[The reading from The Campfire Church gathering for worship today was here]
The big challenges facing us in today’s world are climate change, the ravages of the coronavirus including the associated financial recession, political corruption, wealth and power consolidated in the giants of the commercial realm and, in the UK, Brexit.
The solutions to these challenges are relatively straightforward, but without the political will (in either governments or the general public) to act appropriately and decisively, we remain very vulnerable to their severe consequences.
In such times, the laos — the faith community — bears responsibility to hold our light steady, to act with integrity and reverence, and to bring as much healing, hope and peace as we possibly can, starting in our own homes and personal relationships and radiating out from there.
In respect of climate change, here are the things we can do — in addition to voting shrewdly and lobbying loudly. The first is to plant. It has been clearly demonstrated that earth itself absorbs carbon from the atmosphere. Earth is held in place by plants. Tilling creates bare earth and leads to desertification. The people of God have a responsibility to the Creator, to creation (of which we are stewards) and to each other as part of our duty of loving our neighbour, to get as many plants as possible into the ground and keep them there. If you live in a high-rise flat without a spot of earth to call your own, fill your home with house plants and donate generously to Tree Aid and The Woodland Trust. I especially commend to you the new Netflix movie, “Kiss the Ground’; it lays out the simple and perfectly do-able strategy for healing our planet and restoring our climate. We do have to act, but what’s needed is so simple that any and all of us can do it. Please watch it. The other things for us to do, of course, are to use our consumer choices, to reduce our fuel usage, particularly fossil fuel, to choose renewable energy sources, to reduce our plastic use and waste — those sort of things; you know them.
Moving on from that to the other challenges we have to fix — the political and commercial challenges have a moral dimension: there’s nothing wrong, in and of itself, with a company being big or with a career as a politician. The problems arise from lack of integrity — working the system to milk public funds with a view to becoming extremely rich, and acting dishonestly and unscrupulously in pursuit of personal advantage.
Obviously you can’t make someone else good, and therefore there’s a sense in which fixing the problems caused by moral corruption in high places is not within the capacity of us ordinary people. They, not we, have the remedy; though we should not neglect to bring pressure to bear by our choices as consumers and as voters.
But the consequences of corruption in high places play out in the public realm, in the lives of ordinary people like you and me — and these consequences present the challenge I wanted to think about with you today.
Because of political corruption — specifically, lies — the UK is approaching Brexit. The situation has been moved from bad to dire by a combination of incompetence and dishonourable actions. The beginning of 2021 is looking very worrying indeed, as we face legal action in the international courts, freezing of supply chains to our island, and neglected legal frameworks freezing our ability to source our food and medicines from Europe. Significant numbers are moving away from the UK in our manufacturing, business, education and health sectors. On top of that, our coronavirus rate of infection is once more rising and the job losses and business crashes associated with the pandemic have created a bleak landscape in the near future.
As globally the problems of climate change result in unrest, then extremism and terrorism and war, and increasing numbers of refugees must be accommodated, the UK response to those few who try to make it to our shores is increasingly brutal, cruel and inhumane.
In all of this, it seems to me the challenges you and I face are addressed by the advice John the Baptist gave to the ordinary people when they came and asked him, “What must we do to escape the wrath to come?” Because in our present circumstances I think it would be reasonable for us to be asking the exact same question.
His reply to them did not come in the form of a 35-point strategy or a political manifesto. It wasn’t as long as even one of the minor prophets, let alone the book of the prophet Isaiah. He just said, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’
This assumes two highly significant principles:
The first integral assumption is that everyone is living simply. It assumes you might *not* have two shirts, you might *not* have any food to share. It assumes you are not stockpiling, not building bigger barns and sitting on a massive hoard. You are living simply.
Already that will have solved a lot of problems you might otherwise have had to contend with. If you live simply you will be more flexible, have more space in your home and schedule, have more capacity to respond, less to curate and maintain and pay for. If you only have two shirts you’re not going to be overwhelmed by the ironing pile, or urgently in need of a walk-in closet and a tumble drier, are you?
So part of what we can do to make ourselves ready to meet adversity is streamline our lives. You’re aiming for a two-shirt life, by which I mean a practice of minimalism. This will make everything you have go further — if your brother-in-law goes bust and loses his house, you can more easily take him in. If you lose your job, you can more easily set up to work from home. Your debts will already be fewer and your savings greater and what you have will be better maintained; that’s the two-shirt life in operation. Two shirts is what you’re aiming for, one shirt is a bit difficult, three is too many. When you are living simply, you know when you have enough. This is a *principle* you understand — we’re not talking about shirts per se, it’s a way of living.
The second assumption is that the goal is equality. Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same. You level up, not down. You lift people up out of poverty and suffering — not to a goal of growth economics and interminable consumerism, but to the goal of having enough to live simply.
This is John the Baptist’s path for the people. Simplicity and equality effected by sharing. The political term for it is socialism.
Simplicity, equality and sharing generate a social dynamic. In their book ‘The Spirit Level’, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett set out how almost everything — from life expectancy to mental illness, violence to illiteracy — is affected not by how wealthy a society is, but how equal it is. Societies with a bigger gap between rich and poor are bad for everyone in them — including the well-off. While we’re thinking about books on this topic, may I also commend to you Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’, proposing that our challenge in this century is to meet the needs of everyone within the means of the planet — to ensure no one is without the essentials of life (food, housing, education, healthcare and a political voice), without over-pressurising the Earth. The goal is to provide for all without sacrificing stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer.
What I find exciting about John the Baptist’s simple strategy of simplicity, equality and sharing, is that it puts constructive action within reach of us all, in the same way as ‘Kiss the Ground’ movie puts the power to heal the Earth back into the hands of ordinary people.
To plant a garden; to share what we have to create equality; to need very little — everyone can do this, even a two-year-old. And it isn’t sacrificial, it’s *beneficial*. As I am growing old and my energies are waning, I can no longer cope with multi-tasking and moving furniture and sorting out loads of stuff or cooking complicated meals. I need simplicity as urgently as a thirsty person needs water in a hot and dry land. And in these months of the pandemic, nothing at all has brought me solace and peace greater than sitting quietly in the garden or walking in the park. And nothing makes me happier than seeing someone lifted out of crippling and exhausting anxiety by having been sent a little bit of money.
This, friends, is the way of blessing, and I commend it to you.