Tag Archives: Economy

Preparing for transformation

I have been feeling a bit uninspired and even (here’s a confession) judgemental as Christmas approaches and all I hear is a whole lot of consumerist drama about presents and food and decorations and which unpleasant relative people are going to half kill themselves in order to please (all while matching the napkins to the baubles and making glittery centrepieces). I wonder that people who usually come across as sensitive and thoughtful suddenly seem to bury themselves in consumerism and stress and as a result some of them (the active ones who have to do all the work) wind up snapping “I hate Christmas”, while the ones who have a high emotional investment in “receiving” a perfect Christmas- gifts, invitations also end up disappointed as the reality can never match the expectation brought to us by that ”John the Baptist” equivalent of the consumerist religion, Santa.

Someone is going to argue with me that “Santa” is actually a Christian figure being based on St Nicholas but when I look at the North pole dwelling, red, no longer unfashionably plump, ruling class business owner and exploiter of elves and reindeer and his hiding in the shadows (making cookies of course), “Mrs Claus” I say “bollocks”. This myth may indeed have come out of an appropriation of  a Christian story but it has morphed so far I think it is even too late for reclaiming. Is noone apart from me uncomfortable with the Christmas pageants where this older (and often depicted as married) man has a sleazy relationship with teenaged beauty queens and Christmas fairies? This is not a version of Christianity I want to subscribe to, nor is the meritocratic lie that the children who get lavish presents are the “good” ones, and the ones with unemployed parents have done something wrong and deserve less. There is a popular movement for parents to “cut down” the number of presents they buy each of their children to FOUR. FOUR?? I only ever bought each child one (and maybe snuck in a book as well because I am naughty that way).

So I have been feeling anger and despair about Christmas, and I don’t like to admit this but I better- I have been looking down on people who think these things are so important- all the presents and hideous decorations and having the right fashionable foods (and too much of them). I have been reading Vandana Shiva (another “john the Baptist” figure but more to my taste) and agreeing that we privileged first-worlders use up the planet for empty crap, we don’t even get enough satisfaction to be worth the plunder and we are unhealthy as anything because of our over-consumption.

But I have survived this year, in a job that has some joyful moments on even the bad days, with one entire day nearly every week that I can devote to my favourite activity in the world of writing and I live with the most thoughtful young person in the universe who alternates getting me a coffee or a hug with his witty humour and undemanding habits. And if I find meaning in quiet times with him (no work for two weeks) and sunsetty evenings at the beach in the wet sand and the chatter of rainbow lorikeets and the company of the same friends who have supported and challenged me all year, and family members who do their best to tolerate me…then it is time to stop and examine my own privilege.

Because not so many years ago there was an impoverished, struggling single mother who felt cut off from relatives and other people alike- who saw judgement and rejection everywhere (even where it wasn’t) and who suffered through grey day after grey day under a burden of anxiety and self-hate and her own inadequacy. I have to remember her, who I was for so many years. And that grey-day woman wanted a bit of colour in her life and used tinsel and fairylights and wrapping paper and cards to try to make some fleeting connection to the rest of the human race and bought too many gadgets and gizmos to try to brighten up the lives of the children who were unfortunate enough to be stuck in her life. And that wasn’t “right” and it didn’t completely “work” but it provided some sort of fleeting relief and that is what it does for all the people who get caught up in commodified Christmases as well as the dating-at-any-price mentality which I think it related: the idea that you can’t be happy unless you have a partner.

And sitting in the relative wealth of Australian society we DO need to look at our consumption and we all need to cut down on it- every household, every individual but especially industry and the military! And I don’t want to return to an uncritical “bread and circuses” attitude to Christmas, granting that the consumerism alleviates a little bit of an existential angst for many people and leaving it at that. The first reading expects more than that from us…we are to point ourselves toward the joy and beauty that God calls us to (which can’t be giftwrapped or sent out for). But in my judgemental attitude I have thought about how to “break their hearts of stone” and I haven’t considered that that is not what I need when I get trapped in escapism and patterns of despair.

How instead do we embrace their hearts and offer them a home? The baby John the Baptist in the canticle is not praised for his incisive criticisms and his rousing hellfire sermons (alas because I think I would make a fantastic old-school preacher). He is told he will prepare Jesus’ way through preaching the “forgiveness of sins” through the loving-kindness (is this hesed?) of God to break upon us like a new dawning. Like finding out that I was a rainbow, not a brokenness. So somehow if we are to accept the impossible mission of John the Baptist (and even here I am mindful of how he ended up once he irritated the ruling class enough), we are to bring peace and loving-kindness and light to the world, not simply threats and criticisms. Do I detect God laughing at me, because she knows how I love a good criticism!

In the second reading, “Paul” (I am never sure when it is the real Paul and when it isn’t but this guy thinks it is) is thanking God for some supportive person/s who have shared the gospel with him. And I think of the people who fill my heart with gratefulness and light whenever I even think of them, and some of them are believers in God, and some are not. But what they all have in common is that they came into my life in a “before” time, when I was more depressed and they have to some degree walked into my darkness to greet me and accept me and show me the light of love. The people who saw something in me before I was ready to see it myself have (cumulatively) changed my life! So if we want to convert the next Paul, or even if we just want a better society then the call is to be prophets of love and light to the world.

And now I am beginning to sound more Christmassy I think which is good because next week is the “joy” week and the drought of advent-waiting will need to be ready to be transformed to a more expectant state then.

So back to the gospel, to our old friend John the Baptist. As an environmentalist I feel horrified shivers at his metaphor, but as a teacher who is interest above all else in social justice I resound with the idea of equalising. Despite the capitalist wisdom of the day “a rising tide floats everyone’s boat” the fact is we live in a world of finite resources, and for one to increase, someone else must pay the price. So to prepare for God’s kingdom, we must raise the status of the poor and the refugee AT THE COST OF THE WEALTHY who need to be made lower. While I feel quite poor still, on a world wide scale I am one of the (smaller) hills that will need to be smoothed down to exalt the real valleys.Isn’t it tempting to water down the redistributive demand of God’s revolution here and to say that all God really wants us to do is be “nice” and “moral” and “caring” in a bland way that doesn’t offend anybody.

But no! God’s demanding Word asks for nothing less than a complete overhaul of our social landscape to smooth out mountains and valleys into equality. Yes that is hard, hard work! But that is what it will take to have God’s reign in our lives. We can’t achieve this purely as individuals, we can’t just make ourselves “good” and “holy” people inside there is a social project and a struggle implicit in bringing God. “All flesh” are to see this salvation together, not singly while leaving brothers and sisters to suffer outside the gate.

So that is the Christmas to prepare for, the radical challenge that God’s word always brings to the powers that be. Prepare to be offensive to the Herods and the Pilates of the world when Jesus comes- prepare to be no friend to the wealthy Pharisees and to be seen on a par with tax-collectors and prostitutes. The restitutive, redistributive world of God’s Holy Wisdom is going to make a few changes around here. And we get to be part of that!

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Not doing justice to Wisdom Herself

Please note I seem to have departed from the Revised Common Lectionary by speaking to the readings that I heard at church instead of working ahead. I am not sure where the readings this church used came from but the preacher spoke as if they were from the lectionary. I liked the readings and used them for reflection. The first reading was excerpts of Proverbs 8. The second (gospel) was either Matthew or Luke (which is puzzling because we are in Year B).

Last Sunday’s reading was about Lady Wisdom calling through the streets, nagging like a fishwife. Tenaciously reminding us to pay her attention, to not be seduced away from her. I actually went to church and listened to a sermon, where the preacher consoled us that even though this reading can seem insignificant and reads as “gibberish” (I disagree on both counts) it has a context. In the context Wisdom is the contrast to the evil seductress who has tried to entrap the naïve young man. At this point, caught between two female stereotypes and asked to inhabit the consciousness of a young man having to choose between them waves of depression rolled over me again. Because I have never read Lady Wisdom as the goody-goody slut shamer. I have not read her as an enemy or rival to the “other” woman in her desirability. I’ve read her as powerful, determined, active, voiced (oh so loudly and persistently) and desirable within her power and the beauty of her unflagging persistence.

I read myself as desiring her (of course) but also as being asked to watch and learn, to emulate her to allow her into my life and body, to allow her to move me to become part of her household; but not as a protection against other scary and impure women but because she herself is everything, demands attention- calls, commands and seduces.

So my response to the nagging call of that old Wisdom that I have successfully shut out of my life and heart for so many years? Learned deafness and a bunch of lame excuses apparently, because I did not even write my blog post on this beloved reading. As usual I regretfully turn my back on Wisdom. She is not for me. I do not measure up. I had a burst water pipe, a blocked toilet, extra hours at work, a transition, an opportunity to see my sons, visitors from overseas, and huge exhaustion and maybe a little bit of despair that my voice may be insignificant, unheard or plain wrong. I rationalised it thus “If wisdom is already calling, how presumptuous, how arrogant of me to chime in with my foolishness and twisted thinking. Wisdom herself will call to the people, I am not her.” Which is true enough, but riddled with the sort of defeatism Jesus (surprisingly) said God takes a dim view of  which fits more ancient portrayals of God as well. I am not saying I am hellbound for my laziness and lack of confidence, just acknowledging that it is not respectful of my call.

Like a choir mistress, Wisdom is not interested in the fact that my voice is not as good as someone else’s and in no way approaches the purity and beauty of hers. She may sing the solo, but she needs many voices to harmonise and counter-melody and build up a roaring sound of a great festival of wisdom to roll through a more than ever foolish world and bring some hope, some hints of green in the cracks of the neoliberal façade, a beginning of a way forward, a dance beyond despair.

“You need to lift your voice, sing louder. Listen hard and then sing” she might tell me. I can rehearse what my voice will let out but at some point comes the time to voice it, to quit fear and dare to speak with her, sing with her and even to try to speak for her (trusting her not to ever be limited by the limits of my thinking). Beautiful, forgiving Wisdom who returns again and again and begs us to try harder; to take some responsibility for the relationship for a change.

And attempting to at least begin to acknowledge Wisdom’s claim on me, or at the very least my desire for her- I turn to the gospel. The gospel reminds me that the foolish man builds his house on the sand. Disposable, transient, novelty house- planned obsolescence, a huge waste of the labour and materials that go into building something that will not stand up to time and weather. The economy (oikonomia) is also like a house/household (I don’t remember all my biblical Greek, but oikos was house). I can see the foolishness of building the economy upon the sands of capitalism, upon the ticking time-bomb of exploiting the earth who will eventually kick back at us way mightier than we give this ball of minerals, gases and mystery credit for.

We build relationships on the sands of conspicuous consumption, of performative encounters online or of fear of ourselves and the desire to possess, manipulate, exploit another and then when marriage (for example) becomes a joke, more about dresses and flowers; cars and honeymoons than about people then we blame the queer community because of course it was “them” that undermined the sanctity of marriage (isn’t it nice that when I was searching for a link to this all I could find at first were arguments against the fundamentalists and sarcastic spoofs). Because we could never, ever, not-ever blame capitalism for doing that (apparently you need ironclad evidence to indict capitalism as opposed to the vague rumours needed to accuse gays). We can’t blame capitalism for anything (unemployment, austerity, despair, refugee crises, climate change) because it is such a foundation of our day to day life. It is the sand we have built our multi-storey home on for many generations and denial bids us to insist that it IS rock – steady, immovable, inevitable.

And then even where we see rock we blast it open in strip mining and fracking to take even more from earth, to build another gable on our capitalist mausoleum of denial build on shifting sands. It’s crumbling and we spray in some sort of polymer in the cracks and insist we can’t feel the wind and rain through them. We use anyone poorer and weaker than us as human shields to protect us from the cracks in our capitalist way of life.

We are foolish, but we have nice wine and beautiful clothing and 1000 friends on facebook who all felt jealous at the dessert we ate last night. Because friends of course are people to instil envy in, and life is about flitting around the globe as fast as possible sampling everything- food, wine, people, experiences, places and fuelling our narcissm  with the well-roundedness we feel we have bought. And after all you know we are nice and charitable people and we sip “fair trade” coffee which means the workers may have been paid a tenth of a fair wage instead of nothing at all. And how would they survive if we stopped buying from their masters?

But now that I have constructed this dystopian vision of the society founded on sand where is wisdom? What is the rock we ought to build our society/home on instead? There are voices of wisdom advocating for compassion, justice, love, peace, sustainability, resistance. On the large scale, immense change is needed but on the small scale I hear wise voices each week at work when I think I am leading “group time” but the children demand that I change the written story I am reading them and remake the story more compassionately, more justly or with an idealism that only a child would have the courage to admit to!

When will we become idealists like children? When will we demand that that which is inevitable, which is written and already settled be rewritten to bring in what we know of compassion and of justice?

Does not Wisdom keep demanding that we follow her lead? Can we not let her begin a movement for change, for more solid values at the foundation of our society? “ Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her..” (Proverbs 8:10-11). Might be worth taking her instruction on board then.

Because I am adding the links, it’s taking me a couple of hours just to post the articles (additional time to actual writing) so with uni starting back I am thinking of reducing or eliminating links. Even though it can help me clarify my thinking to do them.

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