‘Are We Pretending to be Asleep?’     

Posted: October 11, 2021 in Uncategorized

‘Are We Pretending to be Asleep?’     

With the appearance of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic there is now broad general recognition that we have entered an emergency century, a crux in human history. The variables of global weather patterns are becoming disrupted, the magnet poles are shifting at a greater rate, the sun spots are more prevalent and appear to be more influential on the earth’s crust and the planet is warming at an exponential rate. The absolutes that provided certainty as a balance to all this apparent chaotic development are no longer viable. Does God exist is almost a redundant question at least outside the church it is and that is an ever-increasing number of people. Christianity is becoming a label many no longer want because of historic activity that is coming to light about the church’s behaviour over the last 1000 years at least.

Whether we respond well or poorly to these things will have an effect, even if we bury our heads and do nothing. The world is changing like it or not and how we respond will have huge ramifications for future generations of people and for the biosphere at large. Do nothing to curb the wholesale destruction of the ecosystem by unbridled production of a product alien to the organic, sustainability of the planet and from our current moment we could be contributing to a mass extinction event that will hammer the biosphere and civilization both, or we could by making significant, challenging and difficult change be starting the process of establishing a prosperous and just global society that will be sustainable over the long haul of the centuries to come. The radical disparity of these possible futures, the sheer range of them—but with a kind of excluded middle, in that if we trend in one direction or other that trajectory is likely to prevail—is part of the feeling of our time, which could be characterized as a general sense of danger, dread, and fear, mixed with a battered but still strong feeling of hope that our rapidly increasing scientific knowledge and technological capability, and a rising awareness of our global collective fate, and our ultimate reliance on Earth’s biosphere will combine to usher in a new and better era in human interactions with the planet and other people.

Some of us will remember when Covid 19 arrived some people were saying that there is an opportunity here to make the changes in human behaviour for the better, if we took the opportunity. There have been snippets of hope expressed in people’s compassionate response to students and rugby clubs without encouragement hit the streets to help people stricken by earthquake damage and the loss of life. The value of community was also seen after the Mosque attacks and the recent floods. The truth is we live in this curious mixture of fear and hope; probably this has always been the case for humanity, but now it has bloomed into an obvious existential and historical crisis. The problems we face now are immense and numerous. We are a global society, but we are ruled by a nation-state system in which many still regard national interests as overriding any global considerations. The emphasis on a monetarist-based trade system has had us play with a controlled tariff-based system and more recently a free trade model where again the monetarist focus has been kept as if sacrosanct. Challenge or change to this thinking has been seen to be impossible or unwise. And we have agreed to rule ourselves and run our affairs by way of a political economy that is unsustainable, extractive, and unjust, and yet is massively entrenched in national laws and international treaties. Even the idea of democracy is challenged but put in the too hard basket. So, we are left with a nation-state system that is insufficient, and yet all we have; and neoliberal capitalism has been seen to be cruel and destructive, and yet it is still the world’s current overriding system of laws.

So how do we proceed from here?  The first thing in my opinion is to ask the question of what Jesus di in his time when his people were faced with the magnitude of change facing his people. Get over the dualistic way of thinking because that just gets us stuck in the he right she’s wrong, that’s good and that’s bad way of thinking. We do however have to use the tools at hand, at the same time see them as suspect or questionable because they could actually be a big part of the problem. Own the fact that it’s a dilemma but it is one of language, concept and not a concrete unassailable fact.

One thing that may help to start our thinking here is the simple principle that what can’t happen, won’t happen. This is to invoke the reality principle in the form of the facts of science that are incontrovertible. Magic doesn’t work, so magical thinking is not going to be sufficient; physically impossible things are not going to happen in this century or any other, and so we are not going to be conducting our civilization as we have been into the future, because that isn’t physically possible. The planet’s biosphere doesn’t produce the resources we need at the rate we are using them, nor is it capable of disposing of the toxic wastes we are producing at the rate we are producing them. So, change will be coming, one way or another, and because the current situation is so very untenable, the changes coming are going to be profound. We are now already in the time of change. So, in this very perilous situation, we need plans. That’s the most important task the church can be doing.

And let’s not be sucked into the idea that the complex is a problem, that once we have got control it will be ok, This, change is not like that. This change is from a structured management model that is based on exponential growth where the most competitive wins and equality is pitted against equity and distorted under the guise of freedom. The reality is that there are solutions specific to sectors of our society and each will need a vision of change for the better. As the general problem is a wicked problem, in the technical sense of being multiplex and intractable, the solutions are therefore going to be complex.

What the pandemic has revealed is the structural faults of a system that have been papered over for decades. Gaping economic inequalities, rampant ecological destruction, and pervasive political corruption are all results of imbalanced systems relying on each other to remain precariously poised. As one system destabilizes, expect others to tumble down in tandem in a cascade known by researchers as “synchronous failure.” Ultimately, there is no going back to normal because normal no longer exists—except perhaps in the guise of messages of the mainstream media and politicians who seek to keep the public in a consensus mode while a small elite sucks the wealth out of human communities and natural ecosystems, all in the name of the dominant ideology of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has been a part of global mainstream discourse since the 1980s. It propagates the fiction that humans are essentially individualistic, selfish, calculating materialists, and as a result, unrestrained, free-market capitalism provides the best framework for every kind of human endeavor. Through their control of government, finance, business, and media, neoliberal adherents have transformed the world into a globalized market-based system, loosening regulatory controls, weakening social safety nets, reducing taxes, and virtually demolishing the power of organized labour. Neoliberalism is the logical outcome of a worldview based on separation: people are separate from each other; humans are separate from nature; and nature itself is no more than an economic resource. And just in case you think I am sounding like a leftist socialist or communist, those categories are all failed political labels. It has to be evident that the value system built on this foundation is the ultimate cause of the world’s gaping inequalities, our roller-coaster global financial system, our failure to respond to climate breakdown, and our unsustainable frenzy of consumption.

In short, I think I agree with many commentators struggling with these issues when they say we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth accumulation to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization. And let’s be very honest here such a change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have only been two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. It is said that if our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behaviour on a similar scale. The question might be what does this change look like? What sort of vision do we need to move in the right direction?

Well, given that this is a sermon based on the Christian and Judaic scriptures what do they suggest as a response, or better still what does the life of Jesus have to say about such a need? It is certainly not more of the same. It is certainly an alternative way of being and doing what it means to be human. Religiously, socially, economically, and politically the world has to change. On the economic terms it is to be a non-violent, and equitable. Note I said equitable not equal because it is not a world where the majority is subject to the few like our current systems and it is also a world where nature and natural organisational principles and structures are valued above those that are fabricated. Systems, values and actions need to support an ecological civilization based on core principles that sustain living systems in natural ecologies. Over billions of years on Earth, life has evolved resilient processes that allowed it to spread in rich profusion and stunning diversity into virtually every nook and cranny of the planet. As a result, if left undisturbed by human depredation, natural ecosystems can persist in good health for millions of years. A key learning is that living systems are characterized by both competition and cooperation. However, the major evolutionary transitions that brought life to its current state of abundance were all the results of dramatic increases in cooperation. The key to each of these evolutionary steps—and to the effective functioning of all ecosystems—is symbiosis: the process by which both parties in a relationship give and receive reciprocally, reflecting each other’s abilities and needs. With symbiosis, there is no zero-sum game; the contributions of each party create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. An important result of symbiosis is that ecosystems can sustain themselves almost indefinitely. Energy from the sun flows seamlessly to all the constituent parts. The waste of one organism becomes the sustenance of another. In contrast to our current civilization, which built its wealth by extracting resources and letting waste accumulate, nature has a circular economy where nothing is squandered.

So, what do we as the remnant church do? Well, there’s not enough time left to include it in this sermon which has been mainly about the why change question. The church can be part of this change but it needs to be focused on what it does best or at least what it used to do without much effort, and which in my view has led to its apparent irrelevance. It can play a part in the complex interconnection of different organisms in a symbiotic network and contribute to what is an important foundational principle of nature: that of harmony. Harmony doesn’t mean bland agreement. On the contrary, it arises when different elements within a system express their own needs so that the system as a whole is enriched. Harmony arises when the various forces of the system are in balance. This can manifest as balance between competition and cooperation; between the system’s efficiency and its resilience; or between growth, maturation, and decline. I think the church can be a place where harmony is sought in the search for the change that is required. A prayer by a J Wood has been used at a number of church meetings and it is probably a good place to start when arguing that the church is a place where alternative approaches can be debated. The prayer goes like this:

Galilean Jesus,

on hills and near beaches you called people around you

for reflection, explanation and resolution.

So now we reflect together,

knowing that we will hear wise words if only we listen intently.

We each bring some knowledge and some understanding

and we bring our faith, 

incomplete, sometimes uncertain, but willing.

Help us to complete our task together

and to be resolute in gospel action.
Amen. J Wood

That last line of the prayer sums up the humble faithful courage required of the church or rather followers of the Jesus Way, in order to respond to the change that is required of us all. “To be resolute in gospel action” as a contribution to the harmony required in the new civilization emerging. We can no longer just see our role as the place of social action. Of course, that is required but it only contributes to harmony when it is about the elimination oof the need for it, Peace and justice are perpetual goals because we will always have the poor with us, it is part of what it means to be human, it is not acceptable because it is part of an inequitable reality that requires our participation for fairness, goodness and a harmonious equitable reality.

At the root of ‘gospel action’ today. Is a demand that any such reform will include a spiritual vitality and expressiveness. It will include an insistence on a Jesus and Christ centred faith with intellectual integrity. It will support a transgression of traditional gender boundaries. It will claim that a person can be a follower of Jesus and be a faithful follower without claiming to be of the best or the only true faith. 

Today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark, touches on this matter of ‘gospel action’ or ‘mission’ as the seeks to empower its listeners. It appears Jesus was experienced as powerful, but in an empowering way. His life did not require him to seek power for his own sake, but to own the power he had in compassion and in self-giving. His call was to model a new kind of being in the world. Not to be served but to serve. Not to be about maintenance, or in-reach, but to be at mission, at ‘gospel action’. So where does Mark’s story now leave us? Well, perhaps close to something like the emotion in a prayer/poem by Tom Shuman called ‘Where you sit’…

we leave our box seats at the symphony or ball park,
and pray you won’t catch our eye as we pass you
sitting with the homeless; we wait for a few minutes at the doctor’s office
to get a $10 shot so we won’t catch the flu,
while half a world away you sit for a week

hoping medicine which will cost you a year’s wages
finds its way to your village;

we sit in our home theatres, watching the latest “reality” on our plasma screens,
while you sit in the darkness, rocking your child asleep,

as she cries from the ache of an empty stomach.

Lord Jesus:
when (like James and John) we want to be at your side in glory:
remind us where you sit. 

 © 2006 Thom M Shuman

Transitioning to an ecological civilization will require fundamentally redesigning our economy. Across the world, the success of political leaders is currently measured by how much they’ve managed to increase their nation’s GDP. However, GDP merely measures the rate at which a society is transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, regardless of the ensuing quality of life. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, a life-affirming society would emphasize it growth in quality of life, using alternative measures such as the “Gross National Happiness” index established by the state of Bhutan, which assesses qualities such as spiritual wellbeing, health, and biodiversity. Ever since the nineteenth century, most economic thinkers have recognized only two domains of economic activity: markets and government. The great political divide between capitalism and communism arose from stressing one or the other of these two poles (with social democracy somewhere in between). An ecological civilization would incorporate government spending and markets, but—as laid out by progressive economist Kate Raworth—would add two critical realms to the old framework: households and the commons. In particular, the commons would become a central part of economic activity. Historically, the commons referred specifically to shared land that peasants accessed to graze their livestock or grow crops. But in a broader context, the commons refer to any source of sustenance and wellbeing that is not appropriated either by the state or private ownership: the air, water, sunshine, and even human creations like language, cultural traditions, and scientific knowledge. The commons is virtually ignored in most economic discussions because, like household work, it doesn’t fit into the classic model of the economy. But the global commons belong to all of us.

In an ecological civilization, it would once again take its rightful place as a major provider for human welfare. The cumulative common resources that our ancestors have bequeathed to us through untold generations of hard work and ingenuity represent a vast reservoir of wealth—our shared human commonwealth—compared to which the value added by any individual is a drop in the ocean. An ecological civilization, recognizing this, would fairly reward entrepreneurial activity but would severely curtail the right of anyone to accumulate multiple billions of dollars in wealth, no matter what their accomplishments.

On the other hand, it would recognize the moral birthright of every human to share in this vast commonwealth. The transition could effectively be achieved through a program of unconditional cash disbursements to every person alive on the planet, known as universal basic income. The dominant neoliberal view of human nature leads many to assume that free money would cause people to become lazy, avoid work, and exacerbate addictive behaviors. In every test conducted, however, the opposite turns out to be true. Programs consistently report reductions in crime, child mortality, malnutrition, truancy, teenage pregnancy, and alcohol consumption, along with increases in health, gender equality, school performance—and even entrepreneurial activity. For these moral and practical reasons, universal basic income would be integral to the design of an ecological civilization. The transnational corporations that currently dominate virtually every aspect of our global society would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve. Corporations above a certain size would be required to be chartered with the explicit purpose of optimizing not just for shareholder returns, but also for social and environmental outcomes.

There is much more to be said about what is possible for the change to an ecological civilization and this sermon is already too long, so I will finish as I began by saying that let’s remember that the natural world is warning us with pointed urgency that we are on the wrong track. It turns out that our audacious human inventions like the economy, state power, and technology are not autonomous machines that exist outside of history or the natural order. We are actually biological creatures, not just citizens or versions of homo economicus (the economic agent who rationalizes all choices toward economic gain). Let’s acknowledge this as a shock to our consciousness because, as moderns, we do not readily acknowledge that we are profoundly interdependent on other organisms. We thus face a new existential challenge: How can we make our modern, materialistic culture more compatible with a living, evolving planet? Despite our pretensions as champions of the Enlightenment, human life will not survive unless it moves more fully into sync with the ecological imperatives of the planet. Time to stop pretending we are asleep? Amen.

Taussig, H. A New Spiritual Home. Progressive Christianity at the Grassroots. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2006.

Clayton, Philip. Kelli M Archie, Jonah Sachs, and Evan Steiner The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.


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