Fairness

‘It isn’t fair!’ How often do we hear that? As children, it was one of the chief complaints we hurled at adults. As adults, it is one of the chief complaints we hurl at politicians, corporations or anyone or anything we perceive as outraging our sense of justice and fair play. Or rather, at anyone or anything we perceive as not behaving as we think they should. There is a difference. By fairness we often mean equality and are surprised when the mismatch between the two leads to confusion.

In RB 34, which we read today, Benedict tackles the difficult question of distribution of goods in community. You might think he would say everyone should have the same; but he doesn’t. He adheres to the biblical notion of distribution according to need (cf. Acts 4.35). That immediately sets a cat among the monastic pigeons, because it implies that equality is less important than discerning and meeting the needs of individual members of the group. This apparent inequality is actually the way in which fairness is best served, for it ensures that no one has any legitimate cause to grumble.

I think we can apply this to several of the big questions being debated in Britain today. From bankers’ bonuses to gay marriage, a concentration on equality may blind us to larger questions. Fairness demands that we be just, irrespective of our personal opinions or preferences. It demands that we consider the needs of the group as well as of the individual. Above all, it demands that we be prepared to accept that others may see us as unfair even as we are trying our hardest to be fair. That’s not fair, of course, but isn’t that the point?

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How to be a Good Sinner

Good people have a problem with sin. They are against it. The trouble is they are so busy trying to avoid sin they never take time to consider what it is and how it affects our lives. The more compassionate tend to minimize sin, knowing that God is all-merciful and all-forgiving, while the more rigorous, knowing that God is all-knowing and all-just, consign everyone, themselves possibly included, to hell. I personally think it is much better to try to be a good sinner.

A good sinner is one who recognizes the enormity of sin: who can look at a crucifix and say, I did that to you, but still you forgive me; who can admit that even their ‘best’ actions are not without an admixture of rather questionable motives; who knows that life consists in falling down and getting up again . . . simul peccator et iustus.

Let the last word be Phineas Fletcher’s, for I think he captured better than any the sense of the wound sin deals, the way it offends the infinite holiness of God, and the repentance wrung from the heart:

DROP, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from Heaven
The news and Prince of Peace:
Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.
In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.

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Business Ethics

At first sight, it may seem strange to turn to a sixth century monastic rule for guidance on business ethics, but RB 31, What Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be (together with RB 57, On the Artisans of the Community), has a lot to say about our current concerns.

The cellarer is effectively the business manager of the monastery, responsible for everything from finance to food. Benedict begins by giving us a pen-portrait of the qualities the cellarer should have. Some of them, turned into corporation-speak, are still used today to identify senior management, but there are others which touch on the cellarer’s moral identity. How many financial institutions would dare to ask themselves whether the person they are considering for a senior position is ‘wise, mature in character (not necessarily age), abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, not a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful’? (RB131.1-2) To do so would be to acknowledge that the values by which we live our private lives are reflected in the public sphere. Benedict is principally concerned here with honesty and integrity and a watchfulness over oneself which is the mark of maturity. Such qualities have taken a battering of late, but they are at the heart of the trust on which so much economic activity still depends.

Benedict sees the cellarer’s responsibilities as all-embracing. In effect, he asks the question, what is wealth for? The answer he gives highlights the danger of losing sight of the purpose of God’s gifts. The cellarer is to ‘take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor’, in other words, the most vulnerable members of society, yet at the same time to treat the monastery’s goods and property ‘as if sacred altar vessels.’ (RB31. 9-10) Again and again, the cellarer is reminded that his authority over these is given by the abbot and he must neither neglect anything nor go further than his instructions allow. He is essentially the servant of the community, but not in the menial sense we often ascribe to that word: his service is that of a father to the community (RB 31.2), one who provides, enables, fosters growth. So often we think about business success in terms of ‘what’s best for me’ rather than ‘what good I can do’.

It is clear that Benedict expects the work of the monks to generate something over and above what they need for mere existence, something that can be shared with others. Even this sharing, however, is not exempt from the need to be consistent with what the monks profess to believe. The cellarer is warned against the temptations to which his power makes him susceptible. Instead of arrogance, there must be humility; when there is nothing else to give, a good word must be spoken; he mustn’t use his office to demonstrate his own importance by acting haughtily or making others wait to receive their due.(RB 31 13 to 16) These are not only the temptations of the monastic cellarer and minor bureaucrat, they are the temptations of every person who is given a great deal of freedom in the exercise of his or her responsibilities.

The recent Note on Financial Reform from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the protest at St Paul’s, the Report of the St Paul’s Institute and, above all, the daily turbulence within the Eurozone have served to remind us that the economic structures with which we are familiar are all rather fragile; that ignoring the moral dimension of wealth creation and distribution is to undermine the basis of a civilized society which cares for the weak as well as the strong; that selfishness and greed make for general misery; and, most important of all, that it doesn’t have to be like that. We can be, like Benedict’s cellarer, good stewards, worthy of the promise contained in 1 Timothy 3.13. The question is, do we want to be?

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Light in Afghanistan

Apparently, some Taliban groups in Afghanistan are allowing girls to go to school and women to return to teaching. These are local agreements brokered by tribal leaders, strictly limited in scope but a sign of hope nonetheless. There had been a fear that, in their haste to get out of a situation which has seen so much loss of life, both Britain and the U.S.A. would be prepared to sacrifice human rights, especially those of women; so it is heartening to see a change of this kind being brought about by the people themselves.

Why, then, the muted response? A few years ago I blogged about a young Afghani girl who had acid flung in her face because she had dared to go to school. She is now blind and disfigured, condemned to a difficult and marginal existence because no one will marry her (the Taliban have not moved on other aspects of their beliefs). Her story is not unique. The statistics for female illiteracy worldwide are still shocking and, like it or not, the subjugation of women is still a reality in many parts of the world. The sad fact is that we in the west tend to shake our heads and do nothing. Our gaze is elsewhere. Some even mutter darkly about “feminism” as though women were the source of all ills (nothing new there, then).

Education for both men and women is the key to overcoming these blindspots and allowing the development of a just and equitable society. I’m reminded that one of the old definitions of justice is “right order”. There is surely a rightness about little girls being taught to read and expand their horizons. So, light in Afghanistan? Yes, just a chink.

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