Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Economics of Good and Evil

Genesis 3.1-19, Luke 4.1-13
A new theory has taken the normally dull world of economics by storm. There's even been a lecture tour about it where the author cycles onto the stage playing a swanee whistle. However, if you want the more conventional version, the best-selling book about it can be downloaded onto a tablet or Kindle for about £4.
The author is someone called Tomas Sedlacek [Sedlachek], who is supposedly one of the five hottest minds in economics, so you may already be thinking, 'Well that’s probably not for me!' except that the title of his book is 'The Economics of Good and Evil' and he argues that economics isn't really a science, governed by lots of impenetrable mathematics and dry as dust laws, but more like a story or a parable which uses ideas and pictures from everyday life to try to make sense of the world. When he looks for inspiration, Sedlacek turns to the Bible, to myth, religion and ethics, because he believes economics is really about the eternal struggle between good and evil.
So let's begin with the curse of Adam, who had a life of ease and leisure in the Garden of Eden until he disobeyed God. As a punishment God told him that he would have to work for a living. It doesn't sound so bad, does it? After all, a lot of people like working and they get depressed if they don't have any work to do.
Yet work can so easily become a burden, can’t it? And that's because there's always more to do. The grass always needs cutting, the flower beds always need weeding, the house always needs tidying, food always needs preparing or cooking. And that's before we even leave our front gate!
But that's not really Sedlacek's complaint. He says the curse of Adam is that, however hard we work, however efficient we become, however much we earn, we'll never be completely happy because it simply isn't possible to satisfy all our desires.
Jesus seems to be on the same page as Tomas Sedlacek. When the Devil took him to the top of a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus knew that he would never be satisfied.
And that's because of another curse, the curse of Eve. What was it that Eve wanted when she wandered carefree through the Garden of Eden? She wanted the forbidden fruit. From our earliest years we're always attracted to the next shiny thing that's just out of reach.
My baby grandsons illustrate this perfectly. The other day I was sent a video of one of them apparently crawling towards a toy train because one of his sisters was obligingly ringing a bell on it to attract his attention. But then, at the very last minute when she has been well and truly suckered into believing that he only wants to get to the train, he veers off and grabs the television remote control instead - the ultimate forbidden fruit which he is absolutely not allowed to have.
The curse of Eve is that we always desire the next thing, something we don't already have.  And that means it's discontent which drives our economy gets us out of bed in the morning. We go to work to satisfy other people's discontent by making things for them, or delivering and selling things to them, and in the process we satisfy our own discontent, which makes us want the money to buy more things for ourselves.
Sedlacek says it doesn't have to be like that. We could be driven by the desire to make the world a better place, and of course some people already are. That's why Jesus resisted the temptations of the Devil. They were all about satisfying his discontent, not about building up God's kingdom.
Discontent hasn't always been in the driving seat. At the start of the Industrial Revolution many skilled workers refused to work harder, to meet the growing demand for things, because they already felt that they had enough to be content. The first factories were set up long before any machines were invented, with the ideas of making people come to work for a fixed amount of hours, and when adults refused to work in the new factories young people and children were set on instead.
The way we create demand today is a lot more sophisticated. We have alluring adverts and a relentless process of research and design to create new things that people will hopefully want to possess. Adverts are the modern way in which the Devil takes us to a high mountain and shows us something we'd really like to have.
But the economics of good and evil are not just about the curse of Adam and Eve making us work to meet demands that can never be satisfied. Tomas Sedlacek says that it is also about how we decide what something is really worth.
Some things have a price but other important things are priceless - things like love, trust, integrity and so on, simply cannot be bought. But traditionally economics tries to give everything a price if it possibly can. So there's an economics of marriage, which says that people will be attracted to upwardly mobile partners whereas in fact most people - and we might even say all sensible people - don't make life-changing decisions on the basis of how much money they'll get in return. In most cases we get married or have children because that's what we want to do, regardless of the cost or the economic benefit. In fact sometimes our decisions make us worse off and we accept that's the price of happiness.
It sounds obvious, doesn't it. And yet the temptation to value things inappropriately can be awfully strong. Where would love films be without the temptation to climb up to the highest pinnacle of the Temple and throw yourself off in the hope of receiving fame and fortune?
So, for example, we watched a film the other night where boy meets girl, girl likes boy and they become firm friends, but suddenly the girl - but it could have been the boy - is offered the chance of a lifetime to advance her career. She gives in to the temptation and then, on her very first day in her new job, realises she’s made a mistake. However, on her way to the exit someone chases after her. 'Wonderful news!' he says. 'The boss wants to see you to discuss your future. Take the elevator to the top floor and you'll find him waiting for you there.' What's the girl to do? What was Jesus to do? When economics tries to put a price on priceless values we have to resist.
And yet, how many people stay in a job which they don't like, which they feel is reducing their quality of life and harming their relationships, jut because they feel that they need the money? And perhaps they do!
Or how many people try to buy contentedness - which we already know is impossible - by putting a price on values like happiness, or peacefulness or tranquility? That is, after all, how holidays are sold to us. And who am I to say that a holiday might not actually make us happier, or more tranquil, for a while?
There are no pat answers, because temptations come in subtle form and can be very hard to distinguish from genuine opportunities. Who's to say that if Jesus had given in to temptation, and built a solid career for himself based on property or prestige, he couldn't have done a lot of good?
However, value is not the same as price. It was Oscar Wilde who said that some people know the price of everything but the value of nothing, and he was right. And true values, like honour and love, are above price. They simply cannot be bought.
Economists sometimes try to argue that religion, philosophy and the arts have value only because they create jobs or offer people material benefits. So, for a example, I once helped to write a report which set out to demonstrate - and did demonstrate in fact - that religious organisations add a great deal of value to the economy of Yorkshire by employing a lot of people, and by feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. Religious organisations run schools and community learning classes. They help to keep people out of hospital by making them feel cherished and so on. And yet their true value, their intrinsic worth, is beyond price. They are worthwhile not because they create wealth or save money, but because they make us better people.
So what about the temptation to turn stones into bread? Obviously, if it's just about miracle working, it's simply another variant of the temptation to raise our profile or gain prestige. But what if it arises from a genuine desire to help those at the bottom of the pile, the people who really can't afford to buy enough bread? Isn't this the Devil at his most persuasive, at least for people of faith and goodwill? Isn't this part of the attractiveness of the best religious movements, that they take unpromising material and somehow transform it?
Tomas Sedlecek sees the story of Joseph and his brothers as the first story ever told about the economic cycle, because Joseph understands that a boom is always followed by a bust and he teaches Pharaoh an important lesson, always save in the good years so that you can ride out the crisis when it comes. Other people, including Joseph's brothers, must beg for food when famine strikes, but the Egyptians are sitting pretty. They have found an honest way of turning stones into bread, famine into plenty. They haven't done a deal with the Devil, because he can't airbrush away the harsh reality of drought. Instead, they have planned responsibly to avoid anyone having to starve.
Isn't this why Jesus rejects the Devil's enticements? Because, no matter how humane it sounds to turn stones into bread, it’s only really encouraging a 'spend now, worry later' attitude and storing up trouble for the future.
For many years regeneration projects offered services to local residents for free, as though life owes all of us a living. When the money ran out people were indignant and felt they had been enticed into a culture of dependency built on the false promise that we can always have a free lunch.
Tomas Sedlacek reminds us that in the Bible, including the parables of Jesus and the Lord's Prayer, the word debt is very closely related to the word sin. I think it's pressing the case too far to equate the two and say that it's sinful to go into debt or to lend someone money, although many Muslims would certainly say that and it used to be mainstream Christian teaching too. But in Lent, of all times, we have to take seriously Jesus' challenge to the Devil.
Tomas Sedlacek says we cannot go on as we are. Our model of prosperity is based on what he calls ‘Growth Capitalism’, the idea that we always have to make more and consume more in order to be successful, but there must be a better way of organising society.

He doesn’t want a world in which the captains of industry continue to reward themselves with huge pay increases while the incomes of the poor are squeezed and disabled people have their cars taken away. Instead, he wants us to find a fair and equitable cutting what we spend by doing less and doing it more sustainably.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The hot and bothered Jesus

Have you ever had a day like this?
This is Jesus, but not as we normally know him. This isn’t gentle Jesus meek and mild. This is Jesus looking hot and bothered, or tired and frazzled, or a bit down in the dumps, or just having a bad day - or is it a bad couple of days, or a bad month, a bad 40 days even?
The sun is beating down. He’s sat on some uncomfortable looking boulders, probably baking in the heat. Either he needs a couple of paracetamol, perhaps even my favourite tipple - paracetamol and codeine, or he’s having a bad hair day, or both!
I like this picture because I think it reminds us what temptation really looks like. It doesn’t look like a pantomime villain creeping up behind you to whisper wicked enticements in your ear. It looks like this.
Someone wrote to me the other day to thank me for helping her get a job. She said she would be calling round to the office with a bottle of champagne for me. I said, ‘Drink the champagne yourself with your boyfriend and your mother, because you deserve it. Just bring us your letter of appointment so that we can use it as evidence that we helped you!’
She wrote back and said, ‘My new boss seems swamped with tasks and responsibilities, and I wouldn't dare hope for a letter of confirmation. He has been the only staff the organisation has had lately, and he just has a terribly busy and worried look about him.’
Isn’t that the problem with Christians? We often have a terribly busy and worried look about us. Worrying about the church roof, and the finances, and the stewards’ rota, and goodness knows what. And in that situation the temptation - the same temptation I am sure which Jesus faced many times - is to forget about the good things.

Well, Lent is a chance to get things properly in persective.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Rethinking the meaning of marriage

Hosea 2.16-20, Matthew 1.1-16 / John 2.1-11
This year the Methodist Church is having a rethink about marriage. Unless it’s actually someone’s wedding day marriage isn’t something we normally talk about much, except at church council meetings when we're deciding what fees to charge. Perhaps that's because it can be a touchy subject. The Babylonians had the first written laws governing marriage and already the reason they had for making those laws was to sort out conflicts between the marriage partners.
In ancient Greece marriage didn't have the same legal force as it had in Babylon, it was a private arrangement between two people, or between their families. But it was still important, as a way of deciding which of a man's  children would inherit his property. A woman could have ever so many children but, if she wasn’t acknowledged to be their father's wife, they would have to have to make their own fortune.
But the ancient Greeks weren’t just preoccupied with money and inheritance. They were also the first people to decide that strong communities depend on, and are rooted in, families where parents and children find mutual comfort, encouragement and support.
By the time of the Emperor Augustus, the guy who ordered the census when Jesus was born, many people had given up on marriage and were going through life having a series of relationships. It was more than 2,000 years ago but it sounds incredibly up-to-date. He decided to stop the rot by making the first recorded attempt to pass laws specifically designed to compel people to get married and settle down.
When the people of Israel adopted the worship of one God the symbolism of an everlasting betrothal between God and his faithful people was taken to imply that lifelong marriage between one man and one woman was also the natural order of things. If it's good enough for God it must be the right thing to do! We see this in the prophecies of Hosea, who contrasts the faithlessness of his wife with the faithfulness of God, and says that God will go on loving his faithless people just as Hosea must go on loving his faithless wife.
In the New Testament Jesus and Paul are not opposed to marriage or sexual relationships As John Chapter 2 shows, Jesus enjoyed a good wedding celebration, but they both believed that we have a great many more important things to cram into our short lives. Getting married is a huge distraction from the more important task of preparing for the Kingdom of God.
In the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew's gospel only five women are mentioned and none of them was married when her child was conceived. Matthew seems to be making the point that God isn't very interested in human institutions like marriage and works through people who aren't married just as much as through people who aren’t. For a long time Christians took this very seriously and placed a higher value on people who didn't tie themselves down with family commitments but instead devoted themselves to God, and that’s still the foundation for rules about celibacy in Roman Catholic holy orders.
However, as the New Testament period drew to a close Christians began to realise that marriage was here to stay and they began to say that husbands and wives must treat one another with love and respect. They also decided that the Church was the Bride of Christ and therefore his relationship with us became a template for married life.
This concept puts a heavy burden on couples. It sets up the idea that a marriage should be perfect, just as the love of Jesus for his friends is perfect, whereas that's just not possible. A marriage can only be good enough. It can never be perfect all of the time.
The comparison with Jesus also set up the idea that one partner in a relationship might be more important than the other. In practice that is often the case; one partner depends on the other emotionally, or financially, or for practical support, although the ideal surely has to be an equal relationship of give and take. Sometimes Biblical writers stuck to the idea of equality and shared responsibility, but more often they were happy to accept the idea that the husband is equivalent of Christ and his wife is equivalent to his followers, who are called to obey him. This brought Christians closer into line with the Roman idea that the husband was the head of the household, and helped them to avoid rocking the boat at a time when they were treated with suspicion for being different from other people, but it’s not very helpful for us when we’re trying to think about marriage today.
For long centuries after the New Testament period, marriage was just a matter of custom and practice. Two people got married by joining their hands and promising to love one another and live together. Marriage was sometimes blessed by a priest, but it didn't have to be. In Norwich two young people claimed they had got married and that the housemaid had witnessed them do it. The girl's parents were furious and made the housemaid stand up in court and deny everything, and that's how we know what happened. Today we've come full circle, with the majority of people now choosing to set up home together without having a formal marriage. Should we be as relaxed about this as our ancestors were? Families may not always have been happy then, but the Church didn't try to interfere in relationships and the sky didn't fall in.
The way marriage worked for ordinary people was based on a division of labour. The word ‘husbandman’ meant the person in charge of the land and the animals, and the word ‘housewife’ meant the person in charge of the cleaning, the cooking and the needlework. This doesn't mean that jobs weren't sometimes shared, only that people knew who was in charge. Outside the home it was the husband, inside the home it was the wife.
We've moved beyond these safe certainties and in many ways that’s a good thing because people often felt trapped by them and were unhappy with their allotted role. But now that every couple has the freedom to decide who does what, we need to help couples keep hold of the idea of sharing, not just the workload but also the responsibility for seeing that the work gets done.
Getting married in church didn't become compulsory for Roman Catholics until 1514, and until the 1750s for everyone else in England. But the Church increasingly got involved in marriage as an umpire when things went wrong. Maybe that's still a good place for the Church to be, not criticizing people who choose to get married in hotels or to live together in a common-law relationship, but helping them to strengthen their bond by recognising that it’s every bit as valid, and just as binding in a moral sense, as a church wedding.
Sometimes, when two people had fallen out of love, they agreed to lease one another to a new partner, because divorce wasn't actually allowed. So people effectively sold the responsibility for looking after their husband or wife to a different person, usually someone they already knew and liked. But, in Thomas Hardy's novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, the outwardly respectable mayor has a dark secret. He leased his wife to someone else while they were in an abusive relationship fuelled by alcohol. After he sobered up and realised what he’d done he immediately regretted his decision, but his wife believed that her new marriage was lawful and only came back to find him when her new husband died in a shipwreck. And this isn't a story about the dim and distant past, it's set in Victorian England!
It was to stop abuses like this, and brutal customs like the kidnapping of young girls as brides, that the Church started to describe marriage ceremony as sacred, with lifelong vows made before God which shouldn’t be entered upon lightly or inadvisedly.  But the main reason why most couples stayed together through thick and thin was that life was hard, and managing a household and bringing up children without a partner was even harder.
The ease with which people can now separate is a challenge to the traditional Christian view that marriage should be 'till death us do part'. I think we have to accept that relationships can go irreparably wrong, but we should still stand against the prevailing idea that it's all right simply to fall in and out of love without trying to keep a relationship together and make it work. Couples often regret breaking up, their children may be damaged by it and it's very costly to society. When people come to church to get married they’re investing in the idea of something which will endure and we should help them find strategies to realise that vision.
Being in love with your partner has been the ideal in marriage from the time of the Song of Solomon, but only the new economic freedom brought by the 20th Century allowed people to opt in and out of marriage if they felt that their love had transferred to someone else or just cooled. Being happy at all costs replaced putting up with things the way they are. Christians shouldn't be asking people to make do with second best but perhaps we do need to put more emphasis on the comfort, mutual support and security which people can find in a good marriage relationship.
A very important part of the traditional marriage service was the witnesses, the community gathered around a couple who then helped them to keep their vows, not just by discouraging them from flirting too much with other people but also by babysitting or giving them financial help and emotional support when things got tough. Getting married on a scuba diving holiday in the Caribbean is very romantic but it leaves the couple entirely reliant on one another.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that, at a time when the legal status of marriage seems to be in decline, there’s still a group of people who are fighting for the right to get married  in church. That group is gay and lesbian people. The Methodist Church has already affirmed their right to play a full part in the life of the Church. Now, in 2016, it has to decide whether that affirmation extends to sharing in all that we’ve said about the Christian understanding of marriage.
I’m not here to tell you the answer to that question. In fact, your views are being invited by the Methodist Conference. What I can say, however, is that the Christian understanding of marriage doesn’t depend on a piece of paper. It’s really a promise made between two people to love and honour one another, wherever that promise is made.