Close to Melt Down

Sunday 20th November 2011
Year A, Christ the King (The Sunday next before Advent)
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Ezekiel 34:11-12;
Matthew 25:31-46

Today is the last Sunday of the Church's year; and it has been a tumultuous year for the Church of England, not for the usual reason that we cannot settle our internal wrangling over issues of gender and sexuality but because, more than three years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the beginning of the global financial crisis we have now been forced to consider seriously the friction between God and mammon.

To be fair, Archbishop Rowan has said a good deal about the ills of global capitalism which was generally dismissed as pious waffle until it became fashionable to show some sympathy for the point of view of the protesters camped in front of Saint Paul's. That rather motley collection in their tiny tents might not have a manifesto for global justice, but, then, when you think about it, neither have economists, politicians, or journalists, but what they have done is to make sympathy for the down-trodden fashionable. Since the banking crisis  began we have all been pretty well united in our detestation of 'casino capitalism' not least because income figures issued three weeks ago showed that corporate executives are enjoying an average annual pay rise of 49%; but to resent injustice against ourselves and to wish some kind of vengeance on bankers is a quite different kind of stance from wishing seriously to consider how the poor can be accorded justice in a global free market economy.

A leading religious commentator, Andrew Brown, wrote in the Guardian at the height of the Saint Paul's crisis that the Church of England had 24 hours to save itself from melt down. Well, we just about made it; but before the proper conclusion was reached I enjoyed the splendid irony of officials inside Saint Paul's worrying about health and safety regulations while members of the Socialist Workers Party outside raised banners displaying extracts from the Sermon on the Mount. The point here is not that health and safety is trivial but that it is, as was proved by the turn of events, negotiable. By the same token, so is the health and safety of the planet in general and the fate of the poor in particular.

Now any party going into negotiations starts with its highly principled, opening position before making compromises with those of a different position; so what is the Church's opening position? Well, the Saint Paul's authorities were somewhat piqued by some of the demonstrators asking the question: "What would Jesus do?" to which the answer is not so complex as some have made out. Of course, Jesus wasn't an economist; and of course most clerics aren't economists either; but the starting position for Jesus and for us is that we have an absolutely over-riding responsibility for social justice, for looking after the poor, as set out in today's reading from Matthew, and that this responsibility calls upon us not for prudential calculation but for sacrifice; and this is where the economists need to help us because if we were to cut our consumption in order to help the poor we might actually damage them because they would lose from our cut but not necessarily gain from our generosity.

Take the case of Kenyan mange touts growers. Now you might, as an ecologist, object to the whole enterprise of growing mange touts in Kenya to  get round EU soil regulations, but let's put that to one side. We make a decision to cut down on luxury vegetables and stop buying mange touts and we put the money into a charity pot. The growers lose their income; and they might get a hand-out from our charity pot but they might not. Even if they do, they have lost a livelihood and become recipients of sporadic charity. This simple case illustrates that slashing consumption to help the poor just doesn't work; over time it simply shrinks the global economy so that everyone is worse off.

Again, putting aside the ecological arguments about growth just for a moment, we have to figure out how to calibrate our sacrifice and invest its proceeds for the good of the poor rather than making bold but empty, or even counter productive, gestures. That is what the dialogue needs to be about between the church and global economists, governments and international banks; and it ought to take into account the effect of growth on our global ecology because the boosting of growth to improve the lot of this generation may well damage the prospects of the next generation.

But all that is a long way off. For all the fine words issuing from the Vatican about the common good, words taken up by Archbishop Rowan, I get the uneasy feeling that we're not really serious. I don't doubt the sincerity of Pope Benedict or Archbishop Rowan but I do question the capacity of Christianity to provide enough moral force to alter the terms of the global debate. The Roman Catholic Church has much to do to slough off its reputation for supporting kleptocratic, murderous military dictatorships on the ground that they were anti communist, as if Marxism's atheism was somehow more dangerous than capitalism's Janus-like capacity to be Christian and oppress the poor. And our own church, in spite of heroic efforts following Faith in the City still has a serious credibility problem because the world of the poor is not seen to be our world. We would argue that we are deeply involved in all of the deprived areas of Britain and that our missionaries are caring for the poor in almost every country on earth; but we are not so serious about social justice as the people across the table are serious about making money; and for all we might wince at the size of their salaries, they're investing our savings to produce our pensions and settle our insurance claims, so we are, to use contemporary parlance, deeply conflicted.

That is not to say that we should not enter the negotiations. We must; and our starting point should be highly principled; and we should be prepared to be laughed at because we are somewhat compromised; but we will have to put up with it.

The reading from Matthew tells us that our obligation is to minister to the poor and that, in doing so, we minister to God; and the reading from Ezekiel is filleted from a passage where God says that he will smite the shepherds of the flock for not doing their job; that, maybe, relates to the comment about melt down. In the Readings there is something of the carrot and the stick; but surely we should be mature enough not to need the stick. We can all argue that achieving social justice is very difficult; but it just won't happen unless we start from a principled position that we truly believe in.