Creationtide 1: How We Got Here

Sunday 13th September 2020
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service of the Word
Genesis 1.26-30

As we begin our celebration of Creationtide it is important to begin by thinking about how we got here, to the point where California and Brazil are burning and the two polar ice caps are melting.

It seems to me that the question turns on an interpretation of the concept of human dominion over earthly resources; and the critical element of that question is: who should exercise that dominion.

As always, the issues revolve around the concept of motive. Is the correct Christian response that there should be a free-for-all in which the powerful exploit resources for personal gain or should resources be used, by us as God's stewards, for the good of the human race as a whole? Nobody would deny, I think, that greed is a non-Christian motive but we have fallen into a situation where that question is off limits because we are not supposed, as Christians, to become involved in politics. But how legitimate is this denial, particularly when our Reading says we were made in God's image?

When I was growing up we were part of a fierce controversy between socialism and capitalism. Over the 1950s and 1960s we came to learn of the ravages of centrally planned economies in the name of socialism and were rightly critical; but although Francis Fukuyama's dictum after the fall of the Berlin Wall that we were at the "end of history" was a silly generalisation which has proved to be fatally incorrect, it is beyond dispute that we are now not involved in a left/right struggle, even Communist China is capitalist; the only economic system on trial is liberal capitalism.

The two phenomena which constitute our economy, other than the provision of services like banking and insurance, are agriculture and the exploitation of natural resources. Interestingly, we have been far more sensitive to agriculture than mineral exploitation. Perhaps because we are increasingly sympathetic to animals, we have become aware of factory farming; and perhaps because it affects us locally, we have become sensitive to the degradation of soil, not only here but world-wide. Over exploitation of soil, particularly in developing countries for export crops rather than subsistence farming is leading to desertification, consequent starvation, and the search for more soil. We may love animals but, as we shall see, we have failed to save most of them.

On the issue of exploitation of natural resources, this has increasingly required massive capital investment, particularly in the oil industry, which has enabled the growth of an oil sector which dictates the way in which the world works.

As we move into what looks like a global climate crisis, it is no coincidence that the oil industry has been the leading financier of campaigns to thwart measures to moderate the crisis. Thus, the powerful are not only profiting from their enterprises, they are, possibly at the very least, making the situation worse.

Many people say that competition is the best form of economic management to make the world flourish and it is true that experiments with collectives have been more or less disastrous. Whereas competition gives everybody a theoretical chance to flourish on the basis of meritocracy, collectives are rotted from within by free-loaders who do nothing while everybody else works, typified in the different work rates between Boxer and Molly in George Orwell's Animal Farm; but, as usual, to think this way is to fall into customary and sterile dichotomy; to think the right answer is one of the two stark options.

The Christian perspective will surely consider at least the excesses of competition on the one hand and the need, on the other, to build up mutual support on the basis of trust to promote collaboration. We, after all, are supposed to build the Kingdom of Earth as it is in Heaven on the basis of mutual love, for not only are we made in God's image but the basis of human success as a species has been collaboration, not, as is popularly supposed, the selfish gene. How loving is competition? Is it not based on a system where my gain is your loss? Or is there a way in which it should be moderated so that the human drive to thrive is not a zero sum game?

The Church of England's Investment Committee has been struggling with these issues for many years and has tried to develop an ethical investment policy but this is becoming increasingly difficult because its obligation to do well for the Church can be in conflict with its worries about economic exploitation of people and resources. Banning investments in the arms or tobacco industries are easy enough; even shifting investment from oil to renewables can be logically and logistically achieved; but what of the rest of the system which hoovers up resources from poor countries to be transferred to us for our comfort? Every time we pick up our mobile phone, do we ask from where the rare metals came, or do we ask about the conditions under which bananas are grown? Curiously, we hardly ever hear anything about the bloodshed over the control of mines. '[

We, as Christians, cannot all be expected to be economists, nor even political theorists, but we are obliged to apply a love test to our collective as well as our individual behaviour. We all think we are reasonably clear about how we love our neighbour in Hurstpierpoint, but how much do we know about what we have to do to love our neighbours, particularly our impoverished neighbours elsewhere?

I would not claim that the state we are in arises from callousness or indifference but rather because we have become accustomed to our comforts and have not questioned the economic structure which has brought them to us. We should, of course, pray, but we should not pray for God to fix what we have failed to fix. We have tarnished our world and it is for us to pray for the strength of mind and the sacrifice to rub away the tarnish. We should learn from our Bibles but, as with our Reading today, we should be much more stringent in ensuring that our interpretation is not self-serving; and we also need to become involved in issues rather than allocating responsibility to others. It is all very well to condemn global industry for its poor behaviour but many of us draw our private pensions from investments of which we are largely ignorant.

The word which should leap out from that sentence is sacrifice.