The Epiphany of Slowing Down
(This post builds upon The Purpose of Epiphany - Matthew 2:1-12, Ephesians 3:1-12.)
I’ve been wondering about the constant road works on the way into the city from our house. There was a period last year, when all five of the major roads from the north were jammed up with road works. It never seemed to be like this. What’s happening?
It is inevitable that as our infrastructure increases in complexity and bulk— new cables for the NBN, new businesses to deliver Amazon books, more traffic to support those businesses, — then the amount of maintenance to keep it all going must also increase. “Growth” has a cost. The more complex things are, the more there is to break.
Perhaps it is all a part of journalist Paul Sheehan’s observation at the end of 2012, that “the future is accelerating.” He bases this on the idea that “Civilisations have life cycles... and their durations are shrinking over time.”
Sheehan’s thesis assumes these life cycles are caused by decline, rather than replacement by something better. This is hardly a novel idea for us, as we look fearfully at the souring of the utopian mythology that having more would make things better.
Sheehan refers to Professor Niall Ferguson, “the world's most famous economic historian,” who has “used the Reith Lectures to chart the elements of decay in the Western civilisation.”
[Ferguson] argues that advanced Western societies are developing sclerosis, manifest in the envelopment of life in bureaucratic and legal red tape. The most advanced economies are also becoming increasingly mendicant societies, evidenced by the unsustainable growth of social welfare spending in the European Union, the United States and, in a longer-term trend, Australia.
I am not qualified to assess that material. But the statement does seem to reflect the mantra of those in our society, who seem to me, to be excessively well off. Their concerns about bureaucracy often seem driven by a desire to be unfettered by regulations which would temper their self interest. There is a quite legitimate frustration caused by red tape when it unnecessarily hampers commercial activity, but the complaints I hear, and their proposed solutions, often seem to involve removing protections for the poor and weak.
And whilst there are always people who seek to cheat on welfare, our welfare is plainly inadequate for many people who need it; including the disabled and the working poor. Many of those who scream that we are too soft on these people seem quite unwilling to train them, or employ them.
Is society “increasingly mendicant;” that is, ruled by a begging mentality, or are the rich and the well off not paying enough tax? I include myself among the well off. Despite having only a half stipend, there is very little I lack to ensure my health and safety, or my material comfort.
To say that the USA has an unsustainable growth in social welfare is laughable. In the land of the super rich, people increasingly live in poverty. The health care we take for granted in Australia is hotly debated, even derided. Friends and colleagues in the US live in desperation as they are unable to access health care and medicines which we take for granted.
The injustice which flows from a sense of entitlement to more riches and resources than anyone ever needs to survive and flourish, seems to me to be more of a problem than out of control welfare growth.
Sheehan says of Fergusson’s lectures,
If this lecture series could be summed up in a single sentence it is this: when a majority of people vote for a living rather than work for a living, democracy, freedom and living standards are all in a lock-step of decline.
Fair enough. But who is “voting for a living?” When the rich, who have the privilege of work, “vote for a living” by further entrenching the poverty of the poor, then decline will also follow.
The Hebrew prophets were clear in their denunciation of the rich who sold the poor for the price of a pair of sandals. (eg Amos 2:6ff, 8:4-6) Today, they seek to lower the already abysmal minimum wage in the USA, and refuse to lift the unliveable Newstart Allowance in Australia, which even conservatives say is too little to live on.
This refusal to increase Newstart comes from a Labor government! There is truth in what Fergusson says: “All political systems are likely to succumb to sclerosis, mainly because of rent-seeking activities by organised interest groups.” Labor is clearly paying rent on this issue.
And to avoid the temptation of making “the rich” who sell the poor for a pair of sandals someone else, I ask myself, “How often do I refuse to buy goods because they are so cheap they are necessarily produced by people who are exploited.” There is no ethical smart phone; but does this even bother me, or am I angling for an upgrade?
Sheehan introduced me to the term Casino Capitalism. The Macmillan Online Dictionary describes it in this way: “the kind of high-risk/high-reward behaviour indulged in by former high street banks and many others, which helped lead to the ongoing economic crisis.”
The sheer velocity of stock trading is a frightening illustration of casino capitalism.
Sixty years ago, the average stock trade involved buying and holding a stock for four years. By 2000, that average holding period had shrunk to eight months. By 2008, it was two months. By 2011, it was 22 seconds....
Sheehan quotes Wall Street Journal reporter, Scott Patterson.
Patterson describes the global financial market as ''a worldwide matrix of dazzlingly complex algorithms, interlinked computer hubs the size of football fields, and high-octane trading robots guided by the latest advances in artificial intelligence''.
''With electronic trading, a placeless, faceless, post-modern cyber-market in which computers [communicate] at warp speed, [the] physical sense of the market's flow [has] vanished …”
I do not pretend to understand financial markets. Susan Strange, who wrote the book Casino Capitalism, says that as a result I “cannot comprehend how the world works.” Dare I say from my position of ignorance that the dizzying speed of share trading Patterson describes, seems to have nothing to do with productivity, nor anything to enable investment to produce materials for the common good. It has everything to do with making money for its own sake.
To spend one's time in this activity is not work in the biblical sense. It involves another epithet flung by the rich at the "mendicants" on welfare; parasitism.
Jesus said we cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24) The financial system has a fair bit of “money for money’s sake” going on, an absolute worshipping of wealth. That to which we give our allegiance is the thing we worship.
Even if we do not “believe in God,” we can still understand that seeking money for its own sake is a mistake. It takes a tool which improves our commerce, survival and flourishing, and makes that tool into the reason for our being.
Sheehan’s final cataloguing of our decline involves the destruction caused by climate change. He gives no credence to those who deny our part in this.
...the reality [is] that 7 billion people now live on the planet and the average person is consuming far more than ever before in history
That this must significantly affect not just the environment but the global climate invokes the most basic and self-evident commonsense.
The world's scientific community has presented a compelling case that the acceleration of global consumption is in turn accelerating the much deeper natural pattern of climate change.
So if we feel like the world is speeding up, he concludes, it’s not just us; it is.
What is notable about the article is that there is no sense that anything can be done about any of this! Indeed, the headline begins “We cannot slow down...”
Someone once said it is naive that to think turning off the lights, or the “instant on” for our TV, actually does anything significant about climate change. But action must begin somewhere. At what point do we simply refuse to be part of the mad hurdy-gurdy of our culture which is speeding up in its ultimately pointless rotation, and consciously live more slowly, more generously, and more gently upon the earth? Someone has to start.
It is notable that despite its sometimes strong apocalyptic streak, New Testament Christianity, in all its strands, was unbending about right living for justice. This is at the root of holiness; there is no holiness without justice. In an age ripe for apocalyptic fatalism, there was no giving up and waiting for God to rescue us.
Even in the appalling, almost hopeless suffering that gives rise to the final book of the New Testament, right living has its place; for example, Ephesus is criticised because it has given up the love it had at first. (Revelation 2:4-5)
My colleague Bill Loader says in one of his commentaries for this Sunday, that the church “ is not there to play chaplain to established order, but to embody the God who breaks down barriers and challenges vested interests which give advantage to some against others or builds on forms of elitism and supremacy at the expense of others.”
That description of the “established order” seems to describe what ails us quite well. If the ordinary folk like me tempered our addictions to the newest and latest technology, and found fulfilment in service, and in each other, rather than in things and money, then many of the forces which are driving us to collapse would simply starve.
As a society we know the wisdom of virtually all the great religions: in one form or another, the meaning of life and the source of joy lies in love, justice, beauty and goodness, rather than rank material gain. These are the things we eulogise at every funeral. At our best we know we are being foolish in our current preoccupations.
As a Christian, whether or not the decline is reversible is not the issue. I am called to live as though it is. The great parable of Matthew 25 imagines there will be a judgement as the world is brought to some kind of fulfilment. Those who are judged favourably in this story are those do justice. Nothing else counts. The ethics of that parable are typical of the gospels.
The Epistle reading set for this week in the Revised Common Lectionary, tells us that “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety [is now to] be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places." (Ephesians 3:10). Those rulers and authorities include the market forces and political systems that are directing us toward decline and destruction.
We Christians can only be this epiphany, or showing of God and the purposes of God, if we step off the hurdy-gurdy and, as a community, begin to live differently.
I diagnose the denial of climate change to have its root in two things. One is the unspoken recognition that changing things because we admit the reality of climate change, will cost us. We will lose some of our material comfort and some of our privilege relative to others. What better way to avoid this than to pretend the whole thing is a hoax?
The other is a deep rooted fear of what is coming. Although we love Hollywood climate change where the good guy wins; witness the success of movies like 2012 or The Day after Tomorrow, climate change presented as science rather than entertainment terrifies us. It is easier to deny its reality than to accept that our very survival is under threat.
Instead, we cling to the ever faster hurdy-gurdy of modern life, trying to maintain our balance and not be flung off among the poor and dispossessed. We try to claw our way forward to the horse in front of us, as though having more will protect us, or put us “in front,” as though this is the purpose of our being.
A part of our epiphany to the world, and to the systems of the establishment, is to admit our deep fear, but to refuse to play the game. Stepping off the roundabout is itself a witness.
We may not turn things around. We may only be a remnant something like the monasteries of the “dark ages.” We may not even achieve that. But we will have been faithful to our calling. We will have been an epiphany.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!