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Standing at the Crossroads (2)

The economics of renewal

Jonathan Cornford

Illustration by Ben Liney.

In the previous edition of Manna Matters I argued that the church is in crisis, and the crisis of the church is one and the same as the crisis of the world, because that is what we have become. Whether it be the global financial crisis, climate crisis, resource depletion crisis, mental health crisis, or the crisis of the family, Christians find themselves implicated like everyone else. Through a series of shifts and turnings that took place over centuries and millennia (see Manna Matters September 2012), we have lost sight of the truth that the gospel of Jesus calls us to a radically distinctive way of life that rejects the programs of power and wealth, and refuses to participate in activity that does harm to another or does harm to the earth, which is the same thing. Instead, those who would follow the way of the Galilean are called to form God-centred communities whose work is to heal the brokenness of the world in all its forms: personal, social, economic, political and ecological. When it is doing this, it is acting as the very body of Christ, the Word become flesh, good news for the world.

If the church is in crisis in a time of general crisis, what would renewal of the church look like? What would it take for the church to begin to more fully reclaim its original vocation? What would the church look like if it were to be a distinctive community that bears good news for a world in crisis?

It has been oft observed that times of crisis are also times of opportunity. The prophet Jeremiah, during a time of deep crisis for his people, at one point interrupts his dark warnings to offer this cry of hope:

Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.

Jeremiah 6:16

Jeremiah understands that if hope exists anywhere, it does not exist in denial; rather, the beginning of hope is being brought to a standstill. It is only from this place that we can look clearly and soberly at the truth of our predicament, and it is only when we come to such a place that we can see clearly that there is another possibility - we can choose a different road. It is instructive that for Jeremiah, finding the way of hope and goodness does not require making new discoveries, but upon remembering what has been forgotten.

In the first part of this article I cited some of the statistics that indicate the church’s social position is in radical decline. This tells us that, whether we like it or not, the shape and structure of the church in the coming years will no longer be what we have known it be. However, this should not be interpreted simply as a negative thing. It is almost certainly necessary that Christianity fall from its place of cultural privilege in the Western world in order for it to begin to disentangle itself from those great narratives that lie at the heart of Western civilisation – individualism, capitalism, secularism – and that have so confused our understanding of the gospel of Jesus. The more penetrating Christian thinkers have seen this truth for a long time now. Visser ‘T Hooft, a European Christian leader, wrote this in the 1930s:

What is the Christian task at this crucial moment? In the very first place it is necessary that Christians understand the new position, which is completely different from the old one. They must realise that they can no longer count on the momentum of the old tradition, that they are no longer going to be treated as the honoured representatives of the main current of culture, or, to put it quite shortly, that they will be less and less at home in the West. The West is again becoming for them what the Roman world was for the early Christians: a world whose presuppositions contradict their faith, a world which is not only secretly but quite openly indifferent or even hostile to their essential convictions.

The more clearly we begin to see the divergences between the gospel and mainstream culture, the more conscious we will become of our need for renewal. It would be irresponsible of me to suggest that there is some formula for renewal, and delusional for me to try and make a prescription for it. That said, perhaps there are some things that we can point to that may be necessary if the church is to be rejuvenated as an alternative community that witnesses to a new human possibility.

Surely, any movement of authentic Christian renewal has to be centred on a rediscovery of Jesus and his message, and the expression of that discovery in people’s lives. I am convinced that one element of this – but by no means sufficient – must be the reclaiming of the Biblical story’s distinctive perspective on our material lives. In a time when the bad news confronting humanity centres on the structure and content of our material lives, the good news of Jesus will only fully become good news when it also finds expression in our material lives.

What might such a movement look like? Let me suggest seven dimensions of an alternative economic life that would express God’s counter-cultural good news in 21st century Australia. Here I will focus primarily on the individual lives of Christians, rather than address the economics of the institutional church – in this matter, there can be no real or lasting transformation of the institution until change is embraced and embodied by its members.

1. Rejection of the idols of ‘more’ and ‘me’.

Perhaps the greatest task to be undertaken is to become conscious of, name, and then resist, the operation of two great false gods in our time – consumerism and individualism. These two forces go far beyond the cultural habits and practices of shopping – they shape our very deepest convictions about what life is for, and what a good life is. Our understanding of everything – even family and work – is refracted through these lenses.

The first part of this struggle is mental and spiritual. It requires becoming conscious of the ways in which we are shaped – more than we know – by the ocean of advertising and marketing that we swim in, and by the example of those we see around us. We need to take account of what is shaping our minds and our hearts, and take some responsibility for what voices we give our ears to.

The second part of this struggle comes down to some big, life-shaping, practical decisions. What sort of income do I and my family need for a decent life? What sort of home and material possessions do we require to be satisfied? How much is enough? However we might answer these questions, it seems fairly safe to say that the poor of the world, our families and communities, and even the earth itself, need us to answer: ‘We can live with less!’

If Christians could, en masse, make active, conscious and careful choices to live with less, it might open up all sorts of new possibilities. Certainly, it is hard to think of a more counter-cultural or evangelical witness than this. And not only might new things become possible for Christian communities in all sorts of practical matters, it could allow spiritual breakthroughs which cannot take place while these two idols hold sway.

2. Care & nurture

In place of conforming our lives to the narratives of ‘more’ and ‘me’, we need to pass our whole lives – family and relationships, work and leisure, consumption – through a new filter, and ask a new fundamental question: how does this further God’s great work of restoring a broken humanity and a broken creation (see 2 Cor 5:18-20)? How does it bring forth goodness in the world?

Another way of stating this is by testing all of the components of our lives against the simple ethos of care and nurture. What is the effect of my choices (whether it be work, consumption or recreation) upon others – upon my family, upon my community, upon the poor and vulnerable, upon the earth and its creatures, and upon my connection to God? How can I take care for them in my choices? How do I actively nurture my family, community, and the earth itself?

3. Work

Rejecting the idols of ‘more’ and ‘me’, and shaping our lives to the ethos of care and nurture, demand that we radically re-think our attitudes to that activity which dominates most of our waking lives – work. This is a subject which deserves much fuller elaboration in a future edition of Manna Matters, but here let me articulate some critical questions.

Why do we work, what are we seeking out of work and how much income do we need from work? What work needs to be done?

To think well about these questions we need to include in our frame of reference all of the unnoticed and unpaid work – most of it work of care and nurture, much of it still shouldered by women – that upholds families, communities and society itself.

Rather than simply thinking about work from the perspective of income and individual fulfilment, we would do better to think first from the perspective of the household: what work – paid and unpaid – needs to be done; how much income is needed; who does what, and how do all parties find dignity and worth in their work? Rather than work being an activity that isolates members of a household from each other, can the working patterns of the household become ones that reflect mutual care and nurture of each of its members, adult and children, and which are owned and valued by all? When it comes to choosing paid employment, how can we choose employment that serves the world rather than exploits it?

These questions are particularly pressing for those younger ones who have not yet solidified major life decisions about work, especially for those who have the real luxury of choice (not everyone does). For those already well down the path of work decisions, making changes can be much harder, and we need to be realistic about what is possible in the short term. Even for these, though, in the medium to longer term, there may well be more possibilities for change than is generally acknowledged. What is certain is that the more we can make a choice to live with less, the greater degree of freedom we will have to make all sorts of creative choices that nurture goodness in ourselves, our families, communities and the land.

4. Responsible consumption

In modern Australia, most of us have been relegated to the position of consumers – very few of us actually produce anything tangible and material, let alone produce things that serve our basic everyday needs. Moreover, we sit at the apex of a global consumer economy that has been so structured to ensure that we can devour new consumer items – that is, the earth’s resources – at an ever increasing pace. It is a profoundly destructive system, and if we are going to be people who work for healing and wholeness we must begin to take responsibility for the impact of our consumption.

At the heart of taking responsibility for our consumption is the preparedness to pay more for many of the things we buy. We can afford to consume so much because we do not pay the true cost of things – either to the earth, or those involved in the making and getting of things to us. By paying more – for fair trade, organic, locally sourced, more ethical, less wasteful, less disposable, more durable, more recyclable, less plastic, less toxic etc. – we are expressing a higher level of care for our neighbours and for creation. Of course, paying more means we would not be able to buy so much – we would need first to accept living with less …

Finally, we cannot talk meaningfully about responsible consumption without addressing technology consumption. The cumulative effect of global mining, ever-cheaper labour, and e-waste that underpins this industry is vast, and that is not saying anything about the damage we are doing to ourselves, our families, our communities and culture with our mindless devotion to novelty and distraction. Somehow we need to get off the ever accelerating treadmill of constantly purchasing and updating new gadgets, and treat technology purchases with a seriousness that will be incomprehensible to the broader culture.

5. Household economy

The corollary of rediscovering a healthier approach to work and becoming more responsible in our consumption is rediscovering the household as a place of good work, even a place of production, for both men and women. With the advent of the industrial revolution, men became alienated from the household economy filling only the role of bread-winner, and women bore the burden of care alone while increasingly finding this role was ascribed no social value. Now the general consensus is that everyone should aspire to escape the ‘drudgery’ of home-making; we have been taught to think of our homes merely as places of comfort, retreat and ever increasing luxury, and all of us are the lesser for it. Wendell Berry writes:

The modern failure of marriage is a failure of our home economies. The practical bond of husband and wife in the home has almost disappeared. It’s a sacred and practical bond that gives order to a home, to family, to their descendants and to community. The work of the home is the health of love. And to last, love must enflesh itself in the material world – produce food, shelter, warmth, surround itself with careful acts and well-made things.

If we are to take more care in our consumption and if we are to live with less extravagant budgets, this will take serious thought, time and creativity to be applied to the household economy, and it will require both men and women to apply their skills to it, and to re-learn many skills that have been lost. The work and challenge of nurturing healthy (that is, holy) households is a life-giving adventure waiting to be rediscovered.

6. Generosity

Not only does the Biblical message insist that God’s people forsake activities and ways of life that gratify the self at the cost of others, it consistently calls us to give money away! The call to generosity, to share out of our abundance, is not simply a call to charity and philanthropy, it is a central and practical expression of the deeper spiritual movement that the gospel calls us to. This has been discussed at length in a previous Manna Matters (August 2011), suffice to note here that at the precise time when we are wealthier than ever before, our levels of generosity are declining. We have lost the habits of structuring generosity at the centre of our household economy (tithing) and we have become hardened to that impulse which responds spontaneously to need without calculation (almsgiving).

At this point it is worth pausing to do some quick sums. So far, I have said that we need to learn to live with less, to be prepared to pay more for what we buy, and to be more generous in giving money away … what!

Live with less + pay more + give generously = ???!!!   (Are you serious?)

Let’s be honest, as far our culture is concerned, this is a ludicrous suggestion. It is a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles, which is a clue that there might be something of the wisdom of God in it.

7. Economic interdependence

Up to this point I have discussed ideas concerning individuals and households. The current of our time is towards the disintegration of community, making our relationships with others increasingly abstract - dependent no longer upon locality or necessity, but upon nothing more than choice, making friendship yet another variant of consumerism. The opposing current then is to begin to re-establish some practical and material interconnections with others, and especially within Christian communities.

I am not here suggesting that we try and emulate the Jerusalem Community of Acts chapters 2 and 4 – that is a story which is a sign in the distance, calling us forward. However, there are many small and modest initiatives of sharing and cooperation – such as sharing mowers, whipper-snippers and trailers, making soap together, neighbourhood gleaning and salvaging, or running food and bulk-buying cooperatives – which really can practically enhance our weekly lives, and begin to add a new dimension to our connections with others. Once we become better at such small expressions of economic community, who knows what bigger things might begin to seem possible?

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I should conclude with some qualifications about what I have said above. Once again, I want to stress that these ideas could never be considered as a formula or prescription for renewal of the church. I do believe that some sort of movement to reclaim the radical and counter-cultural implications of the gospel for our material lives will be a necessary element of any recovery of deeper and more authentic expressions of Christian faith and community. However, other movements, deeper spiritual movements, will be needed too, and who is to say what will be cause and what will be effect?

Secondly, such a brief description of such big life movements is clearly unable to do justice to the complexity and practical difficulties involved in any of the movements described above, or to engage the huge variations in people’s living circumstances that form the starting points from which any of us come at these issues. Moreover, most of these movements cannot be implemented over-night, or even in a year – they require the work of small but consistent steps over many years, perhaps the rest of our lives.

What I have articulated here is the merest beginnings of a sketch – it needs so much more colour and detail. And let it never be said that I have suggested any of these movements is easy, let alone all of them together. But I will contend that they are all perhaps more possible and more attainable than our cultural programming would have us believe.

What I am proposing here is not a heroic lurch to some radical new experiment in community – something likely to be a flash in the pan. Rather, what we need to recover is a Biblical lens on life – eyes to see and ears to hear – and to begin, from the contexts where we find ourselves, to re-examine the thousands of choices we make through this single lens. The movements that will be of most significance will be ones made carefully and thoughtfully, with a clear view of the complexity of life. Whether we are making big steps or little steps, what is important is not so much what we succeed in attaining, but the direction in which we are travelling. The trajectory of our lives needs to be clear enough that our children will comprehend it and take the journey further than we are able.

Jeremiah calls for us to make a turning at the crossroads and follow an ancient way. But if this road seems difficult, obscure and little trodden, then let us take comfort that this is the way of Jesus:

For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matt 7:14)

It is a road that can only be walked one step at a time.

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