13 September 2013
Me, myself and other people
Twelve years ago I was beginning my second year at sixth form college. I had duties to welcome new students on the first Tuesday of term, I returned home and switched on the TV. The second plane had just struck.
My sister and I watched, captivated by the atrocity. I called my dad at work because I thought he ought to know. The next day I went out and bought every newspaper, and then copies of Time and Newsweek. I recently found those newspapers in a box: a memorial to a disaster, and also to my fascination in our collective fascination.
This week Apple announced the next generation of iPhones, and American telecoms giant AT&T got in a bit of hot water for their social media strategy when they tweeted a photo of New York with beams of light replacing the Twin Towers, all captured through the latest phone – dubbed an "advermemorial". Outrage at using disaster to boost sales.
The attacks on New York and the Pentagon that September provoked a rush to war. A war widely supported by those on the right in the US and the centre-left in the UK, a war initiated by national self-interest but justified by liberal interventionism: we are all global citizens and borders should not be an excuse for us to shirk our responsibilities.
We live in an upside down world. Sometimes it seems as though our responsibility toward others only counts when it helps us too. The iPhone, that universal symbol of atomisation and individualism, is at its core a device for communicating with others. Social media can both draw us into relationship with others and also distract from them. We are more connected than ever to people, but sometimes we feel as though we have never been further apart.
When we talk about international development, about humanitarian assistance, about going to war, we talk about other people. As though they are somehow different to us. When we build a distinction between them and us we find ways to justify differences in attitude. We make people an object of convenience. When military intervention in Syria is discussed it's not clear whose benefit it is for. Is it to stop the killing in Syria, or discourage the use of chemical weapons which could potentially affect us?
When war is a response to what happens to us then it is seemingly obvious, swift and less contentious – an act of self-defence. When it is for the benefit of other people it is harder, more intractable, an act of intervention.
Our self-interest is too often our main motivating factor: maybe our response to 9/11 and our desire for the latest phone are not that far apart: ourselves and what we want defines what we do.
The problem is, other people aren't that easy to categorise, define and deal with. Other people are integral to our life, and contrary to what Jean Paul Sartre suggested when he wrote: "Hell is other people." Other people are often exactly what we need.
People different to us, those older, those younger; those wiser and those reckless.
If we try and go about our life on our own we get our priorities skewed. If we try to live out our faith on our own we run the risk of orienting it around ourselves. It is why we need the Church. We have to look outside of ourselves, we have to look to other people. We have to love as though they were ourselves.
If we refuse to do it alone, if we insist on walking with other people as we seek to grow closer in likeness to Christ, if we are generous in love, then church is less what we get from it, and more about what we, as a family are doing.
And maybe, as a family brought together in love of God, and love of the world He created, we can be a witness to the world that other people are not a burden of inconvenience but a blessing to celebrate.
Danny Webster is the parlliamentary officer for the Evangelical Alliance.