28 April 2013, 5th Sunday of Easter
The news this week was dominated by the tragic collapse of a clothing factory in the Savar district of Bangladesh. Three hundred and fifty people have died– so far. Six months ago, a fire gutted another factory, killing hundred workers. In the past decade seven hundred have died in forty similar disasters in the clothing factories of Savar. The sad truth is that thousands of workers return, day after day, to dangerous factories, to produce clothes for high street brands – for us!
All these things happen in faraway countries, to people of whom we know little. Apart from compassion and pity, how should we respond?
When Jesus was asked what was the most important law of the Old Testament, he said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind; the second is like it, Love your neighbour as yourself.” He then added “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”. Jewish leaders had gradually limited the word neighbour to fellow Israelites but Jesus demolishes this in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbour, he showed, is any fellow human in need.
Leviticus is difficult for a 21st C mind to make sense of: seemingly obsolete rules that appear irrelevant today. But in those two commandments, Jesus gives us a prism through which we can understand the principles behind them. The laws are culturally rooted. Some describe Jewish ceremonies we no longer observe. Not many rules translate to our contemporary world. But Leviticus 19 highlights ethics – which are echoed throughout the Old and New Testament – by which God wanted his newly liberated people – Israel – to live. As they went from slavery in a pagan Egyptian society, God gave them a new world view, and a rule for their new life. It was something akin to the Magna Carta or Bill of Rights. The laws reminded Israelites that they were to reflect the nature of God to the world. As God tells Moses, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”.
Today, we are God’s people, called to live by His Kingdom rules.
However, today, we’re very ambivalent towards rules, especially those challenging our way of life and choices. The story of Adam and Eve is about humans choosing to disobey God – “I’ll do it my way… be like God… make the rules”. But the story of Eden reminds us that God not only gives us freedom to choose – he also calls us to choose His ways.
We resist rules. My mother reminds me that as a toddler I glared at her and said “I will do it my way”. Frank Sinatra’s song “I did it my way”, is almost a hymn to our sense of autonomy. We may have a few regrets, but in the end, what is important is that we did it our way. Yet we only have to look at the current economic crisis, and scandals in and about the media, to know that humans are poor stewards of unrestrained freedom. The unchecked freedoms of markets, banking sector and media have left their mark on people and nations.
Our world is rife with unfair trading and tragic consequences. As Benjamin Disraeli once said “In great cities men are brought together by the desire of gain…. they are careless of neighbours. Christianity teaches us to love our neighbours; modern society acknowledges no neighbours”.
Leviticus reminds us we have a responsibility to love our neighbour as ourselves. “You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal. You shall not keep the wages of a labourer until morning. You shall not profit from the blood of your neighbour”. The laws highlight how we should live – and how labourers (however distant) should be treated. In being complicit with systems that destroy others are we not violating God’s principles for human well being?
The gleaning referred to in Leviticus is about care for the disadvantaged – Israel embodying God’s compassion and generosity. The gleaners were the poor and vulnerable: strangers, foreigners, widows, orphans. After the crops were harvested, gleaners could also reap from corners of the field. Something should always be left: vineyards not stripped, fallen fruit not gathered, olive branches shaken only once. This ancient welfare system rejects greed and selfishness, and actively helps others to survive. It is the antithesis to the free market’s indifference to the suffering and death of workers.
Our taxation and welfare systems reflect similar principles of care for wider society and the vulnerable. Taxes are not a penalty to be avoided at all costs, as Starbucks, Vodafone and Jimmy Carr assumed. The principle of gleaning helps us express God’s concern to those in need – moving from an attitude of acquisition to reflecting God’s generosity.
The failure today is not just of systems, companies and governments. I believe there is also a colossal failure at the individual human level: an indifference to our neighbour and to God’s law. I am reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s much-maligned comment “there is no such thing as society”. Both Markets and Society are made up of people. And people are capable of great good and selflessness – but also great evil and selfishness, which thrives when we ignore God’s principles. Fulton Sheen, an American bishop, once said, “Modern prophets say that our economies have failed us. No! It is not our economics which have failed; it is man who has failed – man who has forgotten God.”
As God’s people, followers of His way, we need to apply the principles and rules He has given us. We pray, “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on Earth.” But we cannot pray for what we are not prepared to do. We need His power to go beyond our selfish lives. And by His Spirit, we can do this. But how?
In a hyper-consumerist, self-oriented culture should we not, as Christian consumers, be different? Should we check our ethics in at the entrance to the shopping mall or when we click to make a purchase online? Can we consider more than the cost to us, and remember the cost to those who are risked or harmed to make the goods we buy? When a shopper at Primark was interviewed after the tragedy in Bangladesh, she said she would not have shopped there had she known of Primark’s complicity. These are difficult questions to ask because they threaten our way of life. But I believe they are mandatory questions to ask as God’s people. Why? Because these are God’s concerns.
When we choose to buy goods without considering the consequences, we are choosing to ignore the injustices and tragedies that happen where our goods are produced. Workers on tea, cocoa and sugar plantations who cannot afford basic healthcare. Children who must work instead of going to school, or even having a childhood. Miners who risk their lives for barely enough money to live. Safety precautions ignored. Workers, human beings, our neighbours, whose rights are forgotten to make goods at the price we demand.
The tragedy in Bangladesh is not an “accident” but the consequence of indifference towards the wellbeing of others. A reflection of the failure of a fundamental principle of God for the flourishing of human life… “to love our neighbour as ourselves”.
Let me close by sharing some practical examples. In Acts we are told the story of the inception of what happened in the early church. When a vast number of new believers stayed on in Jerusalem and had no resources to survive, Christians sold all they had and gave it to the Apostles. So that no one was in need. The Storehouse Project in Northern Ireland practices gleaning to help those struggling with the recession. They collect food from churches –extra shopping people have bought to help neighbours they have not met, who are in need. A remarkable Christian woman – a professor from Glasgow University – chooses to live on the National average salary, giving away two thirds of the family income each year to charity. A friend in Sri Lanka withdrew his savings as an interest free loan for a couple who could not afford a mortgage. Christians in Nottingham ten years ago consistently challenged shops like Sainsburys, Starbucks and Gap about fairtrading. I wondered how much it would help – fair trading was invisible back then. But now I am amazed at the range of Sainsbury fair trade products, Starbucks fairly traded coffee, and Gap’s fairer trading – brought about by such people.
The commandments of Jesus – and Leviticus – stand in direct opposition to the lethal cocktail of principles in operation today: maximum profit for big companies (with tax evasion, cheap labour, offshore factories) and cheaper and more products for us consumers. But somebody has to pay the actual cost, and it is the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth who pay. Our neighbours.
We can make a difference. We can prevent tragedies like the one in Bangladesh, if we care enough. Our acts of generosity, based on the justice and principles of God can make a difference in our world today.
Loving God and our neighbour is not about warm fuzzy feelings. Christ’s commandment is that we love by our actions, as He did, with self-giving love, generosity and with compassion to the vulnerable. It is a love that cares about fairness and justice, that gives over and beyond; that gives sacrificially, as Jesus did. This is the hallmark of God’s people. May God give us grace to live by His law, the law of loving our neighbour as ourselves.