Is institutional loss of trust terminal?
Analysis shows that institutional trust is stronger in developing countries than in the Western world. Given trust is the oil that enables human interaction and wellbeing, from family life through social fabric and commerce, to nation building: is western civilisation now in terminal decline? What can individuals do about it?
The season of epiphany came to an end last week with a focus on the transfiguration, one of the few events in the life of Jesus important enough to be recorded in each of the three synoptic gospels. The season of epiphany celebrates the nature of God as revealed in Jesus. In turn, as life in its fulness reflects the nature of God, epiphany is also a celebration of what human life can be like when we reflect our true nature. On the mount of transfiguration the three disciples are challenged to delve into this truth when they hear a voice saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased: listen to him!” True listening is at the heart of trust.
To assist their understanding, two iconic figures stand beside Jesus, Moses and Elijah, the law giver and the prophet. The disciples are to understand these roles are not just emblematic of the life and ministry of Jesus, but they are windows into the nature of God and therefore the nature of life itself.
The law giver: Law requires submission, but to what are we to submit? Jesus’ summary of law is love; therefore we are to submit to love, not mindless rigidity. The law of love acts as the boundary keeper for a bountiful life. Freedom is all too frequently misunderstood as autonomy, the capacity to do as one pleases. Nothing could be further from the truth. Freedom is experienced when all is well in a world of multitudinal and criss-crossing relationships and responsibilities. Law exists to guide individuals and communities along this complex path. Law becomes the antithesis of its intended purpose when it occupies a pedestal requiring obeisance rather than being the towel carrier, wiping the feet of all. Trust can multiply and grow when law is a towel not a weapon.
It is tragic that in the western world, law and religion have become associated with oppression and control rather than liberation and freedom. Conservative or fundamentalist, Christians, Muslims and Jews equally turn what should be a gift into a burden. There are elements of sharia law that safeguard, but equally there are many that oppress and excuse violence. There are elements of Christian canon law with foundations in grace, but equally there are others that unapologetically put the institution first and are prejudicial towards those whose identity and gender do not match expected norms. There are elements of the sabbatical tradition that celebrate life and wellbeing, but equally there are others that are exclusivist, even racist. In these circumstances law is seen as the weapon which protects the powerful and entrenched.
Trust becomes possible when law (life principles) are honoured, and undermined when used as a weapon to protect the powerful and privileged. Biblical law prioritises the good of community,
only honouring individual rights in this higher context. The western world has moved far from this biblical principle. In our world individual rights are permitted to take precedence over common good. When law protects the powerful and privileged there can be no trust.
That law apparently permits governmental action while keeping secret the basis for that action is an abuse of power and undermines trust.
That law confirms that journalists can be raided when doing their job, if the truth is inconvenient to those in power , undermine democracy.
The Prophet: It is tragic that Christians as well as many in the wider community understand prophecy as predicting the future. This may well be an acceptable definition, but it is not the biblical understanding. Scripture understands the prophet to be the truth teller, often the one who holds a mirror to the face of a nation, its people, and its leadership. Truth telling can be very painful, for it is human nature to silence or disparage the truth teller rather than honestly respond to the truth being told.
The New Testament highlights prophecy above other ministries, and yet the modern Church appears reluctant to engage in this most significant task, often excusing itself on the basis that it should remain above politics. The utterances of Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and above all Jesus were highly political. Any intervention on behalf of the vulnerable, the downcast, under-privileged, is by its nature political
We now live in a world where inconvenient truth is often dismissed as fake. This phenomenon is not restricted to the US and its president. It is alive and well in Australia: unfortunately Australian politics is now riven by this spectacle. Because it is alive and well in the political world, it becomes acceptable in other spheres of civil society.
It is quite shameful that whistle-blowers receive little protection, indeed all too frequently they are made to bare the cost of their truth telling, rather than becoming catalysts for change and correction in the matter they have highlighted.
January 2020 has been the hottest ever recorded on the planet: Finland has experienced unprecedented above zero temperatures in its north, Antarctica has had several days that have reached 20 Celsius, Penrith was for a short time the hottest place on the planet, etc. We need no more evidence to confirm the plight we face, and have known we face for decades. Some of the feared predictions of science have now proven to be conservative. Yet a small minority of the Australian government has the power to prevent genuine action on climate policy. It is criminally outrageous.
Foundations for trust are slowly and methodically built. These foundations will withstand occasional mistakes and disruptions. But when greed, self-interest and love of power rather than service become culturally entrenched, then trust becomes a fatality and the essential pillars of a civil and progressive society are very hard to restore.
We are now at that point in Australia. Politics and politicians will not pull us out of this morass. But a strong and robust community can and will. Ironically the bushfires have shown the calibre of regional community life. Trust that is alive and well in local communities can reinfect similar values in national life. It is up to individual Australians to be what leadership in many institutions have failed to be, and show that self interest as ubiquitously demonstrated at the top, will not be tolerated.