Here is the text of the Lent Lecture I was asked to do on BBC Radio 4. It was broadcast on Wednesday 29 February and repeated on Sunday 4 March (twice).
Nearly three thousand years ago a wise man put into words what should be blindingly obvious: “Without a vision the people perish.” Of course, he didn’t know that this would be quoted for the next few millennia in worlds and contexts he couldn’t possibly have imagined. “Without a vision the people perish.” It encapsulates what many commentators and ordinary people have been trying to articulate in a world that has changed radically in the last three or four years.
First of all, the financial crisis in the capitalist world has led to radical questioning of what really matters to human society – and on what values such a society should be built. And while much anger and blame have been heaped onto the heads of bankers, their gambling acumen and their extravagant bonuses, the cost is increasingly being borne by the poor and the vulnerable. Ask anyone involved on the ground with homeless people, people being made homeless or those who live in fear of losing the little they have. It is a colder world today.
Whatever the causes of the crisis, however, many commentators think it has exposed the lack of a thought-through and commonly-owned consensus about what we want our society to look like. Questions of justice, equity and value have been raised and, as the Occupy movement has made inescapably clear, there is now a cohort of people who refuse to let business continue as normal without challenge and debate. People and institutions that would have ignored such challenges only a couple of years ago are now openly accepting the need for a recalibration of the relationship between labour and reward. So, the world has changed… for the time-being, at least.
So, who and what are we for? That’s the question that keeps raising its head behind all the practical debates. It’s not a new question, but it has often been submerged under an acceptance of the status quo when all seems to be going well and we don’t want to upset what is weirdly called ‘normality’. However, ‘normality’ was further disrupted during the summer of 2011.
At the beginning of August my wife and I flew out of London for a holiday with friends in the United States. Not long after we arrived there I got a phone call to say that there were riots in Croydon – the place where I had lived and been bishop until recently – and that our youngest son was holed up in his flat while the violence went on outside. Inevitably, then, we followed the news as, for many people in London, law broke down and the commentariat offered instant analyses of the causes.
Interpretation and judgement were instant – particularly in the media and from the mouths of those who can’t resist the seduction of a microphone. One of the characteristics of the ensuing analysis was the charge that English society has lost any sense of a collective narrative. And what does that mean? Quite simply, that we no longer know who we are, why we are here or what we are trying to become.
Now, that might sound a little philosophical and vague, but it actually poses a serious challenge to the way we live – and the way we understand our common life. “Without a vision the people perish” – or, as we might rephrase it, if we don’t know who we are, we can’t know where we are going.
Go back to the Old Testament and we find there a good illustration of this contemporary predicament. The Israelites had been liberated from oppressive exile in Egypt. They then wandered through the desert for forty years while a generation of nostalgia-merchants and moaners died off. Then, just before they entered into the land they believed they had been promised, they were given some stark and uncompromising warnings: when you settle and things begin to go well for you, you will forget that once you were slaves… and when you forget your story – your ‘narrative’ – you will begin to assume that all your wealth is down to your own efforts… and you will start treating other people as your slaves. If you lose the plot – literally – you will lose all that speaks to you of your identity. Life is not a game and people are not to be treated as pawns in the hands of those who assume the right to a personally comfortable life at the expense of others.
In fact, in order to ensure that the people didn’t lose touch with their founding narrative, they were to instigate annual festivals – rituals designed to remind them (in body, mind and spirit) of the story that was to drive them as they shaped their society. Some of these rituals involved, for example, leaving the crops at the edges of your field so that asylum-seekers and the dispossessed could have something to eat. Or, bringing the first (and best) 10% of your crop to the priest to whom you would then address a creed – not a simple statement of doctrine, but a story that roots you and your community. This creed would begin with the statement: “My father was a wandering Aramaean…”. In other words, the starting point of the story that defines us – that tells us who we are – is that we are transient, that we belong together, that we journey together with responsibility for one another. Or, to answer a different biblical question: yes, I am my brother’s keeper… and he is mine.
Now, what shocked many observers about the summer rioters’ 24 hour holiday from civilisation was the sense of disconnection from society – a rejection of any identification with what we might call ‘the rest of us’. No investment in belonging to or shaping or taking responsibility for the community in which they live. No sense of obligation towards anyone else – and no concept of belonging to a community of accountability.
Now, what would we say was the narrative that unconsciously drove these people? Every man for himself? The survival of the fittest? ‘Me first’ individualism? Or have they drunk too deeply of the wells of Hollywood in which the so-called ‘myth of redemptive violence’ is portrayed as self-evidently true and the only effective way of making sure no one gets one over on you?
I guess this brings us back to that question of narratives and vision. Just what sort of a society do we think we are creating? What sort of a community do we wish to become? What does our vision look like – or don’t we have a common vision towards which we are working?
Well, that’s where the debate begins for us. After all, we have to take responsibility for how we collectively and individually shape our vision and begin to earth it in the structures and stuff of social priorities. But, the need to question and challenge our world view is unavoidable if we take the biblical narrative with any degree of seriousness. God, we learn, is rather concerned about justice and whether or not the poor are fed.
Which is where Lent comes in. Lent offers the space for reflection on what really motivates and drives us – what are the values and core beliefs that shape how we see and how we live with ourselves and one another… how we love and hate… who we love and hate. In other words, we are invited to take the trouble to work out which (or whose) narrative we locate ourselves within.
One of the problems for many of us is our assumed familiarity with the gospels. But, rather than being comforted by them, if we read them properly, we find ourselves deeply challenged – especially by the habit of God’s people to lose the plot… forgetting their vocation to live and give their life in order that the world should see who God is and what he is about.
At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus returning from his baptism and testing in the desert and “proclaiming the good news of God” in the hill country of the north where he was from originally. This is summed up in four phrases: ” The time is now; God is present among you again; change the way you look at God, the world and us; now live differently in that world.” OK, that’s a paraphrase, but it illustrates the dynamic of what Jesus was trying to do and say. We could put it like this: “You have been praying for generations that God would be among you again – which you think he can’t be while the ‘unclean’ Roman occupying forces remain in your land. But, dare to think differently: what if the holy God broke his own rules and came into the contaminated space and contaminated it with hope and generosity and goodness? Just imagine. Can you dare to look differently at God, the world and us – even to seeing God being present in surprising, healing – even shocking ways? Or can you only spot God’s presence when everything is going well for you and all your problems have been resolved?
In fact, in the gospels we see this time and again. Before he launches out on his fatal mission of challenge, Jesus goes into the desert for forty days and nights to face hard questions: are you really willing to do this God’s way – even if it ends on a cross? Are you going to be driven by the desire for quick glory – or can you really defy the god of self-preservation and lay down your life for the sake of the world?
This was real, hard, deep soul-searching – drilling down to what really motivated Jesus… to what was the fertile soil from which the rest of his behaviour would grow.
Go to the end of Luke’s Gospel and we find the risen Jesus walking alongside a couple of bewildered and frightened disciples who couldn’t make any sense of Jesus having died – the Messiah wasn’t supposed to do that. Having told their version of the story – that didn’t add up – Jesus then re-tells it… enabling them to see God, the world and themselves differently – through a re-shaped lens, as it were.
And that’s the challenge for anyone or any community that thinks it takes God and his invitation seriously. Not only am I as an individual required to reflect the Christ whose name I bear, but also to help shape my community or society accordingly. The rest of the gospel narratives simply identify those who could or could not dare to change the way they looked at, saw, thought about and lived in God’s world.
So, the gospels drop on us the challenge faced by the first disciples of Jesus: to be changed and challenged as we walk with him from the shores of Galilee to a cross planted in the rubbish tip outside the city, through a grave and into a surprising future.
I guess Lent offers us the opportunity to question again the vision that fires us and to measure it against one that we think we know – that of Jesus. This is the vision that captivated me as a teenager in Liverpool and has never let me go. As a young man I saw it in purely individual terms – a personal discipleship aimed at spiritual growth and personal holiness. The problem was that I then read the rest of the Bible and couldn’t escape the insistent call to anyone who agrees to reflect the character of the God revealed there – that is, the call to give up one’s life for the sake of others.
The irony, of course, is that this was always the call of God’s people… but the temptation is always to get distracted by more comfortable – or less demanding narratives – and to lose the plot.
The great Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn wrote a beautiful song way back in 1976 called Lord of the Starfields in which he sets the ‘now’ against the larger backdrop of the whole created order of the universe. The refrain comes as a simple prayer, encapsulating a vision for the here and now that is derived from a perception of eternity that shapes how we can be into the future: “Love that fires the sun keep me burning.”
It’s not a bad prayer for Lent, recalling us to a vision of generosity, self-giving and confident humility. Maybe even a vision that calls a broken society back from its immediate practical questions and poses a more fundamental challenge: for whom and for what are we here? And, if our society seems too complicated to begin to think about such a conversion, then I recall, that Jesus, in three short years, spent time with twelve people who never quite got it, and yet through them changed the world.