Monthly Archives: November 2011

Protest, Civil Disobedience and Ethical Capitalism. Sermon 19Nov11

During the various ‘Occupy’ demonstrations that have been going all over the place I’ve seen and been part of a number of discussions among Christians from all over the world.

Some people were arrested in America because they refused to leave the space they had occupied. Most of the American comments I was reading were quite harsh towards the protesters. Someone had described them as ‘innocent’ and this was refuted quite viciously: they couldn’t be innocent because they didn’t go when asked to do so. For me, that raised a very important question about obedience to authority.

If civil disobedience, in itself, rendered the participants ‘guilty’ merely by participating then presumably those authorities which confirm and support the ethics of such behaviour are also guilty. So who is going to stand up and condemn Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Not me guv.

In the reading we had today from Maccabees, Mattathias, the leader of the protest is initially quite calm. Stating that he, and his followers were both unwilling and unable to comply with a request made by the state which actively conflicted with Jewish Law. That, if it had stayed at that – would have been civil disobedience. But it didn’t stay at that, they lost their tempers and lost the plot. Their protest became a riot, and then a war, which in fact they won in the short term. In the longer term, Greek culture and Roman military might took over and eventually the temple was destroyed and the people dispersed. Not really a good outcome!

What civil disobedience and peaceful protest have the potential to achieve is a victory of a more lasting nature. A change in the context in which we think. That often seems to be what Jesus is trying to get us to do. And in our Gospel reading he gave us the authority to stand up and do it.

So, what are the Occupy people protesting about? Difficult that, because it’s not the positive actions of particular people so much as the values of our society. They’re not asking so much for particular actions as for a change in the way we all think so as to produce a society which has less imbalance between the rich and powerful, and the poor and powerless. Reading and hearing about the protests, I have come to the conclusion that they are talking about the Kingdom of God.

Throughout the Old Testament, God, in his laws and through his prophets talks about the wrongs of: using false measures to cheat the poor, failure to support ‘widows and orphans’, the lack of defence of the oppressed. Overall, the most noticeable quality about the purposes of God’s law is that there should be compassion for the powerless, relief for the poor.

But the people were shocked when Jesus quoted Isaiah for them as we hear in Luke:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
They were shocked because he made it real – it’s happening now!
That passage was a reference to part of the Law which was generally ignored. That at stated intervals all debts were to be cancelled, slaves to be set free, and land which had been sold to pay debts was to be given back. That is the nature of the year of the Lord’s favour. If we had such a law now of course, it would cause financial mayhem. Nobody would be able to borrow money at all since the financiers wouldn’t be prepared to just write it off when that day came round.

Thinking about how that sort of understanding of the law and how it could relate to business today led me think of what could perhaps come from the occupy protests – something which might perhaps be called ‘ethical capitalism’. Now, I’m an accountant so it’s probably not that surprising that I’m a capitalist – I own two houses and part of my income is from rent. So, undeniably I’m a capitalist. Does that make me, automatically. an evil person? I hope not. Capitalism is simply a way of using money which distinguishes between income, for spending on living today, and investment in some future benefit. What is evil is Greed.

We see an early example of Capitalism in the story of Joseph and Pharoah’s dream – Joseph tells Pharoah to invest in the future – put aside from today’s crops what will be needed when times are bad. That’s not evil, it’s wise. What would have been evil would have been if individuals had done precisely the same, not from concern for the people but so that they could charge famine prices for the food they had saved – that would have been Greed, and indeed taking advantage of the powerless in order to satisfy greed. Exactly the sort of thing God has always spoken out against.

Ethical capitalism was quite a big thing in the 19th century. Some big names that we still know in industry were part of that movement – and very successful businesses they were too! Quaker businesses like Cadbury and Quaker Oats proved that it is possible to do business ethically. Why have we, as a society, forgotten it?

Capitalism is about investing in the future, and a good example of how it can be done properly is Robert Owen who is often considered a pre-curser to Socialism. He’d have been horrified. He was a capitalist through and through. What he did was extend to his workforce the thinking that any business man would apply to his factory. The machinery needs to be maintained and Owen would have had equipment and staff to maintain it. Time would be allowed for when the machinery had to be switched off to permit maintenance activities. Extend that thinking to people and it isn’t hard to recognise that, when you see the workforce as a resource then that resource needs maintenance – equipment, resources, time-out. All part of God’s Law of course – when God instituted the Sabbath it was very clearly stated that it applied to the servants and even slaves too – even if they weren’t themselves Jewish. So Robert Owen provided housing, health care, and education for the people who worked for him and indeed for his future workforce, their children. All sound capitalism – invest in the future!

So getting back to the Occupy protests – they’re not asking for any change in legislation but for a change in attitude. Years ago I read an excellent essay by George Orwell – the same man who wrote Animal Farm. We often think of him as being a communist but in fact the communists disliked him. Similarly, the communists disliked Dickens and the essay I read explained why. Dickens didn’t agitate for a different government, let alone a different style of how government is organised, he simply asked for a world where we all treat each other with a little more kindness than we do. Orwell pointed out that that is something that can’t be legislated for. You can legislate against cruelty – if it can be proven – but you can’t legislate for kindness, thoughtfulness or consideration. As soon as you try it becomes like our benefit system, full of oppressive requirements of compliance with rules and regulations and somehow deeply lacking in kindness, or compassion.

And so, the occupy protests aren’t particularly asking for legislation, though I’m sure they would welcome the introduction of what is being called a ‘Robin Hood’ tax of a minute percentage on purely financial transactions. What they are asking for is a change of attitude. For a little more kindness and compassion in the way we organise our world. That, for me, is clearly a request, indeed a longing, that we should step a little closer to the Kingdom of God.

And so, coming back to our readings, we can protest, as Mattathias started to do in the beginning of our reading from the first book of Maccabees but we should not let that turn into riot, let alone war which was where Mattathias went wrong. Jesus was very clear that that was not the way to bring in the Kingdom of God. But we should under the authority Jesus delegated to all his disciples, stand up for ethical behaviour, for the fair and compassionate treatment of the poor, and the powerless.

I shall finish by quoting from the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, no not the one who recently resigned but a previous one, John Donne, Dean of that great institution in 1621. When he wrote this he was speaking of the need to recognise that we cannot have heaven on earth while there is a single man, woman or child who is living in hell on earth:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
(Meditation VII, John Donne, Dean of St Pauls Cathedral. 1621)
From Wikisources)

Lord, we ask of thee – may your Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
Amen

Adolescence

What is it?  Clearly it’s a psychological state of being, but it appears to be triggered off by a hormonal change.  What seems to happen is that the young person, as they start to emerge into adulthood, oscillates between two states: that of wanting to be a small child:  cocooned, loved and protected, and wanting to be an adult: respected for their opinions, views and contribution.

Clearly, when someone oscillates between two opposite positions, those around them can never get it right.  This generates a feeling of tension between the generations, fury quite often in the adolescent, irritation in the parent.

What I am wondering now, is that the general state of annoyance which can arise in this situation is in fact an important part of the young person’s emergence into adulthood creating an energy necessary for breaking the cocoon as the caterpillar emerges to become a butterfly.  What the young person needs to do is to break their own bonds of emotional dependency.  While some parents may hang on to that dependency, trying to stop their young from growing up it can probably be assumed that most parents, most of the time, do in fact want their children to grow, develop and take on independence – they just want the child to take on each bit of independence in a sensible order as they acquire the skills to manage it.  The emerging adult however doesn’t see it this way and wants to grab at independence as a series of shiny toys each of which offers a new and different excitement.  While at the same time retaining a sort of ‘safety blanket’ of parental care and support.

No wonder there is conflict!  A genuine conflict between generations but it is born of a genuine care by the parents who bemusedly try to keep track of the needs of their developing young.  But this conflict is largely the result of an internal conflict experienced by the adolescent as they try to break the ties of dependency which they themselves are hanging onto.

It may be that the only way to break the ties of emotional dependence is anger.  It is possible that the emerging adult needs to be angry with the parent in order to break those ties which the internal child is gripping so tightly.  The role for the parent then becomes that of emotional punchball.  Something for the adolescent to fight against which is less painful than fighting against their own internal child.  That is never going to be easy for the parent, but parenting has never been a painless experience, this is simply a new pain but one that has to be born.  Unable to fight back for fear of hurting the developing adult in their care, the parent needs some way to find comfort for their own needs.   Perhaps it is some comfort simply to hang on to the recognition that it is simply the child’s protective cocoon that the emerging adult is fighting.

Hopefully, in time, a new relationship will emerge, between adult parent and grown-up child.  A new kind of relationship.  Achieving it may require a time of separation – for which studies at a distant university provide an excellent excuse, as does a gap year of travel abroad (even if there is no thought of university education to follow).  But in this respect, these are only an excuse for a time of separation which both adolescent and parent need.  A time to re-configure the way they relate to one another. A time to re-learn what love for each other means when emotional dependence is not part of the pattern.  A time to grow, for the adolescent to complete their growth into adulthood and a time for the parent to grow out of the ‘parent-of-child’ pattern.  We all need to grow, and perhaps we don’t realise that children can stop their parents from growing just as much as parents can stop their children from doing so.

A prayer for growth:

Let each person grow and develop in their own way, receiving from God according to their own needs so that they can fulfil the pattern which God has made, individually for them, rather than trying to fulfil a pattern which they perceive, possible falsely, to be imposed upon them by their human environment.

God’s feminine side

6:12 Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. 6:13 She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. 6:14 One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. 6:15 To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding, and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, 6:16 because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.

There’s masses of stuff worth commenting on in these readings today. The connection between them all is Jesus’ return at the end of time but, although commentary says that that is what the book of Wisdom is ultimately about, it’s not much mentioned in this particular reading. Then there’s the connection between Wisdom from our first reading and the wisdom enjoined upon us by the example of the wise virgins in the parable – which boils down to something every Scout knows – ‘Be Prepared’. Be prepared, in this instance by the forethought to carry spares of whatever materials are needed to enable us to serve.  In the deeper sense, and Jesus’ parables always have at least one layer of a deeper sense, be prepared for his return – you can’t cheat someone today with the intention of putting it right tomorrow – for supposing he comes tonight?

The Wisdom in the first reading is very different from this need for preparedness and it’s quite surprising. After all, we don’t often have readings from the Apocrypha, books which aren’t even included in some Bibles, so you might not have come across these verses before and they might seem quite odd to you. So that is where I’ve decided to put my focus today. The Book of Wisdom, talks about Wisdom as if she were a person, or even a deity. That seems extremely odd in a book of Jewish religious thought – which this book definitely is. Odd, both because the Jews were, as we are too, totally monotheistic, there is only ONE God. So where does this Wisdom come in? And then ‘she’? This in a culture where women were almost entirely without status. No woman could be a witness in a court of law, women couldn’t go about on their own and weren’t allowed to socialise in mixed company outside the family. All concepts of womanhood which Jesus noticeably refused to accept, including women among his close companions and giving Mary Magdalen the position of first witness to his resurrection.

Academics have given a lot of thought to this peculiarity of the book of Wisdom. Some have concluded that this personification of God’s Wisdom is a reference to Jesus – who hadn’t been born on earth at this point but then we often think of much earlier passages from Isaiah as references to Jesus so why not? But while I can see that we could conclude, that in a time when men were Macho and women submissive, Jesus could be seen to have some noticeable feminine qualities – but personally I really can’t quite cope with referring to Jesus as ‘she’. The other academic theory is that this is an early reference to what we now know as the ‘Holy Spirit’. That makes much more sense to me, God’s Wisdom, acting as our guide, our comforter. That the author of this book saw the Spirit as female is not so difficult. The Spirit is defined as without body so gender is not about physical qualities but about spiritual ones. And it’s certainly true that God has some very female qualities at times – qualities that definitely don’t fit with the ‘old man with a beard’ image that I received at Sunday School when I was a child.

There’s a passage in Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart…” That sounds like a mother speaking there. And then again, my favourite in Hosea: “When Israel was a child, I loved him…” He treated his child with loving kindness, teaching him all that he needed. And in Luke, in the parable of the lost coin .. Jesus compares God to a woman, who has lost a coin and searches everywhere until she finds it. These are all images of a God whose love for us has more in common with what we understand as ‘mothering’ than ‘fathering’.

If we purely think of God as ‘father’ then there is nothing wrong with that – it’s how we’ve always been taught to think in the past – but we may be missing something valuable. Because regardless of issues of gender, there is something in the passion of his love for us which is motherly. Nowadays, we recognise that men can have the same sort of love for a child as a mother does but we seem to be taking a long time to recognise that God’s love can be deeply motherly.

I found a quote that I’d like to share with you, when I went searching for what other people have said about God’s motherliness. This is an excerpt from someone else’s sermon on Hosea, but just this bit shows so beautifully what I mean, putting it better than I can: “During the winter of my fifth grade year, I came down with the flu. My memory is fuzzy, but I know that it started in the middle of the night, and instantly upon hearing the noises coming from my room, my mother was at my side. I remember the light being switched on, and my mom bringing a basin of water and a washcloth to freshen me up and cool me down. I remember her gentle touch on my feverish forehead.”

Then she compares that memory with how she thinks about God – ”If the touch of my mother’s hand on my forehead can be so soothing that I remember it these forty years later, how much more does the touch of the source of the universe have the power to heal our woes and hurts?” (from ‘Magdalene’s Musings )

So, going back to our reading today, and the feminine nature of Wisdom, which does appear to be referring to some sort of early, pre-Christian understanding of part of the Trinity – we can appreciate that God has an aspect which is really quite feminine in nature. We don’t have to go so far as referring to him as ‘she’ or as ‘Mother’ as some feminists and even a couple of recent Popes have done ; but we can appreciate the feminine qualities of a loving God who, male, female or without gender, gives us the passionately loving mothering which we need. So, particularly when we are hurting, when we are lonely, when we feel lost, when we feel small and vulnerable we can remember that God loves us with all the deep care, the attention and concern that a mother does and whether we call to think of God as him or as her, we can seek our God and be answered:

“Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her.” Amen

Footnotes:

 Matthew 25:1-13            The Parable of the Ten Virgins

[Jeremiah 1:5

Hosea 11:1-10

Luke 5:8

http://magdalenesmusings.blogspot.com/2010/08/your-mothers-touch-sermon-on-hosea-111.html

Popes John Paul I & John Paul II – http://www.traditioninaction.org/HotTopics/a009ht.htm