Radical Mutuality

Palace of Westminster

I was surprised and delighted to be invited by Christian Aid to attend their dinner reception for Christian Aid week (at the House of Lords!). And it was a privilege to sit and listen to Dr Rowan William’s lecture after dinner. It was full of wisdom, rather too much to take in from one listen! It has, however, taken me a while to go back to the lecture to read and digest it further. The full text is on the Christian Aid website, and is well worth a read. In the meantime, these are my edited highlights.

In keeping with the Christian Aid Week theme, the title of the lecture was “Tackling Violence, Building Peace”. Bringing together global poverty and global conflict makes for a vast and complex subject. In the face of a title like this, it’s tempting to switch off and feel there’s nothing an individual can do. But Dr Williams addressed the subject in ways that were inspiring and relevant to individuals as well as to organisations.

The basic premise of the lecture was that our security is bound up in the security of those around us. Dr Williams explained that to feel secure, people need to “feel an adequate level of confidence that they are not at the mercy of unknown others or unseen events to the extent that they must give their best energies to self-protection and forestalling every imagined threat”. Where resources are scarce, or people feel it is difficult or impossible to have an impact on their situation, then they may feel they have nothing to lose by resorting to violence. If my neighbour is not secure, then my own security is compromised by the risks they may take in trying to improve their own situation.

All this means there needs to be a relationship of trust, trust between people, and trust in the systems in place to keep people safe. As Dr Williams put it:

“To be secure, I need to know that my neighbour shares with me both problems and solutions and that it is possible for us to identify these together; that there are dependable procedures for managing conflict or rivalry; that justice will be done to those who have violated the safety and well-being of others; that there is redress for injury and unfairness.  If none of these can be taken for granted, I will be more likely to be tempted to pre-emptive attacks on those I see as rivals, unofficial action to punish aggressors and so on; and the spiral of destruction continues to wind itself around our necks.”

None of this, however, is possible without a serious shift in the distribution of power. People feel helpless and hopeless about their circumstances if they do not have the capacity to make a difference because they have no voice or power. As Dr Williams stated, “Inequalities of power, in the form of radically unequal levels of access to decision-making, process of law, education and civic freedoms, are often described as forms of ‘structural’ violence.” To change this will involve “a shift towards a refusal to discuss and decide in the absence of the poor, a refusal to hold on to unexamined habits of patronage, keeping others dependent – ‘knowing better’.”

So while there is much here that concerns governments and other organisations, our security is still built on trust between people, between individuals, families and communities. Dr Williams suggested that the church as the body of Christ should be a model of what this community should look like. He used an amazing phrase which has stuck with me ever since, that the community of the church should be based on “radical mutuality”:

“this community is based on a complete and radical mutuality; there is no one who has nothing to give, no one who has nothing to receive, no one flourishes without all others flourishing, all are damaged when one is, all are equipped by the Spirit to be able to make some transforming gift to the life of the whole.”

I love this! What a description of who we should be! That the church could be a model of this, and radical mutuality be the way the whole of humanity relates to one another.


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