Saturday, 29 October 2011

Reading the Bible in the Light of Jesus

Last night, we participated in a session discussing reading the Bible after Christendom. However, reading Revelation 1:7 this morning and Barclay's commentary, I am seeing how New Testament writers read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus.

Barclay refers to a passage in Zechariah 12 which talks of looking on a person who they had pierced. Barclay sees this passage as being behind John's words in this verse when John says “the people who pierced him will see him.” Zechariah was talking in a different context and to a different people but the message is consistent. God's servant has been rejected but at some point his message will be seen as true. At this point, the people will repent and lament for their actions.

I struggle to write what I am thinking in terms of economics but as I look at the reported evidence of increasing inequality, I see it as more important that we shift to a need based reward rather than a reward based on perceived value of the contribution. I think here of the New testament story of the vineyard paid all his workers the same amount regardless of when the started work in the day (Matthew 20:1-16). When will those living in luxury because of their high reward packages repent and look upon the damage that they have done and mourn?

How do we wrestle power away from highly paid CEOs and bankers so that the system can serve the needs of the people and creation rather than the pockets of the wealthy?

In our next cycle of Peacechurch sessions, I am to lead a session on economic grace. Is it God's grace that he does not judge the wealthy but cares for the poor? But how do I help people to focus on meeting need without concern for self? How do I put this into practice myself?

The occupy movement is being told to move on from Victoria Square in Birmingham and from outside St Pauls in London. Although I have sympathy for the movement, I haven't visited their camp or shown my support.

I find it interesting that the Anglican hierarchy in London is saying the movement has made their point and should move on. If they accept that the movement has made its point then they should act to address the issues but what they are saying is let us get on with our business, we don't want to hear your message.

Birmingham City Council is saying a similar message to the occupy movement here. They are saying we want the square for public events (i.e. our commercial street market). Our earning potential or lose is more important than changing in response to the message.

I think here is a sense in which the church leaders and civic leaders say that the message isn't about us, it is about the bankers. In other words, they haven't really heard the message or understand the significance of what is being said.

Will this be a situation where the leadership of the Anglican church and the Birmingham City Council will look upon those whom they rejected and tried to move on and repent?

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Prepare for Service

Reading Payne's (1982) commentary on 1 Samuel 1: 19-28, raised some interesting issues about what a parent's role should be. He says “a parent's ultimate duty to his or her children is to fit them for service to others and then to release them” (p 12). Hannah had certainly released Samuel although we would have to wonder whether she had prepared him for service.

Preparing for service isn't about preparing our children to build riches or to accumulate for self. It is to go out and serve others. In this sense, Samuel is an example as he is given into God's service.

My argument is that our economy should be about balancing service with need, not with the ability to pay. The 'market' supposedly balances supply with demand. An over supply and prices go down and production reduces. An under supply and prices rise along with production. Supposedly the driver is the demand for the product. The theory that thus us self balancing through 'market' forces. The difficulty is that not all real needs are satisfied by market forces.

Those not in a position to provide a service or product become unable to satisfy their needs. No one will service those needs unless paid to do so. Governments tax the transactions in an attempt to address these issues. The government is then forced to balance its expenditure with its revenue. That is, it has to apply 'market' rules even to its services. The consequence is that it cuts back on services even though the need remains.

As the UK government indicated a rise in student fees, students protested over the increases. Even though these protests seem to have died away, the falling apart of the concept of 'market' is falling apart. The theory would suggest the fees should rise if there is an under-supply but in this case the rising fees are more to do with changes in funding formulae. Potentially, there is an under-supply, although some would argue that there is an over-supply of graduates. 'Market' forces would suggest that graduate salaries should fall with a corresponding decline in those seeking university education. The reality doesn't seem to match the theory. When the demand for graduates is high, the enrolments fall because more people are able to get work without formal qualifications. As unemployment increases, the demand for qualifications increases and so do enrolments. If the price of education is linked to demand then the costs go down during good economic times and up during hard economic times. However, since the potential students ability to pay will also influence the demand, there are opposing pressures on enrolments at all times. The 'market' does not appear to be a solution for education. This also assumes that education is all about certification for employment. Another fallacy from my perspective and one that really hinders learning but that is a different issue.

Putting increasing fee burdens on students means that they come out of the educational process with increased debt. I contend that this debt enslaves them to the system. They are no longer free to serve. Rather they must commit to employment and the market. They are enslaved to the economic forces which they have little ability to control.

Serving is not part of the 'market' equation. Training for service or to satisfy needs isn't in the equation. Yet it could be argued that demand is driven by need. Are our artificial markets (currency markets, fashion accessories, electronic good, etc.) driven by need or artificially stimulated desire. Currency markets are purely artificial and I see no real product. Fashion items have their demand driven by marketing campaigns designed to build a desire for or 'want' for those items. Similar applies for many consumer items. They are built to be replaced or upgraded before the previous item is no longer usable. An artificial need is created and product is produced for waste.

Real need and service is lost in our 'market' economies. Waste and redundancy dominate. Sustainability is lost since waste is required to maintain the artificial market. There are real challenges here if we are to address the destructive forces of the systems that we have put in place.

Reference

Payne, D. F. (1982). Samuel. Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Failing Systems

Isaiah 58 is one of those passages where the prophet speaks out against fasting and Sabbath celebration if it is not linked with justice and caring for the needy. As I read, I thought of how hard our hearts are and just how much our systems focus on protecting personal wealth and promoting self interest. The cry for a more equal society is a call for a change to the way decisions are made but equality has more than just equal sharing of wealth.

I try to justify my own position through thinking about how I am looking at changes to the economic system but the reality is that I would be reluctant to have the homeless come into my home. I don't share what I have with those in need and to some extent ignore the requests for help. Am I any better than those in Israel who Isaiah spoke out against? I suspect not.

We are indoctrinated by our systems and self interest. Our priority isn't about addressing the needs of others. It is all about protecting and promoting our own status. As I think of access to education, our focus is upon improving the status of the university and not on equal opportunity. Would we be willing to provide opportunities to those who don't meet the entry standards or who have been cast aside by society? Surely equal opportunity is allowing all who seek to learn the opportunity to do so regardless of past achievement or ability to pay.

But equal access to education isn't enough if the door to employment is closed. In the UK, they talk of an employability statistic that reflects the percentage of graduates that end up in what are called graduate jobs. Does this statistic take into consideration the falling opportunities for employment? Our measures of success for the university promote continuance of the economic growth myth and the self interest of our systems. Could we establish measures that looked at how education promoted equality or change in the system? Critical thinking involves questioning current practice and to do that means being aware of alternative possibilities. What would a more equal society look like? How else can we measure progress? These are questions that we need to look at and act upon.

Failing Systems and Leaders

Despite the consequences of operating under a corrupt systems, the leaders seem to revert to that system as those consequences fade. I am thinking of the economic recession that we are trying to recover from and how the leaders and many people seem to be pushing back against the changes that are necessary. Supposedly, there will be reform to the banking sector but it is clear that any change will take years to implement if implemented at all.

But even more in the line retaining the status quo is the continued arguments over taxing the wealthy and giving the wealthy room to exploit the poor. The argument is that the wealthy create jobs so should not be restricted in their activity to generate more wealth. The evidence is that business practice will discard the worker in order to maximise the profit for the owners.

Sawyer (1986) commenting on Isaiah 56:9 – 57:13 says that the prophet is rejecting the 'Establishment' and is discriminating “in favour of the poor, the foreigners and the outcasts” (p 163). Any rejection of the current leadership of the UK or the US may also be seen as similar discrimination. But as I look at nations that have just overthrown their leadership, I see them installing leaders who in the past have been part of the overthrown leadership. I do not see change coming through those overthrows but just a change in those who wield the power. There may be a reduction in violence against opposing voices but the heart of the corrupt system remains. The new leadership returns to the ways of the old leadership, Change has not occurred. The prophets voice will again rise in protest focusing on the exploitation that continues to occur.

Reference

Sawyer, J. F. A. (1986). Isaiah (Vol. 2). Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Cultural Violence

Recently there was a brief discussion on Facebook related to God fostering violence rather than being a god seeking to bring in peace. God is seen as initiating violence against Israel for her sins and against her oppressors. Isaiah 51:9-52:12 illustrates this with reference to creation and Israel's exodus from Egypt. The commentator, Sawyer (1986), links this with “God's power to defeat all the powers of darkness, not just the darkness of primeval chaos” (p 138). Sawyer through spiritualising the battle seems to want to push aside the violence to people and nature that is claimed to be initiated by God.

Yet I don't want to see God as an initiator of violence. My post (31 August 2011) questioned whether God initiated the riots here in the UK. There I said “God may permit or use people intent on violence to catch the attention of those who claim to be his people.” But what I am doing is attributing historical events to God to suit my theology. As I read this Isaiah passage, I wonder whether Isaiah and the biblical writers are doing the same thing. They want to give a picture of God rescuing his people and ushering in his kingdom but they see his people resisting. The cultural context is one of violence so God is seen to use it to chasten his people and then to bring them forth from the midst of other nations. In effect, the prophet is using language appropriate to the period to convey a message of God's salvation. We look back at it and see it encouraging violence and miss the message of shalom that weaves its way through the passages.

My question in my 31 August blog was “what would God need to do now or permit now to catch the attention of his people?” I see groups seeking to question mankind's rush to mutually assured destruction (MAD) but their messages on inequality and sustainability are ignored. Instead, we continue to create a wealth gap and chase greed then attempt to defend ourselves through weapons of mutual destruction.

Is it likely in this context that our prophecies like those of Old Testament prophets will warn of violence to come and which came visible in the riots and in Libya's rebels. Surely violence and destruction is still part of our culture. It will happen even though we cry against it. Does the prophet then see it as God's inevitable judgement?

Maybe what we see in the Bible is an attempt to write what seemed to be historical events as God's intervention in the world as as Sawyer says God's overcoming of chaos with his salvation. If so then we need to find new ways of talking of God's kingdom that take it away from this link with violence and focuses on the qualities of shalom (peace, wholeness, integrity) but will the people hear?

Reference

Sawyer, J. F. A. (1986). Isaiah (Vol. 2). Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.