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In Whose Company

Tom compares his ‘Christian Thomas mindset’ with his ‘Contemporary Thomas mindset’. The first recognises that we are all connected, that all is ‘ours’, whilst the second is an illusion that says, ‘this is mine.’. In this paper, Tom accepts both mindsets and argues that our ‘radical communion, our common humanity’ leads to a re-ordering of our affairs as we move from illusion to reality.


In Whose Company


While trying to prepare a homily on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord , a few weeks ago , I tried to be honest with the question: why was he baptised at all? So I found myself wondering what John’s baptism must have felt like, what was really going on?

John had a sharpened, desert like, sense of pending catastrophe. He saw the issues starkly and urged people to declare themselves clearly. In that context his baptism was an initiation rite into a movement….. If the peace movement today had an initiation rite it would have the same feeling about it.. Like all such movements it started not in the centres of power but in the margins. And like any such movement which takes the living God for real, it insisted that any transformation of the public scene, or any confrontation with the public powers, pre-supposed a personal transformation, a metanoia, in the lives of its members… This personal transformation was not an instant magic, nor was it a merely spiritual re-orientation, it was as practical as all Jewish ethics were. What should we do? Don’t be violent. Be content with your income. Share your goods.

Jesus was baptised into that movement, to take over from John and personify the cause.

good news to new people, especially if that presupposes we have allowed it full scope in our own lives first.. The movement would do better with more disciples and fewer apostles.


Before we consider the matters we have met to consider, may I give a warning?

When Paul heard of the misbehaviour and divisions among the Corinthians, during their Eucharist he might have said: you’ve been given a command to love and recognise each other, but you are not keeping to it, you are naughty, you should feel guilty. What in fact he said was: don’t you see that you are (already and radically) one in Christ, how can you behave as if that were not the case?

The first approach is a moralistic one.. It sees our life as a collection of do’s and don’ts : it tends to tell us that if a thing is not felt to be wrong then it is undoubtedly O.K ; it sees the crucial issue as a matter of will and the main blockage in life is that we don’t try hard enough. This moralistic approach is very common among Christians today..

The second approach is to do with awareness. It seeks to clarify the truth in situations and to respond to that truth, It sees life as full of illusions, fantasies, and idolatries, and seeks to be attentive to and consolers of reality. It sees the main blockage in terms of illusion and unmindfulness. This approach is more Eastern and was common in European Christianity until recent centuries..

Our English word ‘conscience’ originally meant becoming conscious of reality and responding to it, rather than meaning our subjective catalogue of feelings of innocence and guilt.

Our meeting today is not about compounding our sense of guilt or heaping on more ‘oughts’ . It is about being attentive, aware, and conscious. It is about awakening our sleepy minds, of becoming mindful. It is about self –knowledge. What does it mean to be the person I am? And my tentative suggestion is that we come to self-knowledge better through awareness of our social realities than through too much introspective concern about ourselves. The Holy Spirit speaks to us, always through those who are ‘other’.. If I am well –to-do, through those who are not; if I am white ,through those who are black; if I am male, through those who are female; if I am educated ,through those who are not- And so on

Come out of the Land that is familiar and secure, into the land I will show you. Don’t merely greet and acknowledge those who reciprocate. When you give a party don’t give it for those who give in return.. To enjoy the kingdom, to be a child of God, is to be brother or sister not to those who are like you, but to those who are unlike you-(especially the dispossessed and those who are enemies to you). We are not in the movement to keep our ‘self’ intact! In fact, we’re not in it for ourselves at all, not because to be so is naughty, but because to be so is illusion and fantasy.

Some years ago Lord Caraddon found himself at Heathrow returning to Africa by the same flight as Kenneth Kaunda. Their flight was delayed, they had to spend the night at the hotel, and the two men dined together. Lord Caraddon noticed that Mr Kaunda did not eat meat and declined coffee. At breakfast he declined tea and coffee.

Once in the air he gently asked Kenneth about this, and at first met with a shy change of subject.. But eventually Kenneth told him that many years before he had found himself in the lowest ranks of his union organisation in Zambia, and found too that it was the first time in his life that he could afford to eat meat or fish. He realised that he must decide, quite clearly, why he was in the union. “I decided that I would not eat meat or fish, and would throw in tea and coffee for good measure, in order to remind myself three times a day that I am not in this business for myself” And there he was, now President of his country, still reminding himself three times a day…

Our world is very good at making us forgetful. We all need ways of reminding ourselves three times a day that we are not in this business for ourselves..


I was staying with a friend at a Buddhist centre in Dumfries-shire. We were queuing for a meal and overheard a couple of students just in front of us.. “…believe me, you’ll learn more about yourself and where your real dependency lies quicker that way than any other. Honest. Just take a pound note (now about a fiver) and go up to the first person you meet in the street and just hand it over “ Not an act of felt charity just a straight handing over. And the suggestion caught the fact that we grow in awareness far quicker by concrete action than by theorising. Real consciousness flows from action, however ambiguous, not the other way.

That little snippet of conversation set me pondering.. To what extent do I keep my self image intact by naming who I am in terms of what I handle and ‘own’? How much are my self images, our inner O.K ness, tied in with the clothes we wear, the type of car we have, the way we decorate our homes?

You may remember the tragic accounts of people entering concentration camps during the Second World War. They described how stage by stage their identity was destroyed. First their clothes were taken, then their hair shaved, and finally –the point at which many broke down completely- they had to watch as their name was finally erased from any list and a number was stamped on their arm.

We must not be too glib about poverty and detachment. At a very deep psychic level our possessions give expression to our personality, they are the symbols of our identity.

I remember Jock Dalrymple , (a priest in Edinburgh) telling me how cautious he was, in his ministry, of preaching practical issues of poverty, because the extent of people’s ability to strip life to essentials is measured by the inner resources they have to live by instead. So many of the people he was with had such a low self-image, and so few inner resources,,,,,,,

Indeed, the nakedness of the Garden, or the nakedness of the Cross, both pre-suppose a deep and mature identity with God.. Until that is matured in us, our many other identities must be given expression.

But, but, but……… all the pressures today, and they operate at very deep, not at all superficial, levels, are to make us so focus on the ‘having’ side of life that we are never at home to ourselves at all.. What should be convivial, relaxed, translucent means of communication between people, become ends in themselves, protective shields, emblazoned for all to admire.

I think it was Erich Fromm who pointed out that the really insidious character of this today is that possessions are made to dominate us by the same process that we are made to feel totally free. We can actually choose

between a pair of Levi jeans and Lois jeans, between frozen hot dogs, or frozen hamburgers, (but we haven’t ‘arrived’ if we choose neither)

Like all dominations in life they are dangerous until they’re named, until they are dragged out into the open and shown up as so much illusion and fantasy. We need a good, cheerful, convivial dose of consumer asceticism.

Perhaps in this whole question of learning to mature as free adults in Christ the plausible lie is the credit card and the cult of indebtedness. Both Jesus and Paul urged that we should seek to be in debt to no one, except the debt of love. And though it is true that our whole economic order is so based on indebtedness that no one can escape it, we can at least name it for what it is, and help one another not to be it’s, or anyone’s slaves….


I was being driven by two of my brethren, one day when we saw a little way ahead a scraggy looking hitch-hiker. By the time we reached him the conversation had defended itself fully against any possibility of our stopping-from ’you never know nowadays who you might pick up’ to ‘if he’s on the dole he should have enough….’

At first I was angry and pretty judgmental about my brethren, then was ashamed….Why had I said nothing? Why had I not asked to get out and walk too? And then, later ,why, when God has given my generation so many openings to assess the social implications of faith, our vows, yes, God’s very self, do I feel judgmental about a previous generation who did not have the same opportunities, but did see other things we have forgotten ?!

Then two weeks later I was driving another of my brethren, and he was no chicken. We saw an equally scraggy looking hiker ahead. I asked; “O.K if we stop for him?” Yes of course, that’s why we’ve got a car at all…” A spontaneous response showing how deeply he had made his own the central Christian intuition about ownership.

Our contemporary mindset is “What’s mine is mine; I earned it didn’t I –or at least it’s mine by right.” That is taken for granted in at least every level of society, as taken for granted as the air we breathe, the water we drink. and it makes legitimate all sorts of differentials in society which are equally taken for granted. It is also the real assumption that forces us to name as enemies anyone who threatens it. ( I have come to be very suspicious about the phrase: democratic freedoms… I hear it as a euphemism for : private rights and security.)

Over against our contemporary mindset is a quite different one, found in the Word of God, the earlier teachings of the Christian tradition, somewhat forgotten for about four centuries,(when our European faith went very private and ‘spiritual’) and now being recovered here and there in our Churches.. In brief, it goes like this:

God alone ‘owns’ in an absolute sense…… We as creatures only own in a qualified sense and only within the social whole in which we live…. God is the ultimate source of all we handle and provides them, through all the intricacies of social and economic structures, for the support and well being of everyone, and it is in that communal setting that we hold them in any personal way..Two quite different mindsets! And you can probably sense the implications straight away. For instance, when I give some money to Live Aid or Oxfam or Christian Aid or…what am I doing?

Contemporary Thomas says he is giving charity from what is his, out of that special ‘extras’ file marked ‘spending money for charities’.. I give out of largesse..

But the Christian Thomas says (even though he may not feel it so) that whatever he has in excess of his reasonable needs (and that’s a question indeed!) already belongs to those in need.. It is not largesse but justice.. I am handing over what already belongs there. I am not setting up communion with the poor (through my bounty); I am recognising and realising the communion which already exists.

Contemporary Thomas is not being selfish, and greedy, and naughty. He is living in illusion, in fantasy. His contemporary mindset is a lie, but he manages to live by it because he keeps his Christian mindset safely in the realm of ’ideas for romantics’. In this respect I wonder whether you’d go along with a thought that has come home to me recently; that Jesus based his movement preaching, not on brand new ideas, but rather very ancient ones; but whereas most people held those ideas as precious but unrealistic ideals, he insisted on them as a programme for action. That was why, surely , his preaching ‘spoke’ to people but at the same time touched the raw nerves of those who knew their security would collapse if they actually released those in debt , or in practice loved their enemies, or refused to collect and hoard things, or went two miles when one would do…………………

I suppose it is because we too live in a tradition of faith that we inherit a whole set of ideas which we keep in a box marked ‘nice and impressive ideas’. We don’t throw them away because they represent pious collective memories from the past, romantic ideals for past idealists, when life was easier and anyhow, for all we know, some dreamer may happen by even in our day who may be sufficiently unaware of the harsh necessities of real life to want to have another look in that box.

Every age must have been the same. And I guess that every age of renewal in our church’s life has been when bold and foolish people have seen through the fantasy. They have taken that box down from the attic of dreams, or up from the cellar of the subconscious, have placed it in the centre of the living room, re –labelled it: ‘programme for action’ and taken its contents, bit by bit, for real.

Our radical communion, our common humanity, and the re-ordering of our affairs in keeping with that, is just such a box full of ‘ideas’.. Life starts opening up on all sorts of unexpected fronts once we make a programme for life………… We move from illusion to reality.


Our common humanity under God, is peculiarly difficult for Europeans, especially us British, really to accept –other than as a nice idea. Our history since the Reformation has been marred not only by the break up into sovereign states, but by national sovereignty being legitimised, even made absolute, by denominational loyalties. We have used God to divide what God has put together!

But the reality of our life today is that we live in a very interconnected, interdependent village planet.

IT is a very helpful thing to wander round your house, and especially perhaps your larder, and spend a little time pondering the stories of ten items. How did they come to be ‘yours’? Where were they made? Who made them? What were they made out of? Where was the tin mined? Or the beans grown? Or the pepper? Where did the oranges come from? Or the coffee? What sort of work conditions for the women who made the transistor?

Each item has a story, of people... Each asks us questions. Immediate ones and far reaching ones…. Geographical, economic, political questions. And historical questions about how the whole modern system of trade grew up, and depended on the fact that people at the beginning of the production process would never benefit from the process in the way we, at the other end, benefit---

Make such an exercise a meditation; take all those people who provide you with life into your prayer. Few things will more quickly help one to feel that reality is not about glorious isolation, but about dependency, not about having things by right, but living in intricate systems of exchange and gift.

Our Christian faith speaks of our being One in Christ.. Like all Christian truths we only understand them aright if we see them already existing, if unrealised, in creation as a whole. That is , our Christian unity is a sacrament of that common humanity which longs to be recognised and lived but which so much modern political and economic language fights against..

If we endeavour to live by the truth we see, God will bring us to the truth we do not see. The one who lives by truth comes into the light. Truth will set you free.


  1. ‘You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich’ Saint Ambrose

  2. ‘The earth is common to all. It is useless for people to think themselves innocent who in fact arrogate to themselves alone what is a common gift from God, and who, remaining tight fisted with what they have received, walk about amid the carnage of their neighbours – it is useless because almost daily they destroy as many persons as are dying in poverty, whose subsistence they could supply with what they hold hidden away in their keeping. When we administer necessities to those in need, we give them what is their own, not what is ours; we pay a debt of justice, rather than do a work of mercy… Gregory the Great C 540–604

  3. Q. Is it legitimate for one to possess anything as one’s own? A. Human beings have two ways of handling material things. When looking after or administering them it is legitimate to handle them as one’s own, indeed it is necessary for human life. But when enjoying the benefits of material things, one ought to handle them not as one’s own but as communal, so as to communicate them to those in need Thomas Aquinas paraphrased

  4. Endeavour to do what nobody but you can do. Endeavour to want what everybody else can have as well. Distinguish yourself by what you are, not what you have Lanza Del Vasto

  5. When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist’ Dom Helder Camara

  6. ‘There is no one, and can never be anyone, who can claim exclusive entitlement to the fruit of his labours. A model of human behaviour is fundamentally false which starts with the solitary individual and tries to calculate his rights and entitlements over against the rest. That is to put myth in the place of reality. Whatever else may have to be said about the pursuit of happiness, this one thing must be said: that happiness for the self pursued apart from the happiness of all is a mirage, the pursuit of which can only lead into the wasteland. Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand, which mysteriously overruled human activity in such a way that the selfish pursuit of individual happiness would automatically lead to the welfare of all, must be accounted one of the most malignant of the idols, the no-gods, the vanities against which the Bible so consistently warns us. We have enough experience of the actual working of laissez faire capitalism to know that this is so’ Lesslie Newbiggin – Extracts from a Recent Article in Theology – The Welfare State; A Christian Perspective


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