The Habit of a Collective Society.

Posted: October 4, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 10:17-26

The Habit of a Collective Society.

I want to start with a couple of definitions that might help as we go along. The first is ‘individuality or “the quality or character of a particular person or thing that distinguishes them from others of the same kind, especially when strongly marked.” The second is ‘individualism’ or in an interpretation for today’s topic; “a self-centred feeling or conduct; egoism”. Perhaps explained in our case today as a sort of unbridled individuality that threatens the welfare of an orderly community.’

Some commentators have suggested that our text indicates, what could be the first recorded act of modern individualism. The storyteller Mark says an unnamed rich man asks Jesus
what he could do to have a fully satisfying, authentic life. Accustomed to paying a price to achieve his desired ends, this man seems to assume he can attain or buy the quality of life taught and lived by Jesus. For him, life was an achievement. A prize to win. A commodity to be bought.

We can reasonably assume that this man has been looking all his life for such personal fulfilment and satisfaction. So, the thing which very likely crosses our mind is: doesn’t all this sound very familiar and modern?

Rex Hunt reminds us that some 15 or so years ago, American sociologist Robert Bellah edited a couple of books on the American lifestyle. They were called Habits of the Heart and The Good Society. In those books Bellah and his research associates claimed that the desire to get the most out of one’s life – to be the best or achieve the highest – was a hallmark of our time. This sounds logical and almost timeless in its application to human life. Hasn’t it always been like this?

They also suggested we are so intent on fulfilling ourselves and our own destiny, that we put our lives and careers above everything else. This suggests that our individuality matters more to us than the success of any larger group or institution. The question is when does it become ‘individualism’? Or a threat to an orderly community?

In a fear driven world such as that we have, (an assumption I make) we don’t have to go far to get frightened into preparing for a horrible future. similar comments. We are encouraged to save for the future shocks by joining superannuation schemes we are told to save and invest and insure… Personal or family financial security is promoted as a virtue, by taxation accountants, investment advisers, and financial planners. I am not saying this is a bad thing but rather that it could blur further the line between a creative freely given and life enhancing individuality that is collaborative and complimentary and an individualism that is a threat to orderly community. And why is this a problem? Well, I think it might just go to this thing we call ‘the realm of God’. Is this realm not one based on, driven by and expressing a wasteful love rather than order and individual ascendancy? One of the questions being wrestled with today is, ‘where is the line between the rights of an individual not to have a vaccine and the rights of an individual to have a vaccine shot and that’s a question before the argument about the suitability of any one type of vaccine. The question is whether or not it is individuality at stake here or is it individualism taking over be majority choice.

On the other hand, social commentators such as Hugh Mackay in Sydney, some time back claimed that the rise in individualism rather than community, is really driven by the popularist chant: gimme, gimme, gimme! He writes: “Perhaps our desire for more, more, more is a thinly disguised attempt to distract ourselves by constant stimulation, constant change, constant excitement, constant entertainment and the illusion of constant renewal.  But distract ourselves from what?” (Mackay/SMH-9/2/02).

Speak to many leaders of organisations such as community service groups, or Girl Guides, or Meals-on-Wheels, or the local school canteen and they will all say they are suffering today because the majority of us no longer value service above personal success and enjoyment. The golden rule of ‘do unto others as you would have done to you’ is under threat by an individualism disguised as individuality. Maybe this is why it can be so easy for us Christians in the Western developed world to understand the rich man and to sympathize with him. He is one of us! Individualism is timeless, a basic human attitude. But! Is it?

Like him, we too want to be sure we don’t neglect anything that might improve our personal situation. Like him, most of us are always looking for something to give us an edge, something that will make us more successful, or more competitive or more complete or more secure. And as such, the majority of us live by the logic of the market place, and the encouragement (or fear driven scare tactics) of those with collective influence and power. We hear the response to this as protest, apathy and plain individual ignoring. Everything becomes a commodity to be used and depleted, hoarded or thrown away. And we have the heightened level of destructive change in our environment as a result of this insidious individualism masquerading as individuality.

Some years ago, now a Dr Richard Greene interpreted a local survey on ecology done by a small group of Australians. The survey measured the relative amount of the world’s resources an individual takes up, taking into account how often we use a car, eat meat, whether or not we recycle… that type of thing. Dr Greene said their individual ‘ecological footprint’ averaged out at about 7.6 hectares (or 19 acres) – per person. That means, if everyone in the world lived at the same level of consumption as that small group of Australians did, we would need 4.2 planets to sustain us all!  I don’t know about you but it is not easy to think about our personal impact on the world in those terms. But when you think about it for a bit one can see that everything I do and you do, impacts on others. The problem is clearer when we avoid individualism and stay with individuality. Web the see that some of the ‘others’ have less opportunities less choices less power, to protect themselves from the negative impact of my decisions. Perhaps that is why those who live in the poorer, developing countries, consider anyone who lives in the Westernized developed world as among the earth’s wealthy.

To perhaps make this distinction between individuality and individualism more blurred and I suggest mor important to wrestle with is to tell another story in the spirit of Mark’s story and this elusive thing called eternal life. A parallel story which invites us move beyond the acquisition of things, towards the sharing of compassion.

A wise woman who was travelling in the mountains found a precious stone in a creek. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. “I’ve been thinking,” he said.  “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope you can give me something even more precious. “Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”

The encouragement is to wrestle with a number of things when coming to this txt about the rich man. The first is to acknowledge that Jesus is not very likely to have said these things that Mark says he did. They do however have a bit of a ‘Jesus’ echo to them. The chances are that Mark or one of Marks contributors had heard of a similar story, reshaped it, and offered it to his small (probably poor peasant) Jesus movement, as they struggled to define their Christian borders and live with neighbours across the road who were different.

The other thing to remember is that we can only imagine what Mark or his contemporary had in the back of their mind when they edited and offered this story some 35 to 40 years after Jesus? Maybe their reasoning went something like this: “Jesus’ challenge… was a way of exposing a flaw in the man’s keeping of the commandments. Admirable as his effort had been, he had missed the point of the commandments. Jesus’ challenge exposed what was missing: a sense of compassion for the poor.” (Bill Loader/web site).

rexae74@gmail.com

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