Liberalism & Sacrifice

Sunday 19th April 2009
Year B, The Second Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Acts 4:32-35
1 John 1; 2:1-2
John 20:19-31

Christ is Risen!

It's a pity that Sir Fred Good-win's name isn't quite so dramatic as Bernard Made-off but, then, Sir Fred's only misfortune was that, like most of us, he subscribed, consciously or unconsciously, to the prevailing wisdom about derivative assets, whereas Bernard really did take people for a ride. It's difficult in the circumstances, when the value of pensions is falling, not to be angry with Sir Fred, but whoever said that being good was easy?

For many Christians, this is a time of extreme schadenfreude, the savouring of a bitter/sweet tang unprecedented in its intensity of flavour; for while many of us may be poorer than we were, or at least we may fear that we will be, we have the satisfaction of telling secular society that we told it so: for decades we have been shouting into the teeth of a gale of permissiveness and unbridled greed; but now the dodgy paper, the cheap alcohol and the contraceptive pills are coming home to roost. Perhaps the new era of banking regulation will write across into a less self-indulgent, more regulated society; perhaps the rampant individualism of the postmodernist playground will be tamed; but, I promise you, none of that will be enough; it will be, in T.S. Eliot's famous maxim, doing the right thing for the wrong reason; instead of being a constructive contribution to social justice, new regulation will be a defensive strategy based on hindsight; citizens will want their revenge and a new system; and then it will start all over again, until the next recession.

Conversely, there is another slant on our current situation which gives me great pleasure; the very unchristian call for economic revenge on our bankers and the need for much tighter regulation both explode the nonsense that religion and politics don't mix even if, again, the people who are speaking out are saying the right things for the wrong reason. If we can permit ourselves to make statements from what we think of as a Christian perspective about banking practice and regulation, then it is difficult to see what we can't make statements about.

The dogmatic repetition of this idea that religion and politics don't mix accounts for the strangely quiet history of the way we have dealt with today's reading from Acts. We were so busy in the 20th Century protesting that  this was not a pro Marxist text that we did not really see what it was; Marxism, after all, if it can be counted as a theory of social justice, is not the only such theory available. We have deployed our defensive posture about Marxism and socialism so vehemently that we have not noticed what we are being told: the post Resurrection Christians did not count any of their goods as their own but shared them so that nobody should be in need. What they undertook was a voluntary act to ensure that there was no poverty among them. There is no hint of coercion from the leadership, no rules written down, no sanctions for non compliance, no commandeering, no calls for tighter regulation. There really is no evasion; if there is poverty we are called upon as Christians voluntarily to sort it out, not to wait for taxes to rise, not to wait for an envelope to be pushed through the door, not to wait for an appeal, but to fix it; for we, no less than the community in Jerusalem are heirs of the Resurrection, followers of Jesus and Temples of the Holy Spirit.

How else than through voluntary sacrifice can we realise in our lives the injunction in the First Letter of John, echoing Chapter 13 of John's Gospel, to love one another? Is love a pleasant abstraction or does it involve sacrifice? We can answer that question from our personal experience easily enough. We know that there is no true love of spouse, siblings, parents or children, without sacrifice; there is no true friendship without sacrifice. Knowing this, how can we ever have thought that we could collectively love our collective neighbour without sacrifice? How can we ever have thought that the invisible hand of the market would make all things well for all of us? How can we ever have accepted that we could reduce poverty and reduce taxes at the same time? How could we ever have accepted the notion that there is no such thing as society?

We have all, whether we are nominally Conservative, Labour or Liberal accepted the assumption that we can have something for nothing and that something includes social justice. We have assumed that we can have justice without sacrifice but without sacrifice there will be no justice.

Which brings us to the Gospel reading and the familiar story of the doubting Thomas. There are two rather different takes on his position in our current situation. The first, is that it is quite proper to doubt; certainty, of any sort, political, economic or Christian, is dangerous because it ignores the unforeseen and the mysterious, so we better be careful not to look down our intellectual and spiritual noses at Thomas. But the second aspect of the story of Thomas is much more critical. In a state of post Resurrection confusion, before a word of the New Testament had been written, when the notion of the Resurrection of Jesus was less than a day old, Thomas understandably doubted; but with 2000 years of Resurrection history behind us, with the New Testament and the teaching of the Church, what room is there for us to doubt the Christian imperative to achieve Social justice, to further God's Kingdom on earth. What proofs do we need? What is the missing piece of evidence? What are we waiting for?

For, as we stand here in 2009, if we fail to answer the call for social justice we are worse than Thomas; we are in a critical state of denial. Before we think about revenge or tighter regulation, we need to think about ourselves. This is no time for Christian triumphalism, nor even self satisfaction, it is time for us to commit ourselves as children of the Resurrection to justice achieved by voluntary means.

There is a fallacy today that if you have listed risk you have tackled it, that if you give an old person a care plan you have delivered it, that if you grant a human right everybody can then enjoy it; but this is an illusion, a disjuncture between saying and doing. We can bet any money we like that as budgets are cut, rights will be extended. We might deplore this as citizens but we also need as Christians to match what we do with what we say. We all talk a good game but that is not enough.

And, one last thought, as Christians we are to smile while we affirm love through sacrifice.

Christ is Risen!