Who we are becoming will determine how we are able or unable to deal with the crises in Europe.
In Europe, for over a decade, we’ve been dealing with multiple crises from the Greek debt-crisis to the Syrian refugee crisis to the global COVID pandemic and its aftermath. And more recently the Russian war in Ukraine has led to an energy crisis and a cost-of-living crisis.
We are also having to deal with the intractable challenges of the global climate crisis that in the long-term will multiply and magnify other crises. Prolonged periods of uncertainty usually lead to more social unrest and protest.
In 1959, during the Cold War, US President John F. Kennedy said: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters - one represents danger and the other represents opportunity”.
While Kennedy’s interpretation of the Chinese characters may not have been correct, there is still some wisdom in the basic point that crises do offer opportunities both at the individual and societal level for change and growth.
Life for many of us happens at multiple locations. Where we live, where we work and where our extended families live are not the same places. Some even drive for an hour on Sunday morning to attend a church service with fellow Christians who’ve similarly driven a long distance to be at church.
For more and more people international air travel has become normalised. Being rooted in one place for a long period of time, even intergenerationally might seem like a novel idea, something the Romantics would want for everyone, but from a practical standpoint is no longer possible.
Having the freedom to move and relocate has come to represent success and accomplishment.
But I want to challenge this normalised acceptance of modern rootlessness and make a case for why being rooted in a place matters, both for our well-being and for our Christian discipleship.
During times of crisis, the negative in the news gets amplified, making many of us feel overwhelmed by the needs and challenges people are facing in faraway places, despite the fact that we have limited agency to effect real changes in distant places.
Social media makes us feel attached and detached to people and places in rather strange ways. We seem to have virtual solidarity with victims of an earthquake or hurricane somewhere else, which is not inherently a negative thing, but lack actual solidarity with the people living on our own street.
It is much easier to post on Instagram or Facebook about floods in South America than it is to come to the aid of an elderly neighbour having mobility problems and feeling trapped at home.
I am not against caring for people in faraway places or against travel per se. Rootedness is not the same thing as being confined or trapped in a place and having a parochial mindset. It is possible to be rooted in a place and still have a cosmopolitan and global outlook on life.
American author and environmental activist, Wendell Berry, best exemplifies this idea of being a “placed person”1. For Berry, rootedness is about being athome in a particular place; it is more an attitude than about the activities we engage in.
Taking action to make a difference matters, but it begins with how we understand ourselves and our identity in relation to a place.
Becoming rooted in a place draws us deeper into relationships with the people who are our neighbours, connects us with the spiritual and materials needs in our area, and makes us have a greater appreciation for the flora and fauna of the area where we live.
So, instead of complaining that there is a lot of rubbish on our streets, we join a local litter-picking club and put actions to our words. We make an effort to become more informed about and involved in helping small businesses in the area we live overcome the challenges they are facing. We join a community gardening project and give away the produce for free to the local food bank.
This kind of a lifestyle is the fruit of being rooted in one place for a long period of time and it is good news in the midst of the crises we are dealing with because it makes a real difference for the people we relate to in the places where we live.
Like so many people in the world I like using Apple gadgets like the iPhone and the MacBook Pro because they are good and, in many ways, better in comparison to similar products on the market.
A core market proposition from Apple is that they offer us speed. The new M2 Chip on the MacBook Pro is over 10% faster than the older M1 Chip. What is new has to be faster for it to be good.
The performances of athletes are judged by how fast they can run, swim or cycle, because winning the gold medal is about speed. And over the past two centuries, travel times have decreased dramatically.
In the eighteenth century crossing the Atlantic Ocean from London to New York took several months but now with planes like the Concorde this can be accomplished in a matter of hours. Imagining the speed at which things happen is a dizzying experience.
So speed, which is a good thing in some aspects of life, has increasingly come to tyrannise the way we think and act in the world. There is a drivenness to our existence, and our self-worth is tied to getting and showing results for the time and money investments we make.
But why have we come to assign such extraordinary value to speed and at what cost? What are the consequences we have to face because speed is the rule and ruler of our lives?
Why have we made life about getting to a desired destination as quickly as possible, and not about the process or journey of getting there. What do we lose in the process when this happens?
Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, in his book ‘Three Mile an Hour God’ (1979) explains that humans can walk about three miles an hour and that God travels through time slowly because he is love. He is not in a rush to get anywhere.
Koyama believed that Jesus Christ dislikes ‘speedism’ and it is the devil that seeks speedy solutions2. So, if we want to connect with God and with people and make a difference in the world, then we have to slow down and become more patient.
Patience and not speed is the fruit of the Spirit. We cannot grow and nurture deep relationships without investing quality time. These relationships of depth and quality with people where we live do make a difference in the world.
Times of crisis call for and sometimes force us to reset our relationship to time. Slowing down is a radical lifestyle choice.
In 2016, post-truth was chosen as the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. It has come to be generally accepted that there are multiple and conflicting notions of truth, and nobody's truth ought to be imposed on anybody else.
Anyone claiming to know the truth that is true for everyone has to be a misguided and arrogant person. Such claims have no place in our post-truth world.
But the freedoms we enjoy in a democratic society are based on the cultural foundations that citizens have a moral obligation to be truthful in their interpersonal relationships, and falsehood and lies will inevitably destroy the social fabric of any community.
There are real life consequences when we forsake speaking and living the truth.
The truth gives us the basis for contending that some things in our world are terrible and others things are good. It enforces a distinction between things.
We need this conviction to keep doing the right thing, even when it is costly, and not become compromised during dark times of struggle and hardship.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the later period of his life after he was arrested and sent to prison for conspiracy to overthrow the Third Reich, in an unfinished essay ‘What Does it Mean to Tell the Truth?’ grapples with questions about truthfulness and speaking the truth. He wrote:
“The truthfulness of our words that we owe to God must take on concrete form in the world. Our word should be truthful not in principle but concretely. A truthfulness that is not concrete is not truthful at all before God.”3
For Bonhoeffer being truthful is about honouring the concrete demands of human relationships. It is about using words to express what is real as it is real in God. What this means practically is that we don’t simply go along with the first time we hear about something or someone.
Becoming a truthful person moves us in a different direction, away from the block-headed fundamentalist, religious or otherwise, who wants to shout their ‘truth’ more loudly than anyone else.
This growth in truthfulness certainly doesn’t happen on Instagram or Facebook, that is the place we escape to when we don’t want to engage people in real life.
We grow in truthfulness through being in relationships with people who are different from us, learning to look for and listen to counter-perspectives.
We become open and willing to examine and seek correction for our own distorted understandings of truth, while remaining convinced that Jesus Christ, God’s Word in history, is the truth. In this way we can become micro counter-revolutions against the falsehoods of our age.
To conclude, lifestyle choices cannot simply be about what we are saying no to, it cannot just be a quantitative matter.
So instead of owning two cars we now own only one car. We need wisdom appropriate for our circumstances and station in life. It has to include what we are saying yes to.
Who we are becoming will determine how we are able or unable to deal with the crises in Europe. Wise living begins with taking small steps and doing one or two things a bit differently.
Philip Powell, Co-director, Justice Centre, UK. He is also the Theology and Network Engagement Manager (UK) with Tearfund, having previously worked for eight years at the Cambridge-based Christian think tank Jubilee Centre.
Vista is an online journal offering research-based information about mission in Europe. Founded in 2010, each themed edition covers a variety of perspectives on crucial issues for mission. Download the latest edition or read individual articles here. This article first appeared in the march 2023 edition of Vista Journal.
1. Wallace Stegner, “Wendell Berry, a Placed Person” in The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, ed. Mark T. Mitchell & Nathan Schlutter, (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2011), pg. 1 - 6
2. Benjamin Aldous, The God Who Walks Slowly: Reflections on Mission with Kosuke Koyama (London: SCM Press, 2022), pg. 45
3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “What Does it Mean to Tell the Truth?” in The Bonhoeffer Reader ed. Clifford J. Green & Micahel P. DeJonge (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), pg. 750 – 755