This is great: “There’s a big difference between the task of trying to sustain “civilisation” in its current form – supermarkets and all – which is what “sustainability” has largely come to mean, and the task of holding open a space for the things which make life worth living. I’d suggest that it’s this second task, in its many forms, which remains, after we’ve given up on false hopes. (Note that this doesn’t mean organising a campaign against supermarkets, which is the default mode of a lot of what’s called activism.)”
That resonated a very great deal with me!
I was recently asked to be more explicit about what Christians can do to go further in their faith; to not just talk about the why and the what, but the how. Yet when I have done this, eg in saying Christians should not shop at Tesco, I meet great resistance. People simply don’t want to be told this. It is seen as a curious quirk of the Rector’s, not realistic, and certainly not much to do with Christianity. Christianity, after all, is about becoming a better person, more spiritually centred – and, in many cases, a rather obsessive and Levitical attitude to sexual practices.
I really don’t think that God cares half as much as we do about human sexuality, most especially now that procreation is separable from it. Of course, there are ways of becoming wicked through the pursuit of disordered sexuality, but such a risk is vastly overestimated. The wickedness that is casually acceptable in Western society through the systematic exploitation of the poor and vulnerable in this country and worldwide is of far more concern to the God of justice and compassion who was incarnated in Christ. How often does Jesus speak about sexuality? As much as a whole column of a standard Bible at most? Yet concern for the poor and criticism of the rich runs throughout his ministry, as it does throughout the Bible as a whole. It is simply not possible to be a faithful Christian and not be concerned about issues of economic justice – indeed, to be much more concerned about such questions than about questions of human sexuality about which so much fuss is presently being made. That is simply one more example of how our church community has been captured by worldly idolatries – the world is presently obsessed with sex, and the church falls in with that emphasis. No wonder the church is seen as being irrelevant and out of touch. If this is all the Christianity in general, and the Church of England in particular, is capable of being, then it deserves a fate on the scrapheap of history.
Reposted as it is relevant to the ‘Christian not Green post’. First posted 7/8/07, talk originally given at the end of 2006.
Somehow, I forgot to post this one on the blog. Click ‘full post’ for text. You can also follow the link in my sidebar for the powerpoint slides.
LUBH 7 The Green Bible
Good morning and welcome. Apologies for a slightly late start. “The Green Bible” – well as I am sure you are all well aware the Bible contains explicit instructions on how we are to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions, hence the joke. There aren’t, , specific instructions in scripture around most of what we currently consider environmental issues, so for example, global warming. But there are some underlying principles that need to be drawn out which are generally applicable and there is also one specific area where there are some detailed instructions, which is what I will concentrate on today.
So begin with the basic principles which I think are fairly incontestable, God is our Creator, we are his creatures and this makes a difference. The earth belongs to God, this is stated several times the quotation from Leviticus “the land is mine”. It’s fairly explicit and we therefore don’t have final custody for final charge over the earth, we are God’s stewards but we don’t own the land. God is the first gardener, God planted a garden in the East and set man within it – one of ways in which we are made in the image of God. Gardening I will come back to, but God is the first gardener, God is the one who plants us in the land.
In Christ the creation is renewed. I’ll say a fair bit about Genesis Chapter 2, because it’s rather important, but one of the things about Genesis 2 which is the fall, is that it’s matched up and overcome in the incarnation. So that which goes wrong in Genesis 2 we have the opportunity to go right with through Christ. So the fundamental principle. And the vision that God gives to us is of flourishing within a flourishing environment, the land flowing with milk and honey. The vision held out to us in scripture is not some sort of abstract state of soul, it is something very concrete and real and physical and it is within a particular sort of environment. So God is concerned with the environment.
I wish to read out to you one of my all time favourite Old Testament passages, headed the charge against Israel. “Hear the Word of the Lord you Israelites because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land. There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land, there is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery, they break all bounds and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns and all who live in it waste away. The beasts of the field and the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea are dying.” That’s Hosea Chapter 4, which we will come back to in later weeks.
There is a common language within the prophetic tradition, there are lots and lots of examples, if you skim through Isaiah or Jeremiah you will glean these instances where there is a link between the sin which God sees in the people and the suffering of the land around the people. It’s like the land expresses the symptoms of the sin. “Therefore the land mourns.” And this goes right back to Genesis Chapter 2. The expulsion from Eden, ‘cursed is the ground because of your sin’. There is a direct link between the state of the environment and our state, our sinful nature. And this is a repeated theme throughout the Old Testament, lots and lots of examples.
And one of the fundamental truths coming from that is that there is no hard and fast division between humanity and the creation within which humanity is planted. It is one of the aspects of an incarnational faith and one of the ways in which Christianity is different from gnosticism is precisely in embracing and giving value to the physical world. Gnosticicm sees the physical world as the realm of the devil or the realm of wickedness and to be escaped from, you know we are souls trapped within this terrible flesh and these sparks need to be set free from the physical flesh. That’s gnosticism put very simply. And that’s very much something that Christianity is opposed to, it embraces and gives value to the created world.
So that’s basic background stuff. Three tools are set out in talks so far: idolatry, when we worship, give too much value to something which isn’t God and so our ways of understanding the world become distorted; wrath, being the consequences of our decisions, wrath not in the sense of a malevolent deity, but wrath if in the sense that if you stick your hand in the fire it will be burnt, because the creation has been made according to certain principles; and eschatology, rather than apocalypse, meaning the light of Christ’s return. He will come as a thief in the night so we need to be ready for it. We live in the end times.
Well, the specific thing I want to look at, not in a huge amount of detail, but enough to give a flavour, is about farming, because whilst the Bible doesn’t really talk about global warming or rising sea levels and so forth, since Noah that is – the Bible does talk in a fair bit of detail about how to farm. Leviticus 19 talks about the principles and you are not to farm right up to the edge of the field, nor are you to go back and harvest a second time. You are also, if you plant fruit trees, you are not to take the harvest from the fruit trees for the first three years after planting and the fourth year after planting the harvest from the fruit trees is to be given to God. Be offered up in sacrifice, so for four years after planting a fruit tree you are not to harvest it for your own consumption. Again Leviticus 19, you have got all the material about the Jubilee, but in particular the land itself is not to be farmed every seventh year, the land itself is to have a Sabbath and after seven Sabbath’s you have got the year of Jubilee when there is to be no farming anywhere at all. You are not to farm, you are only to go out and pick the food that is naturally growing. This is the basic principle.
This could be summarised as a radical trust in God’s provision and it deals with the instant concern: well hang on how are we going to eat? And it says in the sixth year God will send such an abundant harvest that it gives enough food for the two years following, not just for the year of the Sabbath, but for the year following when you are back to farming. So underlying this, I really want to draw out two principles. The radical trust in God’s provision but also not extracting from the land the maximum amount that can be gained, you know this putting off the harvesting of the fruit trees. What about year two, look at all that fruit going to waste, but that’s the point, there is an abundance being respected. And we can start talking in terms of the benefits of letting land lie fallow or the benefits of allowing a tree to grow for the fruit to fertilise the soil beneath it but I think that is actually to start rationalising all the commands from God and saying well God’s saying this command because it makes sense. I’m not sure all God’s commands do make sense, but these are the commands.
But really I think that the fundamental thing within it: trust in God’s provision is what is repeatedly emphasised. Think of the Israelites in the desert, grumbling because they are hungry and God sending manna and quail. This is the same principle being applied in a particular place and the idea that you don’t extract the maximum from the land for your own benefit, you leave some for the aliens, the widows, the orphans, you don’t get the maximum amount. And of course, when we come up against this sort of command, hang on this doesn’t make any sense, this is crazy – it is, it is crazy but, but, but, but why do we consider it crazy? What are our concerns? What’s driving us? Is it that we are afraid we are going to go hungry? What are we frightened of, is there going to be famine in the land? Or is it the question of greed? Wanting to make the most produce, make the most money and so forth.
Let’s have a think about Baal. He is rather important in the Old Testament. You can think of him as being the Canaanite fertility god. Baal means simply the son of El, El was the supreme deity. And Baal was originally the storm god, the god of thunder and lightening. So the equivalent of Thor in the Canaanite pantheon. And what happened was you had a sequence through the seasons where you had a mythology and the different God’s conquered each other in turn to represent the turning around of the seasons. But over time, Baal became the dominant figure and he was associated with fertility because the rains allowed the crops to grow, And so Baalism became the dominant worship. The word Baal simply means Lord and often it’s Lord of an area. So each area would have its Baal. Its local Baal. So you get the Baal of Tyre, and the worship of Baal took a very particular form, the worship of a fertility god involves celebrations of fertility and so you had cultic prostitution, in other words you had lots of people taking part in orgies, celebrating the human acts of fertilisation in order to charge up the god with lots of fertility energy.
This is what’s going on with lots of the criticisms in the Old Testament, against the Baal, against the prostitution. Whenever you have the instructions about do not let your daughter become a prostitute and so forth, it’s to do with this worship of Baal. It’s not prostitution in the sense we would understand it today, selling your body for money, it’s to do with fertility worship. And the story of Israel coming into Canaan, and one of the strong impetuses behind God saying you have got to drive out these other people from this land and you are not to inter-marry with them is precisely so that they don’t become contaminated with this fertility worship.
You can look through the Old Testament and it’s one of the major themes. Another thing, it’s a major theme because the people of Israel themselves were caught up in the worship of Baals. Various names even among say David and Solomon’s children, you can see influences from the Baalite mythology into their choice of names. And archaeologically from the excavations done exploring the practices of the Israelites and so sixth and seventh century BC, there are lots and lots of little Baals, little Ashteroths, little fertility gods. You know the people of Israel were not exclusively faithful to Yahweh. It was an ongoing struggle between the living God who’s in charge of it all and creates all things and these fertility gods. And of course one of the key things about worshipping a fertility god is that you are gaining some measure of control or influence over fertility, over the productivity of land. So again what is it being driven by, what’s the desire or motivation behind the worship of Baal? And how does that apply to how we practise our civilisation or agriculture today?
It is a form of idolatry. It’s giving too much importance to something which is not God. Remember we must love the Lord our God with all our heart, and so forth, placing God right at the centre and trusting in God alone, not in our own techniques. And our contemporary Baalism proceeds on the assumption that the world belongs to us, it for us to do with it what we will. That we have the power to remake it. That we can control fertility through our own efforts and we can pat ourselves on the back by the increase in grain harvest in the twentieth century, for example. But what you do have in contemporary systems of agriculture is a systematic exploitation of the land. You know, tell someone from Monsanto for example that you should not harvest for the first three years and then the fourth year you should give it to the church. This is not a plausible suggestion. But even ignoring giving it to the church, the idea that shouldn’t harvest the whole of the field, the thought that you might leave some of the harvest for those who are poor to come and glean. The crumbs from under the table, it’s that imagery. There are no crumbs falling from the table of modern agriculture. It’s all being systematically hoovered up, industrially hoovered up.
And what is it rooted in? Going back to the questions of hunger, fear of famine or it is just greed. Now some examples of how that is applied. I won’t go into this in huge detail, there are lots and lots of sources available if you want to explore it. Monoculture – one of the good things about the green revolution, middle of the twentieth century, is that they systematically assessed what was the most productive grain varieties, and replaced those less productive grain varieties with the most productive, which had a significant impact on grain harvests. One of the ways in which we have been able to feed the population more or less. What it has meant is an incredible loss of diversity. And this is again driven by this desire to get the absolute most possible.
Factory farming. I am sure you are all familiar with the stories of our chickens and pigs and so forth. Fossil fuel fertiliser – which is the big thing which has made the difference, allowing the land to become fertile where it wouldn’t be otherwise and allowing the farming to be done and the grain to be grown. But what you might call agri-business, something where the farmer becomes driven by corporate interests rather than their own link and assessment with the land, the soil itself. You have a systematic driver of agricultural behaviour and practices which isn’t directly linked with the processes of the world itself. It’s driven by financial priorities. I’ll say much more about this next time. Not next week, next time when I will focus in on what a corporation is and does. But this is one example, one area where we can raise questions against what’s going on. That a corporate interest may have no long term interest in the particular area of land. Think for example of the deforestation going on in the Amazon, where you have ranchers coming in to grow cattle, most of which goes up to McDonald’s shops in the United States or in Britain, and what happens is that the land, once the forest has been cut down the land is fertile for about three years and then gets desertified, because the value of the land has been taken up into the cattle and taken off elsewhere, and the value of the land collapses, and all that happens is that slash and burn agriculture simply moves on to the next bit of forest. You know this is one of the prime drivers behind deforestation of the Amazon. This is driven by a commercial logic, it makes sense for a company to pursue this sort of policy, because it means that they can make money. It is not long term sustainable. But within the logic of corporate thinking it makes sense.
One phrase is used to describe it – strip mining the soil. Getting what you can from it and then moving on, not seeing the soil as something that its own integrity, that needs to be taken care of, so that the soil takes care of us. So those are examples of the idolatry and following on from idolatry is wrath. This is the point about exploring idolatry and wrath, that wrath is what will happen to us if we simply experience the consequences of our own actions. Now factory farming I’m sure you’re all familiar with all these stories. And these are just the most prominent within British life, you know, mad cows. Feeding cows the broken down bits of bone of other cows is not very sensible. It might make sense financially, it might make sense in terms of corporate interest because here you’ve got a waste product, “Ah, we’ve got a waste stream, we can put that to good use, that’ll save us money.” But it’s not something respects the integrity of the life cycle of a cow. OK, so some examples.
More importantly, loss of top soil. Thirty to forty tons per hectare average in the third world, seventeen tons per hectare in the United States. Over the last forty years 4.3 million square kilometres of agricultural land has been taken out of production. That’s the equivalent of 30% of the present area of agricultural land. A large part of that is things like the deforestation of the Amazon. But it is not just that, it is across central Africa, South-east Asia and so forth. It’s the urge, it’s the drive to bring in the marginal land into production, which again it makes economic sense in the short-term, but it has devastating consequences in the long term.
A quote for you, “Nothing beside remains.” Recognise it? From Ozymandias.
Two more wrathful consequences. Our system of agriculture is hugely dependent upon the availability of cheap fossil fuels. Primarily in terms of the fertiliser put on it, but also in terms of the transport system, bringing food from a long way away to our tables. For every calorie of food on your plate, ten calories of fossil fuel energy has been expended to get it there. When that fossil fuel energy is taken away – the next ten or twenty years – it will have a huge impact upon how much food is available. It is a Faustian bargain. You know, we have taken the fossil fuel, we have done wonderful things with it, we have managed to sustain the incredible rise in population, but after a set time, just as with Faust, Mephistopheles comes back and says “I’m going to have that back. Thank you I’ll have that price that you wanted to pay.” Fossil fuels are going to be taken away.
I just put GM contamination as one example, perhaps we can talk about that later on but you know all these assurances from the scientist that GM contamination can’t happen. I was reading a story a few weeks ago where there’s a GM station in Iowa, exploring I think it is varieties of corn and their particular variety of corn turned up in Mexico which is quite a way away, you know they were assured “No, no we can’t – it’s completely contained, this variety of corn won’t spread.” And of course it did. Any how one little quote from Leviticus again, “If you defile the land it will vomit you out.” And this has happened serially over time in different parts of the world. Ancient Babylon is now effectively desert, because the people who lived there extracted the sources unsustainably and when the agricultural base got taken away the civilisation collapsed. Of course Baghdad is not too far away but it took a long time to recover.
Similarly Rome, I read an article saying that was hugely impacted by the over-cropping of the hills in Italy, what is now called Italy. A very interesting article I read recently about Florence and the Tuscans about how they abandoned the attempts to defend their land through chopping down the trees to make bows and arrows, and they planted, starting planting trees instead, disbanded the army in order to preserve their local way of life. They realised that destroying their land by chopping down the trees, causing soil run off and so forth, was hugely counter-productive. And the reason why Tuscany is now so healthy and beautiful and productive is because for 400 years they have had this concern with looking after the soil, in particular through planting trees. Just one example.
This raises the wider issues of how to live within our world. The fundamental question going back to the basic principle is that the world and the creatures within it are in inherently worthy of respect. They are not simply tools for us to do simply as we will. Now Job 40, 41 is when God responds to Job’s complaint at the end and says, Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” And He goes on and lists all the wonderful things about creation, the Behemoth, the Hippopotamus, and talks about how wonderful it is and how wonderful different areas are within what’s created. And there is a good Psalm as well, I think it is Psalm 104 which has a good description of the water cycle, the donkeys that drink from it and so forth, as a another example.
But fundamentally the environmental crisis that we face is rooted in the spiritual crisis. Going back to this great theme in Scripture, that the wider environment is symptomatic of our state of sin. And if we persist in sin the environment will reflect that in judgemental ways, in wrathful ways. Therefore the land mourns. We have to respect the integrity of creation. That it is not simply for us to do with as we will, that we can’t expect to have no consequences from feeding cattle, dead cattle. OK, we need to respect the integrity of creation.
And the roots of the problem, which is why I spent such time talking about idolatry and science are in a particular scientific attitude, or a technological attitude, which I went into. Remember my phrase, we are radically anti-phronetic. We have no judgement, we have lost our capacity to judge between good and evil in this respect, to listen to what God is telling us, phronesis is the Greek virtue of judgement, of deciding what is the right way forward. Because we have lost these practical virtues, we no longer have any sense of our abominable practices like what led to CJD. We have lost sight of it, we are so meshed in sin that we cannot see clearly. Which is why going back to Scripture can be a very good prod to our sight.
And the consequences of this are all around us. Another good quotation, “The time has come for judging the dead and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints, and those who reverence your name both small and great and for destroying those who destroy the earth.” An aspect of the last judgement which isn’t flagged up very often. “Those who destroy the earth will be destroyed.” Book of Revelation. So eschatology, living in the light of the end, living now as if the end was about to come, changing the way we live, living in the Kingdom, all this language, it’s the same thing. We put on the armour of light, in other words we change the way we live to reflect the light which is coming in, we shift to Kingdom patterns of life, we live at peace with creation rather than this mentality of seeking to exploit it. We talk about dominion or stewardship or creation care not domination. Fundamental difference. And the verse, I think it’s Romans 8 – “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” We live as God’s children within the garden when we don’t have these exploitative attitudes. We have these reverential attitudes. We respect creation as one manifestation of reverence of worship of the Creator.
So specifically, and only very, very briefly, I think learning how to garden. Simply as a way of reopening our eyes to how we are to be linked in with the natural world. Because our civilisation has become so far detached from the natural world. How many people within London for example get their food only ever from the local supermarket? And this episode of what I think of as writing on the wall from September 2000 when we had the fuel crisis. And the supermarkets started to empty, and there was great panic, where does food come from if not from the supermarket? That’s why it’s so important when I was working in Stepney, that was actually the city farm. And we keep on taking all the people in the primary school and the secondary school around the farm so they could actually see where food came from. Because the majority culture is wholly detached from these profoundly important roots in the soil, and gardening is one way of reconnecting with that.
But applying that more widely, becoming more aware of the natural environment on which we depend, so things like in your shopping, we can talk about you have got to go organic, yes, but actually local is more important than organic, just to talk in terms of fossil fuels and global warming and so forth. If you buy organic but it happens to be shipped even by trucks from central England, you are actually using more oil than if you simply buy a non-organic crop that’s grown closer. It’s more important to buy local or even to grow your own than it is to buy organic but buying organic is manifestly crucial. But more fundamentally, simply consuming less. That doesn’t necessarily mean consuming less food but the whole culture of consumption that is driving our economy. And again I’ll focus in on this crucially in our next session when I talk about poverty. But consuming less – you know the phrase – live simply so that others might simply live, it’s that process. And walking lightly on the earth, leaving stuff behind, not extracting the absolute maximum you can get from a harvest at any one moment in time, living mercifully, leaving some behind for the alien the poor, the widow.
Now I want to finish, something from 2 Chronicles, “If my people who are called by my Name will humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” I thought that was a good summary. But I actually want to finish by reading you a poem by Wendell Berry, this chap who I have just discovered and I think is absolutely marvellous, so just ordered two or three books of his to work my way through them in more detail. He is a Christian farmer in America and he is a poet and writer and he has distinct perspective and this is a poem of his called “Manifesto – the Mad Farmers’ Liberation Front.” And I have a copy here for each of you, but I want to read it out first, it goes like this:-
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
OK, sums it all up. Questions, thoughts, comments?
Not all fertiliser comes from fossil fuel, night soil for those who aren’t aware is human waste, and it is something where alternatives are being developed. Now quick caveat I am not a financial adviser, please don’t take this, but there is a company in which I have invested called TEG Environmental which essentially takes waste, it’s now getting contracts with local authorities, it takes waste produced by the local authorities and turns it into fertiliser. So it is not fossil fuel based but it has got a distinctly growing market to look forward to.
That was the main burden of last week’s session, but I will recap, I think a good way to think about it because last week I was really talking about Apocalypse and Eschatology, Apocalypse being a sort of a pagan sense of a wrathful God coming to damn everybody, but Jesus uses a different sort of language and talks about living, more language about a thief coming in the night, it can happen very suddenly. And therefore the way of living as a Christian is expecting the end, what Wendell Berry is referring to, expect the end of the world and live in the light of it, and so think of – I know lots of passages, Romans 13 is a good one, about putting on the armour of light. Imagine that we are living in the hour before the dawn, this is the image I used last week, where a light is starting to creep in, and so you can start to see the way of the world, you can start to see what’s the works of darkness and what’s the works of light, OK?
And because we can see the light we know that the sun is about to rise in every sense and we live according to that light that’s coming in. Now that is simply living in the Kingdom. Because it is the Kingdom that is coming and the role of the Church is to live according to that pattern of life which is appropriate in the light. So we live in the light and we turn away from the works of darkness. But this is the Johannine language, some people rejected the light because they loved their own acts, the darkness of their own acts. And so this is, the great crises or judgement in John’s language that is coming in, that Christ has been revealed to us and we either live according to this light which is breaking in upon us, and which is coming, which is living in the light of the end or we remain trapped in our patterns and works of darkness. OK?
So applying that to this, we either carry on with business as usual, ignoring what God is saying to us both in Scripture and in terms of the environmental crisis around us, which reflects our sin back to us, or we start to shift the way we live, away from those destructive practices and more towards what I call Kingdom patterns of life. Does that make sense?
Those three bits, idolatry, wrath, eschatology, those are the three tools I am going to apply in each of the sections, so about the environment this week, about social justice next session, about foreign relations the session after that and then about practices of worship in the church in the session after that, before wrapping things up in the last three, looking at what the church should be doing and what the church is for. So this is the first of four applying those three theological tools.
The next meeting will be the second commandment “Love your neighbour as yourself” and if you want to do some homework, the story in Luke about Dives and Lazarus would be appropriate.
You are getting a resurgence of small scale farming driven by these different values, the problem lies in the fact that the great majority of farm land is maintained and developed and exploited by corporate interest.
Two things really, one is please do return when I do the fourth session on patterns of worship because I will probably indulge in my greatest ever rant at Christian leaders who have really not paid attention to Scripture, to doing the will of God. I do think there is a significant problem about Christian leadership, not just the Church of England, although I will not exclude the Church of England from criticism, but I think there has been a real loss of focus and it’s got deep roots, it’ s because the church, small c, has become trapped by the world and the worldly concerns and by worldly agendas, and I think one of the principal uses of Scripture is in calling us back to what God’s word and agenda is.
Having said that, it is changing, the Eastern Orthodox church about ten years ago were the first church to say that disrespect of the environment is a sin, to actually start classing it as a sin within the pathology of human sinfulness, and you might have heard the Bishop of London, who is strongly influenced by the Eastern Orthodox, picking this up. There’s one of the things I researched for this I came across in 1994, the evangelical churches in the States adopted a statement called Creation Care. It’s definitely starting to move. I think the Pope’s address, I haven’t looked at it in detail yet but two days ago the Pope’s Christmas address was dealing with this topic, and talking about how our stewardship of creation is something that we have a scriptural, a divine mandate to pursue, the care of creation. So I think things are changing, partly I think it is still though a worldly agenda driving it. And that’s one of the things I will go into in more depth, it’s not really about, so often choosing a more environmentally friendly lifestyle is seen as something driven by consumer choice, it’s another option, if you want to be a hippy that’s great, yeah live in a commune, but I will carry on with my corporate interests and so forth…
This month’s synchroblog is on the theme of Christianity and Social Justice.
Social justice is undoubtedly a Christian concern – it saturates the Bible, Jesus emphasises it, and the pursuit of it is a necessary constituent part of a faithful life. Over two thousand verses about poverty. And so on and so forth – this is all well and good.
There are various specific ways in which that concern for social justice can be pursued. For me, one aspect came in denouncing Tesco (eg http://elizaphanian.blogspot.com/2008/03/thou-shalt-not-shop-at-tesco-sermon.html). I’m coming to believe that this was – if not quite a mistake, then at least a misapplication of effort. Indeed, perhaps there was even a little spiritual sin involved.
After all Tesco itself is not completely bad – I don’t see much wrong in buying a CD from them for example – my concerns are primarily to do with their food business, in terms of its sustainability, vitality of produce and their treatment of food suppliers. On all these things Tesco seems particularly poor, irresponsible and short-sighted. It seems straightforward to me that shopping at, say, the Co-Op is significantly more supportive of social justice than buying your food at Tesco.
However, the real problem is the underlying system itself, within which it can make sense for a company to be as reckless about social justice as Tesco is. In other words, the problem is about corporate law and the financial markets, who oblige the authorities at Tesco to pursue short term profit margins. (One of the reasons why the co-op, or John Lewis, is much better.)
This system is at the root of much that ails our present world. It is why the peaking of the oil supply will be a catastrophe rather than a bump in the road. It is why global warming will harm more people than it need to. It is why governments are going to war to preserve their way of life. It is why the life in the oceans is denuded, the water available to much of humanity declining, the top soil depleted. There are lots of symptoms telling us that something is wrong, and lots of people objecting to symptoms.
What is the Christian task here – that is, what is the specifically Christian task? Obviously it is a good thing for Christians to be involved in trying to relieve the symptoms, to campaign for social justice, to advocate good environmental stewardship and so on.
Yet I believe the specifically Christian task is a separate one. The ideological system within which the likes of Tesco takes on its role has a specific spiritual root; it is a knotting together of idolatries – of Mammon in particular, but also an excessively high regard for both law and science. All of which are good things, but they have become distorted, elevated above themselves, and consequently they have become life-denying and destructive. As a society and culture we are worshipping false Gods. What we need to do is to proclaim the true God, the one who gives life in response to worship.
In this context, to spend time denouncing Tesco is to waste time that might be better spent digging out the spiritual roots, and teaching people what right worship actually consists in. It is a temptation – to succumb to a desire for control, to engage in a worldly struggle, possibly even a matter of pride – for if you fight an organisation as large and important in British life as Tesco, then some of the importance reflects back on you – and then the real you gets lost, and you become ‘the vicar who is fighting Tesco’, and the gospel is eclipsed.
Hence my present line of thought: Tesco is a big red herring. If Christians are serious about social justice, and right environmental stewardship, then our paramount task is simply this: we must preach the gospel. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
Other people blogging on this theme today:
Those who know me appreciate that I tend to refer to certain texts and principles from Scripture more often than others; I particularly like the prophets, and I particularly like the prophetic teachings denouncing economic injustice and promising God’s terrible wrath upon it. I refer to these principles when, for example, I go off on one of my rants about Tesco. The trouble is, I can start to sound like a stuck record – and I don’t really want to become a caricature of myself – so I’ve tried to avoid preaching on the topic too much, not least because I really don’t want to end up in the pages of the Daily Mail again – although those of you who read my blog will be well aware that my views, especially on Tesco, have become even less moderate as time has gone on! But those good intentions rather fail when faced with the sorts of texts that we have tonight. So, with just a little heaviness of heart, I’m going to get up onto my soapbox again.
“Now listen you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.”
I should say early on that the problem isn’t really Tesco – Tesco is simply an extremely well-run company that is operating within a certain context and playing the game according to the “rules” it finds in operation. The problem is that basic context, and it is that basic context which God will soon act to destroy – but I will come back to that. For now, let’s run with Tesco as an example of what I feel needs to be named and shamed from a Christian perspective.
James 5.4-6: “The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.”
What James is criticising here is the exploitation of the weak by the strong – the abuse of power undertaken in order to increase financial wealth at the cost of the lives of those being exploited. This is not a new insight for James – he is drawing on the insights which run consistently throughout the prophetic literature, as with tonight’s reading from Micah which points out that “the powerful dictate what they desire”.
Now how might this apply to Tesco? Well, let’s think about invoices. Normal business practice would be to invoice a company for goods and services rendered, and for those invoices to be met within a certain time period. Once upon a time I worked in the finance section of Anglian Water and it was my job to process the sequence of invoices, and I would have got into trouble if an invoice wasn’t paid on time. Now, according to a survey by Accountancy Age magazine, Tesco only pays 67% of its invoices below the value of £5000 within standard terms. Think about what that means. If the invoice is below £5000 then we are dealing with a small supplier, someone whose livelihood may well depend upon a prompt payment. On the other hand we have Tesco which, given that it makes billions of pounds of profits in a year, can certainly afford to pay bills promptly. Yet it doesn’t – and the high rate of non-payment – a third of their small bills – suggests that this is not an occasional accident. What we have is an example of a large company squeezing the supply chain in order to maximise its own cash flow and the income that can be generated from it. “The powerful dictate what they desire”. Essentially what happens is that the supplier is forced to lend money to Tesco, and Tesco doesn’t even have to pay interest. The trouble is that Tesco has become so good at practices like these that, according to one critical book I read recently, Tesco in the financial year ending in 2006 was able to ‘borrow’ over £2bn from its suppliers, at no cost in fees or interest payments.
Now as I said, the problem is not particularly with Tesco as such – they are simply the biggest player in this particular market and to a greater or lesser extent the criticisms apply to all the major supermarket chains. I just believe that we need to start somewhere, and not using Tesco is a good place to start. After all, it’s not a great hardship for most people, and if a committed Christian cannot achieve that then most areas of Christian discipleship will also be too much for them.
“Now listen you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.”
The other great theme in the prophets is that the injustice of the rich will provoke God’s wrath: “because I have sinned against him I will bear the Lord’s wrath” as Micah puts it. The truth is that we cannot avoid sinning, we cannot avoid playing a part in the sins of the world. If you are a single mum struggling to survive on benefits, or a frugal pensioner, and Tesco is in walking distance then shopping there is the only reasonable option. It is the lesser of two evils and it is not at all part of my plan to heap yet more burdens upon the shoulders of those who are already vulnerable. Yet that simply points up the truth that what is needed is systemic change – and that is what God is bringing about. The way in which this systemic change is going to take place – the way in which we are going to experience God’s wrath – is starting to become clear. You will, I am sure, be aware of the rise in the oil price to a new all-time record high; part of the rise due to the peaking of oil production throughout the world. Yet what has now started to happen are the secondary effects from that. The price of wheat has gone up by 46% in the last two months, corn by 20%. This is because significant parts of the American mid-west have shifted their agricultural land to the production of corn-ethanol. In other words, the farmers can make more money – as a result of government subsidies – from providing fuel for cars than food for people. The consequences of this are frightening. How will our economic system cope when the fuel that it relies upon is taken away? Our transportation system – not least the transportation system – is entirely dependent upon liquid fuels, and as that system breaks down all our assumptions about economic life will be challenged. And what will we do when the car drivers of the west out-compete entire nations in the third world in the demand for food and fuel. Are we really prepared to stand by and watch the wars and mass human migrations that will result? The system has entered into a time of crisis, and God knows how it will end.
It is our entire way of life that needs to change, and that will change. What we need to do is to start living in the light of the change that is coming. There is a particular Christian language that refers to this, and that language is “living in the kingdom”. We are children of the resurrection. The resurrection shows the nature of God and the nature of humanity, it shows the way of life that we are to follow. Yet we are not there yet. What we are called to do is to live by that different understanding, to walk towards the light and to keep faith with it, even when it seems utterly absurd by worldly standards. What that means in this context is that we need to begin disengaging from the globalised production of pre-packaged food, and return to the sort of system that was universal as little as fifty years ago, where there is the possibility of a much more direct relationship with local food and local food suppliers. The implications extend into our entire habits of life. This is what the Transition Town movement is all about, and I am so glad that Mersea now has an organisation dedicated to pursuing that objective.
God is in this process. It is one of the principal places where the Spirit may today be found. For one of the other abiding themes of the prophetic writings is that God’s love will not always be eclipsed, that there will always be the possibility of redemption. Micah writes “Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light. Because I have sinned against him, I will bear the LORD’s wrath, until he pleads my case and establishes my right. He will bring me out into the light; I will see his righteousness.” There is a way out, a way that God will bless. That way, for us as a community, lies in turning away from highly efficient and soulless corporations and returning to the resilient, the local and the organic – in every sense. There is a challenge in the book of Deuteronomy which encapsulates this message, and which we would do well to meditate on: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live…”
May the Lord guide all our choices that we may do his will, that we and all God’s children may prosper in this land.
And if you want cheap food well here’s the deal:
Family farms are brought to heel
by the hammer blows of size and scale,
Foot and mouth the final nail
in the coffin of our English dream
that lies out on the village green;
While agri-barons, CAP in hand
Strip this green and pleasant land
Of meadow, woodland, hedgerow, pond
What remains gets built upon
No trains, no jobs
No shops, no pubs
What went wrong?
What went wrong?
(from the song ‘Country Life’ by Show of Hands)
It would surely be impossible to argue that God is uninterested in the way that humanity engages in economic activity, and we can see this in two Scriptural forms: specific injunctions against particular practices and more general injunctions in favour of social justice, obedience to God and, as Jesus put it, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon”. Examples of the former are found in Deuteronomy 25.13 (“Do not have two differing weights…”) and Isaiah 5.8 (“Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.”); examples of the latter are the repeated prophetic calls to look after the widows and orphans, with the promise of divine chastisement if these calls are ignored.
This is the context in which I read “Tescopoly” by Andrew Simms, a very thorough overview of the way in which Tesco functions as a monopolist: one who has joined all the fields together until it is left alone in the land. In many ways Tesco is simply a highly efficient corporation, a (rare) example of world-class management in a British company. Yet it is precisely the fact that it is so efficient, so effective in accomplishing its aims, that it has had such dispiriting and impoverishing effects on our communities.
Simms details the ways in which, through the use and abuse of its dominant market position, Tesco actively harms those who supply it with goods, those who work within its walls, and the communities within which it finds itself operating. For example, Tesco consistently pays its suppliers less than the industry average, it is consistently late in paying invoices presented to it, especially by the smallest suppliers, and, through the exercise of essentially bullying tactics, it is able to ‘borrow’ more than £2bn a year from its suppliers for free. Internationally it suppresses wages in the third world and strips communities of their dignity (I was astonished to read that in a farm in Zimbabwe children are taught to sing “Tesco is our dear friend” in order to impress the visiting potentates.)
My own concern is primarily with the impact on local communities in England, and here Simms marshalls fascinating evidence. For every £1 spent in a supermarket more than 90p leaves a local community; whereas the impact of a ‘local box scheme’ (ie locally produced and delivered vegetables) is quite the reverse – for every £1 spent, £2.50 is generated in local wealth. In terms of jobs, supermarkets undermine a community further: it takes £95,000 worth of sales in a supermarket to sustain a single job, the figure for smaller stores is £42,000. Beyond this, the supermarkets, especially Tesco, support the use of casual and unlicensed labour leading to what is effectively a modern form of serfdom. Put simply the arrival of a supermarket chain in a town sucks money and livelihoods away from the local area in order to agglomerate capital for shareholders. Supermarkets impoverish communities in terms of income, social life and common civility.
At this point a common defence is to claim that this is the operation of ‘the free market’, and that if the market chooses to support Tesco, and people benefit from its cheap prices, then we shouldn’t interfere. Such a response is either naively ill-informed or else the expression of an understanding already corrupted by an anti-Christian value system. No sane person advocates a wholly unrestrained free market, or else bin Laden would have been able to purchase nuclear weapons long ago, and so the question becomes: is it right for the free market to operate here, in these circumstances? Is the operation of a free market in this context something that will foster and support our social values or will those values and goods be undermined by the free market? In other words, higher values are applied. Yet, of course, particularly with regard to Tesco: what does it mean to talk about a free market when we have at best an oligopoly and at worst, in so many areas, a monopolistic environment? Simms points out that in 81 of the 121 British postcode areas Tesco is the dominant grocer, and is the number 2 in a further 24 areas. The operation of the free market is considered by the government to be inhibited whenever one trader gets more than 8% of the market – and Tesco has vastly more than that, in some areas going beyond 50%. In such a situation invoking ‘the free market’ functions as a ritualistic response in which all other considerations are subordinated to the one dominant value of Mammon. In other words, it is simply the expression of idolatry.
As such it is not something that the living God will allow to endure in perpetuity, and indeed, the ways in which this system will collapse can already be discerned. The operation of the supermarkets are dependent upon the ready supply of cheap and abundant fossil fuels, especially oil, which allow for the worldwide transport of food and the complicated logistics and processing undertaken by the corporations in this country. As a result of the worldwide peaking of oil supplies such energy is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive, and we will all be required to change our patterns of life and consumption with, most particularly, a return to the patterns of local food production that obtained before the last half of the twentieth century. This will come as a shock to the economic system and an ecological truth will then be applicable: the most efficient organisms, which are most finely tuned to a particular environment, are the most vulnerable when that environment changes. There is a trade-off between efficiency and resilience, and the ‘just-in-time’ model of food distribution which works well in our present context will be insupportable in the world we are moving into.
We live today in a society which has abandoned the Scriptural concern with social justice, and which has given itself over to the worship of Mammon. Consequently we have left ourselves open to the judgement proclaimed by the prophets. We must repent of such choices and turn once again to the living God: it is the duty of all Christians to boycott Tesco.
(A version of this article has appeared in the journal ‘Gospel and our Culture’)
UPDATE: I must be right, because Simon Heffer disagrees with me.
I was asked to review this for the Gospel and our Culture network. Once it’s been published in their magazine I’ll put the text up here. You can guess my take on it though, especially given the title of the review: “On the Christian duty to boycott Tesco”….
Rent-a-quote vicar on Tesco, in the Colchester Gazette.
The Daily Mail article is published today, but it isn’t on-line (pages 26 and 27 of the paper). Big picture of me superimposed upon a Tesco store…
This was an interesting and enlightening experience. The interview was extensive – over an hour – and the photography took almost as long. Out of that interview, however, there is almost no direct quotation, and, indeed, some elements ‘created’. So, for the record…
The article runs two things together. First, a sermon where I suggested to the congregation that they should not shop at Tesco, if it opens on the island, mainly on fair trade grounds. Second, my Learning Church talk on Peak Oil, which suggests that the Tesco model will break down, and that we will have to use much more local food supplies.
I’m a little disappointed. I had hoped that – because I went into quite some depth about Peak Oil with the interviewer – that at least that phrase would be mentioned, but no such luck. They didn’t mention the blog either! On the whole, though, I don’t think I can complain too much.
Thing is, it has really made me ponder about my vocation and where I am supposed to be going with this. I said to a colleague the other day that it was forcing me to engage with the issues rather than just think about them (contemplate them, in my previously understood sense) – this will force me to ‘walk the walk’ much more than I have so far. Which seems a good reason for thinking that God is involved.
I just have this memory seared into me of wanting to go into a political career and being told by God in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t right – and ever since I have been allergic to anything smacking of direct political involvement.
Yet – it’s not “political” so much as – I trust – “prophetic”, in the best sense. At least, that’s where I think I’m headed. As I quoted in my ‘Prophecy and Peak Oil’ post: “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture” (Brueggemann). I am beginning to believe that this is a central part of what I am called to do. There seems to be an integrity about the choice, however cautious I am about it.
In any case, I’m pretty sure that if I go off the path of my vocation, the good Lord will let me know.
Mentioned in the first paragraph no less (and at the end).
Update: I have also now been asked by the BBC and Sky to take part in TV audience discussions; the Essex County Standard are running a follow-on piece, for which they sent a photographer(!), and BBC Radio Essex want to do an interview. (Update: went out at 8:10am Thursday 23 February. My Mum had a nice birthday surprise, hearing her son on the radio :o)
I think this might add up to more than fifteen minutes. I wonder what that is going to do to my karma and how I’m going to have to make up the difference.
Update 3: quoted in East Anglian Daily Times article here.
Update 4: interviewed by the Daily Mail today – longest interview yet, it’ll be interesting to see what actually makes it in. I can’t help thinking that this is getting a bit bizarre….
Update 5: apparently the Daily Mail article is going in tomorrow – I’ll link to it here if possible – but today I’ve also had to turn down BBC TV who wanted me to do something for a programme to go out on Saturday. Odd, odd, odd. Who cares what a rural vicar thinks?