Watching events unfold locally, nationally and globally provokes deep reflection, does it not? "Whatever can we do?", is the question that springs most readily to my mind and to my prayers. John Wimber said he knew only three prayers, as follows:
"Oh Lord, help!"
Now seems to be the time to engage them.
For a short while recently I paddled in the shallows of social media after a long break — went back onto Facebook, which in my case turned out once more to be Can't-Face-Book. As I sifted through the political opinions of my friends and of the masses, the information about social and ecological change and development in my country and worldwide, my heart broke again and again. I left, again. Sometimes leaving is my only way to survive. It's not intended as turning my back; leaving is my only way of staying, if you see what I mean. Much more of the ecological and political news washing in great waves over the flimsy walls of my defences, and I'd have been making plans to leave altogether. I don't know about you, but I find the idea of global water shortages, global food shortages, escalating war, drought and flood and fire, lawlessness and poverty, terrifying.
Since retreating again from social media, I've been mulling over what I've read and heard and seen, and out of the primal soup boiling in my soul, three things have risen to the surface.
Whatever you vote, whatever you believe, you are involved in social contracts. This is true even if you decide to live in isolation in a croft in the Scottish highlands, grow all your own food and medicine, make your own clothes and equipment and die a solitary death, letting the ravens pick your corpse clean at the end. If you do that, your contract with the rest of the human race can be summarised as, "I will not help you. I will withhold my love and tenderness from you. I do not want you. I will fold my arms and let you die, because I do not care about you. Signed, Me."
I'm assuming, though, that your life is more inextricably mixed up with your fellow citizens — that you buy fuel for a car or house, food to eat, clothing (or the makings thereof) to wear, domestic equipment; and that you have your trash collected, expect to receive medical help if you are ill, drive on metalled roads, and have a fire service and schools and police in your neighbourhood. That sort of thing. You are part of it.
As you'll know, in the UK we had an almost 50/50 vote about belonging to the European Union. In the campaign for that referendum, those advocating that we leave (including our now Prime Minister) told some outrageously flagrant lies, which for some inexplicable reason people seem to have believed. The vote just crossed the line to commit us all to leaving. Since then, what I have heard from those in favour of leaving has mainly been along the lines of "Get over yourself; your side lost," as if this were a game of football on a Saturday morning. There's been much arguing and struggling, but it seems that going we are.
Puzzled, I've asked here and there why people wanted to leave the European Union. What possible advantage could there be? Those who wanted to leave seemed able to summarise their position in fairly simple terms, along the lines of "We're sick of those bureaucrats in Brussels telling us what to do."
I feel this is ill-considered. What were we thinking? Did we imagine the British Isles to be able to maintain the standard of living to which we have become accustomed, in self-sufficiency? Growing all our own food, doing all our own manufacturing, sourcing all our own raw materials and labour? Of course we will have to enter trade agreements with other countries, and naturally this will involve a degree of abiding by their regulations and cultural habits as well as our own. So, much the same as trading with Europe but without the pre-agreements that make life easier — and, of course, relinquishing the opportunity for our way of seeing things to influence our neighbours. Evidently we don't care about the possibility of making a difference, of making a positive contribution.
What are the irksome restrictions we wanted to avoid? Maddening Health and Safety regulations, perhaps? Or food standards? So we would be free to keep our animals in concentration camps and feed them detritus if we want to? Is that admirable? And if you take away Health and Safety regulations, that is usually with a view to enjoying less actual health and actual safety, not more. I was once pastor of a church where the builder working on the high back wall disregarded all sensible safety cautions, fell off his cherry-picker scaffold and died, leaving his widow to take care of their children on her own. I, personally, want less of that kind of thing, not more. Just like I want less human trafficking and child labour, and fewer sweatshops. And to enforce that in the teeth of Mammon, we'll need regulations, right?
Mulling over all this, watching and listening, brought a certain degree of frustration about social myopia. This impairment is by no means restricted to the right or the left wing in politics. You can observe it all over the place.
For instance, some years ago when Natalie Bennett led the UK Green Party, she was asked what the future of the monarchy would be, the Green Party having a strong leftist tendency in its politics. She answered that the Queen could probably be found a council house to live in.
Now look, this is the Green Party. Right there, smack dab in the middle of Central London, the Queen has an enormous organic garden. If you go through society with your political machete, mowing down the aristocrats like the French Revolution and making everyone live on £700 a month in a council house, who will build and maintain the organic gardens at the heart of the city? Where will you get the visionary initiatives like the Duke of Cornwall (Prince Charles) has spearheaded? Who will inspire worldwide undertakings like the Jubilee Forest? Not only that, but think of all the artisans — the carriage makers and stone masons and whip makers, the people who make bespoke shoes and chandeliers, the milliners and jewellers . . . Doesn't it matter if we lose them all? Do we really want Walmart to reign supreme? We'll still have a monarchy of sorts, just what sits on the throne will be the vulgar and commonplace and cheap. Is that really what the Green Party wants? Have they thought this through? Every artisan I know relies on other people's private wealth to make a living.
But the social myopia also afflicts the right. In the UK, operating in some incomprehensible dark night of the imagination, we just voted in Boris Johnson and tossed aside Jeremy Corbyn. Among the victorious right-wing voters were many, many Christians. I have failed to understand this entirely. If you look at what Jeremy Corbyn actually says and actually does and the manifesto actually put together on his watch, you get an almost perfect match for the New Testament. You get a look at consistency, integrity, compassion and tireless work for peace and the common good. If you then look into Boris Johnson's life, you get flamboyance, incompetence, the Bullingdon Club and its attitudes, and a steady stream of very serious lies.
In the first week after their re-election, our increasingly right-wing government cut the benefits of six hundred and fifty thousand disabled people. On their watch mortality is rising and health care is increasingly struggling. People — even in work — are descending into poverty and relying more and more on food banks. Economic inequality is steeply rising.
Now here's the thing I don't understand. Take a chapel, any chapel, could even be my own. Imagine it to have members who voted for this right-wing government driving people into poverty and dependency on food banks, and voted for Brexit with all the turmoil and further economic difficulty it will bring in its wake. Then perhaps the chapel gets a few slipped tiles, a hole in the roof, water ingress, urgent building works needed. What will the members do? Pass round the hat, put on a fundraiser, ask for money. So the people who voted for standing on our own feet, opted for isolation and self-sufficiency, chose separation and independence and the withdrawal of support from the poorest and most vulnerable, want help from other people to finance their chapel when the roof leaks. And they aren't even joking. If that isn't social myopia, I don't know what is. Where do they think the money's coming from if the chapel members have been both driven into poverty themselves and are having to help out their even worse off neighbours?
"I'M DOING THIS"
As I was turning these things over in my mind, the news broke about Harry and Meghan wanting to opt out of their place and obligations in the Royal Family, and live a private and independent life. Who can blame them?
I asked my husband what he thought he'd want to say to them if he were a member of the Royal Family, and he (God bless him, what a sweetie) said that if he were Prince Charles he'd want to say to them, "Go, with my blessing; but the door is always open for you to come back." It would be a better world if my husband was running it, but unfortunately he won't be any time soon because the party he voted for was defeated by, among others, his fellow-Christians.
Not such a kindly soul myself, if I were in the Royal Family I'd want to say something quite different to Harry and Meghan, because I think theirs is a bad case of what I think of as "I'm doing this."
They say they want to be independent — earn their own money, support themselves. But what doesn't seem to be in their mind is that — especially hot on the heels of the damaging revelations about Prince Andrew and his friends — theirs could be the falling pebble that starts the avalanche that ends the monarchy, as, in a country where inequality rises under the heartless regime we just voted in, people become more and more envious and disenchanted. The question they seem not to be asking is, "What about the others?"
What about their grandmother in her 90s? What about Prince Charles in his 70s? What about all the work for diplomacy and culture and ecology? If the whole lot comes tumbling down, who will take responsibility for that? Not Harry and Meghan, I imagine.
"I'm doing this" is an approach to life that was ever with us but especially afflicts our age. "It's my ball and I'm going home" is another way of putting it — along with the old Yorkshire saying, "What's yours is mine and what's mine's my own".
As is so often the case, Buddhism has something to teach the church in our current set of circumstances. Buddhism teaches that all people are selfish, but there are stupid selfish people and wise selfish people.
The stupid selfish people just grab what they can get, look to their own advantage, separate themselves and build walls around their wealth — failing to realise that we all depend on each other, that we are part of the whole, that what we do to our neighbour and our world we ultimately do to ourselves. They sign their own death warrant. They saw off the branch they're sitting on. "I'm all right, Jack — blow you," they say; but what goes around comes around.
The wise selfish people take care of everyone. They nurture community and strengthen the weak. They protect the vulnerable. They see to it that everyone can flourish. They have the humility to recognise they are part of an eco-system and they give their very best effort to looking after the Earth, our only home.
So in my prayers for the country where I live, in 2020, as I plead, "Oh, Lord . . . help . . . " and, "Oh Lord, help . . . ", what I'm longing for and looking for above all else is a steady flame of responsibility; the recognition that all things are connected, that we belong to one another, and that what I do to you I will eventually discover I have done to myself.