Welcome to the T4CG Newsletter.
When God led the Israelites out of Egypt, four-fifths of them preferred to stay behind. So said Rashi, the great medieval Jewish scholar, who was warning his people against assimilation to the comforts and values of the dominant culture. They preferred the security of slavery in a decadent but apparently prosperous empire to the risks that come with true freedom, a life close to the one true God. This interpretation of the first Paschal story is all too relevant for us today, as we watch the seismic changes unfolding in the West.
This modern enslavement comes not with hard labour but with something worse: a society dominated by the cult of the neoliberal state. This system of globalisation, found all over the West, promotes a culture of transactional individualism which corrupts, commodifies, dehumanises, destroys family, community and the natural world. Its operating system of divide and rule feeds desire and rewards its beneficiaries while generating a politics of abandonment, causing civic and spiritual degradation. It is an attack on the common good.
The modern Pharaohs offer a pseudo-freedom. This comes from the philosophy of liberalism, which incorporates the idea of “the unencumbered self”. It promotes mobility, consumer choice, rights and self-determination but also the removal of constraint. In this frame, God, tradition, natural law, belonging to place, accountability and mutual obligation are seen as obstacles, and family is regarded as an oppressive social construct. It is an assault on relationship, breeding a great unravelling, among whose symptoms are family breakdown, atomisation, fragmentation, polarisation, loneliness, lost trust, psychological distress and spiritual confusion.
And suddenly, we see a new and decadent power centre emerging where now, not only governments and corporate interests collude, but also global media, big tech, big pharma, non-profits and information control coalesce around an ideological agenda framed as freedom. Aggregating power to itself in technocratic form, and communicating its dogma in innocuous language, this new power insulates policy from democratic control. Decisions are no longer made where citizens are able to exercise influence: locally, nationally, or even by groups of nations. Instead, they are made supranationally, by unaccountable corporations, which serve their own false gods, the financial markets.
Meanwhile people’s lives get worse. This is the “machine”. This is our Egypt.
It is naive to think of either finance capital or the state as inherently benign. The new Pharaohs form a flattening, colonial entity telling a dominant story that makes the local and communal seem trivial. It can be seen as a system of enclosure, destroying human interdependence and self-sufficiency. We experience this as a soft oppression. They claim to offer freedom – free markets, free consumer choices – but the spirit is anti-human. It is founded upon a false anthropology, a desiccated, soulless conception of the human being.
In contrast, Christian anthropology offers a true freedom where human beings are transcendent, relational beings made in the image of God, where our identity in God liberates us from the domination of the principalities and powers. This is true freedom, in which the Spirit gives life in abundance. Its authentic understanding of the common good is the antidote to help us navigate our way out of this deceptive empire. Common good thinking, derived from the theological tradition of Catholic social thought, provides us with a framework to reimagine a statecraft that upholds the integrity of the human person, the family and relationship between neighbours. Like God’s compass, it can help us find our way through the desert.
Hearing the Reproaches sung on Good Friday, my heart was breaking when I heard God say, “My people, what have I done to you? Answer me. Did I not bring you out of Egypt? And for that you erected a cross for your Saviour.” This applies to all of us. We are a foolish people. We continually forget. The Egypt of our time is a master of disguise, and too many Christians prefer to stay with the new Pharaoh’s false freedom.
In this new slavery, people rejoice in tribal hashtags and flags. They campaign on trivial matters, while allowing finance capital a free pass. They advocate for the poor while holding the opinions of actual poor people in contempt. They rejoice in helping refugees while ignoring families in their own neighbourhood. They enable or endorse ideologies hostile to Christianity. They self-censor to protect their self-interest. They use the “service-client” language, which alienates the very people they aim to help. They want to fix the “cost of living crisis”, but do not try to create a less unstable system.
The new Pharaoh’s false freedom is very attractive and status is the reward for serving those in power. But we are called to choose the God who is Love. The people of God should leave this Egypt.
Amidst this great deception, how will we know what is of God and what is not? We discern God’s character through learning what Jesus loves. Our Lord loves all human beings. He lived in solidarity with the poor. God does not look kindly on those who act against the poor, the people who should be at the heart of the church.
To leave this Egypt, we must walk with God, and go where He leads, taking nothing with us (Luke 9:3). Only in the desert places can the dreams, goals, and visions of false freedoms be seen clearly, sometimes for the first time. The practices of the Kingdom of God will keep us grounded: practices of prayer, celebrating the Eucharist, building relationships of loving friendship in the local. It is our calling now to uphold human spaces where people can build common good together, free from the new Egypt’s soft oppression. Refusing its tribal divisions, insisting on diversity of opinion, we must not hide from disagreement. We must enable healthy deliberations together in open conversation. Walking together with our neighbours, listening to the Holy Spirit, we will learn to be truly free. It will not be easy, but we can ask for the graces of courage, faith and confidence to trust in this journey with God.
In these times of uncertainty, T4CG is dedicated to spiritual and civic renewal. Not renewal in the sense of getting back to normal, but according to God’s plan whose outcomes we cannot know. In this Easter season, the journey set out in Luke-Acts reminds us that trusting in God requires the recognition that we do not know what the future holds.
We know many of you are exhausted and confused about the profound changes going on. So in this edition we bring you an essay by Al Roxburgh exploring what it means to be God’s people in a place we’ve never been before. As we move into the new era, a sound political literacy will be vital. Many of you are concerned about the “cost of living crisis” and how to respond effectively. We bring you three talks by Jenny Sinclair, each for a different audience, using Catholic social teaching to examine the causes of poverty and the calling of the church at this time:
- Poverty: how should the church respond at this time? for Churches Together England Enabling Group
- Whose side is the church on? for Churches Together England Missionary Disciples Conference
- Catholic social thought and our calling for Cambridge Catholic Chaplaincy
Looking back can be instructive too: on the 40th anniversary of David Sheppard’s influential Bias to the Poor, Andrew Bradstock, his biographer and Jenny find that while the book asked prophetic questions, many of its assumptions were misplaced. We suggest reading that essay alongside Jenny’s own piece, Forty years since Bias to the Poor, whose side is the church on?
Finally, reflecting on our latest work with schools, Jo Stow emphasises the importance of building genuine relationship in the neighbourhood. Lots more to explore too. Don’t miss our selection of articles to help you read the signs of the times along with our latest recommended books.
T4CG is an organic project. This newsletter gives only a flavour of what we do. Please pray for our team, for all the partners we are working with and that we find the right people as we grow our board of trustees. If you can, please do consider supporting the work financially too.
Wishing you the blessings of the Easter season,
Jenny andthe Together for the Common Good team
This is an extract from our Easter 2023 mailing. To read the full content, click here
Header image credit: joshua-sortino-m5P0c6ABWDs-unsplash
We acknowledge the work of Alana Newhouse and Tablet magazine as the inspiration for the editorial in this edition.