One of the good things in life is getting to know someone, and one of the bad things is anonymity; this can indeed have certain advantages, but these are few. Generally, anonymity is the root of much evil and suffering. Someone commits a crime cloaked in anonymity. Not only is the criminal anonymous, but his victim is anonymous to him also. Even if he knows his victim, before he commits his crime he depersonalises him or her, to make his evil act easier – and even justifiable in his own eyes.
Because we usually love our personhood, if we see something of ourselves in others we are not likely to do them harm. All evil acts against people come about because the evil-doer feels some degree of separation from their victim. If the victim is anonymous to the criminal, and the criminal is unknown to society and can vanish into a faceless crowd, a crime is more likely to be committed than if everyone were known.
In small societies, crime is almost unknown. In rural villages there is hardly any trouble with the law. This is because everybody knows everybody else, and everything that is going on. If we go to live in a tiny village, as town-dwellers we might resent the way in which all kinds of personal questions are asked the moment we arrive. But this is part of life in a small community. It is interlocking, and its survival depends on an intimacy which is absent in city life. Of course, life in the country may not be perfect, but on the whole, a local youth is unlikely to attack and rob one of his neighbours, because he knows the other person, as everybody else in the village knows both of them.
It is said that most murders are committed in the home, which is where we might expect people to know each other well. But people do not always know each other as they should. The first thing that is said when a marriage fails is that one’s wife or husband doesn’t understand one, and the sense of individuality begins to break down. Then, hard words or violence or, in extreme cases, even murder, may become a perverted form of defence of a person’s individuality.
In modern life, it’s easy to be overcome by loss of identity. This may happen in a crowd. It’s something that doesn’t bother us much in our churches, where small is beautiful, and we all get to know each other pretty quickly. Even in a strange church we are made aware that God (another word here, if you wish!) knows each of us individually. But “out there”, no matter how caring society thinks itself, there is often an awful anonymity.
The village store is usually a safe place, because everybody who walks through the door is known. But in a city, all shops have to have CCTV. I remember being in a city shop, looking for stationery. I took a long time to decide what I wanted, and the store security man, dressed alarmingly like a policeman from a rogue state, with scary tattoos all down his arms, walked up and down behind me. (This was before body art became obligatorio to half the population.) He didn’t know me, so he was waiting to bag me. I was happy to disappoint him. Of course, the police have to deal with people who are well-known to them as criminals. But those people are criminals because they think they can get away with it and vanish into the anonymity of the crowd.
People who live like prisoners in their homes because of old age or infirmity often feel that nobody knows them, and nobody cares. We all need a relationship with at least one other person, to feel our personhood. If we are able to help just one person in this way, we shall be doing God’s work.
The name of God, Yahweh, has its roots in being. When Moses asks to whom he is speaking, he is told: “I AM. Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” Time and again we read in the Bible of God calling individuals – who become greater afterwards. Abraham, the wanderer; Moses, the shepherd, David, the country lad, the boy Samuel – these and many others become giants after they are called by God. Look at any great movement. It always starts with a personality, and it needs other personalities to kick it along successfully – witness Christianity. Organisations help, but it’s through individuals that progress starts.
This is what I believe is meant by the saying that God created “man” in his own image – not that God contains the master plan for arms, legs, noses and long white beards, but that personhood is central to life, and its development is what we should strive for.