The long summer of global liberalism now appears to have begun its move into an uncertain autumn. The triumphal delight often seen punctuating the tawdry drama of the lives of the ruling class turns to a frenzied confusion. Even Trump, president ascendant, now looks somber most of the time. The loss of the New Democrats to a coalition of oligarchs, populists, evangelicals, and general Bush administration leftovers signals the end of the reign of an established and bipartisan order. Old configurations which were once trustworthy assumptions are subject to rapid and chaotic reconfiguration. Power relations between various entities and personalities are being restructured by necessity and some seize the chance to secure their survival in reinvention while others steadfastly dig in and prepare to defend their ideological hill. Until the situation settles very little is assured.
Britain has left the European Union. Greece continues to chafe against the chains of debt-slavery. Italy’s prime minister resigned after anti-establishment sentiment defeats his proposed constitutional referendum and is beginning round one of bank bailouts. Spain’s unemployment has improved but remains second worst in the Union and separatist tensions remain unresolved. The choir singing a dirge for the Eurozone grows in size each day and the proposed ambassador to the EU has suggested that you short the euro.
Outrage at Trump for gagging the EPA and other various federal employees and forbidding mention of climate change is deafening but every prior administration has made a show of agreeing that anthropogenic climate change is a reality and then engaged in ineffective legislative tap dances designed to placate rather than meaningfully address the coming catastrophic manifestations of it. As John Michael Greer has said many times, most climate activist groups were bought off a long time ago and those who levied consistent criticism are few. Thus, the reality of increasing climate instability provides a backdrop to all of this that won’t long cede center stage. Climate refugees will, in all likelihood, overwhelm the ability of whatever polities are present to accommodate them should they even be disposed to make the attempt.
And so one wonders: what is to be done? How do we participate in the tilling of a soil that will bear forth a good harvest of life for ourselves and those who will come after us? It is here that I will say that I find the wisdom we need to be the wisdom given to Abraham as it was given to each prophet since. It is a divisive statement for my milieu. Today orthodoxy is heresy. And so I give what I hope to be comfort when I say that this is not meant to constitute a doctrinal assault on any of its readers. It is not meant to be a work that finds fault or that brings judgment but one that I pray will offer good news. A work that takes the question of what it means to be a community and seeks to explore it. And also, what it means to be a friend. And why do we now speak of communities and friends?
That people fare better when they are together than when they are apart is something we learned a long time ago. Violence and famine were the ever present realities that human communities had to rise to meet if they were to continue living and their social organization grew to exhibit a robustness in light of such challenges. If someone wishes to know what work they could undertake to offset what appears to be a grim future then I would say it is this work. The work of being a neighbor.
What is it to be a neighbor? The three rivers which flow from Abraham place special emphasis on the rights of the neighbor. The Prophet Muhammad said that those who sleep contentedly while their neighbors starve are not of his community. He was also reported to have said that he who causes his neighbor to fear his wrongful actions is not a believer. In the Islamic tradition one has a set of responsibilities to their neighbors. They are to protect their property and their privacy, visit them when they are ill, and share food and necessities with them. These are the actions sent with the Messenger of God to the people of this world. They constitute commands that serve as the precondition for knowledge that is practical, among other things.
“Love thy neighbor as thyself” is one of the better known statements of Jesus in the Gospel. The final three of the Ten Commandments prohibit coveting your neighbors wife, property, ans forbid, bearing false witness against them. In Shabbat 31a of the Talmud, a story is relayed of a pagan telling a rabbi that he would convert if the rabbi could teach him the Torah while he stood on one leg. The rabbi responded by saying “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, that is the entire Torah, the rest is just commentary, now go and study.”
But these values were also as present in hoarfrost of pagan Hordaland as they were in Medina. I contend that they are different in intensity and achieve a further aim in the prophetic communities. They are animated by something with more power than a common fear of facing the vicissitudes of the wild unaided. For this reason, it is there where they achieve something sublime.
The commandments in Judaism, as well as in Islamic sacred law, concerning one’s duties to their neighbors go beyond refraining from committing directly harmful acts and encompass the necessity of ensuring that you do not even create the conditions for a later harm to befall a neighbor, such as a dangerously built house and so on. They are meant to guide the actions of a people so that their hands may create something that endures and in doing so create the space for, and take part in the process of, the transformation of hearts. These places make it possible to do more than just survive, but enable the people there to discover knowledge immediate to life.
Without ambiguity, neither Judaism nor Christianity nor Islam make the category of neighbor a distinction based in religious affiliation. The Christian is as much a neighbor as the Wiccan. A community of distinct difference is not a bar to there being a community, as history has shown and I hope to elucidate, though Europe today may disagree.
Paul Lakeland drew my attention to the writing of Catholic theologian Yves Congar, who said that the church and the world are not to be “like two crowned sovereigns looking sideways at one another as they sit on the same dais” but “much more like the Good Samaritan holding in his arms the half-dead man, whom he will not leave because he was sent to help him.” The Prophet Isaiah said that Israel would be a light unto the nations and Jesus said that the Christians were to be a light unto the world and God said in the Qur’an “And We have sent you (O Muhammad), not but as a mercy for creation.”
A part of this light is the creation of geographic spaces that embody such light. To create cities and villages and outposts and citadels of lights. Spaces within which people are realizing a bond which enables them to exist irrespective of cheap oil and global capitalism. And as such, it is a concern that, as I said, is inherently practical. It requires analysis of the structures that constitute the world we live in and the way we organize our subsistence routines, which for us means the way in which we defer our subsistence routines further and further beyond our own sphere of knowledge, to say nothing of our own sphere of control. It means an examination of the way in which we handle our affairs with regards to anthropogenic climate change. Not because it is likely that we are still at a point where the worst changes can be averted, but because we are interested in robust systems and processes which are not easily disrupted by these changes. It may surprise some to know that such knowledge is embedded in the prophetic inheritance.
If we want to start building these places, it begins in conduct. This must be the place where it begins and it is as necessary as any study of permaculture or adobe construction. It is that which can bring the places we inhabit to life with bonds of fellowship and concern. And from that concern we will find that the handling of matters of contingency is easier than it ever could have been before.
We have been provided with a clear guide to turn to in this endeavor. It shows us the simple and humble acts of kindness and responsibility that will form the necessary foundation for a community that can persevere and provide a way to those who stumble in darkness. Modernity has fractured us, making it difficult to have any interaction with our neighbors, in some cases. Walking through the uncomfortable tension that now exists within these interactions is a skill and with practice one increases in it.
G.K. Chesterton remarked that when one lives in a large place and is able to select his companions as he likes his world is, in reality, a very small one. Conversely, when one lives in a village and must get on with the people who are around, their world is infinitely large.