Economics eventually lead back to God.
Justice and injustice, generosity and greed, compassion and callousness, sharing and possessiveness, these and many other contrasts in the human condition are inextricably woven into the fabric of human ethics, and for people of faith, provide the texture of holiness in practical terms.
Living in contemporary Western affluence, there was a time not so long ago when we could say that at least people didn’t starve, that there is a welfare safety net and that our economy budgets for the vulnerable.
We believed that at its best our benefit system seeks to be all those positive things listed above: just, generous, compassionate, sharing.
It was not created in order to create dependency, patronize or undermine a person’s independence, but to support and enable and empower people to participate as fully as they are able in the wider life and culture of our society.
Much has changed in the past decade or two, and there are multiple explanations for those changes in the ethos of our society.
But whatever selected explanations satisfy us, we are still left with an increasing deficit in the social capital – and I would argue the moral vision – of a society more and more fixated on individual self-interest, national economic advantage and tectonic shifts in the distribution of wealth as fewer and fewer have more and more.
Our worldview is monoscopic – its focus on economic growth and prosperity so fiercely specific, that much else that is essential to human flourishing is deemed secondary.
More significant, these other aspects of human welfare and flourishing are often presupposed to depend upon economic prosperity, which is assumed to be morally and politically prior in demand for resources and sacrifices.
Amid these trends, R.S. Thomas’ poem, “From the Bleak Liturgies,” offers a striking commentary:
“Alms. Alms. By Christ’s
blood I conjure you
a penny.” On saints’
days the cross and
shackles were the jewellery
of the rich. As God
aged, kings laundered their feet
in the tears of the poor.”
This poem comes as the critical comment of an odd, angular, angry Christian man who, 25 years ago, sensed the trends of a culture in which obscene rewards are available in the cultures of celebrity, entertainment, sport, financial industries, and with their concomitant attitudes of self-expression, self-promotion and ultimately self-manufactured individuality.
It isn’t a large step from such unexamined self-importance to a selfishness, which is made socially acceptable and politically validated.
What I read in this poem is Thomas as Amos the prophet who condemned those who sold the poor for the price of a pair of slippers. Thomas condemns those “kings” who launder their feet in the tears of the poor.
Both are raging against the inequalities and cruelties of a society in which it is just so hard for the poor to have life chances.
And both reserve their sharpest words for the rich whose opulence and extravagance in money and material things are the distorted sacraments and physical embodiments of their greed and arrogance.
Thomas makes no mention of judgment, while Amos lays about him with graphic threats and sarcastic images of overfed cows, ivory beds, rotting fruit baskets of wasted food.
Mind you, Thomas has his own ironic edge – the cross and shackles reduced to trivia, baubles of the rich who long forgot the realities to which the symbols point.
Lent is a time for critical self-reflection, refreshed repentance, changed ways, renovation of our moral furniture, refurbished lifestyles more aligned with the contemporary living Christ.
Those two images in Thomas’s poem take us back to basic realities of human life – the contrasts of those who need alms and those who give them; and the scandal of a secularized power elite, laundering their feet in the tears of the poor.
And if we ask where Jesus is in such a society, he is more likely to be in the food bank than the 3-Star Michelin restaurant where a meal costs more than four weeks’ benefits.
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.