Friday, 28 October 2011

Thinking about idealism

I did not blog earlier in the week on the events at St Paul's; one of the reasons for this is that I think the issues at stake are rather complex and it irks me somewhat to hear people confidently proclaiming the rights and wrongs of a situation which can quite legitimately be viewed from a number of different perspectives. Firstly, I do sympathise somewhat with the protesters in their stand against the greed and irresponsibility of the financial markets, although I am also a little cynical given that we are all to some extent invested in global Capitalism - do none of the protesters have loans or personal finance, because most of them certainly have homes which, if reports are to be believed, 90% of them conveniently return to at night... I can also see that the custodians of the Cathedral are anxious that the site does not become a permanent fixture, although I wonder to what extent the loss of revenue, rather than the very expedient pleas of health and safety, lie at the root of their eagerness to see the protesters gone. Finally, I do understand Giles Fraser's sense of concern and outrage that the Church should use or condone force to remove peaceful demonstration, although at the same time I question whether his response is a little disproportionate and I know some feel he rapidly backed himself into a corner, or even that he is intent on being a martyr in the whole situation.

The events have made me think about idealism. I am not entirely an idealist, I think I have a healthy dose of pragmatism, not to mention an unhealthy dose of cynicism that tells me that our ideals often cannot be realised given the flawed nature of our own and others motives and understanding and the very imperfect world that we live in. However, I believe that when we are motivated by a desire to create a better world for others our humanity often shows through at its best. We would be poorer without idealists however annoying they may sometimes be! I have a great deal of respect for Giles Fraser, he is certainly committed to ideals of equality and justice. This does not mean I agree with everything that he says, at times I find his "inclusive" theology rather bland and I imagine he represents everything which some people find annoying about his particular brand of Christianity, but he has today shown himself to be someone who stands by his ideals, whether you think them misguided or not.
One of the problems with the Church is that it is an institution and institutions tend to be serve their own financial, political and practical interests , often over and above the values upon which they are meant to be based. I would argue this is true of no organisation more than the Church - you only have to look at the child abuse cover up scandals in the Roman Catholic Church to be aware of this - and the Church of England is also often guilty of putting expediency before its mission to act in Christ like ways. I think the way Giles Fraser has acted has a certain personal integrity, but it could not really be described as expedient or even particularly judicious.
I wonder what would happen if St Paul's really did think "What would Jesus do?" and tried to act on it? It would be naive and silly really, wouldn't it? They'd fall foul of health and safety laws for a start, lose all their money and maybe have to sell the building and give it all to the poor. And imagine if we all did things like that in our personal lives. The world would have us over a barrel and take us to the cleaners. Act like Jesus did! Don't be silly- they'd crucify us.


  1. Love the last paragraph, even if it does make me feel uncomfortable.

    But I also came accross a poster recently which said,

    "I am not against Capitalism.
    I am against corporate greed.
    There is a difference."

    Perhaps this might give us all a less idealistic and less polarised way of working on these issues.

  2. I am sure it must come as a shock to many of Major’s & Blair’s children, that people protest. I grew up in the 70s and early 80s and protest was a big part of the political and cultural landscape. My own hometown was a battleground between the National Front and the Anti-Nazi League (who despite their political extremes were spookily similar in their tactics and bigoted views – it was just the focus of their bigotry was different).

    Oddly enough yesterday I made my way to my college campus, which is on the Strand, to take part in a post graduate seminar. This involved getting the train to City Thameslink (which is at the foot of Ludgate hill) and I never gave the protestors a thought, even though it wouldn’t have been massively out of my way to take a butcher’s. I suspect many non-tourists in London are like me and have given the protest little thought.

    Like you, I agree that much of the arguments around Anti-Capitalism are facile, moreover they (not unlike much ‘blame’ culture) place the burden of guilt on the few to the convenience of the many. Eight years ago, I was having a meal with a friend at an Indian restaurant in Bloomsbury. We were discussing the issue of buying a house. He at that time lived in church accommodation (in fact a cottage in the grounds of Lambeth Palace) but like many clergy was thinking about what would happen if he died and his wife and children needed somewhere to live. The idea was to buy somewhere and let it. I pointed out that the West was heading for a financial meltdown, sooner or later, as the Blair/Bush financial boom was founded on a property bubble fuelled by cheap debt – even those not buying and selling property were still using their houses as collateral for credit. I did not know about subprime then, if I had, I’d have felt even more secure in my prediction that there was going to be one almighty crash. QED.

    It is certain that the blame for the economic turmoil (from which we are certainly not free of yet) of the past few years cannot be so easily laid at the feet of the bankers. Yes, the banks and financial sector have to shoulder some of the blame, but so do we as consumers. Governments also have to take the blame. Brown rather naively boasted that he had put an end to boom and bust economics (was anyone fool enough to believe this?); and prior to 2008, the then Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne wanted further deregulation of the City... A policy he now, as Chancellor, he no longer mentions...

    So, hurray for protest, but it is time to move on and realise we are all culpable, to a greater or lesser degree. What would Jesus do? ‘Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s...’ seems the most likely answer. It is certain a small country like the UK could not provide the comprehensive welfare state, overseas aid, education system, internal infrastructure etc. etc. without the vast wealth that the City creates. The real issue is that of teasing out what is just envy and what is real protest... It is time to ‘get real’ – they’ve made their point...

    (Just as an aside, BBC London did a poll of the protestors and it seems likely that 66% go home at night, not the 90% reported in some of the papers.)

  3. You're right Suem, if the church really did follow Jesus in a literal sense there would be trouble. I'm afraid I can't get the point of the protest. It's not doing any good is it? (Other than to cause obstruction and nuisance.) On the other hand, the whole financial mess has got many people into a worried and frightened state - it's just that there does not seem to be any answer.

  4. I can't get very enthused about a load of (middle class? self righteous?) people camping out for weeks on end and causing a nuisance either, Freda. I said as much to my husband, who called me a right wing facist [ think he was joking:)]

  5. One thing about the protest is that it's really small. I've spent a few lunchtimes walking around there and the city workers, tourists, and media together massively outnumber the protesters (about 99:1!).

    The Cathedral, built for the purposes of glorifying God, seems to have made a lot of being starved of its revenue stream, but that's more an issue of paying to go in there at all.

    The protest feels more like a vague "hrumph" at modern life than anything else.

  6. Good last Paragraph
    I guess the really scary thing about it though is not the crucifixion bit,after all death is as inevitable as Fat Cat salaries, but rather how it reveals our own captivity to the system, I mean, which of us would act on the WWJD question?

  7. None of us do (or very few.) I haven't sold everything I own and given it to the poor...

  8. Funnily enough, I posted a comment on your blog yesterday, Erik, but it doesn't seem to have gone through? I notice you were at a church in Gisburn/ Hellifield area? I used to live in Settle, so I was interested in that. My auntie lives in Hellifield (hope she wasn't the strident parishioner mentioned in your post!)

  9. Hi Sue
    Sorry for the delay - no it didn't 'get caught in the censors net' I was just away from my computer and couldn't figure out how to publish your comment from my phone - thanks for the blog!