Yesterday, bouncing out of a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.,* I suggested that the work of securing the necessary rights and protections for those who don’t currently enjoy them is a noble and necessary task, but the higher calling is to lay down our own rights in service of others. You can see the full post here.
This, it seems to me, is something of a foundational commitment for those of us who call ourselves Christians, even if we don’t always (or even often) live it out.
What I want to suggest in this post is that this way of living actually (and somewhat ironically) is what leads to ‘fullness of life’—to flourishing!
This claim seems counterintuitive, because we are taught from a very early age that we need to look out for ourselves and those we love because no one else will. We are bombarded by politicians who appeal to our selfish inclinations (for their own selfish ambition), and we collectively give ourselves over to the idea that our task in life is to build our own comfort and security (and to pass as much of this comfort and security on to our kids as we can).
Let’s be clear: this way of living produces selfishness, and leads directly to the epidemic of anxiety that we see sweeping our communities. We are richer than ever, but are holding on more tightly to what we have than ever before (and are given to all sorts of paranoia about who’s trying to steal it all away from us).
A little while ago I read Hugh Mackay’s book The Good Life, and was struck by his conclusions. Though Mackay is not writing from a religious perspective, he takes
into consideration numerous religious traditions that incorporate some version or other of the ‘Golden Rule’: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. His conclusion to the question of ‘What makes life worth living?’ is simple:
A good life is not measured by security, wealth, status, achievement or levels of happiness. A good life is determined by our capacity for selflessness and our willingness to connect with those around us in a meaningful and useful way.
(Taken from www.hughmackay.net.au/books/the-good-life)
Of course, many of us suspect, deep down, that this is true, because we experience something deeply satisfying when we encounter this kind of life. Unfortunately, such experiences are far less frequent than they should be.
It also seems to me that this kind of living cuts through some of the nonsense that we so often buy into around ‘Left-wing’ and ‘Right-wing’ political and economic outlooks. Those on ‘the Left’ accuse those on ‘the Right’ of a hyper-focus on the individual, forgetting that we are more than ‘individual economic units’ and that our relationality is necessary to our flourishing. Those on ‘the Right’ accuse those on ‘the Left’ of some sort of soulless communist plot that ignores the dignity and rights of individuals.
But a selfless way of living that consciously seeks the flourishing of those around us (and, indeed, of our environment and non-human beings) is prisoner to the excesses of neither perspective (I would argue, of course, that this is because the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth completely undermine the Left/Right paradigm). It affirms the agency of the individual alongside the deep commitment to caring for each other. It acknowledges that we can’t do it all on our own but locates the compulsion for caring for each other with individuals (rather than external systems or laws).
Let’s be honest: this way of living doesn’t really make much sense…except that it does. It goes against so much of what we have been shaped by, yet it is the kind of life that actually does lead to fulfilment. To contentment. To joy.
It’s idealistic, to be sure. It’s also core to the teaching of Jesus, and therefore kind of non-negotiable for those of us who call ourselves Christians. Perhaps we should take this more seriously.
* “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.”