Citizens or Consumers

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” (quote from David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life).

Before coming to work at MECS I used to work as a Bible Translation Advisor in the Solomon Islands. One of the benefits of living in that other culture is that it gave me and my family eyes to see Australian society from a completely different perspective, to take a peek at the worldview of our society. To realise, if you like, that we are all swimming in ‘water’ in the fishbowl that is Australia. The question that I am now asking is, “Is the water changing?”

I hope you had a chance last week to read my letter about finances at MECS, including comments on how we are tackling fee relief for families in financial stress. I said that our approach is grounded in the idea that families enrolled at MECS are members of a community not merely consumers of an educational product. I believe that living in and through the COVID-19 crisis is giving us a new experience to understand this more than ever. In a sense we are living in another culture (for a short time only we hope) and gaining an opportunity to adjust our worldview.

At the beginning of the lockdown period we saw widespread behaviours that revealed the intensely individualistic consumerist nature of our society. The hyper-consumption of toilet paper and crowds at Bondi beach are a couple of examples. In a recent podcast called Rebuilders, by Mark Sayers of Red Church, Mark observed that our governments are calling us to behave like citizens rather than consumers. A citizen is willing to give up rights for the good of their nation, whereas a consumer just wants to get what they believe is owed to them. In many ways we had forgotten how to be citizens, thinking that the nation exists for me, rather than realising that we all exist for each other. In fact, this is what the Gospel of Jesus calls us to, to humble ourselves and serve one another.

Will the ‘water’ of Australian society change permanently? Australian author Minnie Darke reflected last weekend, “… before this crisis we were doing too much and consuming too much. We had too many options, were striving too hard, pedalling so fast the whole world was a blur…. But we are about to enter an in-between space in which we will need to reinvent our lives…. it remains to be seen whether or not we will take its lessons of simplicity and moderation into the strange new world we are about to enter.” I must confess that I’m pessimistic about that for society as a whole. But at least in our MECS community we have new lived experience that will help us discern the consumerism of stuff and experiences that surrounds us. And we have a lived experience that helps us all understand afresh that while we have to pay school fees to make it possible to operate the school, we are not merely consumers buying private education, we are ‘citizens’ of MECS.