Sermon preached by Dean Ison on the first anniversary of Occupy London
14 October 2012
Joshua 5. 13 - 6. 20 Matthew 11. 20-end
"Are you on our side, or the side of our enemies?” And he replied, "No, I have come as commander of the Lord’s army.”
There had been rioting on the streets. Poverty and crime were endemic.
The government had undertaken a programme of cutting welfare benefits and jobs in the teeth of considerable opposition by the trades unions.
The Church of England under its liberal Archbishop had decided to use its considerable networks to tell the story of what was going on in the
inner cities of Britain, and make some suggestions about how we could respond. The year? 1985. The report? Faith in the City. The reaction from
some in Mrs Thatcher’s government was, you might say, intemperate – the Church of England was accused of being Marxist, and derided as
anti-government. But the outcome of that report was, in part, to encourage the government to get to grips with the problems of Britain’s inner
cities, leading to substantial regeneration in a number of them.
For the Church, the main legacy was the establishment of the Church Urban Fund, which over 25 years has raised and distributed over £60 million to change people’s lives in thousands of projects in cities around the country. In Bradford, where I was Dean before coming here, the Church of England has been running over 100 social projects with Church Urban Fund support, including teaching English to shut-in Asian women, caring for the homeless, running lunch clubs for the elderly, youth clubs for deprived city children, and caring for vulnerable young people.
When the Faith in the City report was published, I was a curate, an assistant minister, working in Deptford in South East London, engaged with precisely the problems which the report identified, and my vicar and I contributed a submission to the commission that wrote it.
The report was not comfortable reading for the comfortable church, or for most readers of the Daily Mail. But it aimed to tell the truth, and not only that, but to ask the question, how can we inside and outside the Church work for the common good? That may not sound like a radical question, but at the time, when Mrs Thatcher’s government had been seen to wage war on the unions, and in particular to go through the bitter miners’ strikes of 1984-5, a movement away from the ‘them and us’ mentality of conflict between different social groups, whether the government or the miners, was in itself a radical and subversive step.
The broadcaster Andrew Marr has been doing a brash TV series recently on human history. It’s one of those rather tiresome documentaries which consists more of imaginative dramatic reconstructions with lots of blood and violence, than explaining the much more interesting facts that underlie them. But he made the comment at the beginning of the series, regarding the rise of humanity, that it was the tribal mentality that enabled human beings to survive and colonise the world, and the tribal mentality which leads to violence and the exploitation and destruction of those who are different from you.
One of the key things about faith, proper religious faith, is that it should undercut human tribalism. It calls into question our view that we and our group are and must be in the right. Of course, religion can be used to justify the violence of the tribe: but that requires a perversion of what lies at the heart of true religious faith.
You can see that in the two readings from the Bible that have been part of this service. In the first reading, the tribe of the Israelites is violently invading the land of Canaan in the name of God. Joshua, the Israelite leader, sees a man with a drawn sword standing before him, and asks him whether the man is on his side, or the side of his enemies.
And the man replies, neither – I’m on God’s side. As the story unfolds, it appears that God’s interests in this instance tend towards helping the Israelites, though not entirely. But it’s interesting to note that throughout the Jewish Bible, the theme that God is actually on everyone’s side keeps reappearing: God is not only the God of Israel, but is also the God at work in the lives and destinies of their enemies and their neighbours, as well as the God who calls the people of Israel to account for their financial exploitation of others and their lack of justice.
And in the New Testament reading, Jesus prophesies against his local home towns because they refuse to accept his message of the kingdom of God. He says that the notorious sinners of Sodom were more open to God than his hearers are; and the reading goes on to call everyone to follow Jesus Christ in the way of God’s kingdom, which is gentle and humble, concerned for all, rather than promoting its own power and interests.
What does all this have to do with last year’s protest by Occupy outside the London Stock Exchange? It’s important because it puts that protest into the wider context of the good of all. The media work along tribal lines, and tempt us to do the same, because simple stories of conflict between two different groups are much easier to write stories about than the complex human realities that underlie them. The key messages of Occupy were twofold. The first is that we need not only ethical and responsible finance, but a reform of our financial system so that it works for the good of everyone, not only in this country but also around the world, in a way which is both just and sustainable. The other key message is that finance is not something separate from human relationships; in order to have a just society, we need to take the voices of all people into account, and therefore we must address the increasing failure of our democratic system to involve and empower its citizens.
These are important and urgent messages. They need to be acted on. But what’s uncomfortable for those who think in tribal terms is that there are many voices within the financial and political worlds which are also calling for change. I heard the Lord Mayor at a speech in the Guildhall last week speaking of the work being done by many in the city to bring about cultural change, so that the values of fairness, honesty and justice are reasserted against the selfishness and corporate irresponsibility of much modern banking practice.
And that’s good as far as it goes, and it shows that simple tribal hostility – bankers on one side, Occupy on the other – is too simple a stereotype. But the idea of cultural change is not enough: there needs to be systemic change, because you can still have decent and honest people operating a system which is unjust and not for the benefit of all. Our Christian concern is not with one part of humanity, but with all. Ed Milliband’s language about One Nation is all right as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough: we need a vision, not of one nation, but of one world, to which all of us belong.
That’s why the concerns of Occupy are still urgent and relevant. As urgent and relevant as they were over 25 years ago when they were identified in the Faith in the City report. As urgent and relevant as they were, for example, back around the year 400 when John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople, whose statue is up there under the Dome, was exiled and starved to death for daring to denounce the obscene wealth and conspicuous consumption of the imperial Roman court in Constantinople, set alongside the exploitation of those living in desperate poverty, and a Christian church which was involved in redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor in a way which was seen to threaten the power of the governing tribal elite.
For myself, coming into the situation in St Paul’s just a few months ago, one of the sad things is the way in which the media set Occupy and St Paul’s over against each other as two tribes in conflict. I know that the practicalities of the camp were extremely hard for St Paul’s to cope with, and that there is a very complex story underneath it all with mistakes made on all sides. But the simple headline is that St Paul’s has been working through its Institute for the last nine years on matters to do with finance, governance and sustainability, and has taken up the Occupy agenda over the last year in order to progress it through the work that it does. In the Cathedral, we are also in the process of seeking to listen to God as to how St Paul’s needs to change in order to better express the Christian values that we believe in, in the service of all people.
We can do that because we believe that God is on the side of all of us, and none of us. God in Jesus Christ affirms us all, and challenges us all. That’s what the kingdom of God means: it means living in a world where God rules, not us; where what we think is right must always be confronted by God’s call to love, and to act with justice; where all of us must be open to be challenged about when we have become merely tribal.
I hope that all of us will be committed to working for the kingdom of God, and doing that together. We need partners, allies, people with a vision for love and justice and the common good: whether they are bankers or campers, Conservatives or liberals, religious or not. God’s invitation to us to follow Jesus Christ and to change ourselves and the world is inclusive, generous, and calls all of us and our own vested interests into question, whether that’s St Paul’s, the Church of England, Occupy, or the City of London.
Joshua said to the man with the drawn sword, "Are you for us, or for our enemies?" And he said, "No: I fight for the kingdom of God."