Think global, act local

London, N7
02/02/2014  •  1162 words

Listening to: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major by Ludwig van Beethoven

“Think global, act local.” Write a post connecting a global issue to a personal one.

We’re quite good at turning global issues into local actions. There is a global waste of energy, so we turn the lights off when we leave a room. There is a global waste of water, so we have half-flush toilets and don’t leave the taps running for longer than we need to. There is a global shortage of common decency, so we do our bit by holding the door open for others.

We know that our actions have objectively insignificant effects. Thames Water, for example, leaked 664 million litres of water every day in 2011-2012. That’s enough to provide water to almost 4.5 million people. If I were to leave the tap running while I brush my teeth, it would be only a drop in the ocean.

But we do act locally. Our actions may be relatively insignificant when compared to national- or international-scale issues, but they define our character and give shape to how we see our place in the world. You can tell a lot about a person from their attitudes towards running water. Does someone say, “they’re wasteful in a big way so I’ll be wasteful in a small way?” Or do they say, “they might waste what they’re responsible for, but I’ll conserve what I’m responsible for?”

I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing recently because at church we’ve been spending some time thinking about how our God is too small. (God, I should clarify, is anything but small; it’s our our view of him that atrophied.)

There is no bigger global issue than that of God and the world. There is no more significant local issue than our interaction with God, which shapes our interaction with the world. (This is the essence of Christian theology: to know God and act accordingly.)

We discussed two themes to illustrate the difference between little-God and big-God.

1. God is the God of the “secular” as well as the “sacred.”

We tend to think of God as being all about church services and silly outfits and halos and plainsong. It’s one of the great mysteries of church history that Christianity became so strongly and lastingly associated with such things. The Bible writers, for all their insistence on marking certain occasions, were stridently opposed to ritual as a form of religious expression. The rituals were instituted as reminders of greater and deeper truths, to be embodied in the whole of life.

Somewhere down the line, the two got muddled up. People began to think that God was primarily interested in religious occasions and was not particularly fussed about what went on the rest of the time. They misunderstood the purpose of the festivals: they did not exist to please God but to teach man. They were not one-off special occasions for super-spirituality, but reminders of what should be normative for every other day of the year.

The Old Testament prophets spent a significant portion of their time railing against exactly this misunderstanding. So Amos quotes God:

I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.

Hate… despise… away! It’s strong and angry. But God never trashes bad behaviour without showing what is good and right, so he immediately continues:

But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

A common misunderstanding when reading these verses is to see them as direct alternatives: either festivals or justice. But God’s purpose is not to make us choose. The message is not to jettison fellowship altogether, but to understand its purpose. Justice and righteousness are the goal, so you’ve missed the point of the festivals if you focus only on them.

All this is to say that the “sacred” things of the world are a means to an end as far as God is concerned. They teach us, help us, encourage us, build us up, so that we live better every day of every week of every month of every year of our lives.

The stuff about who God is and who we are is a global question – the global question. The stuff about how we act in response is a local question – the local question.

2. God is the God of justice as well as justification.

I read the Pilgrim’s Progress the other day. It’s believed to be the second highest selling book of all time, behind the Bible. Bunyan’s book is an allegory of the Christian life, and is rightly a classic. But it’s hugely lacking.

Bunyan (a 17th Century Puritan) wrote almost exclusively about salvation from sins, about justification. The pilgrim Christian seems ‘pushed’ away from the fear of hell far more than he is ‘pulled’ towards the life everlasting with his Lord and Saviour. He endures hardship admirably, but you can’t say that his character was transformed outside the paradigm of his personal salvation.

The Bible speaks of people who know God as those who feed the hungry, tend to the sick, clothe the naked, pray for those who persecute them. Bunyan’s Christian has no concern for his neighbour beyond urging them to flee the fires of hell.

Just and righteous behaviour are hard to put into practice. The temptation is to focus on the holy-sounding stuff about church and the Bible and God and so on. The tragedy is that God is unremittingly and unavoidably concerned with the poor and needy, the weak and the vulnerable, the harassed and helpless, the lost – and church and the Bible are there to help us live well where we are now as much as to help us live well with him in eternity. By doing the former, we do the latter.

So, the ultimate global question has to do with who God is and who we are and how the two relate. The ultimate local question is how we live in the light of that.

There are seven billion people in the world and my part in it may well be insignificant to the other people, but I matter to God and he matters to me, so I try to live rightly. The more I read of the Bible the clearer it seems to me that God has a deep interest in the actions of my every-day existence.

Do I lie or tell truth? Do I steal or give? Do I hate or forgive? Am I a cheat or am I honest?

In other words, the global God wants local action.

The first challenge is to work out what that looks like for me. The second challenge is to do it.