Big Society, New Covenant
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
17 October 2010, 10:30 (Trinity 20)
Jeremiah 31: 27-34
We experienced one of those rare things this past week – an unadulterated good news story. The successful rescue of 33 miners, 32 Chileans and 1 Bolivian, from the San Jose mine after their 69-day ordeal trapped underground, was just wonderful to watch.
Among the many talking points of this remarkable story is the way that, by focusing the attention of the world on the very human plight of the miners, it has completely changed the perception of Chile as a country. Be honest, until 10 weeks ago if someone said the word ‘Chile’, you would probably have thought: human rights, lack of; backward economy; 19th century mining technology; medieval health and safety; oh, and quite a nice Shiraz. Now we’re thinking: phenomenal engineering skills, resourceful and resilient people, wonderful community spirit, a nation of faith and purpose.
It leaves me with a question. What will the long term effect be of this story on Chilean public life? Will the transformation of their image in the eyes of the international community also extend to their own self-identity? Will it change their society?
Over the summer I read Phillip Blond’s best-seller ‘Red Tory’. Blond is a fascinating man, philosopher, theologian, a radical socialist in his younger days but now mellowed blue around the edges, and of an age – like me – to have witnessed the failure of both a Thatcherite and a New Labour analysis of society.
Blond relentlessly exposes the limitations of both the State and the Market, demonstrating how an unhealthy reliance on either and both of these monsters has driven mutual, associative society underground. He proposes a new political settlement where our society is no longer monopolised by either the State or the Market. Not big government, not rampant individualism, but yes, you can probably complete the sentence yourself, Big Society.
Phillip Blond is credited with being the man behind David Cameron’s idea of the Big Society. And if you’re still unclear about what the phrase really means, the book Red Tory is not a bad place to start.
I don’t know if you listened to the Prime Minister’s speech at the Tory Party Conference. Here are a few sound-bites in case you missed it:
Citizenship isn’t a transaction – in which you put your taxes in and get your services out. It’s a relationship.
We need to change the way we think about ourselves, and our role in society.
Society is not a spectator sport. Your country needs you.
I have no intention of making a party political point from this pulpit. What I do want to suggest is that all of this talk of Big Society is the first time in 30 years that I have heard a political turkey endorsing the idea of Christmas. It’s been a while since principles of subsidiarity and localism emanated from Whitehall.
And, unlike many, I am not cynical about the way the Big Society agenda has emerged at exactly the same time as the biggest cuts in State funding in living memory. It’s an easy criticism to suggest that a Government that can do less will require citizens who can do more. I actually think this agenda was emerging long before the financial crisis loomed over us.
For me, the appropriate question is not: is the Big Society what we need? It is: is our society too far gone to recover its sense of mutuality? As Blond himself puts it:
“A cogent critique of Cameron’s position has always been that all this society stuff is all well and good, but how can we get there from here? Surely our culture is too far gone – we have been made entirely passive and redundant by state activity and wholly self-advancing and individualist by the market.”
In other words, this may be desirable, but is it possible?
Jeremiah’s purple prophetic passage in today’s reading is something akin to a radical new manifesto for social change, long before the Big Society was even dreamt of. It has a slogan of its own. This is the only time in the Old Testament when the phrase ‘New Covenant’ appears, and it breaks new ground in its own day by suggesting that the answer to society’s problems is not adherence to an old regime of discredited religious observance, but a radically new inner transformation, a complete change of heart. And this transformation will be marked by a wonderfully topical culture shift – people will take responsibility for their own actions.
“In those days they shall no longer say ‘the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’, but every one shall die for his own sin; every man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge”.
This aspect of Jeremiah’s new covenant is about personal responsibility for our own actions. The prevailing view was that people’s experience of life was determined by circumstances elsewhere. To put it in modern parlance: other people’s behaviour and actions are the reason that my life is the way it is.
Jeremiah turned this on its head, and heralded a new covenant between God and his people in which there was a direct relationship of mutual responsibility between us and God.
You couldn’t get much more contemporary. The social differences between Jeremiah’s day and ours are huge, but we also live in a world where personal responsibility is under huge threat.
This takes a number of forms. The first, extremely subtle but enormously powerful form of this is what Erich Fromm once described as ‘anonymous authority’, those hidden, powerful, hardly acknowledged forces that shape the way we see the world and behave within it.
Modern society prides itself on being independent and free-thinking but actually we live in one of the most ‘conventional’ and ‘conformist’ societies of all time. Erich Fromm came up with his notion of anonymous authority to describe and explain this – the unseen influence within the modern world which affects the way that people believe and behave, which he says is a cultural pressure all the more effective for being invisible and source-less.
If we’re in the grip of hidden forces too subtle for us to discern, then who can hold us responsible for our actions?
The other, related aspect to this is a different form of determinism – the belief that, either by nature (genetics) or nurture (culture), our responses to the world around us are significantly pre-determined.
If they are then it lets us off the hook of responsibility. I can’t help it, it’s the fault of my genes, or my parents, or my experiences in life.
But anonymous authority, nature and nurture are being challenged by a newcomer on the behavioural block: neuroscience. Neuroscientists are discovering that the wiring of our brains can change, both in response to what’s happening around us but also in response to our own repeated actions. And this can happen both negatively and positively.
In other words, there is Temperament – which may be largely determined by nature and/or nurture – but there is also Character, which is not.
Character is about our genuine choice, the exercise of free will, our ability to take responsibility for our actions.
Strangely, Christianity has been saying this for the best part of 2000 years.
It’s easy to grow cynical that things can never change, that leopards never change their spots, that human beings are so flawed that genuine change and transformation can never happen – neither for individuals, nor for communities.
But that’s one of the things I like best about Christianity – it never gives up hope. It’s a remarkably resilient and hopeful faith. It laughs in the face of the intransigence of human nature. Human beings, it says, are not defined purely by their physical environment. Above it all, through it all, within it all, there is God.
Which is good news for Christianity, good news for you, good news for me, and good news for the Big Society too.
But one last word, which has to go to the Chilean miners. Those 69 days will have changed the lives of those 233 men. They might just have changed the future of Chile too. For obvious reasons they called the rescue cage The Phoenix. It’s an image that could come to be applied to Chilean society too. From despair comes hope. From the depths of human experience comes a new way of living.
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