Tuesday, 30 June 2020

A Biblical Case for Universal Basic Income

A few weeks ago I posted a link about Universal Basic Income to my social media stream, and a friend who I respect came back to me with an interesting response: They said that they are not sure that UBI is ‘biblical’. Their point was that God’s provision should be matched by an corresponding expectation that people undertake work in response; and that the biblical injunction to stewardship negates an economy based on the ‘free gift’ of money.

This approach certainly has a long tradition within Western Christianity and Western Society, with the influence of the Protestant Work Ethic embedding in our collective consciousness an emphasis on hard work, discipline, and frugality. Comments from a number of sources within the mainstream denominations suggest that my friend is not alone, and that there is a substantial suspicion about whether UBI is something that can be supported from a Christian perspective.

So I thought it might be interesting to explore a biblical model that might support the concept of a Universal Basic Income, and I want to offer two key concepts for our consideration. On the one hand we have the wilderness experience of the Israelites as they fled slavery in Egypt on their way to the promised land; and on the other hand we have the words of Jesus, so let’s start there.

It was to disciples facing uncertain economic futures that Jesus taught the prayer: ‘Give us, this day, our daily bread’ (Matthew 6.11and there is an urgent simplicity to it when it’s heard in a subsistence context. But what can the stark simplicity of a prayer for daily bread say to a world where investment banks and food banks sit side by side?  Well, in the background to Jesus’ prayer for daily bread lies the story of the manna which sustained the People of Israel in the wilderness.

Deuteronomy 8.3  [The LORD your God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna … in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

If you remember the story, when they collected too much, or tried to keep more than they needed, it went rotten by the next day. And I think this ancient story from the wilderness wandering of Israel can offer us a parable of transformative economics. Because here we have a story which speaks of simple living: where enough is enough, where unnecessary accumulation is pointless, where rest is sanctified, and where people experience contentment because they have sufficient resources to live day-by-day.

It is significant that Jesus quoted from the Manna story in his own wilderness experience of hunger, as he responded to the tempter’s invitation to turn stones to bread. (Matthew 4:3-4) The instruction to pray, each day, for daily bread is not some ritual to get God to give us what we think we need; rather, it’s a prayer that takes us into solidarity with those who lack, and which drives us into action to see the hungry fed, the poor raised up, and the impoverished released from the snares of debt. It is a prayer that takes us into works of transformative economics. It certainly did for the early Christians, as they redistributed food and resources across their community, so that no-one went hungry or in need (Acts 6:1; James 2:15-17).

And I wonder, in our complex, interconnected, globalised capitalist world, what such actions might look like for us? On the one hand, we might become advocates for good employment practices where people are paid a fair living wage, and receive paid holiday, sickness benefits, and maternity cover. But on the other hand, we might find that the prayer for daily bread draws from us a commitment to alleviating food poverty.

And so we come to the idea of a universal basic income as an alternative to the current cruelties of our social security system. A daily allowance, given with grace, sufficient to live, each day, with dignity. This surely is what Manna from heaven might look like in our time, as the prayer for daily bread is answered in the lives of those who would otherwise go hungry.

Friday, 19 June 2020

God in the dock

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
28th June 2020

Job 31.35-37; 38.1-11, 25-27

I suspect that that many of us, during the last few months of lockdown,
            have watched more TV than normal….

One of the most popular types of series are known as courtroom dramas,
            where the action plays out before a judge,
            with the prosecution and defence mounting their cases.

And one of the ways of thinking about the book of Job
            is to read it as a courtroom drama,
with various witnesses offering their perspectives,
            inviting judgment on the central question
            of who is to blame for Job’s suffering.

In our first reading for this morning, from Job chapter 31,
            we find ourselves in the middle of Job’s final speech in the book.
This is his ‘summing up’ of his defence.
            But what is not entirely clear, however, is who is ‘in the dock’?

Ostensibly, within the world of the narrative, it is Job who is on trial.
            He has been mounting his defence against a slew of accusations
                        that he has in some way acted to bring about his own downfall:
                        either through some sin, or unfaithfulness, or by angering God.
            And he protests his innocence on all charges.

But, and here’s the turn: if Job is innocent,
            then maybe it’s actually God who is guilty?
If humans cannot ultimately be held to account for their own suffering,
            maybe they should instead blame God?
This is the wider concern that the book of Job addresses.

In his final speech, if we had time to read it all,
            we would see that Job talks through is past life,
                        and how good it was (ch. 29),
            and then goes on to outline what has happened
                        to him in his downfall (ch.30).

As we join him in chapter 31,
            we find him taking a long oath proclaiming his integrity and his innocence,
and in the verses we read this morning
            we heard him calling on God to answer him.

Then we get to hear God’s answer a few chapters later,
            when God shows up in a voice heard from the howling of the wind.

God’s response is to take Job on a ‘whirlwind’ tour of creation,
            with the point being that nature has
                        an integrity, a majesty, an awesomeness all of its own,
            quite apart from any characteristics that humanity might ascribe to it.

In essence, God is here warning Job
            against what we might call the tendency to anthropomorphism.

If you don’t know this word,
            it comes from the bringing together of two ancient Greek words:
                        ἄνθρωπος (ánthrōpos) meaning ‘man’ or ‘human being’;
                        and μορφή (morphḗ) meaning ‘form’ or ‘shape,
and it describes the process of attributing human characteristics
            to something non-human.

At an everyday level, many of us do this.
            From the child who treats their teddy bear as if it had feelings,
            to the person who finds more meaning
                        in their pet’s behaviour than is logically sustainable,
            to the person who describes the tsunami or earthquake or virus as ‘evil’.

And the book of Job invites us to consider
            whether an anthropomorphic explanation of suffering is adequate.
Is it legitimate to say that a person’s experience of pain or loss
            is objectively a bad thing?

Clearly, from the perspective of the sufferer, it is.
            But Job questions whether a personal perspective
            is a sufficient basis for passing judgment on the universe.

The reality, of course, as Job comes to realise,
            is that sometimes stuff just happens.
Death and suffering are as much a part of nature
            as life and pleasure.

Maybe there is no explaining it all?

But there is another aspect to anthropomorphism
            that the Job story raises for its readers,
and that is the process of attributing human characteristics to God.

The point of the creation stories in the Hebrew Bible
            is the assertion that humans are made in God’s image,
and the corollary of this
            is that humans therefore do not get to make God in their image.

 And this is where we begin to get our answer
            to the question of who is really on trial
            in the courtroom drama of the book of Job.

Sure, Job may be innocent on all charges,
            but does that necessarily mean
            that someone or something else is correspondingly guilty?

If we cannot blame Job for his suffering,
            can we blame God instead?

Many have tried, and many do;
            but God’s response to Job gives the lie to this approach.

It is no more meaningful to put God in the dock for human suffering,
            than it is to try and declare nature itself guilty.

God is not like us,
            and to treat God as if God were a culpable human
is to commit both the error of anthropomorphism,
            and the sin or idolatry,
because it is making God in our image.

A few years ago I saw the Reduced Shakespeare Company
            perform their show, ‘The Complete Word of God: Abridged’,
            which covers the entire Bible in an evening.

When they came to the Book of Job,
            they summed up God’s response to Job
            using a paraphrased quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
‘There are more things in heaven and earth, O Job,
            than are dreamt of in your philosophy. So shut up!’

In other words,
            ‘Look, you know nothing, I made everything,
            so stop your moaning and take it like a man.’

And here, in a nutshell, is the problem.

If we judge God by our criteria,
            if we ascribe to God characteristics that are human in origin,
                        if we make God in our image,
            then we can only conclude that God is cruel and capricious,
                        toying with us like a child torturing an insect.

Famously, the great eighteenth century revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards
            used exactly this perspective on God to try and terrify people into repentance,
            in his notorious sermon, ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’.

An anthropomorphised God becomes an all-powerful control freak,
            who throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his own way.

And so the Book of Job, once again, invites us
            to reject a false perspective on God.

We, like Job, are invited
            to take a step outside of our own situations.

For so much of our lives, our realities are defined
            by our own experiences of suffering or joy, pain or pleasure;
and if that is all there is,
            then life is ultimately random and meaningless.

However, God’s speech to Job, if read from the perspective
            of humans being made in the image of God,
                        rather than of God in the image of humans,
            offers a re-framing of life.

God’s words can be heard
            as offering an understanding of life defined not by suffering,
            but rather by the expansive care that God has for the whole of creation.

Job, and we too, are invited to realise that the only perspective
            from which we can ask our questions of the meaning or futility of life,
is one grounded and founded
            on God’s prior mercy and care for all that exists.

To put it simply, if we take a breath to complain against God,
            we can only do so because God has already gifted us the air to breathe.

It’s an invitation to an alternative perspective on life and suffering,
            but it is not an answer to the question of who is to blame for them.

Job never gets to find out who is to blame,
            because that is the wrong question to have been asking.

Instead, he is gifted the presence of God
            in the midst of his suffering,
and in that experience of God-with-him,
            he finds the strength to live on.

And so we find ourselves once again at the cross of Christ,
            the ultimate moment of God-with-us in suffering.

The cross does not answer the question of who is to blame for human anguish;
            it simply and powerfully witnesses to God-with-us in the midst of it.

So when, in our lives, we like Job experience trauma and grief, sickness and loss;
            and when we cast around for who to blame,
the book of Job subverts any attempt to blame ourselves,
            and denies any attempt to blame God.

Rather, it invites us to listen for God’s voice
            in the tumult of the whirlwind;
and to hear God speaking to us of a different perspective on life,
            founded not on guilt and blame,
            but on loving embrace,
as God enters into our world, our lives,
            to participate in our suffering;
and to draw us through to the newness of life
            that forever beckons us onward.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

'Sometimes wish I'd never been born at all'

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
14th June 2020

Job 3.1-10; 4.1-9; 7.11-21

I was talking this week to the minister of a church in Scotland,
            who expressed their feelings of intense frustration and powerlessness
                        at not knowing what to say or do,
                        to help people in their congregation
            who are suffering from poor mental health, chronic isolation,
                        and other negative psychological effects of lockdown.

Whilst for some people,
            the adaptations that the past few months have demanded
                        have been an inconvenience;
            for others, particularly those
                        who already had physical or mental health problems,
            they have been traumatic.

And the question of how to respond to those who are suffering
            is not easy to answer.
What does it mean to be draw alongside those
            whose experience of life is both difficult and unfair?

Our readings today from the book of Job
            take us into the world of Job’s suffering,
which is both physical and psychological, and utterly undeserved.
            Through no fault of his own
            his life and health have fallen apart.

Job is sitting in solitary desolation
            when his three friends come to visit.

Initially Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar don’t recognise their old friend,
            but when they do, their first response is both helpful and appropriate:
            they draw alongside, sit with him, and weep with him.

The final verse of chapter 2,
            just before the first of our readings for today,
tells us that:
            ‘no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.’

Sometimes sitting in silence and weeping with those who suffer is enough,
            and I suspect it is always a good place to start.

But then, if the person starts to speak,
            the next task is to listen, and listen well;
which is where the friends start to get it wrong.

Job starts to speak at the beginning of chapter 3,
            and we hear his lament at his misfortune.

He begins by cursing the day of his birth,
            by crying out that he wishes he was dead,
            that it would have been better if he had never been born.

We can hear echoes of Job’s lament in the language often used
            by those who suffer from suicidal or self-destructive thoughts.

I don’t suppose either Patti Page or indeed Freddie Mercury
            knew they were quoting Job in their two most famous songs,
but nonetheless their lyrics capture so much of the anguish
            felt by those whose lives have left them full of regret and pain.

In 1960, the post-war singing sensation Patti Page sang,
            (and if you’re of a certain age you can sing along):

I wish I'd never been born
Don't like this life I'm living
My heart is shattered and torn
I wish I'd never been born

And then fifteen years later in 1975, Freddie Mercury and Queen
            sang similar sentiments but in a very different musical style:

Carry on as if nothing really matters
Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine
Body's aching all the time
…I don't want to die
I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all

Or, as Job put it:
Let the day perish in which I was born (3.2)

In the lament against his life which follows,
            there are conscious echoes of the creation story
            from the beginning of Genesis:
Where God said ‘let there be light’,
            Job says ‘let there be darkness’ (3.4-5);
where God brings life into being,
            Job wishes he had been stillborn.

For him, in the depths of his pain,
            he concludes that this game called life
            is simply not worth playing.

He didn’t ask for it, and he wishes he could hand it back.

Suicide rates remain worryingly high in the UK,
            with men in mid-life the most likely to kill themselves.[1]
The impact of lockdown on the suicide rate has yet to be fully seen,
            but the Zero Suicide Alliance have trained
                        an additional half-a-million people in suicide prevention
            in anticipation of a growing mental health crisis.[2]

From a different perspective,
            next month I’m going to be attending the launch of a new book
            which addresses the controversial topic of assisted dying
                        for those with terminal illness,
and the question of how to respond to those
            who have concluded that life is not a gift that they want to keep
            is one of the key pastoral questions of our time.

I’m not going to dwell on this aspect of things now,
            but just to note that I’ve written on this elsewhere
            if you want to know my thoughts.[3]

However, one thing we can be fairly certain about,
            is that the right way to respond to a person who is wishing they were dead,
            is NOT to do what Eliphaz does next.

He is one of Job’s friends,
            and after a positive start drawing near to Job and weeping with him,
            things start to go in a less helpful direction.

Job’s friends, sometimes called his ‘comforters’,
            represent the theology of retributive justice.

I said last week that the book of Job is a piece of theological narrative,
            exploring through story form what it means to suffer before God.

It does this by pitting different approaches against each other,
            and in the speeches from Job’s friends,
            we find the microscope turned forensically on the approach
                        which says that Job must have done something
                        to deserve this much suffering.

My grandfather was brought up as a Christian Scientist,
            and was taught that illness
                        is a physical manifestation of a person’s inner sin:
            in other words, if you’re ill, you did something to deserve it;
                        and to find healing, you must confess and stop your sin.

I have often thought it entirely understandable
            that he came out of this as a lifelong atheist;
and I’m sure all of us would reject any suggestion
            that suffering or illness comes as a result of our personal sin. 

However, I don’t think we can entirely dismiss Eliphaz,
            because his speech reflects a human tendency that we are all prey to:
            that of trying to fix things when they’re broken.

His beguiling logic captures the cause-and-effect that we all instinctively seek
            in order to offset problems and resolve situations.

He says:
‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?..
 As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same’

He sets himself up as the one
            whose job is to save the situation,
            to work out what’s really going on,
and then to voice that
            to try and make things better.

Eliphaz is the person who, full of well-meaning concern,
            tells someone in pain and suffering
                        that ‘these things happen for a reason’;
he’s the person who tells someone in grief and loss
            that ‘God takes first those he loves the most’.

And whilst I wouldn’t want to deny
            that for some people there can be a genuine comfort in such sayings,
I think the book of Job is challenging their ability
            to offer an ultimately meaningful approach to suffering.

Job is a story that is intentionally subversive of this way of thinking,
            and as the friends’ speeches develop,
their attempts to seek meaning in, and reason for, Job’s suffering
            repeatedly founder on the rocks of Job’s righteousness
            and his unwillingness to play the game
                        of reason-seeking or blame-sharing.

And I find myself wondering how do we respond, how do I respond,
            to those whose lives I do not share,
            but whose suffering I get to witness.

In the light of the Black Lives Matter campaign,
            I have to ask how do I, as a white person,
respond to those whose lives are deeply affected
            by their experience of both personal and systemic racism.

If you, like me, share this concern,
            then we need to heed the warning of Eliphaz.

The temptation is to keep talking
            when we should really be keeping quiet and listening.

The temptation is to demand that the person who is suffering
            does the hard work of explaining their pain to those watching on.

The temptation is to try and fix the situation,
            not by doing our own hard work
            on our unacknowledged biases and prejudices,
but by explaining to our black and minority ethnic friends
            that the situation isn’t really the same
            as they say it is from their experience.

Perhaps it is time to listen to the one suffering again?

Our readings pick up the story in chapter 7,
            where Job makes a significant move.
He stops speaking to himself, and starts speaking to God.
            This is one of the turning points of the book.

In chapter 3 where we left him,
            he was cursing the day of his birth.
But by chapter 7 he is holding his complaint before God.

His words begin as a shriek of suffering directed at God:

16 I loathe my life; I would not live forever.
            Let me alone, for my days are a breath.

But then we get an echo of one of the Psalms of David
            as Job drags theology kicking and screaming into his complaint:

 17 What are human beings,
            that you make so much of them,
            that you set your mind on them,
 18 visit them every morning, test them every moment?

Job cannot fathom why God would even be bothered
            to test him in this way,
            if that is indeed what is going on.

After all, in Psalm 8 those exact same words
            follow one of the great scriptural affirmations
            of the awesome majesty of God (Psalm 8.1, 3-4)[4]

Job’s question is profound: if God is so great,
            why would God bother test humans to destruction?

And so Job rejects Eliphaz’s suggestion
            that there is divinely ordained meaning in his suffering.

He similarly goes on to deny the suggestion
            that his suffering is punishment for sin.

Addressing Eliphaz’s version of God-the-punisher, he says,

20 If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
            Why have you made me your target?
            Why have I become a burden to you?
 21 Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?

The book of Job invites its readers to reject a view of God
            who causes suffering for some inscrutable reason that we cannot fathom,
and to reject a view of God
            who causes suffering as punishment for sin.

These do not stand in the light of Job’s righteousness.

And they do not stand in the light of the cross either,
            as God’s son faces undeserved suffering and death.

An understanding of Job helps us understand the cross of Christ, where Jesus suffers
            neither because God ordains it for some unfathomable reason,
            nor because God is seeking to punish Jesus for sin.

Rather, Jesus suffers because we suffer.
            This is what it means to be human,
            and Jesus is God entering into the depths of humanity.

And so we leave Job, for this week, facing his suffering alone.

He concludes his speech:

‘For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be.’

Eliphaz’s attempt to fix Job have failed.

His suffering cannot be explained,
            and it cannot be explained away.
But neither can it be minimised.

And Job concludes by handing the responsibility
            for his continued existence back to God,
not asking God to undo his misery,
            or to fix it, or even to explain it.

He simply acknowledges God’s presence in the midst of his pain,
            as he moves into a place of utter honesty with God
            from the depths of his suffering.

And here again we see an echo of the cross,
            as God is present with us in the midst of our pain,
inviting us to a place of honesty before God
            from the depths of our humanity.

[4]   O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
                You have set your glory above the heavens.
 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
                the moon and the stars that you have established;
  what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
                mortals that you care for them?