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  • Mike and Helen

Lonely Planet?

This week we attended the inaugural memorial lecture* for the former Chief Rabbi, Lionel Sacks who died in 2020. It was given by his friend, Gordon Brown, former UK Prime Minister. Brown is the son of a Church of Scotland minister whose Christian faith is probably less well known than his reputation as an economic genius who was widely credited with a leading contribution to dragging the world out of recession when he was chairman of the G20 in 2009.

The two men were friends for many years, united by their interest in what both saw as ‘The Politics of Hope. The event programme quoted Sacks: ‘The good society is one that offers its members equal access to hope’.  Brown acknowledged 'Jonathan taught me the importance of civic society…’. The two leaders from two different faiths shared what sometimes sounded Utopian - the belief that hope is best nurtured in a country where we build a common inclusive home. A home for everyone, not a common hotel, not a common business contract but a home where a covenant is built on a set of beliefs and values shared between diverse people. Sacks’ daughter, Gila spoke of the Jewish word for faith as something which means faithful action, not necessarily belief only.

We were tempted to ask – is this sort of hope, a dream shared by two powerful white male leaders  – one of them dead and the other in his 70s just outdated pie in the sky? It is certainly a tall order!

But these two leaders ‘from the past’ are not the only ones concerned about building community. Since 2018 Britain has a Minister for Loneliness, appointed following a report from the Jo Cox commission on loneliness.

As recently as last Sunday,  Observer journalist, Kenan Malik wrote about our contemporary society as a place  where: ‘People are ‘seeking relief from the burden of selfhood’. They are ‘yearning for contact and intimacy with others, yet fearful of the pain of engagement’. And that fear may lead to hopeless detachment and isolation – and loneliness.

Malik reported a study of middle-aged people, published last week. It showed that the middle-aged in Britain were more likely to experience loneliness than in the other 12 European countries which figured in the research. The findings suggested that as members of the public become more disconnected and alienated, individuals focus on their own narrow concerns and tend toward narcissism. Communal bonds become eroded and society is fractured. Loneliness, so often framed as a personal problem (you need to get out more, join a club, society...etc.) seems to be a social and political problem as much as it may be a personal one.

Would we admit to experiencing loneliness ourselves? Now and again! For much of our lives we were fortunate enough to live and work an international educational institution now much reduced. Many of the good friends we made are scattered around the globe. Some we meet virtually but they are no longer part of our face-to-face community. Fewer chats over a cup of coffee. Sometimes we miss the sort of live connections which breed hope.

At Easter, Christians commemorate and celebrate the source of their hope in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The gospels describe him as both solitary and social at different times.  His life illustrates, to use Malik’s words, the ultimate ‘ pain of engagement’ with men and women of all kinds. His crucifixion after thirty-three years of life was the result of misunderstanding, hatred, and betrayal – and narrow-mindedness of all kinds.

The story of Easter is that, in the end, the pleasures and pains of wide engagement bring not only community, but life and meaning to individuals and groups. Communities sustain us. Shared life, hope and meaning is the only way to sustain community not just for Christians but for all people of good will. A lonely planet is a dangerous planet.



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Mar 29

Lovely photo of two very very impressive men. My own experience of faith (to which I came late in life) is that it comes as a profound relief. Make no mistake, Atheism and also Agnosticism, are the loneliest places in the universe. My prayers are for the future generations that they might find a faith - whichever it might be, and that they find the warmth and community that is consequent upon that discovery.

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