Monday, 18 November 2013

Learning about the powers from an 'unsophisticated' Pope

As we draw near the end of our series in YWBC on Ephesians, a recurring theme in recent weeks has been ‘challenging powers,’ one of the elements of the mission statement we’ve been developing in church over the last year. Over the weekend I was struck by a great example of this practice when reading Jonathan Freedland’s Saturday comment in the Guardian, on Pope Francis.

Since becoming Pope, Francis has hit the headlines on a recurring basis, both because of his decision to shun the opulence which has previously characterised the papal office, and also his frequent remarks on the issues of justice and the need for the church to offer a more humble and humane stance to those who have previously felt ostracised by it. Freedland’s article cites as examples comments made in May this year about the ‘dangers of unbridled capitalism’ and as well as a recent tweet lamenting the ‘bitter fruits’ of ‘the “throw-away” culture.’

Perhaps, it’s not surprising that Francis’s stance hasn’t earned him universal approval. Freedland also quotes recent criticism of the Popeby the free-market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, who bemoan the fact that he lacks the more ‘sophisticated’ approach of his predecessors. What struck me most forcefully about the IEA article was the way in which author Philip Booth attacks the ‘error of arguing that ‘systems’ can have ‘goals’ or ‘idols’. It is acting, rational people who make good or bad moral choices. It is certainly legitimate for priests to criticise greed amongst the several billion people taking economic decisions each and every day, if they feel this is an important moral issue. However, ‘systems’ do not take such moral decisions independently of human persons. The system produces what is willed by the persons who participate in economic life.’

Booth’s comments strike me as misguided for several reasons. Strangely, they seem to contradict the attitudes of most free market champions I’ve known, who usually speak with awe and reverence about market ‘forces’. The market is spoken of as the higher power, the supreme arbiter who can shake out the wheat from the chaff, the viable from the unviable, who can benevolently ensure the trickle down of wealth from top to bottom.

Secondly, I wonder how many of us really feel ourselves to be independent or fully in control in the spending choices we make. We are all constrained by our upbringing, social location, circumstances or by limits to the choices which are available to us. Is someone genuinely free when they spend excessively to sustain an image which they hope will win the approval of others? Is someone trapped by unemployment and taking out the pay day loan they need to feed their family for the remainder of a month really making an ‘independent moral decision’?

Finally, Booth’s comments seem to me to be contradicted by scripture. On Sunday, Duncan will be concluding our series and talking about Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian believers to put on the armour of God. In Ephesians 6 he famously writes that, ‘our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ In Naming the Powers, Walter Wink describes Paul’s language here as a ‘heaping up of terms to describe the ineffable, invisible world-enveloping reach of a spiritual network of powers.’

In this current age, it may not be possible to fully overcome the powers, given the great reach they have into every aspect of our lives and society. There may be moments when the best we can do is to simply ‘stand,’ to use the language of Paul. We resist, we determine that where and when we can we will make the choices that best reflect the values of the age to come. My hope is that by talking together about challenging powers, perhaps in time coming to the point where we can be more honest with each other about our own struggles and the ways we feel controlled by the culture of our day, we can all discover a new strength and resolve in living in the way Paul describes in Ephesians, ‘a life worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called.’ Perhaps not a perspective as ‘sophisticated’ as those held by the Institute of Economic Affairs, but one which is, ultimately, far more liberating.

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