We are living in times of rapid and discontinuous change.
That is a statement that I live with, a view of the world that is regularly presented in the global conversation about re-imagining church and rebuilding community in western cultures.
But sometimes, in a context of socioeconomic deprivation, it can feel like that describes another world – a world where people have too many choices, too many resources; a self-indulgent privileged world. And so the conversations are accused of reflecting a very narrow group within society; of ignoring the reality of life for those locked-in to poverty.
We need to recognise that rapid and discontinuous change is as true in contexts of socioeconomic deprivation as it is anywhere else. And we need to recognise that such contexts require a different response to contexts of steady and continuous change. In contexts of steady and continuous change, the primary thing people need to know defaults to being content-driven – “this is how the world is” – and the secondary thing people need to know is the fixed, largely non-transferable skills to live in that world – “this is what you need to do, and this is how to do it.” But in a context of rapid and discontinuous change, the primary thing people need to know is skills-driven - and flexible, highly-transferable skills at that – equipping them to navigate territory that is not only uncharted but shifting all the time. Trying to keep up with rapidly and discontinuously changing content is merely overwhelming; teaching fixed, non-transferable skills that are immediately outdated is, ironically, disempowering.
Here is an example of rapid and discontinuous change in the context of north Liverpool, highlighted in a recent edition of the BBCs current-affairs programme Panorama. Alder Hey, the largest and busiest children’s hospital in western Europe, is seeing a massive drain on resources as a result of having to address entirely preventable childhood conditions, such as extreme tooth decay, an obesity epidemic, deafness through glue-ear aggravated (not caused) by parental smoking, and alcohol abuse. This change is rapid – and gaining momentum all the time. And it is discontinuous: for generations, the general health of the population has slowly improved; developments in medicine have effectively addressed many of the illnesses responsible for childhood mortality; life-expectancy has increased; and now, for the first time ever, and in a very short timescale, we are facing the very real likelihood of a generation of adults who will routinely die before their parents.
The frustration for medics is that these conditions are entirely preventable, and that the need to address them draws heavily on resources that could be spent on better addressing unpreventable conditions.
Panorama followed several children over several months. In almost every case, the parents denied that their actions – e.g. the possibility that they might be over-feeding their children; the effect of their smoking – were in any way responsible for their child’s condition. In fact, there was point-blank refusal to accept any responsibility. In many cases, responsibility was shifted ‘out there’ or onto the child – “I am a good parent, but I can’t be with my child 24 hours a day, and I have no control over what happens when I am not with them...” No, I can’t be with my child 24/7, but I can equip them to navigate the world in which they live, not least by instilling self-discipline, or I can fail to do so.
What was interesting to watch was that the doctors, and the journalists, were encouraging parents to do what Jesus calls repent and believe, or, recognise that a particular aspect of how you live your life is not working – does not result in life in its fullness – and identify and make the necessary changes to live life better.
That is, the situation they found themselves in with their children at the hospital was presented to them as a ‘kairos’ opportunity, an event which interrupts their world and causes time to stand still. In response, they were encouraged to repent: to observe the situation; to reflect on why this had come about; to be open to the input of others, in discussion that informs our own lack of understanding. And then to believe differently: to put in place a plan for change; to identify the accountability structure that would support them to live out their plan; and to act out their new understanding of life. These are flexible, highly-transferable skills.
What was encouraging was to see some parents respond positively to this. One father, shown how his smoking impacted his son’s hearing, decided to stop smoking. Obviously this is no easy matter, demonstrating the necessity of putting in place accountability (I know no communities that hold one another so accountable as those I know going through AA or NA).
What was discouraging was to see parents so blinded that they could not respond. One father claimed that there was no proof that his smoking had anything to do with his son’s hearing loss, and maintained instead that doctors along with the government have simply decided to mount a vendetta against smokers.