Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Universal Basic Income and the Benefit of the Doubt

A Sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,

The online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 

16th August 2020

Exodus 16.12-21, 31

Listen to this sermon here:

A few weeks ago I posted a link

            about Universal Basic Income on 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 the human experience of God’s provision

            should be matched by a corresponding expectation

            that people will 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.


The German economic philosopher Max Weber,

            who coined the phrase ‘Protestant Work Ethic’

            in the early years of the twentieth century,

traced the origins of European capitalism to the Protestant Reformation,

            when the break from Christendom enshrined in the popular mind-set

                        a religious mandate for secular labour,

            as people were expected to ‘work out their salvation with fear and trembling’

                        (Philippians 2.12-13).[1]


Well, comments from a number of sources within the mainstream denominations

            suggest that my friend is not alone,

and it seems that there is a substantial suspicion

            about whether UBI is something

            that can be supported from a Christian perspective.


Many Christians react against the idea

            that people who have done nothing to deserve it

            might end up getting something for nothing.


So I thought it might be interesting this week,

            in the first of our short series looking at justice issues,

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.


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.


Matthew 4:1-4  Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.  3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”


Matthew 6.9-11  “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread.”


The daily reality for many people in our country

            is that the prayer for daily bread

            has a level of anxiety to it that is easily lost

                        on those who have enough resources in hand

                        to feed ourselves for the foreseeable future.


This is not easily a middle-class prayer.


However, for many of those in First Century Palestine,

            to whom Jesus first taught this prayer,

uncertainty about their future ability to feed themselves

            was a part of their day by day existence.


It was only the rich and the wealthy

            whose future was assured.

For everyone else,

            the only certainties were death and Roman taxes.


The first century had no welfare state, no minimum wage, certainly no Living Wage;

            there was no trades union movement,

            no standardized terms and conditions of employment.

If you got ill, or lost your job,

            the step from feeding your family to destitution

            was startlingly small.


And it was to disciples facing uncertain futures

            that Jesus taught the prayer:

            ‘Give us, this day, our daily bread’.


There is an urgent simplicity to it when it’s heard in a subsistence context,

            but I wonder if this is where its first challenge to us,

                        in all the complexities of our Western Capitalist lives,

            might come from.


We too live in a society of huge disparities of income and security.

            Some struggle to not eat too much,

                        while others struggle to know where our next meal is coming from.

            Some struggle to know how to wisely invest their resources,

                        rightly asking ethical questions of our bankers and pension funds;

            while others don’t have enough income for even today’s needs

                        let alone the needs of an imagined future retirement.


So what might the stark simplicity of a prayer for daily bread,

            say to a world where investment banks and food banks sit side by side?


Well, to me, it says that something has gone wrong.


Unchecked and unchallenged,

            global capitalism causes vast suffering across the world,

            and colludes in ecological destruction on an unprecedented scale.


And I want to suggest that the challenge to this spiral of misery is right here,

            in our little verse from the Lord’s Prayer:

            ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’


If people, if we, can learn to focus not on what can be acquired,

            but simply on what is needed,

we discover not only a revolutionary concept

            but an antidote to individualism.


What if we were to decide, personally and communally,

            that enough is just that, enough?

What if we rejected the idea that the ever increasing acquisition of resources

            is not an endless quest never reaching a conclusion?


Firstly, it would release resources for others,

            but secondly it would begin to release us

            from the continual pressure to acquire wealth, status, and success.


If we ask for, and receive, our daily bread,

            then we have enough for today.


Jesus is disconcertingly ambivalent about tomorrow:


Luke 12.29-31

Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying.

 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them.

 31 Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.


This was the lesson that the Israelites of ancient times had to learn

            in the story of the manna in the wilderness,

            which is clearly in the background to Jesus’ words in his prayer.


If they collected too much, and tried to keep more than they needed,

            it went rotten by the next day,

                        except on the sixth day when they had to collect enough for two days,

                        so they could rest from their labour on the seventh day.


So what if, rather than worrying about the question

            of what this mysterious manna actually was,

we simply take this ancient story at face value

            as a parable of idealized economics?


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 can be content

                        and stop complaining about their lot in life

                        because they - simply - have - enough.


The question of what we think we’re asking for

            when we pray for our daily bread

            is of course an important one.


Is it just a prayer for food,

            or is it for shelter, warmth, security,

                        love, self-determination, mobility,

                                    a car, a private jet…?

Where do we draw the line?


Studies have shown that there comes a point,

            and it is lower than you would think,

            beyond which additional wealth does not lead to additional happiness.[2]


The temptation to excess is ever before us,

            just as it was before Jesus in his own experience in the wilderness.

He didn’t wake up every morning of his 40 day Lenten fast in the desert

            to find fresh manna waiting for him.

He starved.

            And then he was tempted to use his divine power

                        to command stones to become bread for him to eat;

            and in his reply to the tempter he quoted words from Deuteronomy,

                        originally written to reflect the Israelite experience

                        of 40 years wandering in the wilderness,

                                    sustained by the daily bread of heaven.


This passage Jesus quotes

            tells us that the lesson of the manna from heaven

            is not that God meets all your needs and invites you to a life of luxury;

but rather it is that abundant life

            is not found in the abundance of a person’s possessions,

                        or even in the abundance of the food they consume,

            but in obedience to every word that comes from the mouth of God.


The discipline of praying, each day, for daily bread

            is not some ritual to get God to give us what we think we need;

that kind of prayer has more in common with magical incantations

            than it does the articulations of the longings of a humble heart.


No, we pray for daily bread

            for the same reasons the Israelites gathered manna:

to learn obedience to God who guides us

            into works of goodness, humility, and charity.


The prayer for daily bread, you see, is not about me, or even about us,

            lest we think that God especially favours us by answering our cry for food.


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 good works of transformative action.

            It certainly did for the early Christians,

            as the book of James makes clear:


James 2:15-17  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 

            16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,"

                        and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 

            17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.


And similarly in the book of Acts we read:


Acts 6:1  Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number,

            the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews

            because their widows were being neglected

            in the daily distribution of food.


And I wonder, in our complex, interconnected, globalised capitalist world,

            what such good works might look like for us?


What would it look like if our commitment to good works

            led us to a commitment to good work,

where we become advocates for good employment practices

            where people are paid a fair living wage,

            and receive paid holiday, sickness benefits, and maternity cover?


What would it look like for our prayer for daily bread

            to include 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 universal basic income would mean that every individual

            would receive sufficient to live with dignity,

            and they would receive this as a gift of grace, unconditionally.


The hungry in our city are not primarily those we see begging on the streets.

            These may be the most visible,

                        but the vast majority of those

                        who are malnourished in our city are behind closed doors,

            and they include the young and the elderly,

                        and parents skipping meals so their children can eat.


What, I wonder, does a prayer for daily bread mean to them?

            And how might we be part of the answer to that prayer?


The first Lord’s supper was the celebration of the Passover meal.

            The story of the manna was there before the disciples

                        that evening in the upper room;

            and Jesus, while they were eating, took a loaf of bread,

                        and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples,

                        and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." (Matthew 26.26).


Elsewhere, in John’s gospel,

            we read that Jesus described himself as the bread of life,

            saying that whoever comes to him will never by hungry (John 6.35).


And in Paul’s story of the Lord’s supper in his letter to the Corinthians,

            he records Jesus as saying that

            ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup,

                        you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11.26).


The Communion meal of bread and wine is the meal of sharing,

            it is the meal of accountability,

            the meal of sacrifice,

            the meal of abundance,

            the meal of life.


And as the body of Christ share bread,

            we find the answer to our prayer for daily bread

            taking shape in our lives and in our midst.


It is as we share the bread of Christ’s broken body,

            that we discover together what it is to be obedient

            to every word that comes from the mouth of God.


It is as we eat bread together, that we find ourselves motivated

            to good works in our world,

            to share with those who have less than we do,

            to lift up those who are weighed down by poverty,

            and to offer all that we have to the service of the one

                        who calls us to newness of life.


It is as we break bread, and eat together,

            that we discover the answer to the prayer

            that Jesus taught his disciples to pray.


Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come, your will be done

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.


[1] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, original lectures given 1904-5.