People as Commodities

I was very much struck by a sentence in a friend’s email yesterday, ‘Some people think communities are commodities and ask questions as if that were the case.’ I think we could widen the terms of reference to include everyone: people as commodities.

How often does one read of some Government scheme which deals with statistics in such a way that the humanity is bled out of them, or read of some personal tragedy being picked over by the media as though those involved had no role other than to gratify our curiosity? Take the media comment on Steve Jobs’ resignation from Apple. There was a lot of speculation about the future of the company, some neat retrospectives detailing the amazing impact he has had on consumer technology, but not one of the (admittedly few) assessments I read did more than mention his illness as a ‘problem’ for Apple. No doubt it was ‘weak and womanish’ of me to think that half a sentence wishing the chap well, or expressing some hope for whatever life he has left would have been a more decent and humane response to the human story behind the headlines. But, no. There was some intrusive speculation about the nature of his illness (what right have we to know?) but that was all.

I suspect that this commodification of people, of seeing others principally as contributors to or detractors from my wellbeing, plays an important part in the decay of virtue which it is fashionable to decry. Consider me old-fashioned if you like, but doesn’t virtue have something to do with vir, being a man, being human?

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Scepticism

‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ asked Nathanael, who is usually identified with today’s saint, Bartholomew. We all have our ‘Nathanael moments’, when we are profoundly doubtful or sceptical, but probably few of us are worthy of the Lord’s subsequent commendation, ‘incapable of deceit.’ It is so often the experience of deceit in ourself or in others that makes us sceptical in the first place.

It is worth thinking about this for a moment. We can’t do anything about other people, but we can take stock of our own attitudes. To try to live honestly, with integrity, may mean a great deal of pain and suffering, but it will also give us that clarity of vision without which we have no choice but to be sceptical, even pessimistic. I know which I would rather choose, don’t you?

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Dealing with Disappointment

Flaky broadband yesterday meant that I wasn’t able to blog. Ironically, an email from BT this morning assured us of ‘the U.K.’s most reliable wireless connection’. The mismatch between aspiration and experience is something we are all familiar with, whether it concerns ourselves or goods and services we rely on.  No doubt Andy Murray is feeling very deflated this morning, but in his case, disappointment will surely lead to a renewal of effort, analysis of where he went wrong/might have done better. He may become an even better player for having lost an important game, but that will be no solace now. He must experience disappointment to the full.

How we deal with disappointment says a lot about us. We give thanks readily enough when things go the way we want, but when they don’t? That is the real test of how far we live in a state of gratitude.

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A Sense of Entitlement

Occasionally, I catch myself saying or doing something that, on further reflection, strikes me as being presumptuous. Presumption isn’t something we talk about very much. Perhaps if we substituted ‘a sense of entitlement’ it would be easier to understand. We live in a society where demanding or asserting one’s rights is seen in positive terms. We are entitled. One unfortunate result of this is to have made us less honest. An accident can lead to litigation, so fault is not acknowledged; a mistake is always an ‘oversight’ for fear of the consequences of saying one made a mess of things. We don’t have to worry too much about kindness or courtesy because we are entitled. (I exaggerate, of course.) We talk about corporate responsibility and individual responsibility but try to wiggle out of it in various ways. In short, our sense of entitlement can make us childish, demanding that everyone else be responsible but ourselves not at all.

I was thinking about this the other day when I looked through a number of emails that Quietnun was struggling with. (She would do almost anything not to disappoint people.) Each writer assumed that his or her request was perfectly reasonable and should be responded to promptly and positively. As it happens, we can’t meet all the demands but that is not my point. What struck me was the writers’ sense of entitlement. You are there, you are nuns, you should do this or that which I have decided you should do. Apply the same sense of entitlement to personal relationships and one can see how quickly all will end in disaster.

Our expectation in the west that we should never be hungry or thirsty and should always have medical care is increasingly under threat from changing economic conditions. Out right to own property and enjoy a lengthy retirement is also being challenged. But it is easy to see these things in impersonal terms and shy away from any sense of our own involvement. Benedict XVI has been at pains to stress that our reliance on rights has produced a culture of death because we have not balanced it with a sense of responsibility. Perhaps we need to do some reassessment at the personal level. We used to consider presumption a sin. I’d say we should also think about our sense of entitlement in similar terms.

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Overseas Aid: How Much is Enough?

The leak of Liam Fox’s letter challenging the Government’s plan to enshrine in law the pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid has been brilliantly timed to coincide with Christian Aid Week. Or rather, brilliantly mistimed. On the one hand, we have the Defence Secretary raising legitimate concerns about the effect of such a statutory requirement on the Government’s freedom to allocate spending as it sees fit (something we all need to think about, given the commitment of British forces in Afghanistan, Libya, etc); on the other, we have the example of years of quiet do-goodery (using that word without any pejorative overtones) funded by the generosity of private donors to Christian Aid, an organization I very much admire.

Christian Aid is using the slogan ‘Help people in poverty out of poverty. For good.’ For me, the sting is in that ‘For good.’ You could dismiss it as merely fashionable punctuation. Which likes to do things differently. Or you could take it as an expression of something more important, the motive for and the consequence of giving being the good of others. Poverty is something one can find anywhere. It doesn’t necessarily mean being physically hungry or without access to education or medical care. Mother Teresa was appalled by the spiritual poverty she saw in the west, but we tend to dismiss that. We don’t need religious people telling us that we lack something. We are generous; we support lots of good causes; we believe in the secular redemption of a secular society.

The problem with that way of thinking is that it can lead to complacency. I can save the world by not eating meat/using wind power/delete as applicable. Complacency is another form of spiritual poverty, the refusal not so much to give as the refusal to share. To give is sometimes to place oneself above another; to share is to place oneself alongside. What troubles me about Dr Fox’s letter is that many will take the argument about Government spending and turn it back on itself, asserting that we cannot afford to give to others because of our own needs as a country. We need organizations like Christian Aid to remind us that overseas aid is not about giving to poorer nations but sharing resources with them. How much is enough? I don’t know, but I believe we need to think about it.

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Thinking Aloud About Trust

I didn’t know Osama bin Laden had been killed until I returned to Britain on Wednesday last week. Immediately, it seemed, the world was abuzz with claim and counterclaim about what actually happened. Whose account should we trust? Whose account COULD we trust? At the same time, the endless rumble about ‘the financial services industry’ (banks to you and me) continues to raise questions about trust; so too does the debate about the limits of freedom of the press. The Catholic Church is still feeling the effects of the lack of trust that inevitably follows from what we have learned about the abuse of children and adolescents. Everywhere we look, it seems, public trust is very low. Is it any wonder that bad faith and lack of trust often mark our private lives too?

For me, the problem with that question is that it presupposes that public morality shapes and determines our private codes of morality and honour. It is true that some people take their ideas of right and wrong from what is legal or not (though I have to say that does not seem to apply to speed limits). That is why time and energy is devoted to promoting/opposing/repealing legislation which touches on human rights, or what are perceived to be such. Fundamentally, however, it is our private ‘world view’ which shapes our attitude to the public sphere. If there is a lack of trust, and even more, a lack of trustworthiness, in our private lives, it is absurd to expect better in the public sphere. If we bend the truth, why shouldn’t others? Isn’t that why we sometimes doubt what we are told, rather than because we think others are trying to hoodwink us?

I was sickened by what bin Laden did in life, but I have also been sickened by the gloating that has followed his death. The desire to circulate photographs of his dead body to ‘prove’ that he is dead is nothing of the sort. It is a manifestation of something I’d call glee, a measure of the lack of trust in our public institutions and, by implication, an admission of the lack of trustworthiness in our own lives. Overstated? Possibly. Trust is a beautiful quality, well worth cultivating. When it is lost or destroyed, something very precious passes from the earth.

 

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Witnessing to What or to Whom?

Today’s gospel, Luke 24. 35-48, tells us what happened after the disclosure at Emmaus. What fascinates me is not the disciples’ obvious failure yet again to recognize Jesus, nor that piece of broiled fish and what it says about Christ’s resurrected body (and believe me, the speculation to which it has given rise over the centuries is immense), but the words at the end:

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

Perhaps I am being very dim but the kind of witness being posited here is actually a little strange. The disciples had seen Christ suffer and die and rise again and had had the scriptures explained to them, but now he is asking them to witness to a future event: the preaching of forgiveness and repentance in his name. We hear our preachers exhorting us to ‘witness to Christ’ in various ways, but I wonder how often we think of that in terms of a past event: the death and resurrection of Christ as something located in history, made present through liturgical anamnesis, but essentially something to which we look back rather than forward. We are in the business of retelling the story rather than helping to tell it for the first time.

I am probably trembling on the brink of heresy again, but the idea of witnessing to a future proclamation of Christ which must embrace the whole world is quite stunning. It reminds us that Easter is the beginning of the story, not the end. There is still something for us to do, and do it we must, for it has been entrusted to us by Christ himself. As we shall sing at Pentecost, ‘All is made new.’

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Managing Expectations 2

I’ve already blogged on this subject but yesterday’s little dip into the world of TV and radio highlighted another area that is worth considering: the relationship between religion and money. (For those of you who haven’t a clue what I am talking about, one of us appeared on Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ here while BBC TV showed a short video here and issued a written summary here about our newly-launched Online Retreats.) The BBC presenter ended his piece with a short to-camera  reflection: “This begs the question of the relationship between religion and money” or some such wording.

It’s interesting that many people, whether they would describe themselves as believers or not, expect “religion” and all its works to be free. To some extent, that is entirely reasonable. We have come to expect that our churches and chapels will be free to enter when we wish to pray. When we visit them as tourists we stump up our entrance fees a little reluctantly. We are still not used to the idea that buildings have to be maintained and the congregation cannot necessarily do so without help. It somehow goes against the grain: we expect things to be otherwise. We don’t expect to have to pay to listen to homilies or sermons, on the grounds that the priest or clergyperson receives a stipend for performing clerical duties, one of which is preaching; so sometimes we get confused about what we may reasonably expect. Ask the parish priests who are telephoned every time they sit down to a meal and you will get some pretty plain speaking!

When we visit monasteries we expect to be received hospitably. The monks and nuns will drop their work and ply us with food and drink as a matter of course. After all, St Benedict says that every guest is to be treated tamquam Christus, as if Christ. If we attend a day of recollection on monastic premises, we usually make a donation or pay a fee in recognition of the time and effort that has been devoted to us. Monks and nuns don’t receive salaries for what they do because we stand outside the clerical structures of the Church (I’m not talking of monk priests who have charge of parishes, obviously) yet there is still a common perception, shared maybe by our BBC presenter, that we ought not to charge for anything we do or provide. (How it is all to be financed is a question never addressed, but that is not what interests me here.)

I think this assumption that religion should be “free”, like the assumption that nuns, for example, should never be tired or angry, is actually a tribute to generations of good people who have been remarkably generous and remarkably virtuous. It is difficult, often impossible, for those of us who would describe ourselves as believers to meet the expectations of others in this regard; but when people senselessly knock religion and parrot out the view that all the bad things that happen in the world are the fault of religion, I think we can point to these assumptions and say, “If religion were as bad as you are claiming, you wouldn’t have these expectations.” The fact that we expect the clergy to be gentle with us and monks and nuns to be welcoming (and are rather put out if they aren’t) says something important about Christianity.

What, however, are the expectations that can reasonably be had of us as Christians, pure and simple? I am always immensely impressed by the way in which Christians in this country respond to any call for help. Disaster funds raise much of their money from those who have least. The tradition of tithing is well-established. We give our time, our talents, whatever we have; but how do we manage the expectations others have of us as people who should be endlessly giving? I’m not sure; but I am amazed and humbled into gratitude for all those from whom I learn so much, who somehow manage to be what I cannot.

 

 

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Clenched Fist and Wicked Word

Yesterday the whole world was stunned into silence. News of the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami that followed left us without words. Even the enormities being perpetrated in Libya or Ivory Coast seemed small by comparison, as if the loss of human life could ever be a small matter! Yet I noticed that a few sick types were soon active on the internet, expressing glee that so many had been killed. There is something cold and closed about hatred, well summed up in Isaiah’s phrase about clenched fists and wicked words. To me, the clenched fist has never symbolized strength or power but only impotent rage: a hand unable and unwilling to receive. In the same way, the wicked word is deaf to all kindness, its own ugly clamour shutting out all but its own noise.

There is a promise attached to doing away with clenched fists and wicked words. Perhaps realising how vulnerable we all are is the first step in learning compassion. What happened yesterday in Japan reminded us that the world is not under our control, nor can the disaster be expressed in terms of statistics. Every one of those statistics has a name, an identity. As we learn, hour by hour, of the number of people who have been killed or gone missing, we need to remember that. We need to pray for them as individuals, to speak good words instead of bad and to open our hands to give.

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Almsgiving

Fasting has become fashionable, or at least, you will find a lot being written about it in the blogosphere. For us Benedictines, with our fairly rigorous Lenten fast and our regular Friday fast from September to Easter, that is not news. You will be pleased to know I have nothing to add to what has been said already. (Does she ever? Ed.) Similarly, much has been written about prayer which is good and useful, but this year I have noticed very little about the third element of our Lenten discipline, almsgiving.

Notice, first, that I call it a discipline, from the Latin, disciplina, a teaching. We are meant to learn something. Secondly, I use the word alms, from the Greek, eleēmosunē, meaning compassion. That is, we are meant to learn compassion during Lent. That in itself is worth thinking about, so too is the means recommended to us: sharing with others what has been given to us. Put like that, dropping a few coins into the hat of a busker or a couple of notes into a CAFOD envelope can seem horribly inadequate. It may be inadequate, of course, but the chances are that we are made uncomfortable more by the thought of our own imperfection than the inadequacy of our giving. Almsgiving becomes a contest, with the prize going to whoever can give most. You can see how absurd that is. Perhaps we should concentrate less on what we give and more on the manner with which we give. It is generosity of heart that counts, and we cannot fake that with God, no matter how many zeros we add to our gift.

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