Sunday, 15 January 2012

Worshipping What Our Hands Have Made

I will pronounce my judgments on my people because of their wickedness in forsaking me, in burning incense to other gods and in worshipping what their hands have made.
Idol worship is a common theme in the Old Testament part of the Bible. It was a common practice among the nations who surrounded Israel, and it seems the Jews just couldn't resist joining in! The inevitable consequence of worshipping something though, is that you begin to become like the thing you worship, and so the Jews quickly took on other, associated practices, and forgot God's good laws of justice and compassion. In the words of the writer of the book of Kings:
They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless. They imitated the nations around them although the LORD had ordered them, “Do not do as they do,” ... They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshiped Baal. They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They ... sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the LORD ... 
Most people in the Western world no longer worship idols in the literal sense of that word, but we can still be just as guilty of "worshipping what [our] hands have made". Money is a primary example:

Money is a man-made invention, and it is a strange and curious thing. In and of itself, it has no value - it is valuable only because of what it represents.

If you consider that there are a finite amount of goods and services currently available in the world, then money is like a permission slip that gives you access to a certain quantity of those resources. These "permission slips" can be physical, e.g. bank notes or coins, or electronic, e.g. the money in your bank account. Most of the money in the world today is electronic.

Much of the world is currently in the grip of an economic crisis, but this crisis isn't a crisis of resources. There are a similar amount of resources available now as there were before the crisis began*. This is a crisis of "permission slips"!  It's about how many permission slips there are in the world and who should be allowed to have them.

We often talk about the "financial crisis" as if it's something unavoidable that we are now caught in the grip of and can do little to change, but it's a crisis in the system that we created! If the system isn't working then it seems to me that we ought to be doing something to change the system. This is what people like Occupy London have been campaigning for.

There currently seem to be two main competing and also partially complementing approaches which are being followed in an attempt to "solve" the financial crisis:
  1. Borrow more money:
    This is what the UK and other governments have done to bail out the banks. This is what the UK central bank has effectively done through the process of "quantitive easing". This is what the  European central bank has done in order to increase the size of it's "bailout fund".

    This approach involves playing the system by its own rules, and stores up more problems for the future. It doesn't make us masters of the system, rather it deepens our indebtedness to it.

  2. Austerity measures:
    This is about saving money by reducing government spending, so that the government can afford to pay off its debts. While it sounds like a prudent approach it is damaging in 2 ways:

    1. In the process of cutting spending, it is often the poor and the disadvantaged who suffer the most. But why is this necessary when the amount of resources in the world hasn't changed? It is only the distribution of permission slips that has become a problem!

    2. If the government doesn't spend money to stimulate its economy, economic output will fall, tax revenues will go down and the government will have even less money to pay off its debts!
Either way we are caught in a trap of slavery to this system that we have created and which now constitutes our view of reality.

This system has worked well for us in many respects but it is not a system rooted in justice or fairness. It is a system exploited by the rich and powerful and designed - in many respects - for their benefit. It is a system that tends to funnel "permission slips" upwards to those who already have them and increases the gap between the haves and the have nots. It is a system which has enabled those with the right kind of knowledge and opportunity to exploit those who do the hard work of creating useful things, and to get rich at their expense.

It is a system that we created, and that we worship, because of the riches it has bestowed on us in the past. And it is a system we are now enslaved to because it has reformed us in its image, and we can no longer imagine a different world.

Finally, this system that we have created and exploited, and which now exploits us, has massive consequences for our children. Here in the UK their economic prospects are already far bleaker than ours ever were:

  • Those who want a higher education will start their working lives with enormous debts, having had little or no financial support for their studies.
  • Due to rising property prices, the average age for first time house buyers could hit 40 by the end of the decade!
  • Then of course there is the enormous national debt, which all of our children will inherit.

We may not be literally "sacrific[ing our] sons and daughters in the fire", like the Israelites used to do, but are the consequences really all that different...?

* New goods have been manufactured and/or dug out of the ground, some consumables have been used up - e.g. food, oil, coal etc. - but the differences are not that significant for this discussion.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Nothing is Mine / Everything is Mine

I have written elsewhere of the mixed blessings of an evangelical Christian upbringing. On balance it's something I am grateful for, but it's also left me with some hang-ups, some of which I am still trying to resolve.

One of the many good things I feel I have gained though, is a positive attitude towards money and possessions. My parents have always believed - and this was passed on to me - that everything we have belongs to God. Not only was a proportion of the family income given away - to the church or to various charities - but the attitude I grew up with was that the rest of it didn't really belong to us either. God allowed us to have the use of it, but it really belonged to Him and He was entitled to do something else with it if He wanted.

I have been thinking quite a bit recently about property. Karl Marx is sometimes credited with the phrase, "Property is Theft", although I have just discovered that the phrase actually originates with French anarchist, politician and philosopher, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. For another - seemingly contradictory - take on property though, see this vision of future justice from the Biblical prophet Micah, written in about the 7th century B.C.:
In the last days ... Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid ...
Proudhon though - as it turns out - did not condemn all forms of property and is similarly credited with the phrase, "Property is Liberty", which he did not consider to be a contradiction. Proudhon's point was  that, for a peasant or farmer, property meant freedom from the control of a landlord - much like Micah's vision above - but for the landlord, property meant "owning" something which was used and needed by someone else, thus making it possible for the tenant to be exploited.

Property - and the prevention of its exploitation - was an important part of the law given by God to the Israelites in the Old Testament part of the Bible. This law said that every 50 years there was to be a year of "Jubilee", where all land was to be returned to its original owners. In chapter 25 of the book of Leviticus, God speaks these words to the people of Israel:
The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.
So the land "that you hold as a possession" actually belongs to God - i.e., the same attitude that my parents have towards property and that I was brought up with. In the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 24:
The earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world and all who live in it ...
This makes for a radically different attitude towards property.

The New Testament part of the Bible goes beyond this though. In his first letter to the church in Corinth (see here - I've abridged it slightly because the original is in the context of a different discusion), the Apostle Paul says this:
All things are yours, whether ... the world or life or death or the present or the future - all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
So if you are a follower of Jesus, then you are "of Christ", Christ is "of God" and thus everything belongs to you! But what does that really mean?

In "Drops Like Stars", Rob Bell points out that there is a difference between "ownership" and "possession" (at least in his particular use of those terms). He cites the example of a Rickenbacker 330 6-string guitar which he "owns". His friend Joey though, who is a much better guitar player, is able to appreciate that guitar, enjoy it and get far more out of it than Bell can. In Bell's words, although he is the legal "owner", Joey "possesses" that guitar in a way that he is simply not able to.

If ownership/possession is viewed more in this kind of a way, it becomes a lot easier to believe the words of Jesus, who famously pronounced that the meek would, "inherit the earth". It is the proud who want to own and control everything, and by doing so often fail to appreciate its true worth. It is the meek on the other hand, who can maintain a sense of grateful awe and appreciation. The proud may end up "owning" everything and yet "possessing" nothing, where the meek may "own" nothing but "possess" the world.