Saturday, 7 May 2016

Loss of the Good Neighbour

"the Pioneer" by Frederick McCubbin (who's country painting cottage is in Woodend where I live!) Illustrating the harshness of pioneer life in Australia

Loss of Good Neighbours.

Jesus defined the ideal of “good neighbour” with that wonderful parable we call the Good Samaritan. He also put in a punchy saying “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

Of course Jesus was not saying anything new. Way back in Deuteronomy there are a multitude of – I was about to say “rules” but they are more in the nature of examples of the sort of actions required to fulfil the rule of neighbourliness. Interestingly they include enemies as well as friends which is something Jesus said a lot about!

So first of all we have the sort of thing we expect towards someone who is part of our nation, ethnic group, religion, church, club, locality etc.: “If you see your fellow Israelite's ox or sheep straying. Do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to its owner” (Deut.22.1).

Remember how I quoted Hayek in his book “The Fatal Conceit” saying that he thought traditional ethical rules evolved – by the simple mechanism that communities who had rules that made them more functional out-competed ones who did not. Now of course I believe the ones in the Bible were God-given – but that in itself implies that they work – and it is easy to see how in a rural subsistence community this rule makes the community more functional. It also makes it easy to explain why other communities may have developed similar rules – they found ones that worked! Also from my experience of God I expect that he gave people in ancient societies who were trying to work out “good” rules a nudge in the right direction!

But Jesus went further didn't he. With comments like “You have heard that it was said, 'love your neighbour, hate your enemy' but I tell you love your enemies ...” (Matthew 5:43) And of course the Parable of the Good Samaritan drives home this very point.

Now I don't know how the “hate your enemy” had wormed its way in to people's thinking in Jesus' time – it certainly was not in the Old Testament – quite the opposite! :
If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen under its load, do not leave it there, be sure to help them with it.” (Exodus 23:4)

Once again if one were just looking from the perspective of “survival of the community”, this is a really good and functional rule to have! However it is not a rule that sits well with human nature! That alone probably answers my question “How did the 'hate your enemy' bit creep in”. So in this case it is a rule that works – and if you were a modern employer you would not be happy about animosity in the workplace which meant that one employee would not help another with a work problem! But this is often what happens – to the detriment of the company!

So once again we can say: “a rule that works” so it could evolve. But in this case we can say two more things:
1) It runs against human nature, so it requires either extensive “socialisation” to it as a traditional custom, good manners or the like, with sanctions against breaking it. Or an imminent threat where they clearly must cooperate in order to survive.
2) Jesus linked it to God's own character “Love your enemies … that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good...” God's love for us who were his enemies is a theme I enjoy contemplating – but for now I had better stick to this script. This gives us the insight, as I have said before of Christian morals being both derivative from God's own character and being like “maker's instructions” that we do well to follow! “But wait there's moreReal Christians actually want to be like Jesus, and have his Spirit to help them – so they are at a practical advantage in implementing “love your neighbour” That is of course not to say they score 100%!

In the West Millennia of Christianity, even if often of rather poor quality, had worked some of this into the cultures. True mostly inter- rather than intra- clan or family! But that often in by-gone times was the locus of community. Our large scale community or “extended order” as Hayak calls it, is modern.

In pioneer countries like the U.S. and Australia this was aided by sheer necessity. I read a sociological study of a small U.S. farming community in the 50's about 70kM from Washington DC
which was disturbingly similar to my then parish 70 kM out of Melbourne! In this study they observed that there was a strong code that people helped each other when one had difficulties on their farm. Interestingly they observed that there was never any payment but that over time such favours were scrupulously repaid in kind.

In Australia pioneer farmers in the 1800's faced a hostile environment. Cooperation and helping others without question: because you might need help next was essential. No luxury of scorning enemies there! Even in my youth it was expected that if you saw someone in trouble you would help them – whether it was a bogged car, a non-English speaking immigrant about to swim at a beach where the sign said “Dangerous rip – no swimming” or whatever. Without regard to who they were. I also remember that no payment was to be offered for such help – that would be considered an insult – people had done what decent people do.

This latter point: a rule that you helped people regardless of who they were, generally having never met them before or likely to again – this is necessary for the :”Love your neighbour” to work in modern mass society. We are not functional as clans any more, hardly functional as small states any more, we will rise or fall as much, much bigger social units!

Let me stress this: We live in mass societies. People we depend on do not in general have close personal relationships with us. People we need to treat as we would have others treat us may may just be a name or a face to us, if that. So for a functional society we need a general rule observed by all towards all.

Now in my memory all this has been collapsing. Self contentedness has become the norm. In many it approaches total self absorption: such people care nothing for others needs but expect everyone to rush to fulfil theirs.

Many are trying to create little groupings – family, civic action group, things of this nature, within which the rule generally applies. They are in fact going back to precisely the state Jesus was criticising in the Good Samaritan!

If the West is not to become increasingly dysfunctional on yet another front – until it implodes or is superseded by a more vigorous culture Jesus' teaching needs to become our general creed:

Always treat other people the way you would like people to treat you

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