Saturday, September 8, 2012

Re-learning Citizenship

The 1st Reading in this past Thursday's Office was taken from the famous “letter” sent by the prophet Jeremiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. In that “letter,” the Lord, speaking through Jeremiah said to the exiles: Build houses to dwell in; plant gardens, and eat their fruits. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters. There you must increase in number, not decrease. Promote the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the Lord, for upon its welfare depends your own [Jeremiah 29:5-7].
To me this has always been a particularly powerful passage. Obviously, the exiles were meant to continue thinking of Jerusalem as in some ultimate sense their home and highest loyalty - much as we, their spiritual heirs, are intended to think of heaven as our ultimate home and our citizenship in the kingdom of God as our highest loyalty. In the meantime, however, the exiles were instructed to put down roots in Babylon, to settle down there for the long haul, to invest in the human city of which they had become a part, for upon its welfare depends your own. And so it is supposed to be for us, simultaneously citizens of the kingdom of God and citizens of our earthly nation.
Citizenship is a complex reality, but it is based, as Jeremiah's letter illustrates, on a fundamental commonality of human experience - the benefits and burdens we share together as a people, and the corresponding commitments and obligations we acknowledge toward one another in society, for upon its welfare depends our own.
Since the 17th and 18th centuries, however, philosophers and economists and ideologues have crafted an amazingly convincing alternative to this fundamental understanding of society that we are all in it together, that upon its welfare depends our own. And the appeal of the individualist alternative has been amplified, most convincingly, by its unarguable success at producing a materially better world. Probably no one has ever celebrated the material accomplishments of modern capitalism as effusively as Karl Marx, who famously praised it in 1848 for having "created more massive and colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?"
Indeed, as 20th-century development transformed workers into consumers (contrary to the predictions of Marx and the expectations of his disciples), the economic uplift produced by modern economic development provided the world with an amazingly diffusion of prosperity - and ever widening possibilities for prosperity - which the world rightly welcomes but which have also served to strengthen various versions of the individualist case. 
Of course, this material transformation of the world has come at an enormous social and spiritual price. Again Marx expressed it better than most: "Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."
For Marx, of course, this social and spiritual collapse was the necessary condition for historical progress - a destructive concept still very much alive in the popular contemporary mantra about "being on the right side of history." Admittedly, it's hard to stay faithful to the social and spiritual dimensions of human nature if that means being perceived to be on the wrong side of history - the losing side, so to speak, not just in a battle today, but for ever. Hence, the prophetic biblical assertion of a longer view of history in which Babylon's welfare ultimately reinforces Jerusalem's.
That longer view, however, has to incorporate the lessons short-term present-tense experience. In exceptionally challenging times such as ours, when the deleterious consequences of an individualist ideology have become so much more glaringly evident, the advantages of taking our common citizenship seriously again may become more evident. But in our privatized understanding of the world, that will take a lot of re-learning.

No comments:

Post a Comment