T4CG Newsletter, Lent 2023. This is an extract – to view full version click here
1 Corinthians 3:16-17
Welcome to the T4CG Newsletter.
There is much being said about the decline of the West. Those who say it is exaggerated may prefer to avert their eyes, but the decay is real and things are likely to get worse. Lent is typically a time of reflection, repentance and spiritual growth: this year it calls us to reflect and repent of the sin of a culture which has become anti-human. We can hope to develop a sense of how we are called to offer some spiritual and practical resistance.
As we have said many times before, the era of individualism was based on a false anthropology. It generated approaches that have been hostile to human beings and which undermined the common good. Now it is unravelling. We see its morbid symptoms: breakdowns in trust, social fragmentation, extreme inequality, civic degradation, psychological distress, spiritual confusion. And now, the culture of death, as John Paul II warned, is accelerating. The exploitation of the human person for profit extends to the expansion of the gender industry on an industrial scale among the young, and now also euthanasia is being pushed by technocratic governments on the elderly, the disabled and the poor.
This is no conspiracy: it is the inevitable consequence of a hyper-liberal philosophy that drives the culture of self, along with massive corporate interests in a financial system with no moral constraint. Successive governments across the West have been too comfortable with this and are showing no signs of having the guts to challenge it. This is a philosophy which has produced a dysfunctional and expensive state, and an economy generating low wages which sells us the fruits of our labour at prices we cannot afford. It has weakened the family, community and local institutions, the things that give stability and meaning. Its latest feature, the so-called “cost of living crisis” is yet another sign of its failure.
Again and again, Catholic Social Teaching warns that because capital has a tendency to commodify human beings and nature, it must be constrained. For Christians, the assault on the human person is a grave matter, since all human beings are of infinite value, belong to God and are made in the image of God. We need to recognise the nature of the adversary in our time: the culture that drives the economy is based on a flawed philosophy, and it must be redeemed.
Discussions about the state of the world among Christians often converge with propositions for the reversal of church decline. If only the church could be returned to its former glory, some think, the world could be saved. Bewildered clergy are presented with endless programmes and resources to galvanise renewal. Exhausted congregations are not in the mood. There is much frustration with church leadership – if only they would speak more confidently and be more business-like, it is said, or if only the laity could be better trained, then it could all be turned around.
But this isn’t how it works. The context is much more serious than a training course can fix. And God is already at work, whether we realise it or not. As Paul Kingsnorth has written, “When the last empire collapsed, the Christians of Europe weren’t trying to build or defend some construction called ‘Christendom’.” True to the spirit of the early church, they devoted themselves in all humility “to worship the true God and strip away everything that interfered with that worship.”They “took to the deserts to follow Christ and to battle the enemy.” They were not naive about the adversary, and dedicated themselves against all odds to pursuing what was good, beautiful and true. And “what emerged as a result, and what it turned into – well, that wasn’t up to them.”It turned out, in God’s own time, that “their very unworldliness became, paradoxically, just what the world needed.” Kingsnorth adds, “the West is undertaking its own underworld journey…There are dark things down there you need to meet.” He is right that this journey involves the courage to meet the shadow side in ourselves. And that is a journey with God.
So “how do we fix it?” is the wrong question. Instead, we might ask “How can we join in with God?” In this season of Lent, what practices should we adopt? The traditions of prayer, alms-giving and fasting will help us develop a spirituality of resistance against an anti-human future. The days of empire are always numbered, a new world is being born, and if we listen carefully we will hear its stirrings. Jesus, the non-violent resister of empire in the political economy of Galilee, retreats to consult with the Father. He is uncompromising, and comes to fulfil the law, and yet is loving and forgiving. He guides us to a countercultural mode of resistance and advocates two specific emotions, grief and joy. Grief at the violence done by the stupidity of these empires to His beloved humanity, and joy from knowing God is love, always seeding new life amidst the unravelling.
How do we muster this resistance in our own time? We do it by understanding first what we are up against, and by asserting what it means to be human. We do it by spending time together, by strengthening our assembling communities, through holy time set aside for conversation, contemplative prayer, communion, silence, walking, shared meals, making music, for laughter, for reading scripture and listening to God. We do it through desert time, through practices of spiritual discipline alone and together. We do it by turning off our digital devices and being truly present to one another in love. We do it through forgiveness and by recognising our own sin. We do it through participation in the Eucharist. A spirituality of resistance is a spirituality of the cross – we walk the way of the cross accompanying Jesus as he carries the cross of resistance today.
We do it by becoming a relational church, no longer anonymous people arriving and leaving without speaking, but a relational people who know and care for each other and our neighbours. We do it by making eye contact and speaking in the street, intentionally breaking through suspicion. We make human connection, share each other’s stories, living in solidarity, building common good across estranged interests, across differences of opinion, class, age, sex, ethnicity, education, ability, experience and background. We do it by refusing to be tribal. We do it by honouring humanity from conception to natural death. We do it by building right and just relationships from the grassroots to the boardroom. We do it by telling the truth.
Lent this year calls us to uphold the human space. These practices are an insurgency against individualism – they are elements of the need for, what we have called, the shift from contract to covenant. This is the radical tradition to which God is calling us: to build the Kingdom in the places where we live.
T4CG is dedicated to renewal, by bringing this common good thinking into church, schools, politics and wider society. In this edition of the T4CG Newsletter, we bring you content engaging each of those realms, linking with this theme of resistance. We are delighted to share with you an essay by Stephen Sichel on the ecclesia and Community Organising, a story by Phil McCarthy on the ancient practice of pilgrimage as a form of resistance, and Tara Isabella Burton and Tim Shriver’s extraordinary manifesto for renewal. Meanwhile Edward Hadas shows us why financial systems are a constant menace to the common good, and Jo Stow reports on our work with schools, reflecting on the impact of individualism on young people who are longing for connection.
Francis Stewart has written our Lent Devotional, a simple weekly rhythm to help you hold this period of fasting and develop awareness of what God is doing in your neighbourhood. And finally, if you scroll all the way down, you will find our latest recommended books and our signs of the times selection of articles to help you navigate this complex cultural moment.
What you see here in this newsletter is only a taste of what we do: please pray for us and the people and organisations involved, and please do consider supporting the work if you can.
Wishing you a good Lent,
Jenny and the Together for the Common Good team
This is an extract from our Lent 2023 mailing. To read the full content, click here
Header image: Header image: orfeas-green-G5A5ZNjS2tE-unsplash