Baxter's Five Stones

I’ve been re-reading Baxter’s Jerusalem Daybook recently, and in it there’s a passage that struck me particularly, and I wanted to muse on that this morning. It’s printed in the newsletter. He writes:
‘Freedom is intensely beautiful. It is the purpose for which we were made.
If I say that contemporary society is unfree, I do not mean simply that one can’t do what one feels like… To be free from the commercial and technological and military obsessions of modern society would mean only to enter a gap, a limbo, an area of unrelated personal isolation, if there were not also the freedom to co-operate with and relate to other human beings.
Certainly in contemporary society our personal freedom is absurdly limited…but the terrible aspect of our lack of freedom is the fact that we are not free to act communally, when communities are everywhere ceasing to exist, and only a desacralised, depersonalised, centralised Goliath remains to demand our collective obedience.’

Baxter here is defining freedom as freedom to be and do the things we value in the face of societal pressure to live in a way that is dictated to us. This includes the freedom to pursue communal relationships… to choose interdependence rather than pure autonomy and privacy. For myself, I find it more and more difficult to structure my life in community-oriented ways, unless I keep rejecting the messages society is giving me to adopt the lifestyle of a consumer unit.

Baxter uses the image of Goliath to describe the conditions that lead to the loss of community, setting them against God, who is traditionally on the side of David. And I think he’s right to make this link, on the grounds that the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity implies that God’s very nature is social and communal. If God is internally in relationship, then we, made in the image of God, are also most healthy when we experience interdependence. In fact, if we accept that the church on earth is meant to embody God’s presence in the world, then the church needs to deliberately choose to live in ways that enable commonality, co-operation and deep relationship across interpersonal barriers.

Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, which is not, I believe, primarily about the salvation of individuals. It’s about the transformation of the whole of creation in relationship to God, the transformation of structures and norms of violence, oppression, cruelty and dehumanisation. And one way of bringing this kingdom into greater fullness is through the counter-cultural activity of us, the church, standing against the cultural empire by exercising our freedom to be communal. The church should have a prophetic function in the world, not in the sense of future telling, but as a conscience for the culture, offering a way of being and living that makes us whole and free.

So what does this mean in practice? How do we be David to this Goliath? Does it mean that we should set up communes, sell our houses and move in together? Well, for some of us, it might mean something like that, and we should seek to support those who are attempting ways of living out that vision. But I think there are a range of approaches, and starting places. In the Daybook, Baxter goes on to say: ‘I do not relish the role of David, in confronting that Goliath, who numbs the soul wherever he touches it. But I find myself curiously, perhaps absurdly, cast in that role. And the five water-worn stones I choose from the river, to put in my sling, are five spiritual aspects of Maori communal life –
arohanui: the Love of the Many;
manuhiritanga: hospitality to the guest and the stranger;
korero: speech that begets peace and understanding;
matewa: the night life of the soul;
mahi: work undertaken from communal love.
I do not know what the outcome of the battle will be. My aim may be poor. But I think my weapons are well chosen.’

Baxter identifies the source of these five dimensions as coming from Maori spirituality. And I think it’s important to say that within Maori culture these five aspects have a particular expression and outworking. But I also note that these five water-worn stones are also biblical values, and that we in the church might find them a really good practical framework for strengthening our communal life. I’d like to reflect on each one in turn.

Arohanui. The Love of the Many. Baxter uses this phrase in other parts of the book, always with these capital letters, which indicate that it’s a phrase with specific meaning for him. My reading of the way he uses it is to refer to the love of God for us, which is given to us in Christ, for us to love one another with. This is the love of sacrifice and of self-giving. This is the love that, because we have received it, makes us able to love others. As Jesus said ‘love one another as I have loved you.’ I don’t know if it can be stressed enough that the meaning and single main emphasis of the Christian gospel is love. Love that lays down its life. Love that clothes us, and renews us and makes us children of God. Love that is patient and kind.

What sets this love apart from the love that this world teaches us, is that it is toward the Many, not the Few. Love your enemies, Jesus said, even as he forgave those that killed him. The love of the communal life is not a narrow, exclusive love of our closest family and friends. It is practical, active concern for whoever is in our neighbourhood, our workplace, our church, our wider world. The first letter of John asks ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word, or speech, but in truth and action.’ The first weapon in the struggle to live communally is practical, difficult, inclusive, generous love.

Manuhiritanga. Hospitality to the guest and the stranger. One of the things I really liked in what Brian Walsh had to say about ‘home’ the other week, is that hospitality is not the same as entertaining. I love dinner parties, I love dressing up for them, and decorating and planning and so on. But that stuff is in a completely different category to hospitality. To me hospitality says I don’t need to clean up, get changed, or cook anything different from what I would otherwise cook just because someone is coming into my house. Hospitality says, come at the last minute, come as you are, come without bringing anything, come without warning, and you will find a welcome here. Hospitality says bring a friend, bring a stranger, let’s get to know each other over food and drink. Even riskier, hospitality says to the stranger come and stay, if you need to, even though I don’t know you, or if you and my stuff will still be here in the morning.

There are some passages in the Bible that suggest that the relationship between host and guest is a sacred one. Abraham entertained three strangers and they turned out to be a visitation of God. Jesus told stories of throwing banquets and going out into the streets to invite the very least…and then in the parable of the sheep and goats suggests that when someone welcomes any stranger, he is there in the person of the stranger, or the hungry, or the thirsty one. In the Maori world, anyone welcomed to a Marae or meeting place must be given food. All meals are a sacrament when spirituality is seen as embracing the physical, material world, as well as intangible things. When others come into our circle of eating and drinking, they participate with us in our union in Christ, symbolised in the breaking of bread in our communion services.

In our society we are mostly driven to put up walls and to let in only those we already know and trust, because our lives feel insecure and risky enough without increasing our sense of discomfort. But this is the affect of Goliath on our feelings and behaviour. And while we need to be gentle with our fears, and be realistic in our protection of ourselves, Jesus calls us also to live within the principle of manuhiritanga, to open out a space for the freedom to love and care for guests and strangers in the sanctuary of our homes.

Korero. Speech that begets peace and understanding. Language is power. Those who use language in certain ways get to exercise power over others. Those who talk faster, louder, longer, or more manipulatively, tend to get their way. Our society is structured around the competition of words, in our political debating chamber and public campaigns, in academies, in arguments, and in advertising. Countries go to war and people are imprisoned on the basis of half truths or outright deceptions. People succeed in this competition by means of lies, slander, defamation, rhetorical spin, or aggression.

By contrast, there’s a surprising amount in the New Testament letters that encourages the church to make positive use of language, and cautions against speech that harms. ‘Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt…get rid of malice, slander, and abusive language…do not lie to one another.’ The book of James compares the tongue to a fire that sets ablaze a whole forest. The writer identifies the root of negative speech as ‘envy and selfish ambition’…disputes come from ‘cravings that are at war within you.’ When we want something and it looks like we’re not going to get it, the word per minute rating goes up and the language of conflict comes in. I guess that what the writer of James is trying to say is that the way we talk comes out of the stuff that’s going on within us, and if that’s anger, fear, envy, or whatever, then that’s what our speech will reflect. James’ suggestion to resolve negative speech is to sort out our fears and desires with God…to ask God for what we need instead of being fearful of missing out or greedy to have more than we need. Because when we are over-run by these emotions we tend to engage with the world on Goliath’s terms, which are disputation and slander.

Instead, we need to season the world with korero, to proceed by talking gently and openly with one another, to engage in dialogue that actually hears what other people are saying and to adopt a willingness to shift our own position on the basis of what we hear. This kind of korero, as anyone familiar with a hui will know, takes longer than the other ways of talking. It embraces people’s emotions and reactions. We’re going to be doing a lot of talking at Cityside this year, around a topic that has different emotional resonances for all of us. In that process let’s be willing to share our fears and our visions more readily than our positions and opinions, and let’s keep speaking honestly out of who we are, in relationship and love.

Matewa. The night life of the soul. Elsewhere in the Jerusalem Daybook Baxter defines Matewa as the area of ‘dreams and omens and hidden spiritual relationships to the dead and the living and our non-human environment’. Thomas Merton, a twentieth century monk, believed that solitude and contemplation, the night life of the soul, are pre-requisites to the awakening of a social conscience. He wrote that the one ‘who tries to evade solitude and confrontation with the unknown God may eventually be destroyed in the meaningless chaotic atomized solitariness of mass society. But meanwhile it is still possible to face one’s inner solitude and to recover mysterious resources of hope and strength.’

Jesus’ ministry was marked by strange and powerful indications that he lived in connection with this energy of matewa: raising the dead, healing the sick, casting out demons. His life was characterised by this deep connection with the hidden spiritual dimension of all of life. The disappearance of the dimension of matewa, says Baxter, ‘shrinks our skulls’ and drives us crazy, is the source of isolation, mental illness and drug addiction. When there is no depth, no peace of soul, the surfaces of our collective social existence break apart like dry cracks in a desert with no rain.

We in the church need to be prepared to access, through prayer, silence and solitude, this matewa connection to the creation, to the dead and the living, and to God, even if that means facing the abyss within ourselves. If we are to act prophetically in the world, then we need spiritual vision. But so much of Goliath numbs our vision, reduces it to what is acceptable for the collective mind to think. In order to not be captivated by the diminished level of consciousness which is all around us, we need a deepening of prayer and the life of the Holy Spirit. And we need to start with consciousness about ourselves.

And finally mahi. Work undertaken from communal love. I wonder how many people today have a paradigm that views work as an expression of love in the world? I wonder what the world would be like if we defined work as a physical and practical outworking of our energies toward others… if we defined work relationally rather than economically. The work that is most valued in the Goliath world is work that generates wealth. For many people, money has become an end in itself. I think that ‘mahi’ isn’t primarily about what we do to earn money. It’s not necessarily the same thing as our job. I think it could be seen as any activity that nourishes and builds up other lives. Some people might be able to do this activity and earn from it. Others might need to earn in other ways to support their mahi. The measure of mahi is not in whether it’s paid or unpaid, but what it enables, what it supports, what it makes possible for a community…how it reflects and emerges from communal love.

This is not a re-iteration of the unhelpful notion that leads to Christians feeling like they have to be involved in care or helping professions. It’s about re-locating our concept of work into a framework of love, rather than wealth… and expressions of love are as creative and diverse as we are as individuals. We’re not all shaped to be professional carers in that traditional sense. Rather, I’m interested in the idea of thinking about work in terms of how it affects human relationships. So, the purpose and reason for engaging in one’s mahi is that it enriches people’s bodies, souls and minds, as well as their wallets.

Many of Jesus’ parables looked at how work structures affected relationships between masters and slaves, employers and employees. He cautioned against the paradigm of accumulation, suggesting that relational ties to others and to God are more important than storing up treasure. He healed on the Sabbath, flouting the ‘work’ rules of his culture in order to demonstrate that acts of compassion transcend religious and economic norms. And he made a point of transforming or restoring the working life those who were despised, either because they were sick and couldn’t work, or because they worked in destructive jobs like Matthew and Zacchaeus the tax collectors.

I wonder if one way to act freely in the face of our Goliath society is to broaden our definition of work to include not just activity that yields a salary, but acts of communal love, of creativity, of community building, of serving those in need, whether these acts are part of, or alongside tasks that we are paid or employed to do.

So, arohanui, manuhiritanga, korero, matewa and mahi. Five principles that we can use to create the conditions for true, meaningful, community life. Five ways of acting against the flow of our fragmenting, collective, de-humanising society. I wonder if we here at Cityside could build them into our practice and find out whether they are indeed weapons well chosen in the struggle against the dominating forces of Goliath – our struggle to live as the body of Christ, forging the kingdom of heaven on earth.