Talk to the Hand. Sub-title: The utter boloody rudeness of everyday life (or six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door). It’s by Lynne Truss, ‘author of the celebrated Eats, Shoots and Leaves‘.
Well, her first book may have been celebrated, but this book seems to me to little more than the collected whinges of a person who finds most people around her to be unpleasant if not downright rude. Truss is a publisher’s editor, paid to be a perfectionist pedant, and she seems to derive some unusual pleasure from telling us how she yells at kids on their skateboards (on the footpath) and rails against the call centres and the many other things which irritate us all. She is right about so many things: people who speak loudly on their mobiles, in trains or cafes; people who not only don’t thank you for holding the door open for them, but if you say anything at all, will just as soon tell you to F – off. (She has a lot to say about this response.)
The book has an outline of the six categories of rudeness she wants to describe, and I think that might have been enough, but she goes on and explains it all, with some anecdotes and illustations, for another six chapters.
BUT why I mention all this is that she does offer a really valuable insight into this phenomenon of rudeness. In an old fashioned time, this subject had to do with ‘manners’, and manners had to do with how to behave when we are ‘with company’.
This is the really helpful thing Truss has to point out: basically, all this behaviour she is concerned about reflects the idea that we are not with each other: people act like this because they are not ‘in public’ anymore. They are, in some strange sense, in their own little worlds. Truss point out just how common it is that people go about listening to their own music (the ipod world)—and they no longer think of themselves as in the presence of others. That is to say, the people around them are not really present, present to them, in a way that impacts upon their bebaviour, creating expectations, obligations, or any response at all. ‘Manners’ presupposed some kind of relationship, some kind of being-with.
This I think is one helpful insight into what it might mean to say that we have lost ‘community’.
At least it is part of what we have lost, the sense of actually being with each other.
Community means being with. It means being present with and for each other.
Christian theology speaks of the divine community, in which personhood is inherently communal: to be a person, as the divine persons within the godhead are persons, is to be mutally related, inter-dependent, existing in and because of that relatedness.
Furthermore, the Bible pictures all human life as in the presence of God, or to use the title of George Stroup’s more recent book, Before God. We live before God, in the presence of God and related to God, in our very being. Sin is ‘bad manners’, in the sense of inappropriate responses to where we are, and how we are to live: with each other, with God.
The recovery of community is intrinsically related to the recovery of relationship—perhaps not in the formal idea of ‘good manners’, but more in the sense of actually looking each other in the eye, or being present to one another — and before God.