21 May 2017
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Revd Jonathan Cain
Acts 17: 22-31, John 14: 15-21
I’m a great fan of the Harvard professor and public philosopher, Michael Sandel. In his books and lectures he has a way of explaining quite complicated philosophical and ethical approaches in an accessible way, doing so in a neutral way, that engages; makes you think. I really like the way he got a group of students thinking about how they approach moral decision-making with the following scenario …
Suppose you’re the driver of a trolley car that is going at 60 miles per hour and you realise that your brakes don’t work. The end of the track is approaching and you see 5 workers. You can’t stop and you know that the 5 workers are going to be killed. But then you notice a siding that you could turn down at the end of which is a lone worker. What do you do? In a development of this scenario he invites his hearers to suppose that they are an onlooker positioned on a bridge watching the trolley car careering towards the 5 workers. You notice that on the bridge there is also an extremely fat man who is leaning over the parapet. You know that if you gave him a shove he would fall onto the track and stop the trolley. He would die, but the 5 would be saved. Again, what do you do?
A bit of fun perhaps, but if you watch the way Sandel’s students engage with the questions (you can watch his recorded lectures on the Internet); indeed if you engage with the exercise yourself it makes you think. Most 21st century audiences instinctively say sacrifice one life to save five, but it is interesting to note how we approach the question? What are our resources? What is our frame of reference?
A couple of years ago Sandel published a book called What Money Can’t Buy. The purpose of the book was to expose the trajectory of liberal free markets, which is to put a monetary value on everything, and to make his readers think.
One example he gives is of a prison in the United States where you can pay for room upgrades. $80 per night will buy you single-occupancy and en-suite facilities, a situation reminiscent perhaps of medieval indulgences! Another example he gives is the cost of watching live sport. He reflects on the fact that in the 1980s the most expensive ticket you could buy to a baseball game (he is after all American) was about $3, compared to the cheapest, bleachers seat, which was around $1. All of the ticket prices were in reach of most people, with the result that janitors and chief executives watched the games from the same vantage points; tickets were selected largely because of the experience, not because of the price. The same has of course happened to our own national sport where even the cheapest Premiership tickets are out of reach of most people.
There are plenty of other illustrations, all of which are about placing a cash value on pretty much everything, and most of which contribute in some way or another to increasing stratification within and between nations according to wealth. Of course such stratification is not a new phenomenon, wealth inequality has always existed, and Sandel presents these observations without suggesting that there is a panacea. But, he suggests, when there are more things to buy and when money gives you access to more things, the poor are increasingly excluded and societies become more fragmented. He invites his readers to reflect on what has and is happening and asks, “are we comfortable with this?”
In another book, Faith Beyond Resentment, the Roman Catholic priest-theologian James Alison is more challenging, suggesting that such fragmentation is a form of idolatrous belonging. Alison contends that such belonging, such idolatry, gives rise to pathological religion, pathological politics, and pathological communities.
I was drawn along these lines this week partly because it is Christian Aid Week; one week each year when one particular Christian charity seeks to invite those with means to show solidarity with and bring hope to the poorest in the world.
I was also drawn along these lines when I thought about the context of St Paul preaching in Athens. “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” he starts, but a few verses earlier we read that Paul “was deeply distressed to see the city so full of idols”. Idolatry, such powerful and destructive force, and maybe a particular danger for the extremely religious. Belonging, identifying with one particular community only, another powerful force, that risks becoming idolatrous because it risks denial that all people are created in the image of God.
In the Gospel, Jesus is clear, “if you love me you will keep my commandments.”
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength; love your neighbour as yourself.” And we know how Jesus answered when he was asked “so who is my neighbour?” No idolatrous belonging; no pathological religion, or politics, or communities; just love and abundant life for all.
To mark Christian Aid Week the Church Times invited the leaders of the three main political parties to write about overseas aid. It feels to be an important topic during a General Election Campaign, in a political environment where across the world national self-interest is to the fore. This is what they said (I’ll leave you to guess who said what) …
“Our commitment to helping the most disadvantaged people in the world says something important about Britain. It says that we are a kind and generous country that will never turn its back on those in need.”
“We have to ask ourselves: what kind of country do we want to be? One that is insular, cynical and dominated by corporate greed, or one that is committed to building positive relationships and improving the lot of the world’s least fortunate?”
“We must always be relational, remembering that behind the statistics are people – our brothers and sisters – whom we may never meet, but are still called to love.”
In this Christian Aid Week let’s pray for thoughtful engagement with philosophical and ethical issues; let’s pray for our politicians as they establish and address priorities; let’s pray for our neighbours both near and far, particularly those who are excluded by poverty; let’s pray for ourselves as we seek to love Jesus by keeping his commandments.