Insouciant Wiles

Sunday 6th July 2014
The Third Sunday after Trinity
St Giles, Shermanbury
Deuteronomy 24:10-22

You might have read a recent story in the newspapers of a new and expensive block of flats that has installed spiked paving stones at its entrance to deter rough sleepers; and you will certainly have seen, in many public places, the new style of benches divided into individual seats with arm rests, again to deter rough sleepers. This whole nasty package goes under the name of ‘defensive urban architecture’.

There is a common view, largely because of the number of offences which indicate capital punishment, that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible which contain the Jewish Law or Torah, is immensely harsh compared with the laws of our day but this is totally incorrect. In the first place, although the death penalty is frequently indicated, it was very rarely carried out and, when it was, it seems that this was very largely, I am afraid, the stoning of women, without any punishment for the man, for fornication and adultery; and yet there are very few recorded instances of this. In that respect the story of the woman accused of adultery, whom Jesus refuses to condemn, in Chapter 8 of the Gospel of John, is highly unusual. On the other hand, there are quite a few Biblical references to revenge taken out by relatives on men who have raped their women. In the second place, imprisonment was only used for holding people before trial and not a punishment; the emphasis was on reparation and restoration. In the third place, there were provisions for gleaning, mentioned in today's reading from Deuteronomy, which amounted to an Old Testament income tax, for the benefit of the poor, not excluding exiles or outsiders. As a counterweight, it might be helpful to note that in England before a downward trend in the middle of the 19th Century there were 180 offences which might result in capital punishment at worst and transportation at best; and there is still a substantial minority of people in this country in favour of capital punishment. Strange to relate that if the Western Christian church had chosen to take Deuteronomy's law code literally there would not only have been a much more liberal society for the past 2000 years, we would still, in many respects, be living in a more liberal society now; and this applies even more so to the United States where capital punishment and economic injustice are central tenets of fundamentalist evangelicalism.

I am really sorry, there is no way of getting round this, there is no way of dressing it up in fancy jargon, there is no point in advancing economic theories which justify our lifestyle at the expense of others, no matter how Christian as a society we claim to be. Our record on criminal justice, the treatment of outsiders, and the requirements of socio economic justice is truly shocking.


Just look at where we are:

Now the customary way to relieve our embarrassment is to hold on to that good old maxim that "religion and politics don't mix" which is, of course, playing into the hands of atheists who want to make religion an entirely private affair. One meaning of this saying is that religion and party politics don't mix, a position which I accept to a degree, but there are two critical riders: first, and critically, the mission of Jesus, which we were created to promote, is to establish his kingdom on earth and that, above all, means striving for social justice; secondly, no matter what our emotional political stance may be we are obliged to use our God-given gift of intellect to examine the evidence. If we accept the call of Jesus to promote social justice and the party we supports is plainly failing in this regard there is no point persisting out of habit, tradition, or loyalty.

But if there is one area which presents many of us with most difficulty it is, surely, the current outcry about immigrants and asylum seekers which brings out, in an acute way, a general misunderstanding of who we are: we are not entitled to hold onto what we have got because of the accident of our birth, whether that accident delivered us into a rich household or, considering people from other places, into a rich country. We are merely stewards of God's gifts and the question we must always ask is: what would God like us to do with the gifts we have been given. I doubt, if we examine our consciences seriously enough, the answer we get is that we should hold onto these gifts purely for our own indulgence. But there is, too, a practical point: do we really want to be parked on the wrong side of the eye of a needle, weighed down with stuff. Do we really think we have the moral toughness to resist the snares of worldly goods? Do we really think that we are the exception to the rule laid down so emphatically by Jesus that heavenly reward is in inverse proportion to earthly reward? And do we honestly think that we are doing enough, individually and collectively?

Farewell the horns and tail, farewell the pitch fork and the furnace, farewell the satanic glower, the devil, or whatever you like to call it, dwells behind the stack of Pringles in the supermarket, snuggles down in the sweater department at Marks & Spencer, shows off on the wide screens at Curry's, and glitters in the shining glass, crockery and pans of the John Lewis home-ware department. There really is no point in most of us talking about the consumer society as if it were somewhere else and nothing to do with us. We all have a lot of thinking and praying to do if we are going to escape from the insouciant wiles of global capitalism.