Jesus said: ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’
The anthropologist Colin Turnbull lived for two years with a Ugandan tribe, the Ik, and described his experiences in a book called The Mountain People. They are seen as utterly brutish, selfish and loveless. They never sing, and they laugh only at one another’s misfortunes. They turn their children out to forage as soon as they can walk, and they abandon the old to starvation. Presumably they were once a normal easy-going people, but the government took over their lands to create a national park, and these hunter-gatherers were reduced to farming the poor hillside soil, at which they failed miserably. Along with their way of life they lost their culture and even their humanity. It is a depressing picture.
The biologist Lewis Thomas, in The Lives of a Cell, sketched a theory about them – and about human beings in any society. “The solitary Ik, isolated in the ruins of an exploded culture, has built a new defence for himself. If you live in an unworkable society you can make up one of your own…. Each Ik has become a group, a one-man tribe of its own…. This is precisely the way groups…from committees to nations, behave…. In his absolute selfishness, his incapacity to give anything away, no matter what, he is a successful committee. When he stands at the door of his hut, shouting insults at his neighbours in a loud harangue, he is a city addressing another city…. Nations are the most Ik-like of all…. For total greed, rapacity, heartlessness, and irresponsibility there is nothing to match a nation. Nations, by law, are solitary, self-centred, withdrawn into themselves.” He concludes, “We haven’t yet learned how to stay human when assembled in masses. The Ik, in his despair, is acting out this failure, and perhaps we should pay closer attention.”
There are lessons here for Christian community too. Despite hearing the Gospel, times without number, we are capable of living instead by the gospel of greed. Society breaks down around us, and we fail to create Christian community, receding into ourselves and living out our lives as solitary egos. The ego is my false identity; it is the identity I forge for myself in early childhood and build upon for the rest of my life, unless radically called into community. It is the fundamental lie about who I am. It is not really an identity, it is a strategy for survival, security and comfort. For this reason the ego cannot love, though it can produce an imitation of love, for strategic purposes. Whenever it pretends to form community with others there is a built-in flaw.
What is meaning? It is to know the fragment in relation to the whole. A madman is so-called because his talk and actions are unrelated to any wider structure. Cut a piece out of a picture and it is meaningless. Put it back and there’s a thrill of recognition. This is the small thrill of jigsaw puzzles. Today many people are like isolated fragments of a jigsaw puzzle, with no desire to be part of anything. W.H. Auden once said, “We have to learn to love one another or die.”
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