Myths, metaphors, mysteries and making it up: theology meets fiction

(This is another post which first appeared on The Way Station blog).

There is a saying which I’ve seen variously attributed to African, Amerind and Asian wise men, which goes “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true”.

A little while ago, I blogged on the back of a short story by Ursula le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (here’s a link if you’re interested), which is most definitely “made up”. On the other hand, through an entirely fictional place and people, it conveys a really important truth about how I, at least, feel about morality, and in particular the utilitarian concept that the individual should be sacrificed for the greater good. It rests on the concept that the entire happiness of an otherwise idyllic, utopian society is founded on them keeping a vulnerable innocent in appalling conditions, and never even speaking a kind word to the victim – and, on learning of this truth about their society, some elect to walk away, then or later, despite leaving also all the positives of their society.

Now, the blogger who reminded me of the story was using it as a metaphor (or, probably strictly speaking, an allegory, which is an extended and often more symbolic metaphor) for the church – and it made sense and conveyed, I think, a truth about the church. I used it as a metaphor for western society, and in particular the society of the UK in which I live. It doesn’t aspire to the category of myth – myths are the great stories, the archetypes of human interaction or of the identity of a people. The story within the story of Omelas is, for the society described, a myth (as are our British legends of King Arthur, a foundational myth) – Ms. leGuin writes science fiction and fantasy, so within the logic of the story, it might be true, and in that event it would be a true myth,  or it might be false, in which case it would still be a myth, but the happiness of Omelas would not actually necessarily depend on their continued cruelty. As it is clearly a foundational myth, though, tinkering with it might well produce unanticipated consequences even if there is no material causal link between the misery of the innocent and the wealth and happiness of the society, which is why I use the caveats “necessarily” and “material”. One such possibility lies in the works of Rene Girard; the innocent may be functioning as a scapegoat, and thereby actually contributing to the peace of the society through psychological rather than material mechanisms.

The thing about metaphor, allegory and myth is that ultimately it doesn’t matter whether “it happened this way”, the truth (or falsehood) of one of these literary figures is in how we apply it to situations in the real world – and it is then true to the extent that we are able to construct such an application.  A similar example is a joke – if I say “A rabbi, a priest and an imam walk into a bar”, you are not going to ask me where the bar was, or what an imam was doing in a bar anyway, or when this happened, far less whether it happened. Those are just not the point – the point is in the punchline (which is “and the barman says ‘this is a joke, isn’t it?’ “).

Similarly, when Jesus told parables, they were metaphors or allegories; it wasn’t important whether they happened that way (or at all), the message what in what you took from them. We are quite happy with the idea that Jesus made up these stories on the spot to illustrate a truth (or sometimes several truths) which were outside the stories themselves. Happily, even my most fundamentalist friends realise this.

However, when we are talking of events in the life of Jesus which are recounted in the gospels, the more conservative among us suddenly become very concerned about whether things happened this way – where the bar was, in other words – and it becomes very difficult to get beyond that.

There is a quite excellent book by John Dominic Crossan called “The Power of Parable – How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus”, which treats the narrative history of Jesus contained in the gospels as story, not asking whether it happened this way, but what lessons we can draw from those stories today. This just ignores the issue of “whether it happened like that” and looks at a selection of stories from the gospels purely on the basis of what these stories can tell us about the situations we are in now.

The trouble is, I suspect that my more conservative friends would really not be able to glean anything from it, because Crossan is taking as read the fact that the gospel writers were adjusting their stories in order to make their own points…

It rather recalls to me discussions on the old Compuserve Religion Forum, where a wide variety of people were posting, from absolutely fundamentalist Christians through very liberal ones to atheists, agnostics and followers of other religions – the objective there was to discuss the religion, not to proselytise or fellowship. There were permanent problems actually getting a viable conversation going between these viewpoints, as the fundamentalists permanently homes in on whether the Bible was an inerrant historical (and scientific) account. Where I found an avenue to better discussion was in saying “let’s set on one side whether it happened that way, leaving biblical criticism and theology for later, and discuss application – how does this account impact your life at the moment?”

That way, we could sometimes manage to avoid the issue on which the two sides were never going to agree, and have sensible discussions. Not infrequently, the result was that a biblical inerrantist and a non-supernaturalist materialist could actually agree on the meaning of a passage, and that ultimately it was the application which mattered to them.

And they “got the joke”…

Biblical politics and economics

I think Brad Artson may be my favorite Rabbi (he’s certainly been asked to be “their Rabbi” by more than one non-Jew). Under the guise of biblical advice on which to choose political candidates, he has outlined a biblically based political programme – which is pretty much exactly as I’ve been arguing for some time (although Rabbi Artson doesn’t go so far as to call free market capitalism as we see it operate “the System of Satan”…)

He does have one caveat in the article – he states that he is no expert on the Christian scriptures, but that from everything he’s heard about Jesus, Jesus would not disagree with any of what he’s written. Now my arguments have largely been based on the sayings of Jesus – and they end up in the same place.

This may demonstrate that Jesus was solidly in the Jewish tradition (I think it does), or that our dominant neoliberal social and economic policy is contrary to God’s will for the world (I think it is). Or, of course, both…

A God of psychotic unconcern?

There’s an interesting article on Patheos’ “Unfundamentalist Christians” blog  by Randall Rauser, which I strongly suggest you read before reading further.

Rauser could also have pointed out that the granddaddy of Western Theology, Thomas Aquinas, wrote as an answer to question 94 of his “Summa Theologia”:-

94. THE SAVED AND THE DAMNED

1. The sufferings of the damned will be perfectly known to the saints or blessed in heaven, and will only make them the more thankful to God for his great mercy towards themselves.

2. There can, however, be no pity in the saints with reference to the damned. For, on the other hand, they know that the damned are suffering what they chose and still perversely choose. On the other hand, pity is painful in the one who experiences it, and there can be nothing painful in heaven.

3. The blessed are in full conformity with the will of God who wills justice. The saints rejoice in the accomplishment of God’s justice. To this extent it can be said that they joy in the pains of the damned.

Rauser (to my mind entirely reasonably) asks how we can see holiness in individuals in this life as involving increased compassion for others, but think that the summit of holiness, presumably reached by being “saved” and thus one of the blessed in heaven could mean the complete absence of compassion for others.

To my thinking, this is the result of the miscegenation of Judaism and subsequently Christianity with Greek philosophical ideas, in this case the deduction that God must be “impassible”, i.e. not moved by passions. There is a decent article on Aquinas’ position at Helms Deep, which (inter alia) attempts to dispel the idea that this means the same as “impassive” (i.e. unfeeling) and, to quote, the idea that “An impassible/impassive God is said to exhibit psychotic unconcern.”

Aquinas also uses the same set of principles, arguing from God’s perfections; God must be perfectly loving, pure, wise, holy and just, to argue that God cannot be angry or jealous (both of which scripture ascribes to God repeatedly) nor can he repent (as scripture says he does on several occasions, notably in the book of Jonah), as these would detract variously from Godly perfections, as would (for example) pity or sadness (again, both ascribed to God in scripture).

My perhaps naive conclusion is that the “God” described by Aquinas (and by most of the Western traditions of theology up to and including the evangelicals of today) is not the God described in the Bible – but this “God” is one who exhibits psychotic unconcern.

And not one fit for worship.

What’s love got to do with it?

There are at the moment a set of posts on Patheos about the intersection (or not) of faith and reason. Many of them merit a read.

One of those which most connects with me is from Barry Harvey, who (to my mind rightly) points out that:- “When we talk about faith in relation to reason we naturally focus on its cognitive aspect, but this isn’t its only or most significant dimension. As Augustine noted, to believe in God is ultimately to love, delight in, and draw near to God, and to become a member of the body of Christ. The cognitive aspect does contribute to this understanding of faith, for we can only love, delight in, and draw near to that which we know. At the same time, however, we can never reduce faith to a set of abstract beliefs to which someone gives mental assent.”

I’ve complained about the identification of faith with intellectual assent to a set of propositions before. That is belief, in one sense of the word, but it doesn’t amount to faith, which (as Harvey and Augustine point out) is a matter of personal relationship with God. If I say, for instance, that I have faith in my wife, this is not saying that I accept a set of propositions about her. It is to say that I love and trust her.

And, of course, love is an emotion. For the record, I don’t think it can be a “second hand emotion”, referring to the song my title is drawn from; you can’t love someone second hand. In this respect, I tend to think that the evangelicals (who I normally don’t see eye to eye on on very much) are right in stressing the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As they consider that Jesus Christ is the accessible aspect of God, this does not raise my theological hackles very much at all, though I might prefer to stipulate that what is required is a personal relationship with God. How someone conceives of God is, to me, much less important.

How, I ask, can you love someone you’ve never met? I don’t think that can truly be described as “love” – it sounds more like stalking to me – and yes, I think a lot of theologians past and present have been theological stalkers.

Is it rational, then? Well, frankly, of the set of options Patheos give, I would plump for “arational”. Love does not really have anything to do with rationality – it may be rational, it may be irrational, but that is supremely not the point.

So what I’m actually saying is “What’s reason got to do with it?”

Satan, yeast and seeds

Professor Kathryn Tanner has, at the point I write this, just finished her series of Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University. They are well worth a listen; I don’t think I have heard a better skewering of market capitalism as it functions in the 21st century, under the neo-liberal philosophy which seems to have captured the thinking of politicians throughout the West (and a fair proportion of the East).

She does, of course, come to the conclusion that market capitalism (particularly finance-led market capitalism) is profoundly contrary to Christian principles. It encourages greed where Jesus commands care for the disadvantaged. It encourages competition where Jesus commands care for community. It grinds down workers where Paul counsels that labourers are worthy of their hire and should not be short-changed. It considers people as units of production and units of consumption where Jesus sees each as being unique creations of our Heavenly Father, with supreme worth (more valuable than a sparrow or a lily, indeed).

It also focuses on short term financial gain to the exclusion of building a lasting community, and there there might be a temptation to remember Jesus counselling that we give no thought for tomorrow and think that he approved a short term viewpoint. However, he also placed this in terms of dependence on God for our basic sustenance (daily bread) and, in looking forward to the Kingdom of God on earth, assumes, in my view, that that Kingdom will be structured to give everyone their basic sustenance, not to look for a “fast buck”. A fast buck is, of course, an idol, and we cannot serve God and Mammon, as I expanded upon recently (see link below).

Prof. Tanner does not, it seems to me, take quite the same view I do of the requirements of the Christian life; she works within the paradigm of the “salvation history” which I do not really subscribe to. However, I have recently finished Richard Beck’s new book “Reviving Old Scratch; Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted” which among other things works from the framework set up by William Stringfellow and Walter Wink which has made the real existence of forces of evil make sense to me again.

This has enabled me to identify the finance-led market capitalism of today as “the System of Satan”. Merely calling it idolatry is not sufficient for me, given the all-encompassing and subtle power of this system and the fact that most of us see no real alternative, in particular our politicians.

I think Prof. Tanner could do with an element of this more powerful way of condemning the system; while at the point of writing I have not yet heard her final (and summing up) lecture, so far she has merely set out in a factual and resigned way the undesirable features of the system, and commented that there is no longer any competing structure available for us to prefer, communism being widely considered to have failed (and inasmuch as it requires a command economy directed by a few people in power, this is true). Marx, it seems, was a brilliant diagnostician of the weaknesses of capitalism, but his prescription was a failure…

She has not so far considered any of the anarchist thinking which might (as long as it is not anarcho-capitalism) provide another way; her solution seems to be to work within the system but not to subscribe to it’s encompassing ethos, not to be drawn into belief in it, accepting that we live in a fallen world.

I do not think this is enough, though it is a start. We should certainly adopt small measures of protest against the way the system works, but we should also at least hope for a future in which the Kingdom, and it’s non-capitalist economics, grows out of that – as Jesus suggested, like a leaven or a mustard seed. Anything we can do to hasten the leavening or the growth of the seed should be tried.

And maybe, just maybe, we will see the start of the Kingdom coming in glory…

Give to him who asks of you

Ian Hislop, who is occasionally more a journalist than a satirist, presented a programme on BBC this evening entitled “Workers or Shirkers”, looking at how the Victorians dealt with the poor, and the question of whether and how they should be provided for, and in particular whether we should discriminate between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. It was a fairly balanced presentation, with some shocking moments, such as finding out that Ian Duncan Smith, lately in charge in the UK of cutting and denying benefits to the poor while claiming to be “helping them” (by which he meant providing them with the incentive of starvation to go and find employment),  actually has some feelings for the poor.

OK, I maybe jest very slightly there, but not a lot. There was quite a bit on the system of workhouses instituted in the 19th century (and still in some cases active in my lifetime) which were deliberately designed to be worse than anything on the outside which didn’t actually kill you immediately. I regularly pass along a street called “Union Lane”, which now has several branches of the social welfare establishment spread along one side, which was named because before most of it was knocked down as being both supremely ugly and unfit for human habitation even by social workers, it was the site of the Union Workhouse. “Union” because it was operated by a union of several parishes rather than merely one. It still had a rather sinister reputation in my childhood, and people of my grandparent’s generation often had a terror of “going on the parish”, as people tended to call becoming dependent on the workhouses. Actually, by that time, few people alive had actually experienced the workhouses in their full horror, as they had by and large become far more civilised as the 20th century progressed, and innovations like National Insurance and Old Age Pensions had seriously reduced the need for them. A small plaque on the rather decorative former gatehouse (one of the few attractive features, and rightly preserved) commemorates its origin. I’m perhaps unusual in that the mere name of the street makes me remember the system every time I pass along it…

The workhouse system was definitely more shocking than IDS, though many of his and his successor’s pronouncements make me wonder quite how close to a new workhouse system our current government would like to get.

The programme perhaps doesn’t go back quite far enough. The various Poor Laws which were administered initially through the parishes had become necessary because charitable giving utterly failed to meet the need (and that in a country which was in those days at least avowedly something over 95% Christian). It did, however, follow through the initial institution of the Welfare State here, and adverted to the fact that even a Labour government faced with the Great Depression decided that it needed to cut back on welfare (what was not mentioned is that there was also a national debt dwarfing the one we now see in percentage of GDP due to having fought the First World War…) An obvious parallel with current conditions was not  explicitly drawn but implied, leaving it more difficult to point to all the areas in which finances then were massively worse than they are now.

The conclusion? We are, it seems, hopelessly confused between a desire only to benefit the deserving and an impulse to correct suffering without reference to merit.

But then, we are not any more a 95% Christian country, more like a 7% Christian one. If we were, I could point to a very clear injunction contained in Matthew 5:42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you”. Jesus says nothing about asking why someone is in need, nor about asking whether they deserve help, or even whether we should check what they will spend it on. We are just to give whenever asked (and there are a large set of other quotations available to back this up).

However, I do notice that in at least one church in York are cards encouraging people not to give money to people begging on the street (of whom there are regrettably quite a few), but instead to give to charities helping them. Yes, I thoroughly approve of giving to those charities (and I do, regularly), and that church does do excellent work helping feed the homeless, but those cards seem to me basically contrary to Jesus’ command. If I have money, I will give something to them direct, whatever the church says. And it should not be saying that.

Of course, looking back at the history of helping the poor, as Hislop does, makes it pretty clear that the Church has never been very good at following this particular command of Jesus. Suspending judgment, it seems, is even more difficult than parting with your money.

The System of Satan?

On Friday 22nd January, one of the topics covered in the Global Christian Perspectives webcast, at its new regular time of 10pm UK time (4pm Central Time), was one which the Energion Discussion Network had asked Elgin Hushbeck (my usual sparring partner on GCP) and myself to write contrary blog posts. Elgin’s appeared on the 18th, and mine on the 19th. What follows is an expanded version of my blogpost of the 19th, expanded in the light of the fact that neither Elgin nor myself had seen the other’s post when we wrote our own.

The question asked is “Does Capitalism best express Christian economic values?” which I interpret as meaning free market capitalism, rather than (for instance) the nascent Chinese authoritarian-capitalist model.

So, what passages in scripture best enable us to see what Christian economic values might be? One might start with the account of the early Jerusalem church in Acts 2:44-45 “And all who believed were together and had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need”.

Having all things in common would be an expression of the second part of the Great Commandment from Mat. 22:36-40 “You shall love your neighbour as yourself. Selling their possessions and distributing them to all would seem to flow from the parable of the rich young man in (inter alia) Mark 10:17-31 “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me””. He went on to say “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Also, of course, according to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26) “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Many reading this will immediately think that this had to be a short term situation, perhaps having regard to the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return and the institution of the Kingdom of God on earth, and some will think of Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem church referred to in 1 Cor. 16, 2 Cor. 8 and Rom. 15 and suspect that the Jerusalem church had effectively beggared themselves. I am, however, mindful that Jesus also said (Matt 6:25-34) “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” and “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

If there is a major fault I can see in the Jerusalem church attitude, it is that the evidence is that it shared equally only between its own members. Implementing the principle of “love your neighbour as yourself” however has guidance as to who your neighbour is in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), in which it is clear that your neighbour includes those of another religion and race, and traditional enemies. These days, it should probably be the parable of the Good ISIS insurgent. Help should have been for the whole community, and not just the group of followers of Christ.

But, I hear said, this is just totally impractical, it cannot work. G.K. Chesterton however said “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” There have been some decent attempts (generally shorn of explicitly Christian content, for instance the anarchist communal enterprises during the Spanish Civil War), but never a widespread trial. I should underline that a statist controlled economy (which is often seen as the only alternative to unbridled free market capitalism) is not what I think is the nearest to a system Jesus might have approved of. However, something like the Jerusalem church might well be a halfway house to a truly Christian economics.

Let’s turn to free market capitalism. At first sight, a free market looks a wonderful idea. You produce something which someone wants, and you agree a price with them. If someone else sells cheaper than you do, you have to lower your price to compete with them, and without any conscious decision making other than everyone getting the “best buy” and, on the other hand, selling at the “best price”, prices are kept low and competitive.

This is very much the basis on which Elgin suggests that a free market is a magnificent system for ensuring things such as efficiency and cost-effectiveness. To a significant extent, he is right in that. He opposes the free market to a centralised system fixing prices, a “command economy”, and rightly remarks that all experiments with command economies (chiefly in communist states) have been unmitigated failures. However, command economies are not the only alternative to an unregulated free market, as witness the fact that in a recent poll of the ten best countries for doing business, all of them were social democracies rather than fully free market states (and neither the UK nor the USA were on that list).

There are two major problems with free markets from a Christian perspective. The first is in the motivation it assumes on the part of both buyer and seller – the buyer is looking to pay as little as possible for as much as possible, the seller to sell as little as possible for as much as possible. Both are assumed to be working entirely out of self-interest. Self-interest is not a Christian value; it ignores the command to love your neighbour as yourself. It can be argued that it is realistic to assume the worst of humanity, and even Christian (given that most Christian denominations hold that mankind is in a fallen condition), but it is not something we can hold up as an ideal situation, as it rests, fundamentally, on greed. However, adopting more Christian principles of exchange might not completely destroy the ability of free markets to regulate prices (and supply) without central control.

The second is that it fails to work in practice except in very limited circumstances. What we actually see in unregulated economies (and in a lot of somewhat regulated ones) is developing monopolies (even on a very small scale you get those – there just is not room for two competing providers of some goods or services in my town, for instance) and, where there isn’t quite a monopoly, a cartel, agreeing not to compete on price. As time goes by without a cartel, one supplier becomes dominant because they can sell a little cheaper (or with a cartel the cartel becomes dominant), and then economies of scale kick in and they become cheaper yet, and you have another monopoly (which is then protected from someone else entering the market by selling at a loss until the new entrant fails, at which point the losses are recouped by raising the price).

On the back of monopolies comes an ever greater concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands (on the basis of a recent study, looking purely at moveable wealth, half the world’s wealth is currently in the hands of 62 people). As Adam Smith (hardly a poster-boy for liberals and socialists) pointed out (and I link to an article by David Brin discussing this at length), great disparities in wealth destroy the freedom of markets, via the huge disparities of purchasing power they produce.

As a secondary effect, the freedom of the market is compromised severely when less and less people actually have the money (or power) to enter into it, resulting in the removal of the mass decision making which makes the free market work, concentrating the power to make decisions in a very few hands. The result is close to a command economy, with all the abysmal track record that brings. As Brin remarks, in exchange for price setting by 10,000 civil servants, we get price setting by 5,000 golf buddies – and I add to what Brin says, that the man in the street has at least in theory the ability to elect politicians who will do something about the 10,000 civil servants, whereas the golf buddies are not removable except by people with immense wealth to buy controlling interests in the companies they operate.

Free markets are thus demonstrated to be fundamentally unstable; they will eventually cease to be free unless they (or their effects) are regulated.

Another problem kicks in when talking about markets in, for instance, stocks and shares. What governs those prices is more what people think is going to happen to the price in the future than a dispassionate view of how well the underlying company is doing, so they are prone to boom and bust cycles, particularly since automated trading systems started to react to changes in the market more rapidly than human traders ever could.

Turning from markets to capitalism proper, except on a very small scale (without economies of scale), it is not a matter of a single person producing something. Elgin is correct to say that capitalism has produced a higher standard of living for masses of people, and the mechanism is mass production, which demands major investment of equipment to work; this has been provided by mechanisms such as the joint stock company and by the banking system, which together give you capitalism.

I need to pause here to say that I have misgivings about both the joint stock company and the banking system as being in accordance with Christian principles.

The joint stock company allows people to risk only their initial investment through the principle of limited liability; the worst they can fear is the loss of their share value. What that actually does, however, is enable companies to fail to meet their obligations to others, either debts owed or liabilities for damage caused, by just declaring the company insolvent and winding it up. This enables people to support companies which will defraud or cause damage to people without fearing the full consequences.

The banking system lends money at interest, fundamentally. That is something which, for very many years, Christians believed was forbidden by scripture, basing this on Deuteronomy 23:19 “Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother: interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest”, first prohibiting it at the First Council of Nicea (325). This was the sin of usury (for over a millennium Christians left that practice to Jews, who used the parallel provision permitting interest to be charged to foreigners in Deut. 23:20). I am not convinced that our move away from condemning usury is warranted.

Beyond that, capitalism is a matter of an employer (usually a company) with multiple employees, it is a matter of needing capital from somewhere in order to set up the business; both separate the work of production from the sale of the product. But, I hear, workers contract freely to work for the capitalist, and there is again a free market. The fact that the employer or the provider of capital makes most of the money, and not those who actually produce, is fair because it is a free market.

This is just not the case. A free market demands that both seller and buyer are free from overwhelming need to contract at whatever price the other demands. Except in circumstances of labour shortages (which rarely arise except in the case of people with specialist skills and which the mass production through automation on which the modern capitalist economy depends constantly strives to reduce or eliminate), the employer can employ anyone while the worker typically fears starvation and the gutter and is compelled to accept what the employer is willing to give. This is good free market capitalist economics; it reduces the cost of production for the employer and increases the profit margin.

It is not, however, remotely Christian. The employer is not only failing to love the employee as himself, but is taking advantage of rather than benefiting the poor (for instance by giving them all his money…). In a truly Christian economy, the fear of starvation and the gutter would not be there, because the rich would be queuing up to give the poor money.

Indeed, free market capitalist economics value people only as units of production or units of consumption. The less you pay in wages the better, the more they pay for what they buy (and the more they buy) the better. A Christian economics would value them as people and, I suggest, value them the more if they are poor (hungy,  thirsty or unclothed), a stranger, sick or imprisoned (Matt. 25:31-46). Capitalist economics, in other words, values only money. If you work for a capitalist enterprise, you are likely to be sacked for giving anything away or for selling it at a lower price than the employers demand; you are forever going to be pushed to produce more at a lower cost and sell more at a higher price. To make more money.  As Gordon Gecko says in “Wall Street”, “Greed is good”.

There lies the problem. Paul said “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10) and Jesus said “You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13). The word used for money there is “Mammon”, which Christian theology has traditionally seen as a false god or prince of hell (Gregory of Nyssa, Cyprian and Jerome certainly thought this way; Gregory equated Mammon with Beelzebub).

All this for something which you cannot eat or drink, which you cannot wear, and which has only the value we permit ourselves to be deceived into giving it unless and until it is converted into something real. If you consider that money has real value, think of inflation, and particularly hyper-inflation which has affected some economies in the past. The pound (or dollar) in your pocket is really only worth to you what someone is prepared to give you in exchange for it, and that can vary wildly (if, for instance, someone just doesn’t want to sell you something, or work for what you offer, or just isn’t interested in having more money) or, in hyperinflation, collapse completely. Money, and therefore wealth, is a fiction, given value only by the belief of those who have faith in it. That’ to my mind, sounds very much like a minimalist definition of a god… or, at least, a false god.

In addition, if you consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, while the lowest level (physiological) can be attended to fairly readily with money in normal circumstances, safety requires more than just money, and having more money does not correlate well (some would argue “at all”) with attaining any of  the higher needs of humanity (“Money can’t buy you love”), though we are deceived into thinking that money gives us security and others are deceived into esteeming us more for “having” more of it.

Indeed, while with most commodities we can readily see that, at best, “enough is as good as a feast”, and consumption of many things in excess can actually be bad for you, having reduced everything to money, i.e. wealth, we have produced a system in which you can never clearly see that you have too much.  In the quest to sell more (and produce more) we have developed marketing and advertising, the chief effects of which have gone beyond the initial aim of letting the buyer know what was available to inducing people to buy what they don’t need, and to pay more for it not because it is intrinsically better, but because it is seen as trendy, or high status.

It is also the case that in every free market capitalist system (and the more so the more nearly that approaches the ideal), the principle of “trickle down economics” (otherwise expressed as “a rising tide lifts all boats”) which benefits the poor because it benefits everyone, does not work unless there is a labour shortage. Marx got a lot of things wrong, in my eyes, but the one thing he got right was that free market capitalism concentrates wealth (and so power and the ability to choose what one does with life) in fewer and fewer hands. “Thus says the LORD:  For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way. “ (Amos 2:6-7)

So, capitalism gives us a system which results in us valuing each other by the amount of this Satanic fiction we consider each of us to have and concentrating that in fewer and fewer hands. We live in fear of not having it (which is a primary reason why we do not try a truly Christian economics) and are compelled into getting more of it, and letting others have as little of it as possible.

I therefore think that I was entirely justified in a recent Global Christian Perspectives webcast in calling Market Capitalism the “system of Satan”. It is the opposite of a Christian economic system. I am not the only theologian to have noted this, as an article in The Atlantic demonstrates.

The trouble is, just as Jesus observed when he said “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17), we are stuck with this system. I am myself too consumed with the fear of destitution to go as far as I think I should towards a truly Christian view of economics, and can only chip away at the edges (by, for instance, not buying from companies which I know oppress workers particularly badly, and by paying more than I need to where a seller is plainly poor, as well as the normal charitable imperatives for which there is no justification in Market Capitalism, as well as by seeking to elect politicians who will curb the excesses of the system). The fact that we are stuck with it, absent a level of popular faith I can’t muster in myself, however, should not blind us to its “Satanic” character and the fact that we should aim at something better, or at least at using government (the people acting as a whole) to regulate and moderate its influence.

Free Market Capitalism is not a matter of “best expressing Christian values”, it’s a matter of turning the opposite of Christian values into a belief system which becomes the whole basis for society.

Depression, the system of Satan and the Devil’s evangelism

My Small Group has been doing the Jeff Lucas series “Elijah, Prophet at a Loss”, and I got to lead the last session recently.

First, a few words about the series. On the whole, it’s pretty reasonably constructed and at least intended to leave those leading sessions fairly little to do. It takes a standard evangelical approach to scripture, but there is material on which you can base excursions beyond that. There are four sessions, and each then has five days worth of short readings and bible passages, plus a prayer. Jeff writes rather good short prayers. I do worry that having five readings after the last actual session doesn’t allow a neat conclusion, though (especially given the tendency of groups to “do their homework” if at all, the day before the next session…).

However, the series only deals with Elijah’s earlier career, and ends with an episode where he becomes completely dis-spirited, so the last session material deals with depression, stress and burnout. In fact, I added some material at the end of the session to underline a more upbeat trajectory from Elijah’s later story and his reputation in Judaism and as referred to in Mark 8:27-8 (inter alia).

The “icebreaker” question for the session involves drawing a picture representing your worst fear. I elected to just ask people to share, suspecting rightly that the group would balk at drawing, but even that was, it proved, asking for more disclosure than many were happy with.

And, of course, I was completely targeted (I’m assured, and I believe, that knowledge of my history was not in anyone’s minds when allocating that session to me, which makes it one of those coincidences which either reality or a hyperactive pattern recognition tends to interpret as a guiding hand). I’m the only member of the group who has suffered a major clinical depression (or debilitating stress, or burnout), so I had a story to share, and I’m a twelve stepper, so I’m not unused to sharing my story.

Now, whether Elijah, in the story, was actually suffering a major clinical depression or merely a depressive episode is uncertain. It was, in the account, fairly short, but did involve a loss of hope and a wish to die (I spent six and a half years telling myself “Just for today, I will not kill myself” and hope, as a positive emotion, was entirely beyond my comprehension at the time). Jeff Lucas has clearly not suffered even as serious a depression as Elijah, and while he tried hard to understand, he could really have done to listen to testimony from someone who has actually been there, like this TED talk from Andrew Solomon. Even better, he could have given a section of the video over to someone who had first hand knowledge. At least he didn’t suggest that some trivial prayer would inevitably cure depression, which I have heard far too many times, but I didn’t feel he communicated the potential severity of the condition, and neither did the group. However, there was, I think, good discussion. I was very glad that I’d prepared a more upbeat ending, though!

My greatest fear, as I explained to the group for the icebreaker, was that my depression might return. It’s not something I dwell on, but in low moments I do wonder if that might be happening, as my slide downwards was not something I really noticed at the time. That, of course, highlights the difference between low mood and depression; I can still have distinctly down times and not be remotely in the same place as clinical depression. Incidentally, I have found that a touch of prayer and meditation is good medicine for low mood!

As came to me in the course of our discussion about fears, however, is the fact that pre-depression (and all the stuff which contributed to it), my greatest fear was of being broke and jobless; eventually the depression resulted in me being both, and that fear has now been more or less eliminated. There’s a good chance that that’s actually because “the worst happened and I survived it”. Circumstances combined to put me in a place I couldn’t see a way to achieving by myself, as I couldn’t then and still can’t bring myself to follow the example suggested to the rich young man by Jesus. I had to have that done for me. That is, of course, a positive I can take from the experience – and rather than accept several years of “ruined time”, I want to find as much positive as I can in it!

I can link this with Elijah’s story at the point we looked at (1 Kings 19); Elijah flees, afraid of death at the hands of Jezebel, but then ends up disspirited and praying for death. Perhaps this was his equivalent of giving up his fear?

From where I stand now, this fear of economic catastrophe led to me being overly concerned for years with making money, latterly trying to make enough to be able to retire and not have to worry about money again in the future. If you look at an operational definition of my position, I was behaving as if money was my main objective in life, rather than spiritual progress or practical care for others, and if you behave as if something is your ultimate objective, you are worshiping it in fact even if not in theory. As the love of money is the root of all evil, and you cannot serve God and Mammon, although I was still trying to give practical care to others as well, in accordance with the social gospel, I can point to that period and say that I was operationally “worshiping strange Gods”, i.e. Mammon, as money frequently came first. I have described free market capitalism as the system of Satan, and I was thoroughly caught up in it. Certainly my spiritual praxis declined almost to nothing over the years against the background of this need to make money; I was by and large not stopping to seek moments of prayer and meditation, to become closer to God.

I can now ask myself if this idolatry of money was, in fact, a major contributing feature of the depression in the first place. However, there’s more. Although at the time our national social security system was not yet broken to the extent that makes unemployment and lack of capital a real demon, I felt that I had to achieve this by my own efforts; I was fiercely self-reliant and did not want to ask for or receive help from anyone else. This in itself was a turning from God; we are repeatedly told to rely on God for our basic needs (and not ourselves), including in the sentence “Give us this day our daily bread”. I was praying that frequently, but I was not really thinking of its full implications, nor those of “give no thought to tomorrow”.

As a last point, the fact that I was always conscious of not yet having enough money, fearing the lack of enough money to buy the basics of existence (Maslow’s lowest two levels at least, and possibly the third as well), made me a slave to work, and a more or less willing slave at that. In my case it was based on a lie I told myself, that I needed not only to have enough for today, but enough for the rest of my life. It wasn’t that I felt that I needed a lot of new stuff all the time, what I wanted was not just to have enough today, but enough forever. However, I look at advertising, which is generally calculated to make you feel that you need stuff you in fact don’t, and consider that it is trying to make us all slaves to money. We are encouraged to have more and more, newer and newer. And we don’t need it – in fact, the perception of that need is bad for us. You might describe it as the Devil’s evangelism.

Finally my thoughts have to turn to those people who don’t even have enough to fulfill the bottom two levels of Maslow’s pyramid, these days in a climate of “austerity” which seems to hit the poorest the most an increasing number, frequently people who actually work very hard, just at jobs which don’t pay enough for even basic requirements of life. They are not free, they are slaves. They have no option but to take such jobs (and, if they can get them, second jobs which give them some small hope of getting as far as Maslow’s third and fourth levels, but never the highest level), no option but to work extremely hard for nothing but a bare minimum.

I can say from my own experience that when you are enslaved this way, it is incredibly difficult to turn your attention to the top two levels proposed by Maslow. It’s very arguable that faith and spirituality are actually in the top level. It’s difficult to turn your attention to the third level, love and belonging, and one would hope that those are available through a church community.

I dream of a society in which Maslow’s two bottom levels are met for every one of us by our community, working as a whole (and that implies that we use the mechanism we have for operating our community, namely the State and lower levels of government). We are not too poor as a country to provide for everyone air, water, food,  and shelter (level 1) and personal and financial security, health care and care in the event of accidents (level 2), and to provide it as of right, provided by those of us fortunate enough to be able to make surplus money, and provided by us as an absolute obligation of living in a community which has some aspiration to be considered civilised, let alone one which is moving towards being the Kingdom of God on earth.

Let us, therefore, demand that government give up the system of Satan, and stop listening to the Devil’s evangelists.

Loyalty to a different Kingdom

Bo Sanders has provocatively titled a post “There is no Kingdom of God”. A man after my own heart – I like provocative titles. Watch the video – it’s only 8 minutes, and he makes a lot of really good points, not all of which I repeat here.

The problem he sees is that the term doesn’t translate “basilea tou Theou” well for a modern audience (and I might suggest particularly one in the States, which is a Republic).

The thing is, the use of the term, which literally means something more like “Empire of God” or “Imperial rule of God” was a direct subversion of the term “basilea tou Romes”, i.e. the Empire of Rome. The basilea tou Theou was completely unlike the Roman Empire, of course, and the identical formulation there was designed to accentuate the difference.

At the time of the earliest English translations, “Kingdom of God” was, I think, actually a fairly good translation, because at the time England was a Kingdom with a King who had some imperial pretensions and was very nearly an absolute monarch, as the Roman Emperors were; the counterpoint still worked and had some subversive power. It doesn’t work in England nearly as well these days, as the monarchy has become a nearly powerless constitutional monarchy and the fount of power is Parliament, and it works even less well in the United States, where citizens don’t even live under a nominal monarchy or empire.

Granted, it could well be argued that the USA is a functional Empire, with places ruled but without a say in government and a number of “client states” which are nominally independent but in effect operate as instructed by America.The trouble is, most of the population probably don’t believe that to be the case.

I have seen and heard people using other terms, and “commonwealth” is not uncommon – the trouble is, most of these fail to give the subversive element as they themselves have unhelpful baggage (in the case of “commonwealth” it is specifically the historic use of the term for democracies, and a democracy, I would argue, is significantly closer to a system of organising ourselves which Jesus might not want to subvert). Of those which Bo mentions, “Government” is possibly my favorite, particularly as “Government” already has a fair amount of negative baggage associated, as “basilea” did in the first century.

What about the hyphenated terms? Sadly, I don’t like “kin-dom” as it sounds rather twee, although it is clever; “un-kingdom” and “anti-empire” seem to me too direct, lacking the subversive element which was present in the original use of the common term for the Roman oppression, the sense of direct opposition “An Empire but totally unlike the existing Empire”. However, any of these might do – certainly if an unfamiliar term is used, it will alert us to the fact that “Kingdom” needs a bit more understanding.

I might, for instance, suggest once in a while slipping in “the Anarchy of God” for the shock effect – it lacks the sense of subversion, but certainly wakes one up to the fact that Jesus’ basilea is not a top down autocracy. I think he might have quite liked Peter Kropotkin’s ideas about how (not to) organise a state!

On the whole, though, I rather favour trying out “Nation of God”. There’s an awful lot to subvert in our concepts of nation these days;for the nation to which we belong to include axiomatically all people (“no Jew nor Greek…”, the hated Samaritan and the traditional enemy Syrophonecian) is, I think, jarring enough to gain some really good traction, at least until we become over-used to it. It certainly puts a new light on our reluctance to welcome refugees… It also echoes the situation of the Israelites as the People of God, so bursting out of all previously traditional markers for who is in and who is out, as was necessary to include the Gentiles, is doubly accentuated.

Also, and I think particularly in the States, it’s the principal thing to which loyalty is regularly claimed over and above loyalty to God. We regularly discuss whether we can trust a politician whose principal loyalty is to his or her concept of God, possibly to the exclusion of loyalty to our hugely restricted view of nation. Early Christians regularly suffered martyrdom for exactly this reason – they refused to worship Caesar, which was seen as being traitorous.

What price do we pay for our oaths of allegiance, our oaths on taking office?

Caring for refugees

My facebook feed is full of Syrian refugees. Ian Everett’s piece of beat poetry runs along the same lines as an article by Giles Fraser. Very different approaches, but the same message – welcome them all.

It wasn’t full of this prior to a picture of a drowned toddler. I’m wondering what it is about this particular picture sparked peoples’ compassion, given that there have been plenty of previous photographs of drowned migrants, some of them assuredly from Syria. I wonder why similar levels of compassion haven’t been sparked by other photos of dead children – Palestinian, for instance, Nigerian, Eritrean, Sudanese, Iraqui… the list could go on for a while.

Thousands of refugees have travelled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, and been wholly unwelcome in each of them – well, apart from Turkey, which is currently host to nearly 2 million Syrians anyhow; recently some thousands have been let through Austria to Germany, and Germany has welcomed them with open arms.

Germany? That should produce a bit of cognitive dissonance in a lot of Britons, whose stereotype of Germans emphatically doesn’t include welcoming strangers, particularly if they’re of a slightly darker hue than the Aryan ideal. They don’t have to look back 70 years to find justification for that stereotype, either – Germany has not been a bed of roses for its substantial population of Turkish migrant workers for many years much more recently than that, and it still has a fairly strong xenophobic streak in some of the population.

I do not criticise Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia or Hungary for lack of  compassion – none of them are rich countries, and Greece, Macedonia and Serbia rank as poor. Listening to interviews with the migrants, they don’t want to stay in those countries anyhow; they don’t see opportunity there, and they’re probably right. Almost universally, they have set their sights on Germany as their promised land.

Austria, however, is not poor. It’s just unwelcoming.

And, frankly, so has been the UK so far. Cameron has just announced that we will take a significant number of refugees, though we’ll take them from the UN camps just outside the Syrian borders, and we’ll take families, rather than single men. I think he has the right attitude apart from the number – 20,000 (and that over 5 years!) isn’t remotely as many as I think we could or should take, particularly compared with Germany’s position – Angela Merkel expects to welcome 800,000 refugees this year. This is probably a first for me, approving of any aspect of any policy which Cameron expresses – and yes, I do ask myself how he will equate a willingness to take even a few thousand Syrian refugees when his Secretary of State for Work and Pensions doesn’t think our current unemployed need to be fed, clothed or housed adequately. Of course, my answer is that we should look after both.

Cameron suggests that we are a Christian nation as reason to do this. Admittedly, we have an established church, and “Church of England” is the default religious designation, but on that I think he’s wrong. A Christian nation wouldn’t have elected him in the first place, given his attitude to the poor, disabled and needy. Under 5% of us attend church on an average Sunday; that doesn’t look like a “Christian nation” to me. However, there is, particularly among the 60% or so who voted for someone else, a residual undercurrent of Christian values, so perhaps he isn’t completely wrong.

Now, I like Giles Fraser’s writing, but I have to take issue with this article. Yes, it is true that ancient Israel were enjoined to treat the sojourner in their land as they would a native, and that they were also enjoined to leave a margin to provide food for the poor (not especially the sojourner), but none of that refers to whether you invite foreigners into your land to sojourn in the first place. On that point, the Old Testament is at best silent – and at worst, it has a very dim view of citizens of neighbouring countries such as Amelekites, Canaanites, Phonecians, Moabites, Ammonites – and again, this list could go on substantially. Appropriate action in their cases ranged from extermination of every last member of the nation to merely approving taking them as slaves…

I think that in order to make his case, he needed to go New Testament. Love your neighbour as yourself (Matt. 22:39) is the start point; the parable of the Good Samaritan goes on to define as your neighbour someone of another nation (and at that one considered an enemy, and a set of dangerous heretics at that), and we may extend that by considering Jesus’ treatment of the Centurion (an officer of an occupying enemy force) or the Syrophonecian woman (a member of a nation which Israel had had a mandate to wipe out) – that last was a lectionary reading for at least some people at the weekend. Our neighbour is anyone, and probably someone different from us – maybe an enemy, maybe someone we are brought up to despise, maybe just one of those people we don’t notice, like (in Biblical times) women or children.

So yes, the Syrian refugees are our neighbours, and perhaps especially the drowned toddler.

The snag is, it’s not that simple. The homeless in our own country are also our neighbours, and if we haven’t helped them, why are we thinking of helping someone whose own nearer neighbours haven’t? Isn’t our neighbour supremely the person in need who is actually next to us now?

They’re also not that simple because of something I keep noticing in the pictures of multitudes of migrants, at Calais, at a Budapest station, at the Macedonian border, in boats crossing the Mediterranean. By and large, what I’m seeing isn’t women or children, it’s young men between, maybe, 18 and 35. Where are the women and children, the old? Why are they leaving the more vulnerable members of their families behind? I listen to interviews with them, and too many times, slipped in among the dangers and uncertainties of living in a war-torn society, is the statement that they don’t want to be conscripted to fight themselves (though many of them seem happy to be threatening to border guards or transport drivers). Are we looking at a collection of draft dodgers, and does that mean they aren’t legitimate? (I have a certain amount of sympathy with draft dodgers, as I believe the witness of the Gospels is hugely in favour of non-violence, though for me that might not hold up in the face of armed struggle in my own country – at the least, I’d want to stay and assist as a noncombatant).

I add to that the concern of a former Army intelligence officer with whom I was chatting recently about this; he pointed out that were he an organiser for Al Quaeda or Isis, he’d be slipping some committed fighters in among the refugees, as there would be no easier way to get them into the country to stir up trouble later. I don’t think there’s any chance that this isn’t something which has occurred to those organisers, so it’s almost certainly happening.

That’s where I think that on this occasion, Cameron is perhaps being really far sighted – if we take first orphans and families, we are probably not taking the draft dodger or the undercover terrorist.

But we should be doing far more. We should particularly be doing more in the light of the fact that even were the armed struggle to be resolved tomorrow (in whichever direction and however that were achieved), there seems strong evidence that the origins of the struggle in Syria lie in the fact that the country started being affected by drought around 2006, and by 2011 there were over 1.5 million internally displaced people who could no longer exist farming. It seems likely both that this is the result of climate change and that it is not going to improve in the forseeable future, and therefore Syria has a significant surplus population problem in any event. Neighbouring countries are similarly somewhat affected by the drought, so moving there is not a long term solution.

We should not merely welcome refugees for the duration of the struggle, therefore, we should welcome them as prospective citizens.