The Ethos Of Christian Mysticism

Dave Andrews

Practising compassion, like Christ, involves developing an ‘ethos’ that is strong but gentle with people. An ‘ethos’ that is strong but gentle with people is not characterised by power that is exercised over people, but by power that people exercise over themselves. An ‘ethos’ that is strong but gentle with people is an ‘ethos’ that comes from within a person or group of persons.

Christ challenged people’s dependence on external resources for community work. On two occasions he sent his disciples out into various villages to do community work. On the first occasion Christ sent his disciples out into the community, he forbade them to take any money at all. According to Christ money was not essential for community work. Money was a merely a note promising to share a certain amount of commodities or services. What mattered to Christ was, not that his disciples carried a note that held the promise of help, but that his disciples actually helped the people they met out of their own internal resources. On the second occasion Christ sent his disciples out into the community, he allowed them to take a little money – but not much. According to Christ money was never a primary source, only a secondary resource. External resources like money could be helpful as a secondary resource for community work. But, if external resources ever became a substitute for internal resources, and money became a primary, rather than secondary, consideration, then Christ warned us, that money would not only destroy our work, but also our community. After all, ‘the love of money is the source of evil.’ (1 Timothy 6:10)

On both the occasions Christ sent his disciples out to do community work, he didn’t send them out in big numbers, and he didn’t expect them to get big numbers involved. It was less a mass movement – more a micro movement. He didn’t send his disciples out in their hundreds, or thousands. But in twos. And he didn’t expect them get hundreds, or thousands involved. But one here, and one there. As far as Christ was concerned, two meeting one, and forming a group of three, was a big enough crowd to begin to overthrow the order of the day. For Christ a ‘trinity’ was not so much a theological abstraction as it was a theological strategy for developing true comm.-unity in society. A group of three could create within themselves the stability and security necessary for any development. ‘A cord of three strands is not easily broken’. (Ecclesiastes 4:12) A group of three could create within themselves the subjectivity and objectivity necessary for community development. ‘Let every matter be decided on the basis of two or three witnesses’. (Matthew 18:16) And a group of three could create within themselves the time and space necessary for Christ-like community development. ‘Wherever two or three of you gather in my name’, Christ said, ‘there am I in the midst of you’. (Matthew 18:20) According to Christ, a small, apparently insignificant group of just three people can actually have all the internal resources they need to create a significant movement in society towards community.

Most attempts to bring about change in society haven’t come unstuck because the groups involved lacked the funds or the numbers. Most came unstuck because of power struggles that caused the groups to self-destruct. The people involved lacked the power to change themselves, let alone their society. Hence, Christ taught that the most important single issue in bringing about change, was for groups to discover the power to be able to manage their affairs in a way that gave everyone a fair go. An ‘ethos’ that enabled them to transcend their selfishness, resolve their conflicts and deal with their issues in a way that did justice to everybody involved. Without that strong but gentle power, Christ said, we should not even try to start working for change, lest we end up destroying the world that we are trying to create. (Luke 24:49) However, with that strong but gentle power, Christ said, nothing on earth can stop us from building a better world – neither lack of funds; nor lack of numbers; nothing. (Matthew 17:20) So when Christ sent his disciples out to build a better world, he imparted to them, what he called, ‘the power of the Spirit’. (John 20:21–22) This Spirit was ‘not a spirit of timidity, but of power, characterised by discipline of self, and compassion for others’. (2 Timothy 1:7) So, as they opened themselves to this Spirit, it produced in them the strong but gentle power to control themselves, and to love others as they loved themselves.

There are two ways of understanding power. Traditionally our dominant notion of power has been defined as the ability to control other people. The dominant notion of power emphasises the possibility of bringing about change through coercion – an approach that tries to make others change according to our agendas. While the traditional dominant notion of power means taking control of our lives by taking control of others, Jesus advocated a radical alternative to the dominant notion of power – taking control of our lives, not by taking control of others, but by taking control of ourselves. This alternative emphasises bringing change by conversion – an approach that does not try to make others change, but tries to change ourselves, individually and collectively, in the light of a glorious agenda for justice. It breaks the control that others have over us and liberates us from our desire to control others. The dominant notion of power is popular because it often brings quick, dramatic results. But the dominant approach to power is characterised by short-term gains for some, and long-term losses for everyone else. Every violent revolution there has ever been, has sooner or later – betrayed the people in whose name it fought its bloody war of liberation. The alternative notion of power is unpopular because it is usually a slow, unspectacular process. But the alternative approach to power is the only way for groups to transcend their selfishness, resolve their conflicts, and manage their affairs in a way that does justice to everyone.

Self-management is de­scribed as the ‘fruit of the Spirit’. (Galatians 5:22) The capacity to manage ourselves develops quite unobtrusively – indeed, as quietly as fruit growing on a tree. The capacity to manage ourselves may develop unobtrusively, but is far more significant than we might ordinarily imagine. Like a tiny seed, so small we can scarcely see it, that seems like it could never amount to anything great, the ‘power of the Spirit’ seems embarrassingly insignificant to begin with, yet grows into a capacity that is of tremendous significance in the end. (Matthew 13:31–32) The capacity to control our own lives does not develop without opposition, but like a plant growing in the midst of weeds, ‘the power of the Spirit’ grows strong in an environment that could easily destroy it. (Matthew 13:24–30) How the seeds of transformation, that bear the ‘fruit of the Spirit’, grow in a community is a mystery. (Mark 4:26–29) However, it is no secret that the seeds that bear the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ will not grow if those whose lives constitute those seeds, do not bury ourselves in our community. ‘Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it produces nothing, but if it dies it will produce much fruit, that brings much life to others.’ (John 12:24)

When Ange and I started to get involved in West End, we began, as a couple, by trying to find at least one other person whom we could link up with, so the three of us, as a group, could have within ourselves, the personal and relational resources that we needed in order to work towards developing community in our locality. As it turned out we found not one person, but two, a couple who had moved into the area with the intention of getting involved in developing community in the locality themselves. We had no external resources, only our internal resources – our time, energy, knowledge, skills and love – and the hope that we might be able to find a way of developing a Christ-like life in the community; a lifestyle characterised by the radical, nonviolent, sacrificial compassion of Christ; distinguished by commitment to love and to justice; working from the bottom up to empower people, particularly the marginalised and disadvantaged; so as to enable them to realise their potential, as men and women, made in the image of God; through self-directed, other-orientated intentional community processes and structures. It sounds like a grand vision. But it was more a passion than a vision. Because we didn’t have a clue what to do.

We met regularly for prayer. Praying God would fill us with the strong but gentle ‘power of the Spirit’, so we could respond to the plight of the people around us appropriately. Slowly but surely, the dream of the West End ‘Waiters Union’ began to emerge, and as we discussed it with others a few friends gathered round in the hope that together we could make this dream come true. We decided to call ourselves the West End ‘Waiters Union’ because we wanted to be ‘waiters’ in West End. We didn’t want set agendas for people. We just wanted to be available, like ‘waiters’, to take people’s orders, and to do what we could do, to help them. We particularly wanted to help to develop a sense of hospitality in the locality, so that all people, especially people who are usually displaced in areas like ours, could really begin to feel at home in the community.

There’s never been many people in the Waiters Union. We started with two households fifteen years ago; there aren’t more than twenty households associated with us now. The Waiters Union is not a high profile group. As ‘waiters’, we try to keep a low profile in the area. None of the activities that we are involved in carry our name. They all carry the names of the groups that organise those activities – which we contribute to – but we do not control. As a result, a lot of people in our area may know us well as people, but may not even know that the group we are part of exists. Which is fine, because the group exists to promote the community, not the group; and the group can function more effectively as a catalyst in the community if it is prepared to be more or less invisible, rather than attract attention to itself at the expense of other groups. However, we are not secretive. We welcome enquiries and answer questions as freely and as fully as we can. And we are inclusive. We invite anyone who is interested in our work, to with work us, alongside of us, as partners in the work together.

All the work we do is self-directed and other-orientated. Each person has the right to shape every group that they are a part of. Being part of a group depends on participation. A person becomes a part of a group, not by jumping through any hoops, but simply by participating in the group. Once a person is a part of the group, they have the right to manage the group they are a part of. We believe people should have the right to shape all the decisions that impact on their lives. And we believe the best way for us to shape the decisions that impact on our lives, individually and collectively, is through the process of consensus. So all the groups nominate rotating facilitators for their meetings so as to ‘be careful to do what’, the good book says, ‘is right in the eyes of everybody.’ (Romans 12:17) As the groups work from the bottom up, to empower people, particularly people who are marginalised and disadvantaged, we particularly include people who are usually marginalised and disadvantaged in the decision making process of the groups. So all the groups actually work with the people that they work for, and, in so doing, seek to enable the people they work with, as partners, to realize their enormous potential as men and women made in the image of God.

Through one group, we seek to promote the aspirations of the original inhabitants of our neighbourhood, for whom Musgrave Park – in the middle of the neighbourhood – is still ‘sacred ground’. Through another group, we seek to support refugees by sponsoring their settlement and the settlement of their families, working through the anguish they go through as ‘strangers in a strange land’. Last, but not least – though they are often considered ‘last’, and treated as ‘least’ by the powers that be – through a whole range of groups, we seek to relate to the people in our community, who are physically, intellectually, and emotionally disabled – not as ‘clients’, nor as ‘consumers’, still less as ‘users’ – but as ‘our friends’!

None of the things we are doing seem that great. However, we constantly encourage one another to remember that true greatness is not in doing big things, but in doing little things with a lot of love over the long haul. And that – after all – is what the practice of compassion is all about.

Suggestion for Reflection and Action

Find a friend in your community you can talk to and share with them what you have been reading. Over a cup of tea have a chat and try to answer as many of the following questions as you can…

  1. What is the difference between internal and external sources of power?
  2. What are the predominant kinds of external power we usually rely on?
  3. What are the problems associated with reliance upon external power?
  4. What is the kind of internal power that Jesus says we should rely on?
  5. What are the principles linked to the practice of the power of the Spirit?
  6. What do you think it means to have power within us? Give examples.
  7. What does it mean to have power with rather than power over people?
  8. How can we encourage people to change without trying to control them
  9. How can we encourage people to take control of their own lives?

Excerpts from Dave Andrews’ Out And Out: Way-Out Community Work Melbourne: Mosaic, 2012

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