. . . action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing.

Back in the late 1980s and early 90s I was teaching music at Hollesley Bay Young Offenders Institution (a youth prison on the East coast) and I had a couple of students who were inside for credit card fraud. They had nicked a few post bags, trawled through them to find cards in the post, and then they used them on a few transactions. Wrong, yes; illegal, yes; worthy of a prison sentence, probably yes. In cash terms the sum total of their criminal activity was, perhaps, a few thousand pounds.

During that time the Guinness share trading fraud case had taken place and was, off and on until 1991, headline news. For those of you who cannot remember the case it was a major attempt to manipulate the stock-market in order to inflate the price of Guinness shares which the defendants, Ernest Saunders, Sir Jack Lyons, Anthony Parnes and Gerald Ronson, hoped would help them succeed in a £2.7 billion take-over bid for the Scottish drinks company Distillers. Ernest Saunders, the former Guinness CEO, had just received a prison sentence of 5 years which, on appeal, had been halved. The two young lads I was teaching got the same sentence which, on appeal was not halved. Not surprisingly they felt that justice was not being done and they were angry.

I particularly remember this moment because this was the first time I had been in the direct angry presence of something that looked and felt like an injustice. It made me very uncomfortable because I lived a comfortable existence in which such things didn't happen – or I believed they didn't happen. Or rather, if they did occur (God-forbid), I thought they would be dealt with by good and just people using the good and just laws that I had been taught underpinned my world. Though I was disturbed by my encounter I eventually let my discomfort dissipate because I trusted that somehow 'things would come out right in the end.' I just got on teaching my lads how to play Eric Clapton songs (a fave of the day) and to write love songs to their girlfriends (socially still one of my most useful endeavours).

I hadn't thought about this incident for years but this week it came back to the forefront of my thinking because the discomfort I felt then I'm beginning to feel again and for similar reasons – Sir Fred Goodwin . . . However, this time there is a singular difference because I'm not experiencing the angry presence of an injustice in the closed minority context of a prison amongst people who are clearly criminal (clearly to a certain way of thinking that is) but amongst everyday folk in the everyday world, people on the street, in restaurants, in jazz clubs and in bands (just last night in fact) and, of course, in this congregation. In me! Another singular difference is that the context in which I am encountering this feeling is largely middle-class and well-educated; in other words I'm feeling it amongst people who do not normally get so riled and angry; we don't because we have grown up in a context where we assume that such injustices will be dealt with by those we elect or by those whom we have supposed are responsible leaders in their fields of endeavour – bankers for example. We assume that the laws of the land and the inherent honesty of people in authority will be used to help us address our problems – an attitude which believes that, somehow in the great British scheme of things, everything is, or can be dealt with, by the present structures and people in authority. But these same structures and people are appearing increasingly powerless to see that justice is done.

Ongoing events seem to be suggesting to me that perhaps I shouldn't be so sure about the ability of our present structures and people to deal with matters without my, our, more direct sustained personal intervention.

For the truth is that, today, we are all facing a revelation that in our ordered society there have been committed some very serious injustices and, though we would love to believe it will all be sorted out by unnamed third parties and extant external laws that don't require us to give our own blood, sweat and tears, we need to realise that this has never been the case even at the times we thought it was the case. A functioning, just society capable of tackling its own problems, let alone those of the wider world, requires us as individuals to engage with it fully. Clever talk and analysis (my speciality) is not enough and it is no longer setting my heart and mind at rest. I am powerfully minded of the words of one of my heroes, Gerrard Winstanley, in his 1649 Watch-Word to the City of London and the Armie – that his mind was not at rest "because nothing was acted, and thoughts ran into me, that words and writings were nothing, and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing." Which point brings this address its practical conclusion.

For all its diversity of belief about the nature of God/Divine and the nature of the world, for all its openness to philosophies other than the straightforwardly Christian, we are a church that bases its way of being in the world upon the life and example of the man Jesus. Institutional Christianity's big mistake – in nearly all its forms including our own – was to concentrate too much upon metaphysical theories and, as the NT scholar John Dominic Crossan has noted it has produced innumerable theological “Christs” that “mute, mitigate, or manage” the in-the-dust-and-dirt-and-blood program of the historical man Jesus who saw the dreadful injustices of his own age and realised that “words and writings were nothing, and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing."

After all his painstaking historical work to try to reveal what he thought was the best possible picture of the historical Jesus, Crossan came to believe that Jesus never wanted a person's admiration, or even agreement; instead he wanted their obedience to his vision of a just world, an ideal that he summed up in the phrase 'the kingdom of Heaven'. In the light of this realisation Crossan imagined a conversation between himself and Jesus. It runs as follows:

“I’ve read your book, Dominic,” Jesus begins, “and it’s quite good. So you’re now ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?” “I don’t think I have the courage, Jesus, but I did describe it quite well, didn’t I, and the method was especially good, wasn’t it?” “Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suite your own incapacity. That at least is something.” “Is it enough, Jesus?” “No, Dominic, it is not.”

The times were are living in are a sharp reminder to us that it has never has been enough simply to analyse the issues of our day and to let the extant laws of our land bumble on without our active engagement leaving all things to those whose self-interest trumps all other cards.
Here is an example of some relevant practical advice as to what we should be doing today that begins to be revealed when you pull Jesus' teaching out of the Christian theological sphere and into the practical and historical.

In Luke (18:2-8) we read:

[Jesus] said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'"

But Luke doesn't want to leave it there and he goes on to make an unprovable and, to my mind unhelpful, theological point. As Crossan notes Luke wants to advocate to us unremitting prayer to God in such situations but this is to pull the story out of the real world with injustices that need to be faced down and to retreat into an ideal world. Here is how the story goes on:

And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

But Jesus' story comes to witty and practical life when you let it stand alone. Here is Crossan's rendition (Saying 92):

A widow with no shame confronted a judge with no conscience. Time and again she pleaded vindication before him. He finally gave in because, even if ethics did not bother him, she did.

Times are displaying that we have people in powerful positions with no conscience who, for what ever reasons, do not grasp or have not been taught about ethics. Like the widow we should begin to bother our leaders endlessly and shamelessly. If we don't, who will? As Winstanley said: "Action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing."


Anonymous said…
Interesting observations. I agree that this crisis is fundamentally a moral/spiritual in origin and concerns such issues as justice, honesty and compassion.
Anonymous said…
The interesting contrast that I find in recent news is that Ms. Shoesmith could be sacked from her post at Haringey council in the wake of Baby P case,largely as a result of a tabloid petition but Sir Fred will, I suspect, retain a good measure of his inflated pension. I personally hope that Ms. Shoesmith wins her appeal for unfair dismissal, to because of the merits or otherwise of her case, but simply because I believe that employment contracts should not depend upon the (dis)approval of The Sun newspaper.Your contrast of the white colour criminals and the young offenders is well made and could,I am sure, be repeated many times over.
kbop said…
The moral is: go big or stay home.
Yewtree said…
I haven't really believed in the justice of the law or the goodness of society since the 1980s, when so many people I knew were struggling in every respect. Now Thatcher's pigeons are coming home to roost.

There are several occasions in the gospels where you can see the join where Jesus' original trenchant social commentary gets turned into a dubious theological point which seems the opposite of what he meant (the story of the widow's mite, for instance, or the occasion when the disciples are caught gleaning the fields on the Sabbath).

I've always liked the Unison logo: a bear being chased by ants (to make the point that if we all unite in protest, we can chase away the big bad corporate bears).
Thanks Yewtree - I hadn't clocked the ants and bear campaign.
Yewtree said…
Like just about everything these days, it's even available on YouTube! Though the bear is actually quite cute, which undermines the point somewhat.