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