Loneliness and Community

Tuesday 6th October 2020
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service of the Word
Psalm 23

Never have we been more aware than in the past six months of our own loneliness and the loneliness of others; and never have we valued community so much even though we labour under the cruel psychological paradox that the best way to help each other is to keep our distance.

Our right and proper response in times of such trouble is to turn to God, our Lord and protector, to seek strength and comfort; why would we not?

But the Lord is our shepherd, not our dog-walker. We are creatures of the flock so our way of behaving is wider than curling up at the feet of our master and going to sleep. I am afraid we are out there on a dark and drizzly night, with the grass thinning, with the prospect of a long winter before we can frisk about in the sun. We are creatures of community.

But since the beginning of lockdown we have learned how much hard work is involved in being community. It was fine during the first month when we were joining volunteer groups to fetch shopping and prescriptions for and make phone calls to, the isolated; and we even managed a smile. Lockdown was a bit strange but it was also a novelty. Now, six months on, I don't know about you, but my phone calling has flagged; it's a real struggle to keep going when the people at the other end of the line don't seem all that bothered. We signed up to a mutual support group but we made more than 25 calls for every one we got back.

For centuries political theorists have written about how we create and maintain communities and why they are so important; we establish reciprocal arrangements for mutual aid, we look out for each other, we provide a kind of survival insurance against the worst and, at a deeper psychological level, we like to be part of a vibrant community; we like it for what it is.

But for the Christian there are further considerations when we think about community. In the first place, we are advocates not of contract, not of mutual support, but of unconditional love, so we have to strive for community even if we are not benefiting from the effort. Secondly, we have to love people we don't like; we can't pick and choose; we have to take the rough with the smooth. And the reason it is this way goes back to being sheep; when we look after our own self-interest we are only individuals, when we act in community we are persons.

So when we say the 23rd Psalm we must never forget what it means to be a sheep: we might be pretty helpless and gormless but we are, quintessentially, members of a flock. Community, at the basic level, is pragmatic but for the Christian it is our way of building the kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven.

There are, it seems to me, two specific obstacles to community building which arise from our particular situation: first, community depends on graciousness in giving and in taking, a topic which will feature in a later Service in this series; but the second is a modern obsession with privacy. This phenomenon first arose in the 19th Century for a combination of three fundamental causes: first, after the entrenchment of income tax after the Napoleonic Wars, people did not want their incomes to be known; secondly, with the break-up of agricultural society, the nuclear family became the norm; and, thirdly, and much later, television, consumer electronics and domestic alcohol consumption have all increased concentration on the home. None of these factors is bad in itself, although the income tax point is surely foolish, but what causes the damage is the tendency of privacy to lead to indifference to the external. And, pragmatically, we should recognise that too often the corollary of privacy is loneliness. Too often lonely people are non-joiners, hard to find and hard to serve, locked in self-isolating depression.

From a Christian, rather than a pragmatic, standpoint, privacy is a deeply stultifying factor in community building, not just because of the way in which people become isolated, but more generally because of the temptation of selfishness which it represents. It is well known that prejudice grows with ignorance and distance whereas empathy grows with knowledge and contact. The Christian kingdom Builder has an absolute, unavoidable, existential obligation to be communally active. Too often we prosperous and powerful few insist that we can please ourselves, that choice is king; but it isn't, Jesus is King and we are responsible for building his Kingdom.

For too long we have tried to reconcile the exactions and sacrifices required by Christianity with bourgeois comfort. Yes, we are known to be more generous that any other sector of the population when it comes to charitable giving and activity but I wonder whether this might be guilt down-payments because we are not prepared to work for fundamental reform: our sense of community goes as far as donating to the food bank but not as far as ensuring that the food bank is no longer needed.

Finally, and perhaps most important in the long run, privacy weakens the community activist muscle which, like all muscles, needs to be exercised if it is to be effective. We are not made simply to talk about how to lead a good life, we are supposed to live that good life on the basis that example is superior to exhortation, just as, in human affairs, experience is superior to theory. And the Gospel of Jesus is superior to liberal political theory.