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 is not primarily about some conviction that Christians can or ought to be “useful” but that God is out ahead of us already remaking the world in the very places where we live. It is also an extraordinary invitation to communities of God’s people that gives us a clear sense of our 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 is about the ways we live. It’s about our homes, how they’re built and how we use them. Are they shaped by closed doors and backyard, fenced living – in other words we want to be left alone and just get along as much as possible – something entirely different from that? 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? We are all living at the beginning of fairly long period of staying home behind closed doors because of an invisible virus that has us running scared. How might Christians live as a city on a hill in the midst of this crisis? Some of you might remember that when plague came to cities like Rome, Christians chose not to flee the city like most were doing to hide in safe spaces but to be with those who were suffering. Here’s an article worth a read. What characteristics might be part of our being 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 is there and, to be frank, we need to heed the directions of medical people just now. At the same time there are ways of reaching out and connecting with people with expressions of care even when we need to be responsible. In a culture that has incessantly told us that we should look after. ourselves first, or that I can be anything I want and should be maximizing my own wealth and health – this unusual time is a chance to practice a different way of life.
In the midst of these trying times I see the opportunity to think and behave differently on a whole lot of levels. It’s a chance to check some of our taken-for-granted assumptions and ask if a part of our being Christians is to start examining some of these assumptions. I’m drawn here 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’ve come to experience in our everyday lives as normative – the market economy of neoliberal capitalism. Civil economy doesn’t start 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. Surely, this is a core part of Christian character sorely needed in these time. Being a light on a hill has to do with how, as God’s people, we are contributing to the common good. What might be involved for us as Christians?
What if local communities of God’s people who can no longer gather in church building had small eucharistic liturgies around their meal tables? In this act they might ask one another a simple question like: How are we going to seek the good of our neighborhoods this week? We could 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) and the challenge of not being able to congregate? Using social media to engage with other Christians in our neighborhood we could invite one another to share something of their experiences in the week of connecting with their neighbour. Perhaps the best, most grounded “sermons”would emerge from this listening with our people – one suspects they would be way more grounded and “Gospel-like” than current attempts of clergy to put sermons on-line for people?
For Bruni and Zamagni this seeking of the common good is 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 that has been lost across modern societies that think a “good society” is one that provides the means for independent individuals to maximize their individuality (in some magical way this is supposed to benefit everyone else). But in this time the implication for Christians is to live in a different virtue, to claim another way.
It is about a virtue shaped by self-sacrifice, disinterest in results and a capacity to act for the public good of those among whom we live. This is what we need to be as God’s people in the midst of this epidemic. What could happen in you neighbourhood if such virtues shaped the character of of God’s people in this crisis? Might this not be a way of being a city on a hill in this anxious time?
(Reposted and updated from July 30, 2018)