Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Big Society

"If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in your land, that the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him". Deuteronomy 15:7-9

I am very heartened to hear Prime Minister Cameron promote what he calls "The Big Society" I do not intend in this post to question the Government's intentions, or to delve into the significant economic arguments surrounding it. Others have and will do this. My interest is in the principle. Is the concept of the Big Society workable? Desirable? Moral?

The issue of whom has the prime responsibility for society and its welfare has a long history. Some have argued that the individual members of society have sole responsibility, others argue that the State has sole responsibility, some have gone as far as to deny that there exists such a thing as a society distinct from the state, and finally some have argued for a mix of responsibility.

Mr Cameron's "Big Society", seems to rest on the notion that people have the prime responsibility for society and that the state's duty is to support them and to help them in the fulfilment of their duties. If this is the case then I agree with him.

Many voluminous books have been written on the subject, and more can be written, but I think that in essence the simple truth is, that a society built on the inter-personal relationships of free, moral people; bound together with horizontal bonds of goodwill, kindness and generosity, would be a far healthier model than one bound vertically to the coercive, faceless power of the state.

This view has been expressed many times in scripture. The constant calls for people to care for the infirm, the widows and the poor. The constant message of personal responsibility and the cautionary voice it expresses against the State. These thoughts were central to the philosophers of the Enlightenment who strove to create better more equitable societies as can be seen in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville

"Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate...It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood. For their happiness such a government willingly labours,but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry...What remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?"

It was the understanding of personal and social responsibility that led to the explosion of volunteerism in the Victorian era. A phenomena in which Unitarians, with their deep faith and social conscience, played such a huge part.

What a country we would live in, if everybody without fail, took into account the needs of the less fortunate, and actively acted on that great command given by God on Mount Sinai and repeated by Jesus to "love your neighbour as yourself". If people did this then they would, as Jesus informs us "live". Eternally and better.

For who better knows the needs of a neighbour or stranger for that matter, than a person who has regular contact with them and who can speak directly with them, and who can discover exactly what their needs are, and feel in their heart the pangs of divine empathy? An impersonal bureaucracy? I think not.

But in reality we are human, and all of us are subject to moments of selfishness, tightfistedness and simple nastiness. And this, compounded by the nature of our society in the industrial/post-industrial era with its atomised families, urban anonymity and hedonistic individualism, means that to rely on man's goodwill alone is not enough. Even the immense outpouring of charity and social enterprise in the Victorian era still did not remove the horrific sight of starving children and miserable squalor sadly so prevalent in many places at that time. And so it was realised that the State has its role to play.

I feel that for many years now the balance has been wrong. And the Welfare State has become detrimental to the proud heritage of duty, altruism and initiative, for which this Country was once rightly famed. And if Mr Cameron honestly and carefully tries to remedy this problem, then I pray that God assists him in his work. But we must be careful not to pull away too fast the support of the state, before a culture of giving is created.

Society as much as charity, starts at home. The family is the private world in which to learn how to be a moral social being. If we want to improve society we must strive to better ourselves and our families. To act generously, kindly, and unselfishly to those who are most close to us (who often face the neglect of familiarity) and also to all those we come in contact with. We must ask at the close of each day, what have I done to make someone else's day better or more pleasant. Woe to the person who finds that his days are spent making others' lives harsher and darker. And we must all learn to be courageous. We must overcome our shyness, fear or indolence, to take an active part in our communities. We must use those gifts conferred on us by our Creator, to further a culture of kindness. For example if you are a local business person or professional, why not work with your competitors to set up a fund that would help pay for students to go to top universities to learn your trade? If you are a writer of novels or for television, why not use your talent to promote the ennobling nature of kindness, instead of focusing on all that demeans us. If you have time, use it for others. If you have money to spare donate it. If you have nothing, then smile at a downcast person, and offer them a few words of support. We can all do something.

So much is already done by individuals and groups all over the land, and these wonderful exemplars should point the way forward to the rest of us. Unitarians have a proud history of social activism and so many of the reforms, the fruit of which today we are blessed with, came about in large part through the indefatigable work of Unitarians. Being small in number is not necessarily a bar to achievement.

The chief voice of German Jewish Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, put it perfectly when he said;

"God loves and cares for all His creatures.. so you should also love His creatures as your brethren. Let their joys be your joys and their sorrows yours. Love them and with every power which God gives you work for their welfare and benefit, because they are the children of your God"

Let us strive, and with God's help, we may be successful.

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