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Sunday 29 August 2010

The Economics of Compassion

Texts: Jeremiah 2. 4-13; Psalm 81. 1, 10-16; Hebrews 13. 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14. 7-14

We hear a terrible lot about economics these days. A terrible lot. The daily output of our many media really is full, flowing over, indeed, with both the language and values of economics. There’s the Stock Market with its All Ordinaries Index and its Futures Index. There’s the National Economic Outlook, which tells us whether we ought to be happy or sad about life. Then there’s Interest Rates - our own and those in the United States - the tightening or untightening of Monetary and/or Fiscal policies. There’s the GDP, the GNP and the Current Account Deficit. There’s frequent reports on how much we’re paying per refugee. And all of this is reported to us, the citizens of Australia, on at least an hourly basis. It’s almost as if our lives depended on this stuff; indeed, for an increasing number of Australians, life and economic prosperity have become practically synonymous. The people most alive, we are told, the people most with it, the people who are really going somewhere in this life - they give their money to Colonial which, apparently, provides the fastest, the safest, the most responsibly managed ride to economic and financial nirvana.

It’s a curious thing, you know, how words change their meanings. Because economics hasn’t always been about the accumulation of private wealth. It hasn’t always been about getting rich off the back of someone else’s labour. Once upon a time, economics was about the way we shared this planet of ours. It was about the values of equilibrium and care: care of one’s neighbour, and care of the land on which we all depend. In fact, the word ‘economics’ is derived from a Greek word: ‘oikodome’, which means ‘household’. In the ancient world, economics was about the way in which a household constructed its life not only for its own ends, but also for the good of the community in which it participated. And in the hands of early Christian thinkers like Paul of Tarsus, oikodome because a potent symbol of the new life of peace and justice which Christ had come to build in the world. Paul calls his apostolic ministry a service to the oikodome of Christ (2 Cor 13.10), and reminds believers that they ought to treat one another according to the spirit of that same oikodome (Rom 14.19). Paul encourages each Christian to use their gifts, talents and personal resources to build one another up into the oikodome of Christ, a holy temple in which God is pleased to dwell (Eph 2.21, 22).

The values of Christ’s economy are spelled out for us in that wonderful passage we read from Hebrews earlier on. And we would do well to re-read that passage now, listening for the way in which the economics of Christ confronts the economics of our age.

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence,‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’ 
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
For Christians, then, economics is certainly not about the accumulation of personal wealth. And it is not about keeping ourselves safe from the misfortunes which befall others. It is fundamentally about joining our fortunes to the fortunes of others. It’s about counting ourselves rich because of the infinite gift of God to us in the mystery of Christ, and out of that irreducible gift, choosing to give our own selves, body and soul, for the sake of the common wealth which Christ is building.

Of course, the economics of God’s commonwealth are seen most clearly in the career of Jesus. In Luke’s gospel we read of the time when he went to the house (oikos) of a local Jewish leader for a wedding party. It was the Sabbath Day, the day when Jews commemorated and anticipated the Shalom of God, that final rest for all who are burdened and heavy laden. For Jesus, the Sabbath provided the perfect symbolic backdrop for confronting the economics of his time, the details of which may be extracted from the story. 1st century Mediterranean economics operated according to what has been called a patron/ client system of relationships. Which meant that everybody was born to a station in life, a spot in the pecking order if you like; and the only way that one could hang on to that station was to gain and keep the favour of someone who was a little bit higher up the ladder. The more favours you did, the more likely you were to gain a stable and respectable patron. And the more respectable your patronage, the more chance you had of surviving with your dignity intact. Now the important thing to remember here is that the economics of Jesus’ world was an economics of exchange between people who were certainly not equal. The poorer person did his or her work in exchange for the favour of his or her betters. Much like modern-day India, really.

Now, how did Jesus regard this economics of exchange? Well, the answer is not so clear as we might think. To our modern ears, Jesus does not come across as entirely consistent in this story. You see, the first tip Jesus passes on to his fellow party-goers is how to make the most out of the patron/client system. ‘Sit in the lowliest place at a banquet’, says Jesus, ‘so that when you are invited to step up higher, all will see that your patron is granting you his favour’. In other words, don’t risk the disfavour of a patron by presuming too much! Now this advice clearly approves of the economics of exchange, or is at least resigned to it. There is nothing here which signifies a more radical economics. Even Luke’s invocation of humility as a moral virtue does little to shift the compliance of the story with the usual economics. It is a morality entirely consistent with patron/client exchange.

But in the second part of the story, the ground shifts, the earth moves, and we find ourselves in an entirely different orbit. Jesus now turns to the one who is giving the banquet, the one who functions as Jesus’ patron, and pulls the rug out from under his entire enterprise. ‘You ought not invite people to banquets in order to seek their favour’, he says. One ought not invite one’s patrons. ‘Indeed’, says Jesus, ‘you should not even invite potential clients, those from whom goods and services might be extracted in return for one’s own favour’. ‘When you are preparing a banquet,’ he says to this fellow (and I can see his jaw drop even now), ‘invite only the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.’ In other words, invite only the ‘untouchables’, the very lowest echelon of society, those who are neither patrons nor clients, those for whom there is no economic status at all. Why? Because they could never repay you in a million years. They could never repay you in a million years . . . Can you feel the ground shift? Can you see the tear in those old wineskins? Here Jesus calls the whole system of patron and client into question. He rejects, utterly, the morality of a system whereby people are valued only insofar as they have something to exchange. Only insofar as they are willing to exploit and be exploited. Only insofar as they are able to reduce themselves to relations of usefulness. And he does so on the basis of what can only be called a vision of messianic justice: a strong belief in the patronage of God for all people, a radically different kind of patronage which is given freely and without condition of response. A patronage which gives even the ‘untouchable’ ones a sacred status as children of the Most High God.

It is only in the light of this second story that the first one begins to make some sense. Where the first story, on an initial reading at least, seems to cast Jesus as a simple supporter of the status quo, this second story forces us to read it otherwise. For we can now see what kind of humility Christ is calling us to. Not the humility which expects a return as part of the exchange of client and patron. Not the humility which is motivated by self-interest. We are called, rather, to a humility which takes the form of solidarity. A humility which joins our fortunes to others simply because they are loved of God, and for no other reason. Loved of God, and heirs of the gift which has no exchange-rate, and can never be repaid in a million years. This is a humility which radically transforms the economics by which we operate, from an economics of exchange to an economics of compassion.

You can see where I am going with this, can’t you! This year our Government again showed us that it is deeply committed to an economics of exchange, and knows almost nothing about the economics of compassion taught us by Christ. I submit to you that the basic reason why asylum-seekers who arrive by boat are being refused entry to Australia is simply this. That the rate of exchange is not deemed good enough; that, in the view of our government, these people are unlikely to return our investment in their livelihoods with a sufficiently high rate of interest. I could talk all day about the wrongs and rights of Australia’s approach to asylum seekers. I could rant and rave about the legality or illegality of what we do with regard to detention, for example. But I will not. Because at the heart of the controversy is this clear and decisive contradiction between the economics of exchange and the oikodome of compassion, a contradiction that we Christian’s are called to live out and draw attention to - to gossip, to preach, to work and to pray this contradiction with all the grace and compassion of Christ. It is this vocation that the former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Konrad Raiser, called us in an open letter a few years ago:

. . . the Gospel tells us that Jesus made the love for strangers and enemies a hallmark of the inclusive community of the children of God. In this, he followed the Old Testament tradition of receiving the stranger . . . “Christians are called to be with the oppressed, the persecuted, the marginalised and the excluded in their suffering, their struggles and their hopes. A ministry of accompaniment and advocacy with uprooted people upholds the principles of prophetic witness and service - diaconia. We cannot desert the 'needy', nor set boundaries to compassion.
In the economy of God, there are no boundaries to the welcome we, all of us, receive by the unconditional gift of God’s grace. So let us not set boundaries and conditions ourselves. Freely we have received. Freely let us give.

This homily was first preached at South Yarra Baptist Church in September 2001. 

Saturday 21 August 2010

Choosing Christ's Peace

Texts: Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56

The following of Christ is not for people who are allergic to making choices. It is not for any who would rather keep their options permanently open, or for those of us who prefer to spread our allegiances around in order to keep things nice with important allies. For when Christ calls, he calls us to choose.

The sacred texts we read just now were written in the midst of a world that was, in many respects, just like the one that has arrived for us with the ascendency of George Bush’s America. The world was ruled by an imperial power, a power whose influence pervaded every sphere of life, whether that be political, economic, domestic or spiritual. Local cultural and religious organisations were tolerated, in the public sphere, so long as their aims and practices did not conflict with the agenda of Rome. Where local organisations did conflict with Rome, its members could be charged with both the political crime of sedition and the religious crime of blasphemy. For what Bush’s America leaves implicit, Rome put out there for all to see: that the accumulation and maintenance of absolute power is tantamount to making oneself into a god who requires both obedience and worship. In the world of first-century Rome, those arrested on suspicion of either sedition or blasphemy were often held for long periods without charge, questioned and even tortured without recourse to adequate legal representation, pushed through a show-trial, and then summarily executed. Ironically, or tragically (depending on your point of view), this whole system of intimidation and repression had a particular name in the first century: the pax romana, the ‘peace of Rome’.

It is impossible to comprehend the words of Jesus in the gospel we read just now, unless one understands that it was this ‘peace’, this pax romana, that Luke wanted to challenge and contest. From the point of view of the Evangelist, the peace offered by Rome was no peace at all. It was a false peace, an uneasy peace. It was a peace that demanded nothing less than the selling of one’s mind, soul and body to the invader. If one were to accept the pax romana, one would need to divest oneself of anything resembling an independent thought or will or action. Theologically, accepting the peace of Rome was tantamount to choosing Caesar, and all things Roman, as god.

For Christians, of course, this was impossible. For Christians are those who, having heard the call of Christ to follow, have freely and without compulsion chosen to give themselves over to Christ as Lord and God. For Christians, there is only one authority in heaven and earth, and that is Christ. Having been baptised into his death, we have died to the basic principles of this world, to its false forms of peace and justice, in order to look for a peace that is still to come. The peace to come, in Christian understanding, is the pax Christi, the peace of Christ. It is a cosmos in which people honour each other with a radical hospitality and unconditional love, very much after the manner of Christ himself. It is a peace in which the poor are no longer poor, and the rich no longer rich. It is a peace in which the colour of one’s skin and the accidents of one’s progress through life are no longer reduced to function as symbols of one’s worth (or lack of it). The peace of Christ is a peace that the world cannot generate for itself. It is the gift of God in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. It is a gift that Christians learn to receive and recognise only through the repeated discipline of immersing ourselves in the story of Christ’s faith, hope and love (that is, by prayer and worship in the Christian tradition). Furthermore, it is in the name of this peace that Christians take up the responsibility to resist the false ‘peace’ of the various empire-builders that appear, again and again, in human history.

When Christ speaks of bringing fire and a sword to the earth one must recognise, therefore, that this is not a sword or a fire that may in any way be compared to the fire or the sword of an imperial power. It is not, in any sense whatsoever, a ‘shock and awe’ campaign like that of Bush in Iraq, nor a kill-them-all-by-night campaign like that of Sharon in Palestine. No, the ‘sword’ that Christ brings is nothing other than his vulnerable humanity, his faith, his hope and his love. The fire he brings is nothing other than that kindled by his passionate care for the poor, the marginalised, and the victims. In a world such as that of Rome, or indeed of the emerging American empire, intangibles such as these are regarded as far more dangerous than any bomb, for they have the power to un-do or even destroy the fears and anxieties upon which all such regimes thrive and are founded.

Of course, the practise of Christ’s virtue is deeply costly for those of us who have the faith and courage to follow that way. As believers who look for a ‘better country’ than the one on offer in the here and now, we resist the values and practices of the here and now. And that, my friends, can be very dangerous. In the passage we read from earlier, the writer to the Hebrews notes that those who practise their faith in God’s coming peace are very often ridiculed, imprisoned, beaten up, exiled, tortured, or even killed. Just as Christ was, in fact. This is the baptism of which Christ speaks in Luke. The baptism into suffering and death at the hands of the powers-that-be for the sake of one’s hope that the whole world might be resurrected in love. One’s hope in such things can even divide families—those who long for something better from those who, whether because of fear or brainwashing, are content to ingratiate themselves towards the power of the imperium.

All of which leads me to ask a very old, but still very pertinent question. If the way of Christ is to resist the Imperial Power with prophetic perseverance and suffering love, why is it that church folk are still amongst the most prominent beneficiaries of the current world system? Why is it that church schools and educational institutions receive so much support from both public and private sectors, and why is it that church people are still amongst the most wealthy and successful members of the community?

Perhaps I may be so bold as to answer this way. Many church people continue to be successful because so many of us gave away the actual following of Jesus long ago. Perhaps as long ago as the Constantinian transformation of Christianity in the Roman Empire of the fourth century. A great many church people no longer resist the values of the imperium because they have chosen the benefits of capitulation to the present regime over the faith, hope and love of Christ toward a better country. I’m not sure that I can put it any more starkly than that.

Still, if that is what has occurred, then I weep for the church and I weep for the world. Because the values of the current world powers make only for misery, and on a terrifying scale. If, as the advertisers constantly tell us, the only people worth two crumpets in this world are white men and women of average intelligence, with large bank accounts, obscenely expensive cars, and beautifully sculptured bodies, then God help the rest of us! In a world with that kind of pecking order, the rest of us are reduced to irrelevance. The rest of us become fodder for an industry whose sole purpose and aim is to enrich the elites. Now, for the people who work the sweatshops of Asia and South America in order to, for example, create the uniforms of our Olympian athletes, that fact is clear and obvious. But for those of us who live middle-class lives here in the West, it is not so obvious. Unless, of course, one has read the stats on the alarming increases in our community of mental illness, substance addiction, paedophilia, family breakdown and suicide. Even then, one can always blame the victim. And that is what we usually do. Until we become victims ourselves. When that happens one sees, often for the first time, that we are all perpetrators and that we are all victims, duped into believing the usual propaganda about middle-class progress.

In times like these, it seems increasingly likely that Christians will have to adopt the ancient visage of the “fools” for Christ, those who resist the logic of the imperium to the point of great personal cost. If the elites continue to protect their interests as aggressively as they are doing in our present time, it may be necessary that many more Christians will have to reconcile themselves to being economically poor, or having low-status jobs, or not having jobs at all. In addition, many of us may have to get used to increased levels of mocking or patronisation. It is likely that, in times to come, our own lives, and those of the one’s we love, may actually be in danger. Yet, in all this, we are called to count our losses as nothing compared to the surpassing wonder of knowing Christ our Lord, who, having endured the cross and its shame, now imbues us, and all who follow him, with the promise of a world renewed. In the name of that faith, that hope, and that love, we are called to be happy in our resistance toward the inhumanity of Bush and Howard. For by doing just that, Christ himself comes to make the better country real. And that is enough for me. In that is our peace, and, I believe, the peace of the world.