Scattering the Proud – Chapter IX

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Bridging the Chasm Between Individual and Community

The upward journey threatens community by turning the individual’s attention inward towards personal achievement, away from the needs of others. The rampant individualism of the late twentieth century, intensified by the market’s insistence that fulfilment lies in the acquisition of more and more ‘personal’ technology, is challenging communities everywhere. And so it is challenging individuals also, since without a strong sense of community noone is safe. Individualism, the exclusively upward personal journey, threatens the individual as much as collectivism ever did.

But that one impossible downward journey, that completely unselfish life, can found community wherever it moves an individual towards unselfishness.

Surrounded as we are by self-absorption, and a political ethic which promotes it, we experience a strong mimetic desire to imitate it. But Jesus’ impossible journey provides something else to imitate. Many lives have been changed in the past by a small book of that title, The Imitation of Christ. Today the central focus of our own journey could be the losing of the self in the mystery of Jesus’ journey. So community can be based simply upon a shared wonder at the mystery of the cross.

Jesus Knows Why We Wander

There are two parables in the Gospel that express God’s inalienable love of the individual – the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son.

For us humans, sheep are a metaphor for community because of their instinctive tendency to stick together. Yet the search for food will often lead one sheep away from the herd. This is even more true of humans – concern for the self, one’s own individual destiny, leads one away from community. This was never more true than today, when the slogan ‘no free lunch’ summarises the essential values of the market economy, and when successful education is the essential basis for material independence. The modern reliance upon the individual’s self-sufficiency is the most powerful spur to the individual’s upward journey. Self-esteem comes to be associated with this independence, so that those who don’t or can’t find it are often treated with contempt, and feel contempt for themselves. This creates a profound problem for community, for such people naturally find an outlet for their alienation in antisocial activities such as crime or addiction.

The Gospel identifies the Christian God as one who goes in search of such people. Yet who is to do the searching? Who is to heal the divisions in society caused by the exclusively upward journey of people in general, by communicating the truth that the individual is of infinite value, irrespective of his inability or unwillingness to climb the pyramid? The history of Christianity indicates the effectiveness of the crucifixion in unlocking the spirit of self-sacrifice in the individual, so that God again becomes incarnate and goes looking for the lost sheep. True conversion becomes self-sacrificial – for example in the twelve-step movements, healing the wounds of community.

This parable is a metaphor also for the individual’s search for personal truth in a world that tells him, as Pilate did Christ, that truth is impossible to find. The truth lived by Jesus, to the last drop of blood, was the concern of the author of all creation for the individual human being. When we are deeply touched by that truth we are not merely ourselves reconciled, we become a means of reconciling others.

Waywardness

The parable of the Prodigal Son has a similar meaning. The father allows the younger son his freedom as he heads off into the world to seek his destiny. The son discovers the harshness of the world: good company can be bought as long as the money lasts, but the selfishness of men will guarantee a day of reckoning — the famine of the parable. The son has no alternative but abject return, hoping only for employment.      

But the father sees him a long way off, which suggests he has never stopped scanning the horizon. Then he does not wait for the son to take those last steps of submission, but runs to him, and gathers him in an embrace that ignores his filthy condition. The older son of the parable, who is angry at the father’s reception of the prodigal, is brother also to those who complain about equal pay to the latecomers in the vineyard; he has never left home, and so has never suffered – and so has not experienced the full depth of the Father’s love. He is also therefore the successful individual who resents any show of concern for the lost individual – the personification of the man who has ‘made it’ and who cannot find compassion for those who have not.

Liberalism

In the younger son also we can find the passionate liberal who resents authority and emphasises the need for personal freedom. The father does not stand in his way, thus accepting the son’s freedom. When the resources funding this freedom have been exhausted, the father is still there, waiting. The son has realised that freedom cannot be an end in itself.

And isn’t this the essential truth of individual experience in our own time? When everyone insists upon his rights without considering his responsibilities, who is to secure those rights? A low-tax regime is desirable for those on the upward journey, but can it be reconciled with the low-crime society they also tend to demand? Here again the individual can be his own worst enemy. Those who take more than they give will destroy the world unless they are at least balanced by those who give more than they take. It is the latter life that Jesus honours, by living it to the last extremity.

Freedom is Sacred

So this gospel will never cease to be relevant to the problems of us humans. For all time it will address any society based upon the notion that people are unequal in dignity. It speaks to the individual heart, promoting self-sacrifice as well as reconciliation. It is therefore a living basis of local and global community, insisting upon the reality that we are all equal, and can never lose that equality in the sight of God. It says to us ‘Your freedom is sacred, but can you use it in imitation of the one who gives it to you, to secure the freedom of others?’ This question goes to the heart of our present predicament.

In the impossible journey of Christ we encounter a God passionately committed to the dignity of the individual. We also encounter an attempt to break the individual’s heart, challenging the selfishness that springs from individual self-absorption.

Community begins where one person’s compassion meets another’s need. True freedom is the freedom to love and to serve. When it is exercised in this way — in the way of the Father — the world can be changed. This is the mustard seed planted everywhere by the foot of the cross.