Prophetic Imagination in a Crumbling World
Some of you will know that, for the past month or so, I’ve been travelling around the United States to meet up with various friends and generally see a little more of the world at large. I was urged by many of my friends to keep a travel blog as I went along, which, alas, I haven’t really done. This has been a combined result of not having a great deal of opportunity to do so, and also the accumulation of some quite personal experiences which I wouldn’t feel comfortable publicly blogging on at least for the time being. Suffice it to say, however, I have had some encouraging experiences while here, and met some thoroughly inspiring and interesting people, whether old friends or new friends alike. With many ups and downs, this journey has proved to be something of a personal pilgrimage.
One thing that has struck me in my short time here are the differences which exist between British and American culture. They are often too subtle to even beggar some kind of articulate analysis, but one which has particularly stood out for me is the almost absolute necessity for an average American citizen to own a car. I have commented to many of my friends here that, were I back in the UK, I would be quite used to being able to hop onto a bus or train to most places and actually lead quite an affordable existence doing so (with some shrewdness, of course). In the States, many towns and even big cities are that sprawled that travelling as a pedestrian is difficult at very best and downright unfeasible at very worst. While these fine people have a good enough interstate bus and train system to boast of, the localised public transport leaves a fair bit to be desired.
If you’re wondering why I’m opening up on a blog article about this, it’s because a few things during my stay here have led me to think upon how much I take my own life for granted back in the UK. Being (hopefully) socially-conscious, there isn’t a great deal of difficulty for me back home to lead a moderately “alternative” lifestyle, whether by shopping from a local cooperative supermarket, supporting small businesses, or by getting along just fine without having to own a fuel-guzzling vehicle of my own. It would be significantly more challenging (perhaps not impossible, but certainly more challenging) to lead a similar life here in the States. It could be that I would have to settle down into everyday life here to know all the ins and outs of ethical practicalities, as I am aware that many American communities and groups do great work in minimising their dependencies upon the systems of the world, but for now I am aware of how much I have perhaps been taking for granted in my own small area of the Globe.
Additionally, seeing more of our Trans-Atlantic Western society has made me see even more just how collectively gripped within and enraptured by the Empire we really are. I use the word “Empire” here in the same kind of sense that many Biblical scholars and preachers have before me, not to describe any one particular superpower as we would understand it, but rather the cumulative systems of wealth and political power we human beings have set up for ourselves which deliver the vast majority of resources and the means of production into the control of the privileged few. In a conventional scholarly sense, it is used to refer not only to the ruling powers of the day, but also the economic system of production over which they reign. In our times, we would know this system as Capitalism.
A recent conversation with some friends of mine highlight an interesting ambivalence regarding our Capitalist society, in that it seems rather strange for anyone to criticise it. After all, as some (myself included) have noted, our economy offers quite an extraordinary amount of freedom and security, as well as opening us up to a seemingly better quality of life; whether this includes the ability to traverse the world, the opportunity to dine on diverse and delicious foods accorded by the global market, the availability of fine fashions and clothing, etc etc ad nauseum. It becomes rather difficult to find fault with a system that seemingly provides many high quality services and gives its citizens a good standard of living.
So the common question arises, then, “What is so bad about Capitalism?” I hasten to note that I am not a very big believer in someone describing or defining themselves by the thing that they are against. Terms such as “anti-capitalist” leave something of a bittersweet taste in my mouth since they are an automatically negative connotation, necessarily having to be qualified by something else if they are to be taken with any kind of seriousness or credibility. Nonetheless, if we are taking on a system of ethics which purports to be against something, then we had better explain why. Capitalism, as noted, accords us an excellent range of opportunities… but at what kind of cost? We might enjoy a wide, diverse, globalised market, but one which is essentially driven by the commodity of oil. The recent explosion in fuel prices has indicated not just an increased consumer demand, but in the eyes of many also highlights the danger of a high-polluting, non-renewable, and unsustainable energy source upon which to found our modern technological society. We may have the luxury to travel to our hearts’ content and to reap the benefits of a globalised market, but at what kind of cost to our limited resources and the environment?
Of course, that is only one problem, but I am reminded of many others. Being involved in campaigns work, I strive to become more aware of my consumer choices and to make the link between my purchases and the end producer. When one does this, they increasingly learn of an every-growing list of corporations which appear to have escaped any kind of moral accountability. Just a few examples of this include:
Coca-Cola, with their tendencies to deplete water from developing nations and leave their existing water supplies poisoned and polluted.
Wal-Mart’s lack of accountability involving ethical standards, particularly in their hesitance to reveal the identities of their overseas contractors when questioned about allegations of sweatshop labour (A matter regarding which the major UK clothing outlet Primark is also guilty).
Beyond these specific examples, the more general tragedies of negligence and corruption at the corporate level can include (but are not necessarily limited to):
Intensive factory farming – under which masses of animals are kept under horrifying conditions, at the expense of increased levels of warming gases and the further depletion of agricultural resources.
It’s not often popular to talk about these issues. Particularly when one is accepting a friend’s hospitality, they don’t always want to hear about how their purchase of Coca-Cola or a certain brand of coffee beans or a particular clothing line is indirectly causing the suffering of individuals and communities on the other side of the world. On the flipside, aren’t these issues about which we as Christians should fundamentally be concerned? After all, if there is one thing upon which Jesus will hold us to account on the last day, it will be how we responded to our neighbour.
The main difficulty lies in that not many of us will always make the connection between our seemingly idle place within the economy to the consequences which lie elsewhere, unseen by our own eyes. Being more aware of such issues requires us to push our vision beyond the scope of our individual lives, allowing it to transcend into a place that acknowledges our role within the interconnected nature of all things, wherein we are no further from the Guatemalan coffee farmer or the Chinese clothing worker than we are from the homeless man down the street from us. I truly believe that if we would open ourselves up, God will give us the heart to effect this vision as part of the personal transformation He accords us in Christ Jesus.
Another problem lies in the images of legalism which might get conjured up by topics such as this. We Christians emphasise a salvation which comes as the gift of grace, justified by faith in Christ alone and not by anything we could have done ourselves. What use is this grace, one might ask, if we are going to spend our energies boycotting certain goods and concentrating on buying Fair Trade?
I would direct any arguments back to the narrative in Matthew 25, in all honesty. We should be careful not to live by guilt or shame, or to become unhealthily obsessive about our place in the world, but that should not in any way negate our responsibilities to strive for the same kind of transformation on this earth that God has begun as a work in our own hearts. If this were not the case, what good would it be to pray. “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven?” If Heaven knows no suffering, no death, no pain, then let us follow our calling to effect that prayerful vision for those around us.
Our efforts to understand our place as global citizens should not end with simple ethical consumer decisions, however, as these limited choices are only the beginning of a much larger calling. The increasing list of examples involving corporate irresponsibility and ethical unaccountability are themselves symptomatic of the larger problem, in that the Empire will ground itself upon a production-consumption system which takes the means of production from the masses and places it into the hands of the wealthy few (Walter Brueggemann has done some brilliant work in explicating the Biblical narrative in this regard and placing it within the context of our own time). In doing so, this oil-driven technological economy we inhabit is proving itself to be dangerously unsustainable, leaving a bloody trail of environmental destruction, ecological extinction, mass poverty, warfare, and death its wake. The Empire founds itself upon the human spiral of violence.
Of course, this is all bearing in mind what I said earlier on, in that it is often futile to define ourselves solely by the thing we are opposing. If the Christian has a place forming a critique of our Capitalist society, then, what is it we are to do as an alternative?
I am reminded of the creation narrative in Genesis when I consider the problem of our technological society. I no longer look at this portion of scripture and see some worn-out debate between Evolutionism and Creationism, but rather an illustration of how God desired His relationship with humankind to be; That is, both male and female made in the Image of God and thereby accorded common dignity and standing in all of creation, made as responsible stewards of all the earth, living at peace with each other, with God, and with the animals/creation, without any need for coercion, heirarchy, or violence to exist between them. Those human characteristics are outlined by this story as having arisen from Adam and Eve’s/humanity’s decision to disobey God and turn inwardly to themselves and their own desires, a condition we call “sin.” Thus, the peace that could potentially exist between God, man, and earth is tragically inhibited by our own selfish desires which set us at odds with one another and alienate us from our neighbour, giving rise to the proceeding Biblical narratives from thereon regarding the human construction of cities, kingdoms, and empires, together with all of the tragedies they entail.
I think it is significant that, prior to the Fall, Adam ad Eve share a vegetarian diet together with the animals of the earth, and there is no need for any living creature possessing “the breath of life” to kill any other for food. Instead, they all enjoy the produce of the earth which God freely gives, negating any need for either a) violence, or b) land ownership. Capitalism is based upon the entire prospect of certain groups of people taking a controlling interest in the earth’s resources, whereas the Biblical vision is more one of the community receiving the gifts of God through the earth. After the Fall, it is then that humanity is seen to be exacting violence upon the earth, whether through hard agriculture or through the killing of animals for food and clothing. From this, as well as from other ways in which God attempted to guide His people, such as through the Jubilee, a contrast can be discerned between the human narrative of Capitalism and the Biblical narrative of a sustainable economy whereby community is the focus rather than the individual. The original vision was set in place as a means to ensure that all peoples’ needs were accounted for, by emphasising God’s supreme ownership of the earth’s fullness, together with our responsibility as stewards of that which God has given us. In this sense, the system of private ownership emphasised in our modern economic society makes little sense, as we Christians look to God as the landowner, with our own role as moreso renting out and acting in loving responsibility of all that we have been apportioned.
At this point, one might say, “This is all very well, but how on earth is that practical for the here and now? Whether the Bible does or does not describe an alternative way of living, that doesn’t change that we are all part of the Capitalist system, and it doesn’t look as though things will change anytime soon.”
A very valid point, were one to bring it up, and this is where I personally feel the community is paramount in addressing this problem. After all, I am sure the early Christians would have felt the same way and would have asked similar questions when they were living in Rome’s economy. “How can we set ourselves apart from Caesar?”, “How can we live without the Empire’s market?”, “We need the Empire to be able to eat, drink, and trade!” and so on.
What this illustrates is the problem of striving for absolute purity, when really what we are called to do is understand our place within the system and to continue asking those questions about what we do as both individuals and as a Christian community called to be set apart from the ways of the world. We may not be able to live without the control of the production-consumption system, but we should never turn that fact into an excuse to resign ourselves over to complacency and futility. God endowed us with a prophetic imagination to be able to work as agents of transformation for the world around us, to effect His salvation on every level from the spiritual to the material. It is with this imagination that we have the power (God’s power) to indeed live as a people set apart from the world’s systems, if not in an absolute sense then in a sense which demonstrates to people that another way is possible, and that we don’t always have to give up on ever trying to carve out new visions and fresh ways of approaching our lives.
What could this mean? It could mean that we’ll keep buying tea and coffee, but we’ll buy it Fair Trade certified. It could mean that we’ll still buy clothes, but we’ll get them second-hand from thrift stores and charity shops, or maybe even make them ourselves. It could mean that we’ll keep buying from corporations, but we’ll also be growing our own fruit and vegetables. It could mean that we’ll continue relying on the Empire’s market economy, but we’ll also live in simplicity, consume as few resources as possible, and recycle as much of our waste as we can. It could mean that we’ll still be driving, but we’ll also be carpooling wherever possible and maybe even converting our vehicles to run on used vegetable oil. It could mean that we’ll still be buying property, but we’ll also gather together in community with one another and discuss new and interesting ways in which we can exercise that creativity which will radiate God’s love to the world around us.
It could also be that, as communities of people who gather together, we will move from the limited things we do to lead sustainable lives (ethical consumer choices, switching appliances off when not used, switching to renewable energy, recycling, gardening, simple living, etc) and onto those larger ways in which we will question, challenge, and change the system of which we are all part. And as more and more people come together to do this, we could come even closer to receiving God’s Kingdom in fullness, not just in a way that saves people from the devil, but causes them to become born again in the fullest possible sense – to escape from spiritual, human, economic, and social oppression on every single level.
Our Western civilisation might be crumbling and decaying around us… but the Church will be the light that guides the way. So what are you waiting for? Go out and express some of the divine creativity and prophetic imagination in your own life today!