When the Israelite spies returned from the Promised Land, their warning was clear: “there are giants in the land” (Num. 13:32-33). In the face of adversity, the Israelites’ reaction was to retreat, protect themselves, and wait for danger to pass. They saw the physical giants and were paralysed by the metaphysical giant: fear.

Today, we face similar giants as individuals, cities, nations, and as a global village. In the face of uncertainty and adversity, there is a climate of anxiety that panders to our deepest sense of self-preservation. We are living in times when a rise in extreme individualism and nationalism threatens to erode our commitment to social responsibility.

Prime Minister Theresa May described this tension at the start of the year when she wrote in The Telegraph:

“So when you see others prospering while you are not; when you try to raise your concerns but they fall on deaf ears; when you feel locked out of the political and social discourse and feel no one is on your side, resentments grow, and the divisions that we see around us–between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation; between the wealth of London and the rest of the country; between the rich, the successful and the powerful, and their fellow citizens–become entrenched.

“Overcoming these divisions and bringing our country together is the central challenge of our time.

“That means building the shared society. A society that doesn’t just value our individual rights but focuses rather more on the responsibilities we have to one another; a society that respects the bonds of family, community, citizenship and strong institutions that we share as a union of people and nations; a society with a commitment to fairness at its heart.”

The tension that prevents us from creating a “shared society” is much harder to overcome, because it is not purely external. Within the uncertain times we live in, the giant of fear stokes the fire of selfishness, which, in turn, burns bridges of relationship. A central challenge of our time is overcoming our own innate drive for self-preservation in order to reach out to others.

Fundamentally, we all find self-interest easier that selflessness. When God asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” he replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). I believe what Cain should have said is, “I am responsible for my brother.” We need people, cities, and nations that take responsibility to look out for each other unselfishly.

It’s concerning to see how politicians have manipulated our innate drive for self-preservation on a national scale. Last year’s Brexit and Trump-quake, along with the rise of the far right across Europe, can easily be interpreted as acts of selfish nationalism. The fear of immigration and a desire to control national borders are driving factors behind them all.

Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP at the time of the Brexit, stoked the fire of fear within many when he said, “Theresa May says it’s difficult to control immigration as part of the EU. She’s wrong – it’s not difficult, it’s impossible.” In the US, President Donald Trump appealed to the sense of self-preservation with his mantra “America First.” Within 10 days of taking office he issued executive orders for a wall to be built between Mexico and the United States and also a ban on the entry of citizens from a number of Muslim majority countries. Extreme nationalism, by its very nature, is selfish rather than selfless.

Whilst an internal giant of fear may be feeding our desire for self-preservation, there are also external giants that affect the increasing tension between individualism and social responsibility. One of those giants is poverty.

The global economic crisis of 2008 and the years that followed have resulted in governments around the world implementing austerity policies. Research from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that Estonia, Ireland, Hungary, Greece, Canada, the UK, and Germany are among the countries that have cut welfare spending from peak levels.

These changes have negatively impacted the poor more than anyone else. In June last year, the UN committee on the rights of the child said it was “seriously concerned”3 about the impact that government policies, such as the benefit caps and tax credit cuts, would have on the poorest children. The growing gap between the richest and the poorest in society has divided society and created barriers that have left a physical and psychological gap within nations.

It’s all a little too easy to point a finger at the wealthy and say they are the problem. An international NGO recently claimed it was “simply unacceptable” that the world’s richest eight people had more wealth than the world’s poorest half. The statement insinuated that the rich are to blame. In doing so, the NGO not only failed to offer a solution, but also seemed to absolve the rest of us.

The Bible neither glamorises poverty nor criminalises wealth. In fact, God made Solomon the richest and wisest of all kings. So God is not opposed to wealth. What is of concern to Him is how we acquire it and what we do with it. It is “the love of money,” we are told in 1 Timothy 6:10, that is “is the root of all evil” and not, as is commonly misquoted, merely having money.

It’s worth noting that five of the eight billionaires named by an international charity have committed themselves to The Giving Pledge, created by Bill and Melinda Gates to encourage the world’s ultra-wealthy to give away the majority of their wealth during their lifetime in order to combat poverty. These individuals should be celebrated and applauded.

Theresa May calls this “shared society” and her predecessor David Cameron called it “big society.” It’s a vision of society where we don’t pay our taxes then expect governments and state institutions to be solely responsible for looking after us. Living in community means having common ownership, where citizens take responsibility for one another. I would call this “participative society.”

Cinnamon Network, the not-for-profit I founded, helps the church to tackle the external giants of poverty that keep our societies divided, as well as the internal giants of fear and anxiety that prevent us from responding.

Our very broad aim is to help churches take social responsibility for their communities and support the poor in practical ways. Cinnamon’s unique approach is to identify the best church-based community projects that are helping those people most at need and develop these projects to a stage where they can be replicated in churches across the country.

In the UK Cinnamon has developed a portfolio of 32 models of church-based community projects that have been replicated by more than 3,500 local churches. This approach is a highly effective way of activating local churches to become part of a participative society. A key to the success has been helping local churches not only to engage in their communities but also to partner with civic institutions including local authorities, police, schools, health providers, and other agencies. We want to erode the “them and us mentality” and build relationships where community partnership aids community transformation.

One great example is that of City Angels–a collection of volunteers mobilised and trained by the local church who work with local police in Chichester to reduce crime and anti-social behavior in the city. According to Sussex Police crime data, on a Saturday night when the City Angels are on patrol anti-social behaviour is reduced by 79%, violent crime by 50% and violent crime leading to injury by 82%. Being able to speak in numbers as well as stories has transformed the church’s ability to partner with civic institutions.

We also have projects working with local authorities to support refugees, with healthcare professionals to support individuals with mental illness, and with schools to feed children who would otherwise go hungry over the school holidays. When we step out of ourselves and build relationships within a participative society, we fight the giants of individualism and nationalism that hold us captive.

Cinnamon Network is now looking to partner with churches in other countries to help them create more participative societies. This begins by identifying their best church-based community projects and exploring ways they can be replicated in other local churches.

When a church builds a relationship with its community and civic institutions to serve the poor, it becomes part of participative society. This is in direct response to Christ, who said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:23-25, NIV)

Let’s fight the giants and build people, cities and nations that are less selfish and individualistic and more selfless and socially responsible–a participative society.

 

‘Participative Society’ by Matt Bird published at the Christian Economic Forum 2017 in San Francisco, California, United States