Once, many years ago, I was sat in my parents’ house - where I’d lived for most of the previous seven or eight years - when a car crashed into a telephone pole on the opposite side of the road, tearing the facia board from our next-door neighbour’s house as it yanked the telephone line out of the wall. The driver sat there in shock for a moment, and then drove off. Almost immediately a man was knocking at the door. He’d seen me looking out of the window. ‘Did you manage to get the number of the car?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘But our neighbours across the road might have seen it because the car came to rest outside their house.’ ‘I am your neighbour from across the road!’ the man said. To my embarrassment I hadn’t recognised him. Well I was a teenager at the time, and teenagers live in their own little bubble, don’t they? But I think my lack of awareness indicates that we live in an age of individualism.
It hasn’t always been like so. Have you ever wondered why, in times past and even when every man carried a sword or a dagger, there was never any need for a police force? Our ancestors weren't nicer people than us. Instead neighbours were obliged to police one another. The inhabitants of each street or hamlet were treated not as individuals but as a group. They had to behave like a Neighbourhood Watch Scheme, only with teeth. If one of their neighbours committed an offence they had at least to report them and preferably to hand them over to the Law. Failure to do so meant a heavy fine for everyone.
Neighbours became snitches, or grasses who couldn’t be trusted to mind their own business. But people wouldn’t have thought of it in those terms then. There was no concept of keeping yourself to yourself. Everyone looked out for, and kept an eye one another. It wasn’t possible to be lonely, nor to be private.
That’s because in the past people didn't think of themselves as individuals. They thought of themselves as part of something. Above all, they tried to be true to their own family, and then to their town or community, or to the craft guild to which they belonged, or to the Church into which they had been baptised and perhaps ordained. That was their mindset.
Just imagine an open field system, without any fences, walls or hedges to separate our cultivated land from our neighbours'. If we let weeds grow in our share of the field the seeds would inevitably blow onto everyone else's land. So people looked out for another, and watched over one another, in ways that we would find intrusive.
But all of that began to change around the time of Shakespeare. Think of a play like ‘Hamlet’. One of the characters, Polonius, says, ‘This above all, to thine own self be true.’ What Polonius means is that we’ve got a right to be individuals. We don't need to fit in with the crowd.
In Shakespeare's day individualism was a shiny new concept, and regardless of whether the audience deplored it or admired it, that line from Polonius is one which continues to be quoted, ‘To your own self be true.’ Today, wrenched out of its original context, it’s certainly seen as good advice.
Fast forward then to the end of this period of change, when Jane Austen was writing Pride and Prejudice. A wealthy and important lady comes to advise the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, not to follow the dictates of her own heart by marrying above her social station. But Elizabeth Bennet won’t listen. ‘I am only resolved.’ she says, ‘To act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness.’
The great society lady makes one final appeal to Elizabeth’s sense of duty, honor and gratitude, but Elizabeth replies, ‘Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude have any possible claim on me in this instance.’ She goes on to say that upsetting her neighbours, however great or good, ‘would not give me one moment's concern.’ In an era when many people were still being squeezed into arranged marriages her attitude is social dynamite, blowing apart the old conventions.
But opinion formers like William Shakespeare and Jane Austen were letting a very dangerous cat out of the bag. With this modern notion of individual freedom comes a new sense of inner turmoil, conflict and soul-searching.
As we’ve seen, in the past people had no doubt who they were, where they belonged and what they had to do. They were John and Jenny from such and such a village, they were husband and wife, parents to so many children and serfs to such and such a lord. Their identity was defined by their relationships, whereas now we’re free to ask, ‘Who am I? What do I believe? What do I want to do with my life?’ These were meaningless questions for our ancestors.
Even as the industrial revolution began breaking down the old bonds between people and forcing us all to become tiny cogs in a giant, uncaring machine, two sometimes contradictory ways emerged in which people stuck up for alternative ways of life being.
Some people, like Jane Austen and George Eliot, insisted that we all have the right to choose our own destiny, not just whom to marry but what to do with the whole of our lives. Rather than feeling compelled to go down the pit, or into the mill or work on the land like their parents before them, the champions of individualism pointed to a world of infinite possibility.
But other people championed a nostalgic and idealised version of what they believed life had been like before the age of the machine. And that spirit is still very much alive in hundreds of craft fairs and farmers’ markets. When people celebrate the virtues of small farms or small communities engaging together in traditional artisan crafts they're appealing to a more neighbourly vision of community.
So which side should Christians come down on in the endless debate between individualism and community? Our answer probably depends on whether we’d prefer to belong to a large church or a small one. I’ve been the minister of two large churches and many small ones, so I’ve seen the advantages and the disadvantages of both.
In a large church [like this one] the singing generally goes much better and there’s usually a variety of different things going on throughout the year, or even during the week, but people often complain that they don’t really know other members of the congregation and sometimes that they've never even spoken to them.
The larger the church, the bigger this sense of anonymity grows. People can be completely lost in the vast congregation of a mega church. It's a church for the industrial age where they become tiny individual cogs wrapped up in their own personal spiritual journey. In a mega church the outputs aren't widgets, they're salvations. 'Last week we achieved five salvations. Our target this week is six.'
In a small church the very opposite is true. It’s almost impossible to be lost in the crowd. Everyone knows who you are. The singing may not be very good, but if a small church is strong and vibrant the sense of community, of sharing or solidarity, is everything. The congregation truly can become one in Christ; it’s no longer just a nice idea, it’s achievable, and then even a few people gathering together can make a big impact on their neighbourhood.
Romantics and the advocates of small churches want to get back to a vanishing age of harmony and cooperation between people living or gathering together in small communities but, for the most part, the trend has been away from community and towards individualism.
The economic squeeze of the last few years has only made this trend stronger. Small local charities - like the one I work for during the week - used to be encouraged to work together. Now we’re encouraged to justify our existence by measuring what makes us different from, or better than, our neighbours. Competition has replaced solidarity.
Even at the level of the individual person, and what’s going on inside our heads, there’s been a movement - ever since Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - towards understanding the way our subconscious works as an inner conflict raging within us. By inner conflict I mean the struggle to discover and set free our true inner self, the real me hidden deep inside. Sigmund Freud, the inventor of modern psychotherapy, said that each of is a house divided, because we’re all made up of a complicated and competing mixture of motives.
The writer of James is clear which side of the debate he comes down on. If he had the choice of going to a mega church where he didn’t have to mix with other people or really get to know them, or a small church where he'd soon get to know and care about everyone, he'd choose the small church every time - or t least a church which was organised into small groups. If he had the choice of going to a church where the members concentrate on their own individual spiritual journey, without doing anything practical to help people in desperate need, like refugees from wars or the victims of disasters, or joining a church where people are really concerned to help the needy, he'd go to the caring church. If he were faced with an inner conflict between selfishness and selflessness, between greed and generosity, he'd want to let God make sure that selflessness and generosity won the struggle.
He tells his readers elsewhere in this passage that we can’t pick and choose between different commandments. They all matter equally to God. But then he goes on to single out one commandment, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ and calls this ‘the royal law’. What he means is that love for our neighbour sums up what God's will for us is all about. That’s an idea also found in the Jewish Talmud, which was being compiled around the same time.
In our Gospel passage Jesus encounters a Lebanese woman who is a member of the Syro-Phoenician culture, almost certainly a pagan therefore and not a follower of Judaism. He tells her at first that he can’t help her little daughter who is sick, but then he relents. After all, she too is his neighbour. Suddenly he's no longer bound by the ancient model of community where only people who belong to our group really count as neighbours. From now on his followers must treat Syrian and Afghan asylum seekers, or migrant workers from across the world, as every bit as much their neighbours as the people who live next-door, or belong to the same community, or work for the same firm, or attend the same church, or share the same faith.
Remember the man who said, ‘I am your neighbour!’ That’s what every human being in desperate need is reminding us. Followers of Jesus can’t be individuals lost in a crowded planet. Instead we have to live as though we’re all neighbours in a global village.