A New Law of Righteousness—Some reflections following the Grenfell Tower Fire

Grenfall Tower. Photo: Natalie Oxford
Inevitably this address was written fully alert to the horrific and utterly deadly Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington and whilst I was trying, like I’m sure many of you were, to come to terms with the fact that this blackened, charnel tower is quickly coming to stand as a shocking symbol of so much that is wrong in our own increasingly unjust and deeply unequal society.

In what follows I do not speak of the fire directly but I hope that my reflections on what the important and very influential New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan, feels are the sayings which form the very heart of Jesus’ vision, will carry today a clear message highly relevant to the current situation and mood. As Jesus himself seems to have often said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:9).

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Readings: 

From The Essential Jesus: Original sayings and Earliest Images by John Dominic Crossan (Castle Books, New Jersey, 1998). Crossan's versions of four of the beatitudes are in italics:

Blessed are the poor (cf. Luke 6:20b)

Only the destitute
      are innocent

Blessed are the hungry (cf. Luke 6:21)

Only those who have no bread
        have no fault

Blessed are the sad (cf. Matthew 5:4)

Only the wretched
            are guiltless

Blessed are the persecuted (cf. Matthew 5:10-12)

Only the despised
            are blameless

Crossan's commentary on these sayings is as follows:

Blessed the Poor (see, e.g., Luke 6: 20b). The standard translation is “Blessed are the poor.” Greek has two clearly different words for “poor" (penes) and “destitute” (ptochos), so it should be “Blessed are the destitute.” But what does that mean? Is it some romantic delusion about the status of rags and the benefits of beggary? Jesus speaks to a situation of systemic injustice and structural evil, where empires live off colonies, aristocrats live off peasants, and only a large percentage of expendable people make the process possible. To hold a vast majority of peasants at subsistence level necessitates about 5 to 10 percent falling regularly below it. Jesus says that, in such a position, only those expendables are blessed, only the destitute are innocent. A contemporary version might read: Only the homeless are blameless.
    In what scholars call the Q Gospel, a document used in the creation of Matthew and Luke, the four beatitudes usually translated as blessed the poor, hungry, sad, and hated (or persecuted) start a sermon in which these sayings of Jesus have been combined into an inaugural and programmatic manifesto. Matthew 5-7 placed that sermon on a mountain (the Sermon on the Mount), thinking of a new Moses on a new Mount Sinai, but that is a specific creation of the Matthean tradition. Three of those beatitudes (poor, hated, hungry) also appear in the Gospel of Thomas 54, 68, 69, and indicate the very heart of Jesus’ vision. (p. 154)

In a Time magazine interview Crossan once memorably said the following:

There’s good news and bad news from the historical Jesus. The good news: God says Caesar sucks. The bad news: God says Caesar is us.

Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) in his The New Law of Righteousness (London 1649)

Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?

From Traces written between 1910 & 1929 by Ernst Bloch (Stanford University Press, 2006, p. 9)

What are you doing? I asked. I'm conserving light, said the poor woman. She sat in the dark kitchen, a long time already. That was certainly easier than conserving food. Since there isn’t enough for everyone, the poor step in. They work for the rich even when they rest alone.

From the Magnificat or Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55)

[God] hath shewed strength with his arm:
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.

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ADDRESS
A New Law of Righteousness—Some reflections following the Grenfell Tower Fire  

One of the best known teachings of Jesus are the beatitudes found, in different forms, in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and Thomas. Many biblical scholars without a Christian, theological axe to grind (though they may have other axes to grind it is true) think that the four beatitudes you heard in our readings are likely to have originated with Jesus. 

Taken together they form a teaching which, as Crossan implies has, alas, often not been read in the radical way Jesus meant it but, instead it has been understood as some kind of “romantic delusion about the status of rags and the benefits of beggary.” Whilst there are countless examples of how the destitute, the hungry, the wretched and the despised often live in ways that reveal remarkable fortitude, resilience and hope (from which we can all learn) it is surely obvious that being destitute, hungry, wretched and despised is a dreadful thing to be and it is something that, as individuals and as a society, we must always be working to eliminate as much as is humanly possible. Yes, the destitute may always be with us but there are also always ways to ensure that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for people to enter into such a dreadful state of being.

But let’s return now to my point that the destitute do often live in ways that reveal remarkable fortitude, resilience and hope. It is shocking to realize that this admirable  human ability has been, and continues to be, used in shameless and evil ways by powerful, greedy and exceptionally wealthy minorities to keep the destitute under control, in their place and working for the rich without even realising it.

I know of no better expression of this truth than a little story written by the German philosopher Ernst Bloch sometime between 1910 and 1929 when he was writing what became a book called “Traces.” He writes:

“What are you doing? I asked. I'm conserving light, said the poor woman. She sat in the dark kitchen, a long time already. That was certainly easier than conserving food. Since there isn’t enough for everyone, the poor step in. They work for the rich even when they rest alone” (Traces p. 9).

In this highly compressed tale we encounter a woman who, looking around her, has seen many destitute, hungry, wretched and despised people and, believing what she is told by the powers-that-be, namely, that there “isn’t enough for everyone” and a regime of austerity is required, she decides to do her bit, tighten her belt and go without, in this case, light. And so we find her sitting a long time already in a dark and, we may also imagine, often cold kitchen. She’s clearly right that this is easier than conserving food but she is likely to be the kind of person who, were there truly not enough for everyone, would also go without food so others could eat. She is the kind of wonderful, remarkable human being who steps in, again and again throughout history when there truly is not enough for everyone.

Now sometimes the claim that there is not enough for everyone is true, for example in the immediate aftermath of some kind of natural disaster. But, more often than not, there is enough for everyone. There is not, of course, enough for everyone to be able to live a life of excessive, profligate luxury but, in most ages and places — and certainly in our own age and place — there is enough for everyone. For the truth of this to become visible at least two general things need to happen.

The first is that everyone everywhere (including, of course, me) needs to adopt more and more what has been called “voluntary simplicity.” We can, perhaps, talk about this later but here is a brief quote to introduce the basic idea to you. It was written by Duane Elgin who published a very influential book in 1981 called “Voluntary Simplicity”  

Living simply is not about living in poverty or self-inflicted deprivation. It’s about living an examined life where one has determined what is truly important and enough . . . and then just let go of all the rest.

The second thing that needs to happen is that we as a whole society need to heed the words of a person like the great English radical religious figure Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) who was the leader of the English Civil War movement known as the Diggers. Under his stewardship this group of remarkable people came to feel that the earth and its fruits were a “Common Treasury” and, in 1649, protesting at their own enforced destitution, hunger and wretchedness, began to live and dig, i.e. grow food, upon the common land of George's Hill in Surrey from which they were later violently removed by the authorities. In a pamphlet published at the time Winstanley memorably asked:

“Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?” (Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness, 1649)

The answer to his question, then as now, is surely an unequivocal “No!” And like the Diggers of old I think we, too, must be prepared fearlessly to shine a light upon all those people and institutions who are today systematically bagging and barning up the common treasures of the Earth for themselves alone and saying to the majority of people: “Sorry, we must impose austerity upon you all because there is not enough for everyone. You must tighten your belts, you must sit in dark and unsafe kitchens for a long time and where you may also often need to go cold and hungry.

But this is a lie, a flagrant and disgusting lie.

Here we can return to Crossan’s words about the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Remember that Crossan reminds us Jesus spoke his beatitudes

“ . . . to a situation of systemic injustice and structural evil, where empires live off colonies, aristocrats live off peasants, and only a large percentage of expendable people make the process possible. To hold a vast majority of peasants at subsistence level necessitates about 5 to 10 percent falling regularly below it. Jesus says that, in such a position, only those expendables are blessed, only the destitute are innocent. A contemporary version might read: Only the homeless are blameless.”

It is this need to challenge systemic injustice and structural evil is that Jesus is pointing us towards and his beatitudes are saying that only those who have find themselves utterly on the margins of our unjust societies and who have been utterly dispossessed by it can be considered truly innocent, truly blameless — blameless, that is, for the systemic injustice and structural evil.

We who have not yet been made destitute nor dispossessed by our own present society are, therefore, in some way, duty-bound to find ways to change things — even if it is simply becoming aware of the lie and of working hard to make those around us aware of the lie too. But what we cannot do is claim innocence.

Now, related to this, in a Time magazine interview Crossan once memorably said the following:

“There’s good news and bad news from the historical Jesus. The good news: God says Caesar sucks. The bad news: God says Caesar is us” (Source at this link).

Caesar is in us and Caesar is here a symbol of the systemic injustice and structural evil Jesus saw in his society and we can see clearly in our own societies’ now seriously rattled, neoliberal structures. Caesar is a symbol of any system in which an ultra-rich 1% can live off the 99% of the rest of us and who consistently force at least the lowest 5 to 10% (and perhaps even more) of the majority regularly to fall below even subsistence level.

That’s the bad news — the very bad news.

But, now the good news — the very good news. It is that, thank goodness, recent events here and elsewhere on our common planet do seem to be causing more and more people to wake-up to the truth that Caesar sucks. As we know here in the UK in the last few weeks I think more and more people have clearly begun to wake-up to the need to depose Caesar (both in ourselves and in society) and that, therefore, the ancient, prophetic words attributed to Jesus’ mother Mary in the gospel of Luke can still yet come to pass, namely, that the good will in all the earth’s people can show strength with their arms and scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts. That the good will in all the earth’s people can put down the mighty from their seat and exalt the humble and meek. That the good will of all the earth’s people will fill the hungry with good things and the rich will be sent empty away — not into revengeful poverty, of course, but into a life with only a fair share of their own, just like everyone else (as a leftist myself here I cannot but help hear Marx's well known words:  “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”).

So, to conclude, please remember that good biblical scholarship strongly suggests the beatitudes are not some romantic delusion about the status of rags and the benefits of beggary, praising being destitute, hungry, wretched and despised. Rather they were intended by Jesus to remind those who were trying to follow him (then and as now) that it is only those who are truly destitute, hungry, wretched and despised who are truly innocent. The rest of us are not entirely innocent and though many, perhaps most, of us are not directly culpable, explicit guilty in the way so many of the 1% are, we are, however, called upon to play our part in lighting a shining beacon of hope and justice upon a high hill (our own version of George’s Hill) and to help direct it’s bright and searing light into the dark and deeply corrupt corners of our society and say “No more!” Illuminated by this collective light we must also begin to find ways together to write our own contemporary version of Winstanley’s “New Law of Righteousness”, not only on behalf of the genuinely innocent who are directly suffering so badly from the lie that there is not enough for everyone, but also for ourselves so we may all, together and equally, at last come to enjoy the common treasures of the Earth. Nothing less will do.

Amen.
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