What kind of character do we need as God’s people?

Jesus describes the character of a community of God’s people as a city on a hill; their vocation is as a beacon light seen shining in darkness. This description makes clear Jesus undaunted conviction that God is effectively at work in our contexts, our own cities and towns. It is also an extraordinary invitation to communities of God’s people wherever they may be. It gives a clear sense of their identity. To be a light on a hill is to embrace a profoundly disorienting way of being in the world, in the neighbourhood. Let’s be honest, most of us don’t want to stick out, to be a different kind of people that we get noticed. Who wants that? We just want to be “normal”, quiet, left pretty much to ourselves enjoying whatever affinity group meets our needs. This about the ways we live – our homes, how they’re built and how we use them – closed doors, backyard living – in other words we want to be left alone and just get along as much as possible. Now, there’s this crazy, audacious description about what it means to be God’s people, a ‘city on a hill’.

What does that mean for being community’s of God’s people just now? What characteristics make a city on a hill that is a sign, witness and foretaste of the kingdom in this anxious age in which we live. The pressures to retreat and keep a low profile as pretty high. At the same time the messages we get go in the opposite direction of light (sign), witness and foretaste. I’m continually told I can be anything I want and should be maximizing my wealth and health. In trying to answer these questions I’m drawn again to Catholic social teaching. The Italian economists (economists can actually have some profound things to say about how we live as community’s of God’s people), Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zamagni provide a wealth of clues to answering these questions about the characteristics of being God’s people in their little book civil economy (Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK: Agenda Publishing, 2016).

The notion of a “civil economy” might be new to some of us. They juxtapose civil economy with what we experience in our everyday lives – the market economy of neoliberal capitalism. Civil economy doesn’t starts from the individual and individual rights but from persons in community and their desire for the thriving of the common good. Rather than starting from distorted Hobbesian assumptions about us all as avaricious individuals in a constant state of competition, civil economy begins from the assumption that we are made in God’s image and, therefore, shaped by a desire for the flourishing of all. The sad reality is that in our economic theory and practices, we’re a Hobbesian society hoping government policy will  tame the beast and religion will ameliorate the worst of the “animal” in us with the inculcation of good morality (a kind of blind moralism shaped around abstracted, universalizing ideas such God wants us all share, care and be fare). This suggests that being a light on a hill has something to do with how, as God’s people, we are contributing to common good of the civil economy. What might be involved for us as Christians?

What if local communities of God’s people built into their weekly eucharistic liturgies a time for people to engage with one another with a simple question like: How are we going to seek the good of our neighborhoods this week? And we frame this question with another: How will we do that, as in Luke 10, without material things (money, resources to give away, assessments to determine needs, or assets)? After that, at each eucharistic service, perhaps right after the Gospel has been read aloud, invite people to share something of their experiences in the week. Perhaps the best, most grounded “sermons”would emerge from this listening with our people?

Bruni and Zamagni describing this seeking of the common good as part of the character of virtue. They quote the Neapolitan jurist, Giacinto Dragonetti (1738-1818): “We call God good more than we call him virtuous, because he need not force himself to do good…Virtue is none other than a generous effort, independently of law, that leads us to be useful to others” (30-31). This is an older understanding of virtue has been increasingly lost across modern societies that think a “good society” is one that provides the means for distinct and independent individuals (the contemporary meaning of “freedom”) to maximize and express their individuality (in some magical way this is supposed to benefit everyone else). But here, the implication of invoking the name of God is living in a different virtue. It is about being a light on a hill as a community that consciously denies that view of the “good” society. We claim another way.

Bruni and Zamagni propose some conditions that are central to this Luke 10 form of virtue: a) self-sacrifice, b) disinterest in results and c) a capacity to act for the public good of those among whom we live. What could happen in a neighbourhood if such virtue become a daily practice forming the character of local communities of God’s people? Might this not be a primary way of being a city on a hill in this age of anxiety?

A lot of Christians long for such a way but have few guides. Numbers of my friends have re-posted a quote from the late Henri Nouwen that begin in this way: “More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.” Their is this desire fermented by the Spirit to participate in what God is erupting in local communities. Too often, however, their church communities are absorbed in ways to make church work; they’re turned in on themselves. Or, too often these churches are “training” people to go and meet “needs” or find ways of  “helping” or discovering “assets” all of which misses the point of virtue, of Luke 10 and of Nouwen’s desires. Is this is a moment inviting leaders of such communities to try on pathways of forming a virtuous people of God?


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