On Being A Member of Something or Not

While on holidays, I went to a party. Where I met someone who said “ I have never paid tax and never voted!’ I must admit to being a bit shocked.

I was thinking “Well how does someone gain status in a society when they don’t participate in it?” I was thinking about how in Russia a person used to be declared a ‘non person’ by excluding them from membership of all the institutions that make up ‘society’.

So I raised my question with a friend who knew this other person better. They said to me “ Well, first of all, I don’t think that this person has ever earned enough to pay tax! But more seriously, I think that this stance is an attempt at independence and freedom.” I think that they meant that the more we are enmeshed in bureaucratic systems, the more they bind us, and so it is better to strike a blow for freedom, and be an ‘outsider’ of sorts.

So I began to think of how this works.

Just recently, our welfare system seems to be terrorising its clients. They computer-match welfare payments to tax records, and if there seems to be a discrepancy, they send a letter saying ‘please justify this discrepancy’. This may involve producing records from a long way back.

I can just imagine how difficult this must be for those who are already harassed and to some extent demonised. I find it hard enough to keep records over a long period of time, with house moves, and ‘clean outs’ and soon. Imagine how stressful this must be for those who depend upon the welfare payments for their livelihood. I have, briefly, been part of these queues, and waits and bureaucracy. I say “It is better to be out of this system, than to have to try to negotiate with it!’

The same is true regarding power costs. Previously, we had a government utility, that was not meant to run at a profit, but managed the natural monopoly of power generation and distribution. We complained about it, and we complained about rising electricity costs, but we somehow trusted it, that the electricity utility would invest I enough to keep power flowing, would keep charges as low as possible, and be flexible and generous to the poor, and would train apprentices in the electrical trades that would guarantee tradies for the future.

Then the whole thing was privatised. They promised us ‘lower prices’. For a while we had lower prices, but the maintenance of power lines went down, the training of apprentices stopped, and now, whole towns are thrown into confusion when a French owned company decides to sell of a power station which we have sold to them.

So I think “I am glad that we have solar panels! We can be independent of the power companies, whom I am coming to trust less and less. But there is more! The government, in an effort to encourage solar generation of electricity subsidised the cost of the ‘feed in’ to the grid of the electricity that we generate at our house. No longer! It was getting too popular. So now I am thinking ‘get batteries, become independent!’

This same drive to independence is part of the relationship between the Church and the State too. An Anglican welfare agency refused to be a part of the Governments ‘welfare to work’ scheme, because it refused to be a part of punishing people whom they were helping, just for the sake of receiving government money.

So there’s the case. It reminds me of Jesus before Pilate. He says “My power does not come from ‘this world’. The ways of ‘this world’ are not the ways of Christians. We are right perhaps to seek to be an alternative. This is what the Church did from the beginning, by supporting the widows, and loving people who were not ‘family.’ The Church tried to set up an alternative kind of society. I guess that this, too, is the Amish response to societal changes. I think that the capacity to have an alternative, for me, provided by the Church and by being a Christian means that my sense of belonging is not first and foremost to ‘the society’ but to God. As the prologue to St. john’s Gospel says ‘to those who received him, he gave power. Power to become children of God, who were born not (from this world) but born (from God.).

But then I think of the alternative. Remember the song by Simon and Garfunkel? I am a rock, I am an island…for a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries!’ Being dependant on one another to some degree is part of the human condition. Being open to pain and disappointment is a part of the human condition. As John Donne wrote “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man (sic) is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…every man’s death diminishes me.”

So the desire to avoid pain and being mucked around, and mistreated by bureaucracy drives us to look for alternatives. But I am not happy with a kind of freedom that is simply an avoidance of pain. I think that a more genuine alternative is to have a way of processing the pain. As Zorba says in ‘Zorba the Greek’ “Life is trouble boss. To be alive is to unbuckle your pants and go looking for trouble.” But it is only the Zorbas who have a way of coping with the ‘trouble’ who can live this way.

Here too, I think that being a Christian is important. The opportunity for daily prayer, and reflection with others, is a great way to come before the face of God, and to pour out my ‘troubles’ in the psalms, and to ‘flow’ as a person in a way that the ‘world’ does not appreciate, and in a way that ‘being a rock or an island’ simply pastes over.

Being dependant on others causes pain. I need a way to process it.

But then, being dependant on others is also joy. When I built my boat, I did not think that I had any rights to call on other members of the club to help. I just got on and built it. But adding the fittings was another matter. Someone suggested ‘why don’t you have a ‘fitting day’. So I bought a slab of beer, put on a BBQ, and ought the fittings. All of the boat club members came, put on the fittings with me, and we had a lovely time! That is the kind of dependence that is a joy.

The Church teaches us this too. We are members of the body of Christ, one of another. We are dependant on one another, as we all are dependant on God to ‘give us this day our daily bread’. Acknowledging this makes me humble before God, and aware of my membership of other Christians.

So I think that in negotiating the path between independence and interdependence, I have as a Christian a model to follow. In the Church I have permission to be ‘alternative’ and not to follow, slavishly what ‘society’ says. But at the same time, I am made aware of my dependence on God, and on other members of the Church. I am also given a means of processing the pain of involvement.

The Church, because it is also ‘World’ and the end is not yet, does not live up to this high calling, but where else can I go? Here are the words of eternal life.

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
This entry was posted in Living Before the Face of God, Psalms, Religion and Society, Uncategorized, Weekly Reflections From Coller Crt. and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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