Posted by: rogermitchell | February 20, 2011

the deep structures of society

I used this phrase in the closing sentence of my last post, when the subject was land, and which suggested that there is no such a thing as private property. For some people visiting the blog this was disturbing, almost a step too far. It sounded like communism or something. Actually I’m not a communist, which of course the post makes clear. But the issue of private property is very, very basic to Western society. Whereas it seems to me that private property is really a form of theft, where a person receives something in trust but takes it for their own.

Issues like the relationship of people to land is exactly what I am referring to by the phrase “deep structures of society”. I want to dig much further into these depths, and in order to do so to connect back into the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet which was the subject of the post before last. These deep places really attract me, and I believe that we are intended to penetrate them and shake them loose without fear at this particular time. But it is difficult to do this unless we know, or are pretty certain that we know, that we are loved. Which is what makes John’s interpretation of the footwashing story so deeply relevant. According to John, Jesus did this to show that “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” It suggests that if we can tap into this love, then what might seem in hierarchical terms to be only ordinary, menial, manual daily activities have the capacity to shake the foundations of society and let love loose.

I aim to penetrate these deep places precisely because I am convinced that the deeper we go the more of this kind of love we will encounter. My obsession with Jesus is impelled by the lengths to which he went to penetrate the depths of the society of his day with undying love. I remain convinced that the level he reached has reinserted love in the bedrock of social and political life and that we can uncover and activate it. Far from causing chaos, which is what many fear when the multitude starts rising as in Egypt and across the middle East, but also in the UK Uncut demonstrations in Barclays banks yesterday [], if we can penetrate to the deep places where the cross of Christ has already taken Jesus, then love will erupt. This is what we need to be praying for.



  1. When I read the first chapter of this post I thought “Hee hee hee”, because I read “toying with some of the concepts of communism” into it as well, not that I had a problem with that at all. I looked it up and discovered that Christian Communism came before and independently of Karl Marx et al.

    I am not communist either but I am socialist, I started capitalist but as I have gotten older and seen some of the injustices and I have picked up some ideas that some may call socialist.

    Putting first the Kingdom and Its righteousness is certainly not capitalist, communist or nationalist. If our focus is on loving thy neighbour, this is NOT capitalist, is it socialism? I have no problem with a company earning a profit, however at what expense?

    People seem to use every trick in the book to be absolved from their guilt; “He put the needle in his arm I didn’t force him, I don’t see why I should have to pay to clean up the mess!” or “She knew what she was doing when she got involved…..” or “Why should I pay when they’re just lazy!”

    Weakness comes in different forms, help someone out of their weakness and you will be glad for it, cross the road like the Levites, Pharisees and Scribes and fail the 1st commandment. Of course you could always instead continue serving class status and Mammon.

    Is it a good idea to pray for riches when one of the greatest prophets in the Bible said “If you have two shirts, share one with someone who has none” Imagine trying to live like that and be wealthy in western terms? It would be a painful experience, like squeezing yourself through the eye of a needle. Thus fundamental Christianity (in my opinion) is incompatible with Capitalism as it is practiced.

  2. People say, businesses exist to make money. But they could exist so that people can earn a living and also provide valuable goods and services to society.

    Why are some people (don’t get it wrong – they are eminently replaceable) paid 10x or 25x that of other employees in the company, they don’t work 10x or 25x as hard. It’s so deep, that at times, they need to fire those other workers for the good of the company, and still end up with handsome bonuses. It happens ALL THE TIME. This is precious god fearing capitalism that people seem to be so proud of.

    These antics are NOT in concert with the message of John the Baptist. They are not in concert with the Book of James.

    • Amen to this Justin. It’s time for disciples of Jesus to be much more vocal and cross the crazy divide that attempts to keep us out of politics under cover of maintaining our support for the status quo or muzzling us. It is because Jesus wouldn’t go along with this that he was crucified, so this will of course get us into trouble like it did him.

  3. I was thinking about this while watching A history of Ancient Britain the other day as Neil Oliver was explaining how western European man moved from the mesolithic huntergathering mode into farming – from ‘living off’ into ‘possession’.

    We’ve also been influenced by John Locke, who came up with the idea that land not ‘used’ was wasted – the thought that has justified imperial expansion since the 17th century. This imperial mindset is deeply buried in our subconscious and needs exposure. Perhaps it is also partly that we are a small, now rather cramped island where historically, space has been at a premium?

    As the neolithic farmers began to possess land, Abraham was being called by God to move ‘out of his father’s land’ to a different place and way of living and then this was confirmed in the Law when it was given. God’s heart was always to be the source of supply for his kingdom.

    On a personal level today, I’m being challenged about sharing and giving which seems obvious but strongly demonstrates the presence of the kingdom in our society. I confess I’m not brilliant at modelling it and am only taking baby steps but feel it’s something in the right direction. I can think of many others I know who are much further down that road! But it’s important and I do want to pursue it.

  4. Secondly Roger it’s interesting you’ve used the word ‘bedrock’. While praying with some folk here the other day, someone mentioned they’d had a picture of bedrock being shattered by the hammering in of a huge wedge. The discussion that ensued was in the context of how our society is losing it’s Judeo-Christian basis and how we can prevent this.

    Our ‘deep structures of society’ were indeed penetrated by Jesus’ love and I agree that as we live out of that love, we can release the powerful forces (like lava) of that love around us. Even if society breaks down as we know it, I don’t believe it is possible to lose that love unless we consciously turn from it, so we need not fear after all. (We probably will be fearful but love conquers fear in the end.)

    Just a few thoughts buzzing around today.

    • While I agree that the deep structures of our society in the UK and the West were penetrated by the gospel, I think we need to be careful to qualify what we mean if we say that. Actually my concern to dig down to these deep places is in order to expose and shift constructs of law, monarchy and temple that were established in the name of Christianity but have always been the foundational structures of empire. It is these that we need to loosen and bring to the light of the incarnation where Jesus brought them to an end. It is the Christendom partnership, with its misrepresentation of church and gospel that rebuilt these structures of empire that Jesus came to abolish. The Holy Spirit, in my view, has been poured out over this last century specifically to bring them to an end once more.

  5. Structures can and do change.No matter how deep they they can be shaken and then overcome.Recent history in eastern Europe is a clear example of just how suddenly things can change.
    We have a bunch of Hungarians in our community who are a living testimony to that change.The change has not been perfect and in fact in some countries it is under threat ,but never the less the change looks like it is here to stay.
    The changes taking place in the Arab world are certainly challenging the deep places.Places that have been entrenched for generations but are now being shaken to the core.Military,religious and sectarian places are being shaken by young old and all in between, my prayer is that they dont replace the old boss with a new one with the same heart.
    In our own country UKuncut the Robin Hood tax movement and others are seeking to find ways to shake the structures that hold our country to ransom.This shaking needs to come from outside the current political structures as they are part of the problem with there allegiance to the status co.The people of God can and should lead the way in this,our God is creative and we bring that creativity to the table.Our willingness to serve and give is what the world and creation are crying out for at this time in history.Maybe thats what a real revival will look like if only we can stop thinking about just filling church building with bums on seats

  6. Roger:
    I love the language you use in this but on the other hand I sit in my room in a co-housing situation that has problems. So I’m reminded that somehow if we are going to get to the bedrock or deep structures then we also have to deal with real human beings. Human beings often have great intentions but they are also opportunistic, frequently cheat, can be deceitful and lazy. Those are good characteristics for mammals in the wild who have to conserve their energy from one hard won meal to the next. It even works pretty well in small-scale farming communities, who again, must conserve their energy to survive and prosper, which may also mean being in competition with others for resources. Jesus, of course, turns our competition for resources, on its head. We serve to conserve rather than compete (with all our tools of deceit, opportunism, and sometimes violence). Love and service appear to be easier when resources are abundant than when they are scarce but not always. Certainly people behave with greed in abundance (I want more, more, more Lord!) and with sacrificial love in scarcity.

    That means any structure of stewardship/ownership must take account of all these variations. My research on dense human settlements and resource management tells me that we generally make rules for living together. That way everyone knows the expectations for resource management – whether it is to keep the kitchen clean so others can use it or to keep the canals cleaned out so the mills run. And then we have to deal with those who cheat the rules for one reason or another. Sometimes cheating is considered legitmate – that is – someone can plead poverty or extenuating circumstances to avoid taxes or other costs to resource infrastructure management. And generally, in our culture we accept legitimate excuses. Others commit theft of resources, or deceive others about the quality of the resource. Generally societies come down hard on those behaviours. Not to do so means that the whole social arrangement falls apart and the bullies take control. Witness the lack of response in the USA to the bank crisis. The refusal of legistators and the justice department to pursue the obvious criminal activities of a few powerful bankers means that people understand the social agreement by which they thought they were living in accord with one another is broken.

    So whether one is a socialist, communist, communitarian, capitalist, or some variation the same questions have to be answered. Who has control of the resource (collectives, individuals, some sort of private/public partnership)? How is the resource/infrastructure to be maintained? Who makes what investments (taxes, loans etc)? What happens to cheaters? What social management techniques produce cooperation – directly or indirectly? And who had the authority to deal with cheaters and abusers of the resource and of the social systems that manage it? And then there is the question of scale of resource management. It is one thing to manage the water in a small town but who oversees the proper adminstration of the whole watershed – something vital to the continuing abundance of water in the small town? And what if the watershed crosses international boundaries? So geographical scale of ownership/rights/responsibilities impacts all. Often rights and responsibilities are nested one within another at various scales. It complicates things.

    The system I have spent several years researching in Piacenza had an interesting approach to the question of water as a resource. Water was used for everything from washing dishes, to drink for humans and animals, to energy to drive industry including grain mills. It was the essential resource. No one can go without for more than a day or so. In this city about 1000 years ago the Holy Roman Emperor began to give out concessions to the large monasteries to build canals. They had the institutional power and wealth to finance the work and did build a number of canals from the river through the countryside to the city. Then the comune rose up as its own organizational power in the 12th century and immediately took over the church owned canals as a way of managing the urban water system and that of the surrounding countryside (the systems were really the same and came from the same river). Small consorti of millers and others were set up to manage the canals. The people who were given water rights to use it for milling, agriculture, and industry were also required to do the maintenance as ordered by the city. So it evolved as a public/private partnership. I believe it worked (for about 1000 years though the social structure still stands for the rural canals) because the public admin was always larger and more powerful than any one private group with rights. The exception to this were the feudal nobles who owned agricultural canals. Eventually there was a showdown between them and the duke in 1585 which secured the water to the city and its industries. Cheaters and those who committed water theft were dealt with in the civil and criminal courts. So people who had rights also had responsibilities and could be ordered and coerced to fulfil those responsibilities by the public administration. It is a bit more complex than all of that but you get my drift. The system took account of human nature and worked well for a very long time.

    There are other alternative ownership/management systems. I mentioned community land trusts. This is where land is put into public ownership or into the ownership of a publically designated group/community to be administered. This can happen in the case of conservation lands or for housing. In the case of housing then generally the inhabitants get 99 year leases but never really individually own anything.

    There is also the model of co-housing. This ranges in scale from a few people owning a house together to neighbours sharing things between homes. In the USA there are co-housing developments, some with up to 300 homes. There one owns their home but has corporate rights and responsibilities. There are generally collective amenities like a community building and shared dininghall where members share tasks like making community meals. In the co-housing model generally there are a number of variations available depending on the form/type of housing (shared units, # of units, type of housing – apartment style, townhouse etc), the location, size/scale of organization etc. Each one is different from the other. Northern Europe from the Scandenavian (can’t spell that today) countries and especially the Netherlands has strong models for this. Check Vouban in Germany for other models.

    My own parents grew up in a similar model town in New Jersey USA in the 30’s. My grandfather was the mayor for 2 terms. This town was built by the government and people had long leases with collective ownership/responsibility. It became highly desirable housing despite the small size of the homes.

    I can get you more info if you like but I think that’s enough to digest for now.

    • Thanks for this enormously practical stuff Cheryl. I have two main further comments. The first is that I have with no beef with management processes, but believe that they need to be subordinated to loving corporate purposes in the way that they are framed, as well as being applied loosely and with mercy when they are ignored. The second is that I believe that the key role of the ecclesia/ kenarchic people is to take the flack, carry away the pressure resulting from the circumventing of good management practices. I am aware that there so often seems to be a tiny minority doing this, but remain convinced that Jesus died and the Holy Spirit is poured out to empower this, and resurrection is the sign it works. So our digging down to the bedrock is in the attempt to make sure that codes of practice are genuinely love based, but also needs to be accompanied by our own internal digging to our own bedrock to get more of the incarnation as fulfilled in the cross and resurrection working away in us by the Holy Spirit so that we can play our part in the change that is coming.

      • Roger:

        I agree that bedrock both collectively and individually needs to be love, and all the structures we build must build on that. We need to collectively sacrifice in love for future generations and for the well-being of the planet. We need to individually give/serve others around us. However, we also need to know and be wise about when it is time to walk away or leave a situation. Sometimes situations are resistant to change – we are not all called at any one point to hang on to the bitter end (usually our bitter end). So love has to be more than the doormat model. Jesus gave himself, willingly, but he also had words for folks who resisted the Kingdom and knew when disciples were not looking first to the Kingdom but to other things. I guess, from my own experience now with all of this, I am saying that love and truth go together – love based on dishonesty or denial doesn’t work and isn’t really love anyway. Truth spoken out of anger/rage/bitterness is also not good or effective. But we need to live with both in our hands if we are going to make any model work. After that gets settled the model we choose for management simply has to deal with our ecological and social contexts. c.

  7. resource management/repair is really the biggest issue for people – I know that is true in my own situation. We failed to really think about it ahead of time and that is a problem. So here is a great wee article that really makes clear all of what I just said above in a real-time co-housing situation:

    I think they came up with a great solution to a real problem.

  8. I had a dream a week ago in which a friend of mine (who represents right relationship/stewardship of the land) was in a wheat field. A large military transport plane flew into the field with harvesting equipment on its front. It began to harvest the wheat. As it turned towards my friend there was a sense of threat and he then retreated to the forest for safety.

    In reading the blog recently I felt this connected. The plane is ‘not of the land’ and I believe represents a ‘military corporate’ (militant corporate?) complex that swoops in on resources. I also see 3 types of engagement – the harvester/war plane as the imperial dominator of resources, the wheat field as typical intensive farming (capitalising/ism on the land) which is (mis-?)stewarding the land for the dominating system and then the forest which is the place of safety and right connection – one lives ‘on’ land, but ‘in’ a forest – a distinction for me that is about being baptised (relationally submerged) in the creation – the path of incarnation. (my friend actually lives in a forest).

    So for me the issue of public/private land (forest sell off has been mentioned) is indeed a key one as this really is a deep structure issue of land stewardship and relationship with the environment. I think we really have to get to grips with another way of living that subverts this vain imagination of ‘ownership’ where land is commodified and used to dominate and control rather than facilitate and release.

    Also the system that eats/steals resources is strong. This machine was disturbing. So while I think we must (!) find a new stewardship relationship with the land as represented by the forest, we must also subvert the military/corporate imperial system.

    In this light I am interested by the fact that food shortages and rations are a recurring theme of the recent and ongoing protest across many countries, as is the ‘plight’ of western corporate interests in these countries. As the West takes on the guise of ‘willing midwife in the wings’ to promote democracy, we must resist the yoking of this with trade dominance. (David Cameron’s current trade promotion tour is morphing into a democracy promotion tour – possibly a positive sign but could also subtly reinvest the dominance system)

    My last point is that I am personally starting a homeless allotment project where the city has given land for free for his to happen. This is a micro and local exploration of stewardship. The land is not mine, but I and others can steward it with and for the marginalised. There are cracks in the dominance system all over the place, and as Rog says, the deep love is indeed a deeper magic that can be connected to, growing up and through these cracks. Bring it on!

    PS Apologies for interpretive spewing above and thanks for letting me process on the blog:)

    • Please don’t apologise for this excellent spew. I particularly love the allotment piece at the end. I’ve got this growing idea for prayer allotmenting, which is one of the things I aim to promote now that my research is coming to an end.

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