Monthly Archives: December 2013

Angels and IPads

I was outside St. Paul’s, London, recently dressed as an angel. Something which I’m pleased to say didn’t at all feel out of place. In fact, I believe a life well lived would be one where that stuff is common place!

As I was dancing around, along with my fellow angels, talking to people about The Church of England’s investment in fossil fuels, I noticed an open topped London tour bus pass by. On the top deck was a man, who looked to be of an Asian heritage, filming the sights with an IPad. Which I found to be profoundly odd. Not so long ago, if a person wanted to remember an event, a view or a sight, they would have to experience the thing and remember it. This would mean allowing oneself a period of exposure. A time where the body could absorb the experience though all the senses. Now all you need is an IPad and it’s done in seconds. Only it wasn’t. This man, who had likely travelled thousands of miles, was in London, but experiencing the city though an IPad screen. Something he could have done in his front room with a Wi-Fi connection.

It not only seems like you haven’t been to a place unless you have a picture of it, but, what’s more, our attitudes have changed so much that a picture is all that’s required. Once upon a time, when a sunset sky exploded into beautiful reds and violets people would stop in wonder; staring for hours. Now it’s noticed, captured on a mobile phone, and life moves on immediately.

It seems we’ve turned beauty into a commodity. A life well lived is a life captured but not necessarily experienced. Success is measured by productivity of which stopping to watch the world go by is no longer a part.

The same can be said of education. Today I was pondering the wonder that is Wikipedia. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the website is the 6th most popular site on the internet. The wondrous thing being it’s a non-profit making site. It’s simply there as a depository of information. It’s success is measured by education itself. Unlike our education system, which is no longer built upon the astounding beauty of education for educations sake.

Our attitude has become one of expecting people to pay for education because the only point of education is so that a person can achieve a job which pays more money. A person invests time and money in education in order to receive an economic dividend later in life; almost as if they were investing on the stock exchange. Tuition fees triple and so the idea of education as a commodity is secured; who can afford to enjoy education for educations sake now?

The Church once turned prayer into a commodity through indulgences. Priests would accept money in order to pray for a person or a person’s family. In the hopes that this would mean less time in purgatory. The beauty of prayer, of connecting with the creator for the single purpose of that connection, was lost.

Jesus, in the temple at Jerusalem, once, famously, turned over the money changers tables saying:  “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” (Matt 21.13). Normally the temple was a place for prayer and teaching, but where’s the profit in that? So a place of prayer, peace, solitude, rehumanisation, had been turned into a commodity and rented to market traders.

More and more things receive affirmation from profit and more and more of this type of affirmation is considered exclusive. The only mark of success is what is made for the shareholder. As more and more countries have their water supply privatised, even something as fundamental as water no longer makes sense in our world without the ability for it to be bought and sold.

Which, going back to our friend on the bus, isn’t to say that taking a picture is wrong. The ability to take a picture is packed with its own unique awe-inspiring potential. However, if we were to only focus upon the photo, allowing beauty to become just another commodity, then we dehumanise ourselves. We need those times of exposure; it’s nourishment for the very soul!

Then, what’s just as terrifying is that this attitude starts to permeate into our whole lives. Our society has exchanged free time for overtime; family time for office time; staring at the sky for an extra few pounds. I say society, as, due to how companies now see even people as a commodity, wages are driven down, so many can only afford to live a life of overtime.

Which brings us to the final insult; people as figures, commodities, on a graph. There’s more money to be made for the shareholders if the workers are paid less and so people are forced to work more hours. Profit over humanity and human dignity.

The most extreme form of this is the arms trade, where the lives of women, men and children, souls with dreams and ambitions, are scored as simply collateral damage. An unfortunate, but acceptable, loss in the pursuit of profit from the sale of arms.

During the summer just gone, I witnessed thousands of people buying and selling such arms. The transactions were as normal as filming St. Pauls, with an IPad, from the top of a London tour bus.

I beg of you to check your attitudes. Find what nourishes you and your neighbour’s soul and chase it at all costs.

It is only through a change of all our attitudes will profiteering from slaughter and the commodity of death become so strange to the world’s eyes that it will shrivel and cease to exist.

Let  people live for the sake of life and the fierce beauty of this world permeate all our souls.

The face of Christ

This week, I attended a vigil in Hackney, to remember the life and death of a local man who had been living on the streets.  For half an hour, we stood at the spot where Miro was assaulted, which left him with the injuries that he later died of.  We stood in the dark, and the rain, and remembered his life.  We remembered his wife, child and friends in Poland.  We remembered the often cruel and unforgiving economic systems that lead people into such hardship. We remembered that Miro died alone, and we remembered that we knew little about Miro, the nature of his life on our doorsteps, how far removed we all were from his experience.

During the service, we heard a reading from Matthew, chapter 25;

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick, or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’.”

Hearing these words, in that setting, was sobering. To see – in the face of the hungry or thirsty, the lonely or sick, imprisoned, homeless, destitute, war ravaged – the face of the divine – what can that possibly mean?   For me, a tentative answer is that this passage is telling us that it is not the case that, because we work for peace and justice for – and alongside – the oppressed and marginalised, we might encounter God in some utterly distant realm beyond this life, as a ‘reward’ for our ‘good deeds’. Instead, it seems that the encounter with the oppressed and marginalised is the encounter with God, that it is there that we find eternal life.  In this parable, eternal life is built in our relationships, interactions, our work, our pursuits, and critical to that is a life lived in solidarity with the marginalised and oppressed.

This notion – of Christ being absolutely present in the midst of our world – is one that has particular resonances at Christmas.  For me, the incarnation is the move from God being utterly beyond, distant, to God being utterly present, in our midst, becoming completely vulnerable to the ways of our world.  In the story of the birth of Jesus, we find an image of the divine which forces us to stop looking beyond our own lives, away from our own world, as disconnected from our own communities, to a God we discover absolutely in our midst, as inseparable from the reality of ourselves and our sisters and brothers, as intrinsic to the very fabric of our social reality.   My encounter this week at the vigil reminded me of the essential truth of Christ – that to claim a new-born child in first century Palestine is divine means nothing nothing, unless we can also sit with a homeless man, in London, in the 21st century, and see Christ.

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Looking Deeply (Thich Nhat Hanh – Living Buddha, Living Christ)

“We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if the powerful countries would reduce their weapons arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds – our prejudices, fears, and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of the bombs are still here, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women. To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear that will be passed on for generations to come.

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.”

This is Jesus’ teaching about revenge. When someone asks you for something, give it to them. When they want to borrow something from you, lend it to them. How many of us actually practice this? There must be ways to solve our conflicts without killing. We must look at this. We have to find ways to help people get out of difficult situations of conflict, without having to kill. Our collective wisdom and experience can be the torch lighting our path, showing us what to do. Looking deeply together is the main task of a community or a church.

Looking Deeply …

Food and resistance

“After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”

John 6, 1-15

In their book ‘Saving Paradise’, Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker explain how Jesus’ act of feeding the multitudes, ‘regardless of status or need… undermined the paternalism of Rome, which was built on an elite and powerful few having so much that they might scatter their largess, distributing 20 percent of their grain as a dole to the vast masses’[1].  They describe how food was used by the Romans as a means to subdue the population of Palestine – the Roman empire had a monopoly on grain, and by being given just enough, the oppressed were expected to participate and maintain an economic system which led to their own continued subordination – the Romans created a dole system, and used it to subdue dissent.  The ‘generorsity’ of the occupying forces was in fact deeply manipulative, and a cycle of oppression and subordination was in full swing.  Jesus’ act of feeding all and sundry to excess, was a demonstration of how the kingdom of heaven might look, a kingdom whose understanding of power and the value of the individual sat in direct confrontation with that of the Roman empire, which derived power from oppressive military force and economic exploitation.  Whatever the source of the food that Jesus used to feed the crowd, it was not sourced from the occupation.

This story then, goes beyond a simple demand for charity, however noble that may be.  Jesus was not just feeding those who were hungry, he was launching an assault on the system that kept their tummies just full enough to not cause problems.  Jesus offered bread derived from love and community, and called on his movement to follow his example.  In the same way, we should provide for our communities in a way that openly challenges the power structures that maintain subordination.  We provide, yes, but we should provide in a way that both asks the question and provides a response to the systems and structures that make our ‘providing’ so necessary.  As we give food, money or shelter to the poor we should see a question – “Why is it I am having to do this?” – and start to demand answers.  If not, we are simply acting as a pressure release valve on a system violently out of control, and our participation in simply legitimises the mainstream discourse of scroungers, the undeserving poor, and of charity being a sufficient response (instead of system change).

Jesus’ act only makes sense as a response to an exploitative system, and our food banks, soup kitchens and every other charitable act is only necessary and only makes sense in the context of exploitative and degrading economic and political systems.  Our punitive benefits system hands out a similar ‘just enough’ as the Roman occupiers in the first century, expecting credit and thanks for maintaining a social order where the poorest are considered tantamount to criminal.  Our physical sustenance however, does not come from the state, from welfare systems or our earthly leaders, it is provided by the earth and by creation, by God, by our communities.  It is our deep separation from creation that means we come to rely on the ‘generosity’ of oppressive structures and have no way of undermining or challenging them.  The feeding of the five thousand is an image of hope – that beyond the vast, expansive desert of supermarkets and pre-packaged food that we see for but a fleeting moment as it passes over our lips – there is a different relationship we can create with our food, with our earth, and with our communities that is more wholesome, joyful and life-affirming.

[1]     Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Ann Parker, ‘Saving Paradise’, Page 33.

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