Thursday, 13 January 2011

Thoughts on Community in a Time of Crisis

It's a truism that a crisis brings out the best and the worst in people, but we're certainly seeing proof of it in Toowoomba at present. Police have arrested looters in the CBD, and public radio has been broadcasting warnings to the effect that anyone caught looting will be arrested (I should have thought that would be obvious, but...).

Yesterday panic buying set in, emptying the supermarket shelves of essentials like milk, bread, flour, water, vegetables, meat, etc. I'm sure there was enought food to go around, but now some have it all while others, especially the poor, elderly and vulnerable, may not have enough to get them through until the highways are re-opened. I was at the chemist (for US readers the drugstore) getting some medication and a woman at the counter was describing how she was at the supermarket and saw a woman loading the last dozen or so loaves of bread into her trolley. She asked her if she could spare two loaves, at which the woman simply walked away. The woman at the chemist was philosophical about it - they'd get by without the bread, she said, but she was clearly upset by the experience.

One thing which immediately struck me was that this sort of thing - both looting and hoarding - are most likely to happen in a city, where anonymity weakens the ties of community. I'm not suggesting that country people are more virtuous (or should that be less sinfully inclined?) than urban dwellers, but I'm certain that when you know someone, and are known by them, and you are both part of the fabric of a close-knit community, you're surely less likely to steal from them, or deny them two loaves of bread when you have twelve. And I'm sure it's not just the fear of besmirching your reputation that would shape behaviour in a more socially constructive way, but the positive connections that living in a real community create. If you feel, and actually are, part of something bigger than yourself, then I'm sure you are less susceptible to anti-social thinking and behaviours in the first place, and more likely to want to preserve something in which you have an investment.

I'm sure this is all known to those who think about and develop policies towards promoting a civil society. What I'm actually more interested in is how this all ties in with original sin. What does this experience tell us about how we might better organise our community to promote "neighbourliness", given the reality of original sin which makes us all "curved in on self"? Can only Christians be good neighbours? Obviously not. What then promotes the sort of "civil righteousness" - as opposed to righteousness coram Deo (before God) - both believers and unbelievers still have a capacity for, even if fallen creatures? And how can Christians intitiate and contribute to this discussion, which we so desperately need to have for the sake of the common good?

Or is this altogether too optimistic? Should we just assume that people will always be as bad as they can be when no-one is looking, or when no-one knows who they are, or when they are under pressure to survive? I'm just old enough to remember living in a society where order was understood to be necessary for freedom to be properly enjoyed, and where respect for others and self-restraint characterised people rather than the disrespect and public indulgence of every whim, no matter how bizarre or offensive to others, that seems to increasingly prevail these days. That memory, and the observation that decency and relative goodness can be displayed even by unbelievers in trying times, encourages me to think that I'm not being overly optimistic.


Stephen K said...

What a thought-provoking and well-articulated encapsulation of a very close-to-home and important question! I can't at the moment say anything that would add to the essence of what you have said, Pastor Mark, as I feel that in your succinct posing of the relevant angles in question form, you have pointed the way to some of the answers. I am really enjoying reading your leaders.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Many thanks Stephen - good to know someone reads this stuff!

It helps me to work through things by putting my thoughts into words. If reading these words in turn helps others in their lives, then thanks be to God.