Yesterday I had lunch with two senior academics from another University. As we talked about the perceptions of our worlds the question was posed, “Geoff, whatever has happened to ‘we’? “I” seems to predominate so much these days! How have we lost ‘we’ along the way?
This is not an isolated conversation. As I move within the university I find that a lack of a vision that is bigger than self-interest is killing people. And yes, I recognise that when external forces seem to squeeze the last drop of goodwill out of you, the natural defense is ‘me’!
Am I just getting old or is self-serving becoming normalised? For example, we find ourselves immersed in the hype of an election campaign, where votes are literally bought to satisfy the “I”. Jenny Brockie’s “Insight” program the other week on how Generation Y will vote confirmed it precisely. At the end of the show, when she turned to the “expert”, Jennie asked what advice he would give to the major political parties about capturing the GenY vote. The answer in essence – find out what they want and give it to them! In my view, this kind of reductionism, self-interest and narrowness are signs of moral and spiritual collapse. And I think it’s killing us.
The Church is not immune from this seductive spirit. As mine heads towards its annual gathering it seems to me the agenda looks more ‘I’ than ‘we’.
In his excellent book “The Dignity of Difference”, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that “in today’s world, groups speak to themselves, not to one another: Jews to Jews, Christians to fellow Christians, Muslims to Mulsims, business leaders, economists and global protesters to their own constituencies…we no longer broadcast. We narrowcast.”
Conversation, he suggests, is the great antedote. One thing I think we can do whenever we have a chance – be conversation starters! And invite the stanger in to tell her story!
I have been wondering whether developmental psychology gives us a clue about ‘Me’ and ‘We’. It seems to me that the Hillsong Christian mentality is typically adolescent. The elevated rock-concert-like stage and the ordained guru are strong symbols of a ‘me’ that is headstrong on exerting itself. This is a legitimate developmental phase, so the theory goes, which must be passed through on the way to maturity. My problem, when the adolescent stage is held up as the ideal!
But this week, in my world, two clear signs of hope for ‘we’.
In renaming the Religious Centre at Flinders, Bowen Ellames, the Community Cultural Development Officer of Flinders One, the new umbrella oragnisation that has taken over from the Student Union, The Students Association, Clubs and Societies etc, took time to meet the chaplains over lunch on Thursday to listen to our hopes for the centre.
“‘The Oasis’ has been envisioned as an intrafaith community, providing a place for reflection and appreciation on questions of our common humanity. The centre values diversity, compassionate engagement and service, and offers support to the disadvantaged and facilities for a variety of groups, allowing visitors to explore what may be done together, for the future benefit of this campus, increasingly contributing to the vitality of Flinders University”, he reported.
He “gets it”!
I take this recognition as a new opportunity for mutuality between ‘Oasis’ and Flinders One to serve the university community more effectively. It represents a bigger vision beyond the various “me’s” that have made up the Religious Centre in the past, ‘me’s” that have been only too willing to “narrowcast” and treat each other with suspicion.
Secondly I received notice from the “Centre for Faith and Culture” at Yale of their response to an historic statement by 138 Imams, representing the diverse Islamic population, entitled “A Common Word between Us and You”. The Yale (Christian) response, which can be downloaded at http://www.yale.edu/faith/abou-commonword.htm, is particularly encouraging, in that it recognises Christian violence from the very beginning. It is, I think, an outstanding Christian statement for mutual respect and friendship between these two world religions.
If 55% of the world population is made up of Christian and Muslim, and religion often forms the fault-lines along which societies divide to war with each other, whether the reasons be economic or political, then this kind of initiative by the Muslim leadership represents a big step forward for “we”.
Listening to the other who is different so that we may live and work harmoneously together to serve a needy world is high on my agenda. The real enemies are ignorance, greed, the quest for power over the other and the reductionism that inevitably replaces ‘we’ with ‘me’. These ‘devils’ are fostered systemically when we separate ourselves from each other. “Silence”, said my Group Dynamics lecturer, “is always taken with suspicion!” Suspicion breeds fear and living in fear is not sustainable – it kills us (and ‘us’!).
These enemies are fought when ordinary people like you and I have courage to go against the ‘me’ culture by honouring the stranger, standing up for the weak, advocating for the needy and seeking the wholeness of the ‘we’. We should have no illusion that any change in government will do what we ourselves are not prepared to do. Nor can any leader take us where we are not able to go. The change from ‘me’ to ‘we’ starts with ‘me’!