Tim Burton-Jones, writing, on behalf of Anna Ruddick, a Community Engagement Associate for Livability.
Our society is showing signs of painful fragmentation fuelled by increasing inequality. In my recent short ebook From the Ground Up: Creating community cohesion through incarnational mission published by the William Temple Foundation, I reflect on the need to create a more united and just society. Drawing on my research into the experiences of Christians in incarnational urban mission I offer some ideas as to how this might be done, through mutuality and theological imagination.
At the core of enabling community cohesion is the need to break down the ‘us and them’.
Difference is an essential part of being human, everyone is unique and knowing another person is a life-long journey. But the ‘othering’ of individuals or groups amplifies their difference to the extreme, hampering our ability to empathise with them as people, sometimes even denying the ‘other’s’ humanity completely.
In our cultural, social and political context this ‘othering’ is made easy, and perhaps even more likely. The ideology of competitive capitalism sees inequality as a requirement for economic growth and ‘they’ are encouraged toward competitive self-improvement, aspiring to become like ‘us’. In addition, the networked nature of most of our lives mean that we move in self-selected worlds: work, friends and interest groups, full of people we have chosen to some degree. Perhaps even our cultural emphasis on self-expression and acceptance leads us to look for the people who really ‘get’ us. Our bar for friendship is high. We expect to find ‘the one’ or ‘ones’ who we connect with straight away, rather than forge connections slowly through shared experience from a starting point of difference. This is facilitated by social media as much as by our real world patterns of life, in fact they come to mirror one another.
Given this we might ask whether we even want community cohesion and equality? Or are we happy to live in our siloes and echo chambers, sticking with people who are just like us? The reality is that we have to share the world with people who are different to us. We are interdependent beings; with one another, internationally and with our planet. Given that we can’t avoid the ‘other’, and in fact can’t live without the ‘other’, how can we create a cohesive community in which our interdependence is celebrated and all are valued?
IN WHAT SENSE ARE WE MADE IN GOD’S IMAGE?
A different way begins with humanity made in the image of God.
This is our founding story. In some ways it’s a mysterious doctrine. In what sense are we made in God’s image? How? Why? What about sin? But this conviction that human life is somehow revelatory of the divine and therefore hugely precious has remained throughout the different twists and turns of the Christian tradition.
In order to overcome the ‘us and them’ we need to find something we have in common. Our humanity, made in the image of God, is that commonality. And it is not just common ground but also grounds for respect, love and shared learning. If each person is made in God’s image then each person can teach us something of who God is, however muddied that might seem. Furthermore, each person has a gift to bring: their unique self, skills, interests, abilities and presence, to offer to others.
Starting from this assumption turns our community engagement on its head. Instead of asking ‘what are the needs here?’ or ‘how can we help them?’ we can ask ‘what reminds me of God in this person?’ ‘What are your gifts and passions?’ ‘How could you use them in this community?’ Suddenly ‘us and them’ becomes ‘we’, all bringing gifts and all receiving and learning from each other.
This is a profound change in thinking for many Christians, and many helping professionals, used to being the experts, the fixers, the ones with the resources and solutions. But that road leads only to dependency and saviour complexes, increasing need and exhausted resources. In From the Ground Up I explore the ways that relocation into urban communities can be a catalyst for discovering our shared humanity, and the birth place of an alternative vision, based on the image of God in every person and the delicate, tentative, messy, incoming Shalom.
To read more get the free download: From the Ground Up: Creating community cohesion through incarnational mission
Anna Ruddick is a Community Engagement Associate for Livability, facilitating theological reflection and learning for leaders, congregations and Christian organisations seeking to deepen and strengthen their relationships with their local community. She is a Doctor of Practical Theology and has worked supporting those in incarnational urban mission for the last twelve years. Anna lives in Leicester with her husband Andrew.