A Humble Meal

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How does Hairy Crab sound to you as an appetizer? Or Sea Slug? A bite of Toad on a Stick maybe? Anyone for Upturned Turtle Soup?

These are all dishes that I was honoured to eat when I would travel to mainland China in a former job. I say ‘honoured’ because these were all dishes that I was invited to partake in as an honoured guest.

Chinese culture places a great deal of weight in hierarchy and respect, and the guest with the most hierarchical seniority is placed literally in the place of honour, particularly when it comes to dining. I have to say that, as lovely as the intent was, I could sometimes have done without the honour when it came to being the first person to tuck into whichever delicacy was the order of the day!

This idea may seem alien to us, but as codified and defined as this Chinese culture of honour is, we have our own, more informal equivalent in British culture. Often, we give the place of honour to the person who appears like they have their life together most; the businessman in a sharp suit, or the young woman wearing haute couture, the local celebrity or dignitary. This ‘honouring’ might play itself out in who we choose to speak to on public transport, who we sit next to on a park bench, or how we receive someone who comes through the door of one of our projects. This is something we all do at times; it’s our in-built, human default.

In our work at Oasis Community Housing we strive for a higher standard. Out of our value of Worth comes a viewpoint that all people are equally valuable, regardless of what appearances or social standing suggests. From this belief comes the practice of humility both in how we view ourselves and others.

In the Bible, James the brother of Jesus implores the early Church to outwork this view of humility, saying;

“If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2, v 3-4).

And the practice of humility is not only a standard for how we should treat others. It’s also a healthy lens through which we can understand ourselves. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who served the poorest of the poor ‘untouchables’ for decades in India, and yet rubbed shoulders with Kings and Presidents said:

“If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” 

It’s pride which gets in the way of this humility. It’s pride which, in the words of C.S. Lewis,

“…has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”

When we recognise pride in anyone, it is often the least attractive form of the human condition. It’s why so many were drawn to Nelson Mandela, and why so many are put off by President Trump today. Pride says ‘it’s my contribution and mine only which matters’. Humility says,

‘I am not the answer in myself’.

As an organisation with a Christian ethos, we try to remember that Jesus washed his follower’s feet – a grimy, lowly task normally reserved for the person of least status in any gathering. This humility, this service, is the kind of leadership that each of us should aspire to.

It’s a service that I was humbled to  see illustrated literally and powerfully recently by one of our volunteers, Liz, in Basis Sunderland:

Washing the disciple's feet

This standard of behaviour is something that, as the Chief Executive of OCH, I have often fallen well short of. Pride (in my case often manifesting as stubbornness) can get the better of all of us from time to time. Thankfully, humility is the antidote to pride, a medicine which banishes the symptoms. And humility becomes comes alive in the service of others. As Rev Martin Luther King Jr said:

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

 

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Bright as the Stars

It’s been a challenging week. More than that, with the events in Manchester, it’s been a tragic week. Our thoughts and our prayers have been with those who have lost loved ones, those whose loved ones have been injured, and everyone who has been affected by a senseless act of violence.

On Thursday, people all around the country will stop at 11am for a minute’s silence in response to the Manchester attack. It’s right that we should do this, even as we feel powerless and overwhelmed by the mounting tragedies around us: Manchester, Westminster, Paris, Stockholm, Mosul, Aleppo, Yemen – the list seems endless.

In my work leading a Homelessness charity, I regularly encounter people who have been pulled under by the riptides of tragedy. Indeed the rest of the staff encounter difficult and moving situations that our service users are facing far more than I do, and yet carry on.

And I still have hope. For me, my faith in Jesus reminds me that all things – no matter how dark – can be redeemed.

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One of my heroes is Rev Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, at the height of the struggle for freedom and equality for African-Americans – a struggle for which he had been imprisoned, beaten, humiliated, slandered, and which would ultimately cost him his life – King said the following in a speech in Memphis, Tennessee. He described an imagined conversation that he might have with God in which he could choose any point in history to live;

“…Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

 The world is still messed up. Our circumstances may be difficult. But we can see the stars brighter than ever. And I’m glad I’m living in 2017.

What would it be like to live in a Society and not an Economy?

Did you know that in California prisoners can pay for a cell upgrade ($82 per night)?

Or that you can pay for the right to shoot an endangered Black Rhino in South Africa ($150,000) and Walruses in Canada?

Did you know that some companies will pay you to tattoo yourself (permanently) with their Logo?

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Or that you can buy the Life Insurance policy of an ill person while they are still alive and then collect  payment upon their death?

At first sight, the question in the title of this Blog might seem strange. Clearly, a modern Society needs an Economy to prosper and a modern Economy needs a stable Society to function. But which is ultimately more important as we think about how to build a progressive country in the Twenty-First Century? Which should be at the front of our minds as we think about the purpose of politics, for example?

It can be argued that, since the end of the Cold War, and in the absence of the old ideological fault-lines, Free Market Capitalism and the neo-liberal worldview which underpins it are completely dominant. After all, in the infamous words of the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, haven’t we reached the End of History anyway?

And yet, through this way of looking at life, moral decisions about what constitutes Goodness have been downgraded in favour of Market Efficiency. It has become increasingly possible to consider the impact of business decisions on the workforce, community or the environment as superfluous. It is the size of the shareholder dividend which really matters.

Taken to its logical conclusion, in the paradigm of the Market Society, politics becomes a process which is simply about the most effective management of the Economy. The winner of the electoral process should be the Political Party which can promise and then produce the best economic results for the largest number of people. The only thing we need to (or even can) agree on is that we all want to be more materially-wealthy, whilst agreement about what constitutes Public morality and social capital become increasingly rare.

As political ideology has narrowed toward the centre-right over the last 30 years, the range of the political discourse has narrowed along with it. And yet the question still remains: How will we live together?

And something seems to be changing. In the last seven years since the financial crash, we have seen the unchallenged dominance of neo-liberalism and the idea that the Market Knows Best increasingly called into question. Whether in academic journals, the Bank of England and Federal Reserve or the Occupy Movement, more and more people are asking if our primary identity really should be HomoEconomicus after all.

Meanwhile, the – often brutal – rise of Islamic extremism across the world has seen the pursuit of a worldview which seems to be primarily-rooted in an idea of what a Society should look like, with relatively little reference to economic structures at all. Whilst the West continues to move towards the ultimate commercialisation of everything – including social Goods like education, healthcare and policing – ISIS and their allies fight from and for a worldview that has very clear ideas of how Society should be structured.

It seems like we may have a window of opportunity to ask anew what Goodness is, to publicly articulate our answer to the question and ultimately even to change the way that we organise our society. In this space, we could do worse than return to the Christian teaching on the Common Good, such as that found in Catholic Social Teaching.

And what is the Common Good? The best description that I have found comes from one of the supporting documents to Vatican II – “The Common Good is a vision of the social order which is founded on Truth, built by Justice and animated by Love”.

In contrast to this Michael Sandel, the renowned Harvard Moral Philosopher, notes that there has been a moral vacancy in contemporary politics, in which there is an:

“…attempt to banish notions of the good life from public discourse. In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But despite its good intention, the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics prepared the way for market triumphalism and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.”

This is what happens when the Economy becomes our only focus. Alternatively, we see in the Bible that God views Society as a worthy aim in itself – an Oikonomia that includes the Material but which frames society as being much more about relationship than material possessions. As Jesus  said in Nazareth at the start of his ministry, in the words of the prophet Isaiah :

 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

We could do worse than start with this as we seek to build a progressive society.