Occupy London and WWJD

There’s a bit of a row going on in the CofE at the moment, and for once it is not about women bishops or gay marriage.  It gave the Evening Standard one of its best headlines of recent times tonight: “St Paul’s Canon Blasts Church“…

But the issue is a serious one.  The anti-capitalist “Occupy” movement which declares “we are the 99%” (as opposed to the top 1% of wealthy people) was granted permission to camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, but now it seems the campers may have plans to abuse that hospitality – rather than a short, focused protest with a clear objective, there seems to be a random package of motives, an intention to stay indefinitely, the cathedral had to close for the first time since the Blitz in 1940, and the church authorities seem to find themselves in a position of possibly having to condone the use of force to get the camp removed.

Some of the campers have painted WWJD (What would Jesus Do?) on the side of their tents, and it is not clear whether this is being facetious, faith or a real theological challenge.
The Canon that has resigned sees it as the last one of these.  He gave sanctuary to the protesters who wanted to be in the City, and recalls the church as a radical force in society – giving voice and support to the poor, speaking out against injustice.

So what would Jesus do?

With much thanks to www.acts17-11.com for the quotations, a few thoughts.

1) Was Jesus really against money?
Jesus was famously poor but his backers were not – Mary Magdalene is never mentioned in connection to a husband but evidently had some wealth of her own. Joanna was Herod’s steward’s wife and is listed by Luke as one of the women bankrolling Jesus’s mission, Matthew would’ve made money as a tax collector and Joseph of Arimathea owned a tomb and paid for Jesus’s burial.
Jesus’s disciples worked, several as fishermen.  Paul, Priscilla and others made tents.  They were earning a wage, not living off others. It is likely that the years between Jesus’s disappearance in the temple and his reappearance for his baptism in the Jordan, he worked as a carpenter like Joseph.

Jesus tipped over the money changers tables in the temple – but this was about the sellers selling access to God, an abuse of the relationship God wants to have with mankind, not a hatred of money itself.

Jesus also paid his taxes and advocated that others should too.

Jesus welcomed the pouring of expensive perfumed oil over him – a waste of an expensive product yes, but remember Jesus also ate good food and drank wine and slept in the houses of his followers, and was chastised by the religious authorities for doing so especially as his hosts were often the unclean and unpopular – but this was not a life defined by abstinence.

2) But it’s not that simple…
The problem is not money itself, it is the love of money that is the root of all evil.  It is the second of the two masters mentioned in the bible, the mammon the pursuit of which diverts us and separates us from God: Luke 16:13 (NIV):

“No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

We have to look not just at the life that Jesus lived.  We also need to look at what Jesus taught about money. And (according to www.advantagem-a.com) 43% of the parables concern money.

Look at the wannabe disciple in Mark 10:21-27,31 who thinks he has it all sorted and is ready to follow Jesus.  Jesus shows him, and others, that it is trust in God not worldly wealth that flips our values system on its head:

Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him, and he said, “There is one thing you lack. Go and sell everything you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But his face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were astounded by these words, but Jesus insisted, “My children,” he said to them, “how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” They were more astonished than ever. “In that case,” they said to one another, “who can be saved?” Jesus gazed at them. “For men,” he said, “it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God… Many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, he taught us to be like the birds of the air and the lilies in the field, trusting in the Lord to provide and not worrying about money.  There are people today who do live like that, and it is a real act of faith.  The cynic might say that in order that we can be reflections of God’s love and sustain them we need to ensure there is some money available.  We don’t know when the Kingdom will come, so we also need to be tentmakers to keep going until then…

Continuing on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was consistent, pointing out that it is not economic wealth that determines a person’s value, and that this counts for little in God’s eyes (Mat 6:19-21):

“Do not save riches for yourselves here on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and robbers break in and steal. Instead, save riches for yourselves in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and robbers cannot break in and steal. For your heart will always be where your riches are.”

The early Christians tried to get around the issue of money and provision for need by arranging communal living arrangements.  There’s no suggestion that this is necessary in order to balance the competing attractions of God and money, but the problem was shown right there at the very beginning via Ananias and Sapphira.  Their problem was basically being dishonest about money with God.  While my homegroup is about to do a study on Sapphira, I can’t help wondering at the moment whether Sapphira’s property sale would’ve been a non-issue if only she’d said actually we are giving you 10% rather than claiming untruthfully to be giving it all.

3) No one can say we weren’t warned…

At Luke 9:25, Jesus asks “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet lose or forfeit his very self?

Jesus further tells us – via the parable of the sower- that the thorns that overtake some of the seeds sown are tempted away by (Mark 4:18-19) “the worries of this world and the false glamour of riches and all sorts of other ambitions creep in” and (Luke 8:14) “the life is choked out of them, and in the end they produce nothing.”

We’re also warned about ignoring the poor at our gates via the rich man and Lazarus. When the rich man asks that his brothers be warned so that they don’t love money more and end up in a place of torment, Abraham tells him that “they have Moses and the Prophets, let them listen to them… if they will not, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead“.

And in the Book of Revelation 3:17-19, John’s vision of Jesus says:

“While you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and there is nothing that I need,’ you have no eyes to see that you are wretched, pitiable, poverty-stricken, blind and naked. My advice to you is to buy from me that gold which is refined in the furnace so that you may be rich, and white garments to wear so that you may hide the shame of your nakedness, and salve to put on your eyes to make you see. All those whom I love I correct and discipline. Therefore, shake off your complacency and repent.”

Jesus was not unconcerned by poverty, but it was poverty of spirit that he sought to fix first: Jesus himself noted that “the poor will always be with you and you can help them whenever you want to” (Mark 14:7), but that his time on earth would be limited.
Essentially Jesus said that he was here to bring about God’s kingdom, not rule an earthly one.

4) The challenge to us all on money…

Again, www.advantegem-a.com has the questions ready for us:

1. Do not be like the rich fool who focused his whole life on accumulating wealth for his retirement years, out of greed or worry, and miss storing up spiritual treasures for eternity. Evaluate whether this might be the case in your life.
2. Are we really prepared to give up everything – our finances, our businesses, our careers- to follow Christ if that what he requires? Have we truly counted the cost of discipleship? Are we really disciples of Christ according to His definition?
3. Are we shrewd in our financial dealings to serve our own interests or God’s interests?
4. Are we faithful stewards of the financial resources that God has entrusted to our care for His purposes? How would we fare if the Lord were to return today and ask us to give an accounting?

 4) And that’s all well and good but…
Jesus didn’t hold much truck with religious practices for show – the relationship with God through prayer and learning from teachers of authority and living God’s love with the seem to be more important that the fabric of the building.
I’m not sure he’d mind too much the camp, and if the protesters were motivated by righteousness and a sense of social justice and the value of all people rather than of money he’d probably positively support them.
But despite the church-based location of the protest, I’m not hearing a lot about these things, just that the capitalist system is broken and unfair.
I’m not hearing proposed solutions either, just the anger.
I’m also really worried about the alleged guidance being given to women about protecting themselves from sexual assault within the camp – if this is utopia starting there, it should surely be starting from the premise that consent and equality are the fundamental basic concepts?

It’s good that we have the freedom to protest.
I’m not sure that camping out outside the cathedral really makes the point – it feels like picking on the cathedral as a weak point in the City.
Why aren’t they on football pitches, in leafy Hampstead, at Canary Wharf, in Westminster?  How is this location making the point effectively?

But I’m worried that the position of the Cathedral in getting involved in forceful evictions is in the worst traditions of “religion” and exactly what Jesus came to say that a relationship with God was not about.

I also found Boris Johnson’s “in the name of God and Mammon, go!” offensive.  He may have clarified that what he meant was that the camp should move on for the good of the economy and the wellbeing of the cathedral (tourist income, availability for worship) but it did feel as though he was claiming to be speaking for the Christian faith, and while God moves in mysterious ways, that would be one really perplexing move…

One final thought.  Even the poorest of those protesting are, through accident of location of birth, among the top 10% of rich people in the world.  If we’re really going to rethink it, we need to think globally about social justice and realise that we’re all God’s people.

Happy Halloween?

Happy Halloween?  My son is obsessed.

At first I blamed the food.  All those mini chocolate cupcakes with little candy ghosts, strawberry-jam-blood marshmallow teacakes, pumpkin balls, themed jelly sweets… but actually he can still mainly take-or-leave junk food. (Long may this phase continue).

Then I thought it might be the costumes.  He’s just reached dressing up phase.  Now, I have some friends whose children I rarely see in normal clothes because they are really knights, space explorers, princesses, fairies, pirates… We’re not at the stage of refusing to leave the house unless in costume (perhaps helped by early establishment of the need to wear school uniform) but we now have a dressing up box, and the best thing is the full Harry Potter quidditch uniform, complete with cape, pads, gloves and Beckham-style number 07 on the back. I thought the broom he wanted was to go with the Potter get-up.
But no.  I was firmly informed that he had badgered his grandparents into buying one as a Hallowe’en witches broom and not to use to try to fly for sporting purposes. I guess we should be grateful for small mercies – apparently flying on broomsticks is not real so we don’t need to worry about attempted leaps off the trampoline.

Most children’s TV shows do a Hallowe’en special. All the magazines he wants to read do a Hallowe’en version with spooky things to make and do (as in furry spiders and greetings cards, rather than Ouija boards). Hallowe’en is clearly a big deal and something to be celebrated, right?
So what are we celebrating?
I asked my son and was informed that Hallowe’en is when all the leaves go brown and fall off the trees. Hmmm. Some confusion there.  But then we live in a world where so many people think Christmas is just a celebration that we’ve reached the darkest point of winter and want to be with loved ones. So why wouldn’t Hallowe’en just be about autumn?

Halloween used to be a folksy American thing, little kids trick or treating.  For some reason it was really big in Belgium when we lived there – presumably the legacy of so many US TV shows (but the Wittamer’s window in the Sablon really does need to be seen).

And now, suddenly, over the last 10 years here in the UK, Halloween has arrived.  Shops have aisles of cheap plastic tat.  We buy the aforementioned sweet things as self-defence in case of trick or treaters.  Supermarkets are asked not to sell eggs.  And we start to wonder what it is all for – why are we encouraging kids to dress up and go around the neighbourhood demanding chocolate with menaces?

I’m a bit of a sci-fi/ fantasy fan.  I’m a bit more drawn into the fan forums for Doctor who/ Torchwood etc. than I like to admit, own all the box sets of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and occasionally experiment with the shows my TiVo suggests (Being Human, Supernatural, True Blood, the Vampire Diaries, Ringer…) and I like murder mysteries.  But even I have to wonder, are we normalising the ghoulish, the supernatural and the downright unpleasant through this annual focus on darkness?  Like videogaming normalising violence against women, drug dealing and car theft, are we going to find that our children’s generation is more superstitious and drawn to scenes of horror?

I’m pretty sure that these days there’s nothing really connecting the plastic pumpkin celebrations to the origins of Halloween – to Beltane, All Saints and All Souls.  The celebration of skeletons and skulls has echoes of the Mexican Day of the Dead – but then a lot of things are a bit confusing to me that are involved in South American Christianity.

But as my church, like many, hosts its annual Light Party (bright colours, fun games and not a skeleton in sight), I’m left to wonder: you don’t get much more Christian as a society than the USA and yet our approach to Halloween originates there.  Is it something to be scared of?