The Nature of Community

In 587 BC the residents of Judah including the royal family, the aristocracy, and the priests and scribes of the temple were transported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar.

While this amounted to a catastrophic event for the Jewish nation the period of the captivity proved to be a fruitful opportunity. Its important to remember that within every crisis lies an opportunity. With the destruction of the temple and its priestly rituals Judaism faced having to reinvent itself. It’s during this period that the synagogues and the rabbis replaced the temple and its priests as the centre of Jewish religious practice. This movement was part of a complete overhaul of Judaism and for the first time completely purged Judaism of the old Canaanite religion with its Gods and deities. So its not until a relatively late stage that a truly monotheistic practice emerged in conformity with what had hitherto largely been only a monotheistic theology.

During the period of the captivity the rise of the Persians displaced the Babylonians and the new King Darius 1st allowed the Jews to return home. The first wave of exiles arrived in a ruined Jerusalem in 538BC. The prophecies of Haggai relate to this period and he is speaking probably around 520. There were two successive waves of returnees, in 457 and the prophecies of Ezra relate to this time and in 445 and the prophecies of Nehemiah relate to this period.

Haggai spoke 3 times to the people:

• On 29 August 520 *B.C. It is in Haggai 1:2-11.

•On 17 October 520 *B.C. It is in Haggai 2:3-9.

On 18 December 520 *B.C. It is in Haggai 2:11-23.

Haggai seems concerned with a continued delay in the rebuilding of the Temple and the discouragement of the populace. The foundations had been laid and an altar for sacrifice set up, but not temple building constructed. Instead Zerubbabel, and note who is a this time only the High Commissioner ruling under Persian oversight and the ruling class had turned their attention to their own prosperity and comfort. Haggai’s complain is that they were feathering their own nests and neglecting the needs of Yahweh. As a consequence poverty, unemployment, and chronic inflation kept the economy in a state of zero growth and productivity.

In chapter  7  Yahweh says through Haggai

Reflect carefully how things have gone for you. The abundance you expected proved to be little. When you brought the harvest in my breath spoilt it. And why? Because while my house lies in ruins you are busy with your own, each one of you.

 Foreground  

I awaken each morning to the World Service of the BBC. Recently I have chanced upon two lively discussions. The first explored the genius of the West for innovation that will result in a range of new technologies that will forever change our world. The other concerned a recent book: The Great Reset: How the Post Crash economy Will change the way we live and work by Richard Florida.

Societies experience periods of stress. They generally recover and the status quo ante is restored. However, there are moments when crisis envelops and existing social and economic structures collapse and or evolve. Richard Florida’s concept of reset describes such periods well. The period of the Babylonian Captivity and the return of the Exiles is an example of reset.

In 2008 the international banking system collapsed revealing it to be the house of cards it had become following two decades of repealing regulatory measures enacted after the Great Depression to prevent such things ever happening again. The Great Depression and World War II offer us the most recent example of cultural reset. The current crisis results from the resurgence the values of avarice blinding us to the lessons of our history. By now there is evidence to suggest that this is not a recession from which we will soon recover. This is a reset moment when everything is changing and the future will not look like the past.

Three great challenges face us.

In all countries of the West a much deeper problem underlies our economic woes, this is the collapse in public confidence in all political institutions.

The breakdown of the Post War social contract and an absence of any real vision of the way forward other than to conjure a picture of hastening erosion of the middle classes and increasing social polarization resulting from the growth of gross inequalities.

The erosion of common wellbeing- that my wellbeing depends on that of my neighbor and vice versa. We have increasingly come to accept a narrow view of self-interest as the defining characteristic of human personhood. Self-interest is fundamental to the maintenance of cohesive social contracts. But its a wider view of self interest that states that my self interest is best served in an environment where the capacity for altruism -to encompass concern for another- defines human personhood.

In European countries there is a wide consensus of agreement about a vision for the social contract. There is disagreement over how to sustain the social contract in a way that does not stifle economic growth and entrepreneurship.

By contrast in the US there is profound disagreement about the vision for the social contract. As the battle lines have become increasingly ideological the ground upon which common sense solutions offer themselves is shrinking alarmingly.

With every crisis comes an opportunity. The trick is to be able to see the outlines of the opportunity amidst the chaotic din of the crisis. This is one of the guiding principles that I have used again and again in my ministry with individuals in crisis and I believe history supports my contention that this insight applies also to communities nations and increasingly today to a global world.

Two key factors led to the rise of the West: scarcity, and a penchant for innovation as a response to scarcity. Both the discussion on innovation I referred to and Florida’s book fundamentally identify these two factors as currently leading to a laying of new foundations for resurgence. In contrast to the prevailing pessimism that hangs like a dark cloud over us all there is good reason to see the current crisis as a reset that will forever change the way our society will look and function into the future.

I would like to return to this theme as a series of sermons exploring this claim in greater detail. But for now I can only confine myself to a brief reference to the 3rd  of the challenges I identified above.

 A recapitulation of the theme

The jubilation of the returning exiles seemed to have been short lived. The struggles to reestablish the nation seems to have resulted in a period of despondency characterized by a brief upsurge of narrow self interest. When human beings feel overwhelmed by the task facing them one reaction is to hunker down and simply look after oneself. This seems to be a good description of the situation that  evokes God to use Haggai as his spokesman. The gist of the prophecy has God saying:

look at the consequences of your actions and wake up to how badly these seem to be serving you. For I have a promise to keep with you. The only thing that stands between you and the fulfillment of my promise for you is your fear-motivated narrow survival-selfishness.

A development of the theme

God has a promise to keep with us. But like the exiles we must return to keeping faith with God. We must put allegiance to God at the centre of our lives. We must become more aware of the siren calls of avarice promising us the illusion that power and pleasure will protect us from our deepest fears.

The crowning glory of our Western Civilization has been the emergence of individualism. Now the cult of autonomous individualism comes in for serious criticism. In a number of sermons over the last year I have railed against it. However, I am aware of the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Because what I and others rail against is a narrow individualism shaped by the enjoyment of an abundance of resources in the Post War period. Autonomous individualism thrives best in the rich soil of America because the US has exercised control over and enjoyed the lions share of global resources for the last 60 years. Narrow self interest is not such a problem for a society characterized by abundance.

I want to contend that individualism is one of the crowning achievements of Western Culture. Individualism emerged through the process we call the Enlightenment during the 17th Century. For the first time in the history of human civilization the human individual emerges from the collective identity of tribe, race, caste, and family systems. 

What we have forgotten in the regression to a self centered form of individualism is a true individualism shaped by our Christian culture. Individualism shaped and held in check by Christian culture – heir to the message of the Hebrew prophets completed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ –  results in the human individual being freed to unleash their God given energies in the forms of creativity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship in the service of the common good.

It is to be hoped and prayed for that a consequence of the current process of fundamental cultural reset will be a recapturing of the spirit of individualism committed to the common good. Altruism is really the recognition that my good is best served in serving yours. Narrow individualism, is the product of a false abundance. It now rigidifies as abundance turns to scarcity and fear divides us one from another. Let us reclaim a concept of Individualism shaped by the privileging of community and an over-riding sense of the common good. Is this not the very thing we need once more to unleash in us the energy to make a new world? A world that is our baptismal response to God’s age-old invitation to join him in a covenant. God’s call to covenant is an invitation for us to join God in becoming nothing less than co-creators. This is a state marked by individuals living out the qualities of gratitude, generosity and service in the name of the common good of all.

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