Wellbeing Is More Than Economic ‘Security’

Posted: June 21, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 3A, 2017 Matthew 10: 24-39

Wellbeing Is More Than Economic ‘Security’

Matthew the storyteller tells us a lot about his own particular community and how they worked and lived and created a sense of community to keep God’s dream and immanency or present-ness alive among them. And he does this is various ways. In Matthew we hear the story of the sending out of the apostles with the invitation to acquire and embrace new habits of seeing, and new habits of being. And we see that as far as we can make out, or guess, that ‘sending out’ was to be shaped by the broad gospel context of compassion. Com-passion. Feeling with. From the very depths of their person.

As all the biblical storytellers remind us, as they collected the fragments of sayings remembered by the early Jesus movement: Jesus’ own experiences with the marginalised and fragmented world of peasant villagers, had moved him in his ‘guts’, his ‘gizzards’, another way of saying this deep place of motivation is to say that he was moved in his ‘womb’, his very place of emergent being.

In the book ‘The Historical Jesus Goes To Church’, Bessler -Northcutt suggest that Com-passion, feeling with, is about helping those same peasant families and workers to resist the shame and worthlessness with which the taxation, farming policies, and religious purity codes had labelled them. And it is there that God’s presence and not Rome’s presence was fully established. It is in that engaging, empathetic relationship that God is present and not just in the removal of the shame and worthlessness. It is more than the ideology, more than the system, more than the culture. Changing the theory, the policy, and providing a new economic structure or ideology does not change things. It is in reaching the gut level, the empathetic level that enables the irrational, nonsense connection that is love at its best. This level of awareness and sensitivities had to become shaping factors in individual lives.

This week we hear some more of those instructions in our gospel story. But we also hear something new – a warning: ‘I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. Here I think we have the message about politics, social justice movements and even being the church, or engaging in community building, or ministry, or wellbeing activities. Be wise about getting into these activities, be innocent meaning don’t be judgmental or negative about these activities because they don’t ignore the individual self-commitment but they do challenge the dominant power structures of a society or group and like Jesus found out challenging these can be very risky business.

There was an interesting debate on talk back radio this week talking about the young southern MP who had put the election results at risk at one level and sullied all politicians at the other. I wondered if he was so new to the world of fake news or politics propensity for a non-absolute truth that he had made a mistake. He secretly recorded his staff and heard some not so nice comments about himself. He took those comments personally and used his political connections to deal with his dilemma. The discussion on radio was about his having been dishonest or lied to cover up his mistake but I wondered if it was just that he had little experience of the world of politics, and was naïve about the world of politics where truth is less about absolutes and more about public perception. We can be negative about political spin and political speech but it is the system where absolute truth is something to be wary of. One can be negative and say it is all lies and speaking a lot of words and saying nothing but that is the nature of a system that seeks to satisfy everyone at once. The contributors to talk back spoke about the MP being young and inexperienced, it was even suggested that his mother and family had pleaded for a fair-go because he was a good man. Again, I think we have the conflict between the individual and the structural or communal. It is what might be called the battle between situational ethics and political accomplishment. It very easily leads to individual banishment and political expediency, the person resigns and the blame shifts around till it dissipates.

But getting back to the general argument it is interesting to note, that living out a ‘dream’ is not easy, especially one which seeks to address the violations of human rights resulting from racism, poverty, poor housing, inadequate education and health care, let alone widespread apathy and indifference, and a lack of freedom. We know that living such a dream can and will shake any ruling elite to its core.

The dream in our story is that there is a place where politicians never stretch the truth, where economic theory or religious adherence can exist but only in the service of everyone. The reality is that when this is close to achievement there will be aggressive, abusive name calling and even violent responses. We even have parliamentary protection to enable this, and we expect the spin of politicians and play at holding them accountable to this impossible dream.

But to get to our specific topic for a bit we want to first enter that space that Rex Hunt calls the space where wise serpents and innocent doves reside, and we want to attempt to explore that space between economic theory and society’s wellbeing which comes from “being connected and engaged, from being enmeshed in a web of relationships and interests. This place between theory and practice perhaps, that gives meaning to our lives.”

There is a claim that despite all that governments say about economic theory, tax cuts, fiscal policy etc, evidence shows the focus on wealth creation as the foundation for raising wellbeing, is not all it proports to be. That claim says that “The relentless drive for greater economic efficiencies, which are needed to maintain high growth rates, has been accompanied by increasing inequality, sustained levels of unemployment, the growth in under- employment and overwork, pressures on public services such as health and education, and the geographic concentration of disadvantage, leading to deeper and more entrenched divisions within society.” It is acknowledged that the rise in technology contributes but there is the question as to what the technological advance is for that needs analysis. And just to take a little side track we read that certain words can and will influence artificial Intelligence because some words are naturally negative and others are positive and facial expression will become AI responses. In other words a grumpy person’s self-drive car might not start or an angry persons car might pull over and stop and wait till the occupant has calmed down.

Just as Jesus’ claim about an alternative society, an alternative social system to that which was based on a Roman view of human behaviour would end up getting him executed so the claim about an alternative to the common is without doubt powerful, and disturbing stuff! As we close in on our election this claim could even unsettle our own political persuasions and personal core values. Our system fluctuates between ideological extremes but does not raise alternatives from an economic centrality and an alternative would be upsetting to some. The challenge of an alternative criticizes our entrenched assumptions because it claims that our collective wellbeing or ‘happiness’ is improved if we live in a peaceful, flourishing, and supportive society, rather than if we have more money and more of the things money buys.

The title of my sermon presupposes the possibility of an alternative way of being holistically well, and I think it is because all of our human systems regardless of whether they are political, economic or social, are under pressure to change from the priori of an economic focused world. What if there is something other than socialism, capitalism, communism and all the isms? What if there was a way of shifting our systems to be more focused on outcomes that provide wellbeing as opposed to relying on economic theory and thus a profit motivated system that assumes wellbeing? If we want to retain the word economy then could it be seen as more about the disposition or regulation of the parts or functions of any organic whole? The regulation of an organized system or method as opposed to its most common interpretation, which is that economy means ‘the prosperity or earnings of a place or person?

 

The questions we would face then are how do we do this thing rather than what resources do we need to do this thing? How do we provide fulfilling work without money? Is it people doing something as opposed to being paid well? How do we reclaim, reprioritize our time? Is it by being paid more for less work or is it about doing more regenerative things for each other? How do we protect the environment? Is it less about making the environment work for us as opposed to working more with the environment? How do we ensure education contributes to our wellbeing? Is it about perfection and outcome for the individual or is it about experience and interpretation for each and every one? Is it about creating certainties and knowing facts or is it about living with uncertainties without absolutes? And so the questions go on. How do we invest in early childhood, discourage materialism and promote responsible advertising? How do we build communities and relationships, create a fair society and measure what matters?

What we do know is that widening disparities in incomes and access to services create resentment and disharmony, and we know that resentment and disharmony are time consuming engagements. Instead of blaming the victims of the systems we run, we should perhaps acknowledge that some people are left behind by the so-called market driven economy and do something about it rather than hold our hands up and say they are the product of their own making. They have a choice. The question is do they?

One of the startling outcomes of recent years is that we have become more self centered as nations and overseas aid has become a burden rather than an opportunity to care for each other. In recent years we have extended this to keeping refugees to a minimum and only allowing the movement of people if they can contribute to the particular nations economic theory. Maybe there is another way of ensuring more public funds go to overseas aid to help the poor in developing countries escape from poverty and destitution. It was interesting to see that one of the key issues that came out of the recent interactive TV program ‘What Next’ was that the eradication of poverty is a priority for us as a nation. And that is something that we no longer have a viable economic definition for, yet we know exists. What if poverty is the loss of an ability to participate in being well rather than being unable to participate in the economic system?

And to finish I want to ask what difference does our being a (progressive) Christian congregation make in the lives of others? Are suffering and marginalised people better off… Are the poor and homeless finding their lives improved… Do children have a brighter global future… Is this the case because we are on the journey which Jesus first chartered?

What I think is that throughout history the various sages and prophets have all counselled that wellbeing of the individual and as a community, is not a goal but a consequence of how we live. And this means that the changes I have implied are gospel imperatives can inspire healthier communities, stronger personal relationships, happier workplaces, a better balance between work and home, less commercialization, and greater environmental protection.

Likewise, by continuing on the journey which Jesus first chartered rather than worshipping that journey… And re-imagining the kingdom or realm or empire of God from the perspective of gospel compassion… we can all keep alive the dream and immanency or present-ness of God.

As Andrew Hamilton, Jesuit priest and editor of Eureka Street once said in an editorial, “Steady and decent public policies [by Governments] in which we can take pride actually build confidence.  — High human confidence is not only useful.  It is also valuable” (Eureka Street. 16 June 2008).

Notes: Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004. “Learning to see God: Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in A. Dewey. ed., The Historical Jesus Goes To Church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press

Website; http://www.rexaehuntprogressive.com/.

 

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