Time to strengthen the frayed bonds of solidarity

Time to strengthen the frayed bonds of solidarity

Dec 02, 2017

By Anil Netto
In Acts chapter 2, a couple of verses are worth pondering over:44 And all who shared the faith owned everything in common;45 they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed.

In some circles, these couple of verses have led to heated ideological debates.

On the one hand, these verses point to a more egalitarian way of living — one of caring for one another and sharing with those in need.

But others argue that this arrangement was just to cater to the peculiar context of the time — famine, unemployment, political strife — saying it had limited praticality in the longer term — only surfacing in different forms among isolated smaller groups over the centuries, eg in monastic circles, Franciscan communities and other idealistic religious communities.

What we do know among the early post-Pentecost communities is that some in those communities sold property and possessions; others shared their food with one another in home churches. (An earlier Gospel example of this was the boy who offered his loaves and fish to Jesus to help feed the multitude).

Whatever the ideological debate underpinning that communal sharing, no one can deny that the early Christian communities in Jerusalem demonstrated a heightened sense of community solidarity and interconnectedness.

The rich and the well-off sold their assets from time to time with the proceeds then distributed to those in most need.

Remember, this took place at a time when the early Christians were on fire with the Holy Spirit after the first Pentecost. This suggests that this sharing of goods and possessions were among the first fruits of the Spirit — exemplifying the bonds of solidarity, interdependence and interconnectedness expected of the followers of Jesus.

For members of these communities, it was not a matter of engaging in temporary fellowship for an hour or two. It was real commitment: the community was the fellowship. It involved sharing, forgiving, loving, caring, bonding, showing hospitality to one another.

Now, if we were to extend this ideal of sharing and ensuring that all those in need are taken care of, we would need to uphold the values of solidarity and interconnectedness right to the present moment throughout society.

Unfortunately, we live in a time when the prevailing economic system is driving people apart and making them more polarised. The bonds of community have frayed and society has become more and more individualistic. It is the survival of the fittest.

The neoliberal economic ideology is driving this trend. Subsidies and budgets for essential services like education and healthcare are being cut. Instead of genuinely affordable housing being built on public land, such land is being sold to private developers, who earn lucrative profits from building high-end condominiums and bungalows.

Instead of the rich paying taxes at a higher rate in a progressive taxation system, the burden of taxation has been shifted to the poor through consumption taxes like the GST.

Our urban communities are divided based on their ability to pay. If you are rich, you can afford to send your children to private schools, which are better equipped and maintained. Otherwise, you send your children to government schools or partially funded schools.

If you fall sick, the rich have the option of going to private hospitals, while the government hospitals are crowded with patients from the lower-income group.

As for housing, chances are many have to resort to high-density, high-rise ‘affordable housing’ which is not really affordable to many. The rich find themselves cloistered in gated communities in the countryside or nestled next to parks or forests or by a lake.

So, not only are the invisible bonds of solidarity being wrenched, communities are being torn apart physically — in separate schools, hospitals and housing areas — based on their ability to pay.

Perhaps one of the huge problems is that many leaders (and not just political leaders) and decision-makers themselves do not experience what it is like for the poor and the marginalised.

The former tend to live in gated communities, visit private hospitals, and send their children to private or international schools. Their personal income tax rates have been gradually lowered over the years — so of course they would support consumption taxes like the GST, which shift the burden of tax across the population irrespective of the people’s ability to pay.

Maybe, if we really want our government schools, public hospitals, affordable housing and public transport to improve, leaders and decision-makers should make it a point to use these publicly-funded or initiated options rather than private or exclusive facilities. Then they will see and understand first-hand the suffering and the problems faced by the many in the use of such public facilities.These leaders and decision-makers should try living within the minimum wage of RM1,000 to see whether it is realistic in the face of the rising cost of living.

At least, they would then be in a position to voice out the concerns of the majority in the country or do something about all these areas — unlike the long-suffering silent majority.

As long as the rich and the less well off live separate lives, the former will not be able to empathise with the suffering of the lower-income groups and community solidarity will continue to be eroded. On the other hand, if they experience what it is like to use public schools, government hospitals, public transport, and affordable housing — and do something about it (without raising costs), then we could go a long way towards strengthening the bonds of solidarity in society.

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