And who is my neighbour?

Nick Spencer, July 2003

Lifestyle Issues imageFive years ago my neighbour died 15 feet away from me. I learnt of his death only two days later when I saw a young woman clearing out his flat. He had suffered a massive heart attack and died on the phone to the ambulance. I hadn’t known his name. Two front doors, one hallway and million miles had separated us.

This example of modern anonymity was both tragic and extreme but hardly exceptional. An ever greater number of us don’t know our neighbours. Community is a word on many lips but on rather fewer streets. Politicians realise this and talk about ‘social capital’ with almost as much commitment as they do ‘financial capital’. [1] But we are mistaken if we believe that policies will solve the problem. The real problem lies with us, or more precisely, with our conviction that we have a right to travel where, when and how we like.

Always on the move

As a nation we travel over three times further today than we did in 1952. The average person makes over a thousand journeys per year, totalling nearly 7,000 miles, 2,000 more than in 1975. This is forecast to double again in the next 25 years. We travel further to work, to school, to shop, and to visit friends than ever before. [2]

Nor is it simply our day-to-day travelling that has risen. As a nation we flew 35 times more domestic miles in 1998 than we did in 1952. In 2000, British airports processed twice as many passengers as they did ten years earlier. We move house more frequently than we used to, with the equivalent of nearly half the British population moving in the 1990s. By 2001 there were nearly 1.5 million housing transactions per year. [3] We have become a nation always on the move.

This has had many positive effects. It has advanced economic growth, broadened horizons, tackled racism and xenophobia, and enabled many people to achieve their potential in a way which would have been impossible in earlier, immobile communities. The age of Alf Garnett – the deeply rooted, deeply racist anti-hero of BBC’s Till Death do us Part – is largely over.

There are signs, however, that these benefits are slowly being outweighed by the negative social impact of our ‘hypermobility’. The further we travel to shop and work, the less economic glue there is to hold local communities together. The more we travel by car and the less by foot and bicycle, the less local interaction we enjoy, which has much the same effect. The popular image of ‘Mrs Smith’ spending a morning shopping with her neighbour and chatting to the butcher, baker, grocer and other respected local shopkeepers may owe something to romantic myth-making, but there is no doubt that retailing, despite the best efforts of modern shopping malls, has become a far more impersonal procedure.

Hypermobility also fosters crime: while it has nothing to do with why people commit offences, it has everything to do with how they do. In an anonymous, fluid, local environment, casual car crime and house burglary is much easier. Householders naturally fight back by fortifying their homes and local councils do the same by building more gated developments and using surveillance equipment wherever they can. The result, however, is usually a siege mentality in which all public space is regarded as vaguely threatening. Installing 200 security cameras in your local town centre to cover your every move may make you feel safer but it shouldn’t be necessary in a civilised society. Rather ironically, the other, cheaper response to crime – the local neighbourhood watch scheme – simply imitates the natural behaviour of traditional, immobile communities.

A hypermobile community also tends to be a socially polarised one. Amenities and facilities are targeted at those who have their own transport and this usually excludes people in lower income groups. Those who are too old, young, poor, or ill to drive can become second class citizens, with a restricted choice of jobs, amenities and shops.

Children suffer most under in a hypermobile society. Although road accidents involving under-16s are far lower today than they were, say, in the 1920s ( when there was very little traffic and a nationwide 20mph speed limit) , the real reason for this is not that the roads are safer but that children simply don’t play outside anything like as much as they used to. In a hypermobile society of the last resort, children are unable to walk to school (because it is too far away), unable to walk to local shops (because there aren’t any), unable to play in the local park (because of ‘stranger danger’), and unable to play outside (because there are too many cars).

Our hypermobility does not exist in a vacuum, of course, and all these social impacts need to be read alongside those of trends in family breakdown, home entertainment and work-life integration, to name but a few. Nevertheless, the fundamental truth remains that the more mobile we are, the harder it is to sink meaningful, local roots and the easier it is to ignore our neighbour.

Roots in the Bible

In one respect this is a wholly modern problem. The Bible has no concept of the frequent, short-scale, highly individualised journeys which make up our day-to-day lives. Biblical mobility tended to be on a much larger scale.

And yet, on closer inspection, we can see that scripture shows great sensitivity to the tension between roots and mobility. In one sense, the entire biblical story is about that tension, from God’s first words to Abraham to ‘leave your country’, through the settlement of Canaan, Israel’s subsequent eviction, the ensuing exile and its inconclusive aftermath, to the Son of Man who had ‘nowhere to lay his head’, Paul’s missionary journeys and newly planted churches, and the final descent of the New Jerusalem, the city symbolising God’s future for mankind.

Near the start of its life, Israel was called to sink roots in the promised land but also told by God that ‘the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.’ [4] The Israelites were leaseholders and not freeholders, called to a rootedness which maintained the dependent mindset of mobility. In a similar way, Paul’s task was to turn the ‘mobile’ idea of being ‘in Christ’ wherever one was, into the reality of building genuine, life-changing fellowship which involved generosity, hospitality and morality.

Christians today cannot escape the fact that Jesus’ call may uproot them in the same way it did with many of the early disciples. But if that call does not come, our task is to build communities of sound relationships in which we can act as salt and light to the world. That was the call of God to Israel in Canaan and of Paul to the congregations he planted across the eastern Mediterranean. It is our call today and one which asks of us some awkward questions.

Where do we go from here?

A call for renewed rootedness should not be interpreted as a rallying cry for the status quo. At no time in the Bible is rootedness an end in itself. As countless societies, not least ancient Israel, have shown, rootedness can breed indolence, intolerance and corruption, just as easily as hypermobility can breed isolation and selfishness. Our call is to engage with place in a meaningful way, rather than simply to remain where we are.

The result of this is that there can be no simple, single approach to be embraced by each and every Christian. Someone’s commitment to their locality will necessarily depend to their circumstances as well as the nature of that locality, and it is neither right nor reasonable to impose a one size fits all measure on different people. What the biblical approach to rootedness can do, however, is ask uncomfortable questions of us.

W hat is our reason for moving to or living in a certain area? How long do we intend to remain there? How close are we to relatives and friends and how well do we know our neighbours? Could we help either if we were called to do so? Would the impact on our relationships of moving area outweigh the benefits to ourselves?

Do we favour the local community for our retailing and leisure activities? Does our working life impose on us a schizophrenic existence which isolates home from work and if so what can be done about it? How far are we involved or even interested in local community affairs?

These questions can be tough and often reveal our hypocrisy (at least they did with this author). Yet we need to recognise that responsibility lies ultimately with individuals and even though the small decisions one makes in one’s day-to-day life may seem insignificant, change must start somewhere.

Individuals will behave differently at different stages in their lives and it is absurd to assume a single twenty-something, a young family and a post-family couple will have the same needs from and attachment to a place. Nevertheless, it is good sense for any individual to know his or her neighbours, use the local amenities and retailers and take an interest in local affairs, as much for their own benefit as for their community. The more one favours local retailers, particularly those with unique stores whose livelihoods depend on their trade, the more likely one’s locality is to maintain its character. Even more basically, it is much easier to knock on a nearby door for a favour than drive twenty minutes for one.

Similar questions can be asked of churches. What role in the community does the church play? Does it offer space and opportunity for activities and interaction outside Sundays? Does it have any affiliation with local charities, amenities, schools, hospitals, or other organisations?

Is the congregation stable enough to minister effectively? Are relationships strong enough to offer a form of long-term security? Is the church able to act in any way as a nexus for those interested in exploring local facilities and opportunities?

In a society which is increasingly atomised and rootless, churches can play a unique role as community nexuses. Their very presence is often a powerful symbol of continuity within a changing landscape and their community life can remain one of the few social focal points within an area. More to the point, it is doubtful whether it is possible to have a successful ministry or a commitment to evangelism and social reform without a sense of location. This is not to suggest that the ecclesiastical structures are all perfect and have no need for reform but rather the individual’s attachment to place, if filtered and focused through his or her church, can provide a unique and reliable source of community in a fluid, anonymous society.

The way forward

Community is one of those rare win-win words. Everyone approves of it because everyone benefits from it. It is lauded by people of widely varying creeds and beliefs and fits exactly with the biblical picture of God’s purpose for mankind.

Just because it is beneficial, however, it does not mean it is always easy. Healthy relationships demand sacrifices, which although right are often challenging. The massive rise in mobility over the last fifty years is partly a reflection of a society which is wealthy enough to feel that it no longer needs to make any sacrifices. If the immediate locality does not provide suitable occupations, amenities, friends, or opportunities for personal development, we can just go elsewhere.

The resulting sense of liberation is overpowering and it is very easy to see why governments are reluctant to tackle the issue of hypermobility. Yet, the mounting evidence which suggests that hypermobility and the loss of a sense of place are socially destructive make it incumbent on individuals, organisations and governments to examine their attitude to and use of rootedness and mobility carefully.

This need not be the unrelentingly painful task it is sometimes portrayed as being. It will involve sacrifices. But the possible return – a safe, friendly, welcoming, locally-distinct, and supportive community – far outweighs the costs.

Nick Spencer’s booklet ‘Where do we go from here?: A Biblical Perspective on Roots and Mobility in Britain today’ is available from the booklet section of our website.

Suggestions for individuals

”  Favour local retailers over out of town supermarkets and shopping malls

”  Frequent local cafés, pubs and restaurants rather than always travelling to eat and drink

”  Wherever possible walk rather than drive around your locality

”  Smile at strangers on your street and say hello to them!

”  Use your local library to find out what clubs and societies there are in your local area

”  Take local newspapers and read town hall and local council briefings

”  Vote in local elections and participate in local campaigns and events

”  Form or join a neighbourhood watch scheme

”  Grasp the nettle and invite neighbours to a BBQ or drinks party!

Suggestions for churches

”  Have a regularly updated directory of members and ask the whole congregation to contribute to it

”  Include details about professional status and other useful abilities of church members who are happy to be contacted and to offer help to congregation members in need – become a weekday community as well as a Sunday one!

”  Organise area, cell or house groups on a geographical basis and encourage them to think and pray about their immediate locality

”  Encourage area, cell or house groups to take on a local project or cause, such as street cleaning or car washing, once a term or year

”  Join with other local churches in area to put on local celebrations… ‘Christians together in…’

”  Contact local estate agents and arrange to greet new people – churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike – to the area with a welcome basket

Try to avoid…

”  Moving house at the drop of a corporate relocation policy

”  Getting in the car every time you want to travel anywhere

”  A long, life-dissecting commute

”  Prioritising salary over friends and family in plans to move

[1]Social capital’ is not easily defined and comes in a variety of terms such as ‘social energy’, ‘civic virtue’ and ‘community networks.’ It is generally accepted to mean ‘networks, norms, and trust that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives.’

[2]Transport Trends 2001 , Office for National Statistics (London : The Stationery Office, 2001)

[3]ibid.

[4]Leviticus 25.23

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Category: News and Reviews

July, 2003

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