The Failure of Liberalism

Sunday 20th July 2008
Year A, The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Matthew 13:24-30;

Ben Kinsella, aged 16, is simply the most prominent of the children in London to be murdered so far this year, prompting two kinds of reaction: calls for yet more draconian prison sentences; and pleas that we must do more than that, or even something different.

Last year UNICEF reported that British children had the lowest level of well being of all the rich countries. One of the Report's conclusions is that there is no obvious relationship between levels of child well being and GDP per capita: the Czech Republic, for example, achieves a higher overall rank for child well being than several much wealthier countries including France, Austria, the USA and UK; yet when parents are confronted with their own child negligence we almost invariably reply that we are maximising family income to give the children the things they need.

This sorry state of affairs has many complex components but there seem to be three which stand out: first, many in our society have renounced responsibility for what is happening, referring to "feral children" in much the same way that we might refer to "feral cats", as something over which we have no actual or moral control; secondly, this distancing reflects our cultural ambivalence towards children which treats them as commodities without full personhood to be dressed, spoiled and shown off so that, as they become teenagers and break the mould of the pampered object, their awkwardness and rebellion are greeted with hostility rather than love; and, thirdly, and most fundamentally, there is a general belief that, in whatever way we disagree about remedies - whether we are all for locking them up and throwing away the key or drowning them in community initiatives - the answer lies in social policy.

On the surface, today's Gospel looks straightforward. A concerned slave wonders whether to uproot the weeds that an enemy has sown but the master commends leaving them be until the harvest, on the ostensible ground of agricultural prudence; but there is surely more to it than that. In the first place, we need to think of the "enemy" not as an outsider, a "feral villain" but as part of our society. He is part of us. We are part of him. If we had organised our collective life differently he might never have sown the evil. Secondly, this parable tells us that it is our lot to live alongside the weeds - always supposing that we are wheat and not weeds - and that we must certainly not take those whom we suppose to be weeds and lock them up and throw away the key, even less commit judicial murder.

The contrast between the weeds and the wheat is deceptively sharp. Which of us can say that we are always wheat? And, conversely, can we honestly say that others are always weeds? The image is surely too static, not taking account of the changes that we undergo in our outlook and our conduct.

Yet to think that social policy will transform the weeds into wheat is an illusion. If we look at the pictures of Hogarth, we might argue that the debauchery - "Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence", - was closely related to the poverty of physical and intellectual means. Today, even the poorest in our society have a degree of income and self determination unimaginable to the 18th Century London outcast or the 19th Century Lancashire mill worker; but the degradation, alienation and violence persist. The shadow of William Golding's Lord of The Flies haunts us, as does the Stanford University experiment in which students were split into guards and prisoners, the guards being so cruel that the experiment had to stop. We have seen this recently, graphically in Abu Ghraib.

The conclusion we have to draw from all this, is that liberalism and economic well being are not enough; that, left unloved, people will sink to their basest, sliding away from God.

As the number of stabbings increases and as the economy turns down, generating more crime, we will be witnesses of a Dutch auction by our politicians to increase spending on policing and to increase penalties for crimes of violence. As Christians we should remember that civil justice is a crude necessity, the result of our inability to stay constant to our Creator but, bearing that in mind, we have a duty to engage in society. We should therefore do everything we can to resist the call for a more punitive society; but we only have the right to do that if we commit ourselves to the way of Jesus. We must pledge our engagement, love and sacrifice: engagement because, no matter what we personally think, those we call weeds are still part of God's creation for whom we have a responsibility; sacrifice, because the 'liberal' way of paying our taxes and then a bit extra to charity so that everybody else can solve our social problems, has failed; love, because that is what marks us out as Christians.

In looking forward to the harvest, the language of Matthew is characteristically stark: the weeds will be gathered up into bundles and burned while the wheat is gathered into the master's barn; we see a similar distinction in his parable of the goats and sheep. It is tempting for us to anticipate God's judgment by imposing our own, not only within the formal judicial system but also in the way, for example, we look at immigrants, poor people and teenagers. We must resist. Jesus did not teach us simply to love the people we like nor to be generous to the reasonably well off; as Christians we have an over-riding obligation to come alongside the poor. We may find pleasure in twinning with nice little towns in France and Germany with their quaint buildings and different food and wine, but it is our Christian obligation to twin with people nearer to home which is one of the strands of our Mission Action Plan.

Now it may seem to us that this is a peculiarly bad time for this kind of commitment - food and petrol prices are rising; the value of houses, pensions and other investments is falling - but no matter how bad it will be for us it will be disproportionately worse for those who are poorer than us; it always is. The "credit crunch" started because the rich were too greedy in their exploitation of the poor. It was caused by "feral bankers"; who grew up among us, whom we see on Hassocks Station going into the City. There is not one of us who is not part of the society whose ills we mourn; and appealing to some notional golden age is an evasion.

If we are to live in Christ's field, not knowing from day to day whether we are wheat or weeds, we must pledge ourselves to care particularly for the rankest weeds, for those in the poorest soil, for those whose growth is stunted by the toxic waste we have discarded. But if this is calculated or even simply the recognition of a social obligation, it will not be enough. Whatever gifts we bring must be brought in the name of the Lord Jesus.