When resting is resistance—recycling our natural treasures

Proverbs 4:23 over Heidegger's door in Freiberg
Readings: Matthew 6: 19-21 “Concerning Treasures”

Jesus said: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Exodus 20:8–11 “The fourth commandment”

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Proverbs 4:23

Keep your heart with all vigilance,
    for from it flow the springs of life.

Pro-Aesthetic Language: natural treasures vs. natural resources by Anja Claus writing for “The Centre for Humans and Nature”: 
         
The human aesthetic—the perception and sensory contemplation of a subject—is so strongly influenced by the terms and phrases we adopt into our lexicon that we ought to pay close attention to them. We see, hear, and smell our environment using the senses we have evolved with over hundreds of thousands of years, and then we process and contemplate this sensory influx.
     [. . .]
     This brings me to another powerful pair of terms that allow us to observe [this]: the phrase “natural resources” versus the phrase “natural treasures.” Both set the stage for how we understand and relate to each other and the larger community of life. Both refer to the animate and inanimate subjects that we humans consume in some way. Whether it is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the sights we take in, or the metals we mine, we manipulate these subjects, changing them sometimes slightly, and sometimes in an extreme way. And here is the rub: it is how we represent, and thus come to know, the things we manipulate, that influences the nature of our acts. Do we take from nature with respect and with love in our hearts? Or do we do it with a self-interested utility, that is over-intellectualized by economics, resulting in the bastardization of our evolutionarily functional greed? I believe that if we come to understand these subjects as treasures, our processes are more apt to be respectful and loving, leading us on a decision-making path toward understanding the other subject on its terms, rather than only on our terms, or exclusively in human terms. If we employ the word “treasure” we are activating a social construct that conjures up sacredness and care. Our children are our treasures, and we care for and love them as such. Why not then also see the Land as a treasure, with care and love?

—o0o—

ADDRESS

As the minister of this congregation, on Monday evening, I attended with Susanna an event launching a new project called “Circular Cambridge.” The organisers point out that at the moment our culture’s model of consumption is linear, i.e., we buy stuff, use it and then simply throw it away. To quote the project’s website, it seems that a single person in the EU consumes 15 metric tonnes of natural resources each year, 5 tonnes of which are simply thrown away. Statistics like this reinforce the pressing need for us to begin reinstate and develop further a culture which, as a matter of course, reuses, repairs and recycles — hence the launch of Circular Cambridge. I was there in my ministerial capacity because it strikes me that any contemporary religion worth its salt has to be one that takes the matter of ecology and the environment with the utmost seriousness.

Anyway, in one of the break-out/brainstorming sessions that are de rigour for such events, two things occurred to me that I shared with my group and which I wish to share with you today.

The first was connected with the language of “resources” because, along with Anja Claus, I, too, strongly feel that this terminology is deeply problematic and I would prefer we move towards using the language of “treasure.”

The second thing I shared with my group was the absence from our explicit conversation of one specific, and very important, natural treasure.

It will come as no surprise that nearly all of the conversation and ideas thrown up during these sessions were primarily focussed on how we might better use and reuse natural treasures such as food (whether animal or vegetable), coal, oil, gold, silver, platinum and also what are called rare earth minerals that, today, are indispensable for our hi-tech industries. As far as it went, all this was fine but, I wondered, where was mention of our own natural treasure, that is to say our human heart with its attendant spirit and energy? Did this not also have a vital place in any meaningful circular economy?

In her article for Anja Claus notes well something many of us are beginning to understand that,

“If we understand a tree, a river, an otter, or an ecosystem as merely a resource, then we make personal, managerial, and policy decisions grounded in a worldview that comprehends humans as the pinnacle of evolution.” 

But the paradox of the neoliberal stealth revolution (about which I spoke a few weeks ago showing why it should be of great concern to us as a church community) is that even as it’s chief promulgators proceed as if humans (or at least they themselves) were the pinnacle of evolution it simultaneously attempts to make most everybody else believe they are merely “a resource” to be used up in a linear fashion by some institution, company or corporation. (Cf. also Heidegger’s thinking in “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954) about “bestand” — standing reserve — and “Gestell” — enframing — which turns the world into a stockpile of raw, material resources)

Most of us probably first noticed this process beginning to get the upper hand during the 1980s when many companies and corporations decided to rename their personnel departments “Human Resources.” It disturbed me profoundly at the time and its continuation today still distresses and angers me almost more than I can say because human beings are not merely resources to be used up willy-nilly but are natural treasures just as are coal, oil, gold, trees, rivers, otters, or an ecosystem. Human beings are, in addition, also always-already heads and hearts with existential loves and passions for each other and the world and we understand and, indeed, have sung today, the truth of the words by the Welsh poet and original “Supertramp”, William Henry Davies (1871–1940):

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

But, alas, there is less and less time for people to rest and to “stand and stare” and in my work as both a minister of religion and as a political activist I see more and more people I know, respect and love being bought, used-up, and then thrown away by the linear economy when they suddenly find themselves burnt out by the stress of continually being used as merely just another “human resource.”

But what I have just said is, alas, not only true in the commercial workplace but is also a situation  often mirrored within many activist circles that are protesting against this state of affairs  — whether religious or secular — and to which many of us here belong, such as environmental and ecology groups like Circular Cambridge, Transition Cambridge or Greenpeace, church social action groups such as the Cambridge Foodbank, Christian Aid, Oxfam or various other groups connected with homeless people, refugees and asylum seekers, political groups of various stripes, and still other organisations like Amnesty International, CPRE, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 38 Degrees, UK Uncut, and many others besides.

In relation to this just a couple of weeks ago openDemocracy.net published a powerful piece by Janey Stephenson called “When resting is resistance”. She states the following:

“Activism knows no weekends or boundaries. We give our whole selves to our struggles. Rest days are spent at protests and fundraisers; evenings are for meetings. Injustice won’t wait, and so we spend our lives racing it. We give insurmountable energy and unpaid labour, and often don’t see the results we want. Amid all of this, our very own hearts can drift away from us, anxiety-filled and future-focused. 
     We’re constantly talking about self-care, but rarely practising it. We know we should take more breaks, and they’re only ever just past the next direct action, protest or meeting. But we don’t always get there. Gradually and then suddenly, we can find we just cannot keep going. Both mentally and physically, we stop.” 

So, in my study behind the church hall, along with the burned-out employee, I also often find myself talking with the burned out activist who is also experiencing what it is like to be merely one more a “human resource” that has been used-up and spat out the other end of just one more kind of linear economy. Janey Stephenson concludes her piece by pointing out that part of the problem is because:

“Activists fixate on the future: impatient for the world we want to see. We know time is a finite commodity, so we pressure ourselves to make the most of it. But we commodify ourselves in the process.
     Within this context, the worst thing about burn out is that you don’t know how long it will last. Once you burn out, you can’t make any promises for when you’ll be back in action. But health does not run to a timer, forcing only causes frustration and we do ourselves more harm by living to deadlines.
     It is only by holding, not forcing, that we can find our feet again and secure solid ground when everything else is shaking. In a world where productivity rules, this in itself is true resistance.”

Amen, say I, and this is why I think that coming to church on a Sunday and observing some kind of sabbath where we find time both to rest, recuperate and also recycle and remake our thinking (engaging in a process of verwindung), is a vital form of resistance that we need to engage in as activists. The modern week, with its two days of rest, one of which is perceived to be of specific religious/spiritual significance (the sabbath day) when our myths tell us even God is said to have rested, is itself a circular economy of days. As God is reported as commanding: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

We should be deeply disturbed that the neoliberal stealth revolution wants to destroy this cyclical, restorative cultural institution in favour of a never ending linear, and ultimately destructive,  model of 24 hour long working days that uses people up as resources and not as treasures.

If we don’t regularly commit to such a cycle and campaign for its continuance then we are not, cannot, properly recycle our hearts and its attendant spirit and energy then we are effectively consigning our human treasure to the landfill site that is human “burn-out” from out of which it is very, very hard to rescue and recycle anything of permanent and lasting worth.

It was this, essentially religious, insight that I tried to bring to the attention of my group and I argued that Circular Cambridge shouldn’t just be about recycling one’s food waste, laptops, washing machines, smartphones or whatever else, but it also needed to be about learning healthy and sustainable ways to recycle our own human treasure for the good of not only our own hearts but our whole planet.

It was this conjoining of treasure and heart that made me think, quite naturally, of Jesus’ saying we heard in our readings. In his words we see that he conceived our real treasure as being something that can stored in what he calls “heaven”. Of course, most of us here (all of us?) don’t have anything approaching a belief in the literal reality of heaven (or hell), so how might we understand the word “heaven”? Well, whatever else it may be, it is surely, minimally, the collective, trans-historical imagination in which it is possible to preserve and recycle (we hope ever more effectively) our species’ best, upward looking, Utopian visions. Conceived in this fashion might not Jesus’ “heaven” legitimately be considered as some kind of psychological, cultural recycling centre where our individual treasures of energy and hope can be saved and where they won’t simply be destroyed by rust, eaten up by moths or stolen by today’s neoliberal thieves of hope but, instead, are made available, again and again, in ever different ways for ourselves and our community both now and in the future.

So, to conclude these circular thoughts, I think that on a Sunday we do three circular things. Firstly, we find a way to rest and recycle our own lives and energy in preparation for the creative tasks of the coming week. Secondly, in sharing our own best, upward looking, Utopian visions with our comrades in the struggle for a good, common life, we store up life and energy in our community’s collective, trans-historical imagination — in “heaven”. And, thirdly, by doing this, we make it possible for ourselves and the people who follow us to draw upon and recycle these hopeful treasures — these visions of the kingdom of heaven on earth — which, in turn, can help restore to a people continually threatened with burn-out, a good heart. As the writer of Proverbs puts it, here every Sunday we try to encourage people to:

Keep your heart with all vigilance,
    for from it flow the springs of life (Proverbs 4:23).
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