In history, there have been eras of empires, of city-states, of tribes and nations. Right now, in the developed western nations at least, I would suggest we are living in the era of the individual. We are no longer great communities of commonwealth or common purpose. We are a great bunch of loners looking out for 'number one'. And I cannot escape the feeling that we are strangling our poor earth trying to generate the resources to meet all those individual desires.
Australia is a bit behind the eight ball on this, too. Of all the developed nations, we have the most space to spread ourselves out. In European and United States Cities, and the new age of rapidly developing cities in Asia, people have to utilize public transport and shared facilities much more. There just isn't the space to have it all amassed around us, the way we do. 30% less British people own cars than Australians per capita, and none of the major European countries have car ownership rates equal to Australia's.
Individual freedom and life-satisfaction have become the overall goals of our culture. We have talked about the 'me generation' for years, but I think we need to move beyond seeing that as simply the way people are in the world around us, it is really the whole basis of our culture. Would you like to try to guess how many shopping centres there are in Melbourne? And the biggest ones are still expanding. It appears we cannot exist without the ability to purchase any item that takes our fancy, and within an easy driving distance. There is an election coming up. Be truthful with yourself – when you consider who you are going to vote for – are you thinking about what is best for our society, or which party will give you what you want?
Social organisations are struggling for membership – it is not just the church – Service Clubs, Freemasonary, Scouts, Guides, all these previously strong organisations that gathered people together in a social commitment, are now experiencing dwindling memberships. The Anglican Boys' Society (CEBS) and Girls Friendly Society that, in my childhood, filled Anglican Church Halls throughout our suburbs have all but ceased to exist.
The thought that disturbs me the most about all this is that I do not think everybody getting everything they want actually makes their lives or world better.
Firstly, everybody cannot get everything they want. Everybody wants different things. One neighbour might want to enjoy loud music or games, while another wants peace and quiet. Half the car drivers in Melbourne want a clear and easy run to work between 8 and 9 every weekday. Then home again at 5. More than half of them want to park and shop at the local supermarket at 10 am on Saturday. Look, I do not have to go on too much for you to think about all the ways we battle each other daily to mark out our little patch of life.
Jesus said 'love your neighbour'. I think in many people's minds, that just means try to get along with them. Do we ever really think about what we might sacrifice to truly live by such a commandment? It is not just about them. It is about what you yourself are prepared to do, to give up, or to share to make their life better.
Because God really likes irony. I am sure of it. If everybody concentrated on what they could give away, think about it. We would all be the richest we have ever been. There would be millions of fellow humans wanting you to be happy and have a good life. In the world's 'looking out for number one' way, there was only one person looking out for you.
Read the Book of Acts, chapter 2, verses 37 to 47, and chapter 4:32 to 5:11. That was the original Christian community. Their attitude to possessions seems strange to us today, but that was a community that really cared for each other. The first officials in that society were the deacons, whose job it was to see that everybody got their fair share of the food (Acts 6:1-6).
I think it is one of the great miracles of Christianity, when it happens. People stop putting themselves first. They think about the needs surrounding them first. The more they then do about seeing those needs are met, the better their world becomes. The better their world becomes, the more able they become to meet the needs surrounding them. And on and on it goes.
Unfortunately, the Church itself, for both fair and unfair reasons, has come to be seen by the wider community as a self-interested body. An organisation impelled by the very self-serving qualities it should be opposed to. Perhaps the Christian Church's greatest task ahead to to reverse this perception. We are supposed to be caring for the world and loving our neighbour. How many of our neighbours see us as working for those ends?
I return to what I think of my personal 'wisdom statement':
Your value in this world lies not in what you have. It lies in what you give.
Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)