Occupying St Paul’s with Lamentation



Before I began my education for ministry I worked in banking and related industries for 16 years. One of the things my last job involved was designing and delivering a course intended to enable finance (accounting) professionals new to the industry to begin to understand what a bank was, its role in the economy, how it made its money, the risks it ran, the way it managed them and the implications of all this for the its profit and loss and balance sheet accounts. Quite a lot to get through in three days and a really enjoyable experience every time I did it. The first run of the course took place shortly before Northern Rock went under and I carried on doing it through the unfolding of the subsequent crisis, with the content evolving to include all the various catastrophes as they occurred.

I say all this to explain that I have some professional expertise where it comes to observing and commenting on these events and, therefore, a slightly different take on the “Occupy” phenomena than people without that kind of commitment to and knowledge of the banking industry, and it may or may not be surprising that I have very limited sympathy with the demonstrations.

There is a widespread assertion that “bankers” are to blame for the mess “we” are in. Because the systemic dislocation of the last 4 years or so has had its most dramatic and observable symptoms in the banking sector it has become the common sense that something to do with banking is the cause. From this it is deduced that bankers are at fault and in particular that bankers’ greed is at the root of our problems. None of this is absolutely false but most of it, I think, is very nearly so. What is absolutely false is any suggestion that the “bail outs” of the banks were in any way optional or that they were carried out primarily in the interests of the bankers (and incidentally almost all employees of the banks – including me – lost large sums of money through the bail outs, which reduced the value of existing shares in them by something like 90%, albeit the remaining 10 % only exists because of the rescue).

States stepped in the prevent the collapse of the banking system for the same reason they would, if necessary, rescue failing power or water utilities. Not to do so would expose their citizens to disaster.

But if the banks aren’t to blame, who is? For me the answer is either no-one, or more properly, God. If we look at the Old Testament (and indeed the Gospels) there is a strong tradition of ascribing disasters, even those brought about by human action, to divine action. I’ve been looking at Jeremiah’s account of the Babylonian crisis that ended the Davidic monarchy and destroyed the First (Solomonic) Temple. Jeremiah is quite clear that God sent the Babylonians as his instrument. The Book of Job is a classic statement on another scale of the idea that human misfortune, “deserved” or “undeserved” is properly seen as God’s action.

In the current case I’m inclined to see our economic travails as very like earthquakes and volcanoes. They can be traced to the painful process of adjustment to a radically new world order, in which the integration of China into the world capitalist economy (along with that of a string of less enormous but still important countries like Vietnam or Indonesia) introduces huge stresses, like those at the boundaries of tectonic plates. In the years leading up to the explosion of 2008 all observers knew that the “imbalances” caused by structural import/export surpluses and deficits like we were seeing were unsustainable and the credit bubble that we are now trying to “unwind” was largely financed through Chinese purchase of American debt using the dollars earned in that unbalanced trade.

Processes at this level of complexity and at this scale are not manageable or controllable by any human actor. To imagine that what we’re experiencing is traceable to the (admittedly many and serious) mistakes of the likes of Sir Fred Goodwin is, I think, laughable and ridiculous. So too is the idea that the situation is remediable if only someone, somewhere, would drop their evil schemes and adopt some simple measures dictated by good will.

Too often “we”, by which now I mean the churches, behave as if we think the world’s problems were caused by people doing wrong things. When we do so we are speaking like Job’s “friends” who try to tell him that if only he’d recognise that he was to blame for what had happened to him all would be well. Job, by contrast, insists that he is innocent and that his misfortunes are God’s responsibility, demanding his day in court with the Lord.

This tradition, of holding God to account, isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, an evasion of our responsibility to strive to do what is right but it does guard us against the temptation to pass this responsibility onto “them”, whoever “they” may be. It seems to me that the best response of St Paul’s to the occupiers would have been to invite them to shift their rage from human actors to God, to make available to them the rich tradition of lament and accusation directed to God, in the hope (faith) that God would become present in that act, in the way God does to Job, and turn us all from our backward looking recriminations to a faithful (hopeful) orientation to the future in which we recognise our responsibilities to one another.

The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

  1. Steve Nicklas said:

    I am inclined to also think that the banks are not to solely to blame. I don’t agree though that the crisis is an act of God.That sounds like an easy get out to me! I feel that we as humans are all responsible for the way our society develops both nationally and globally. It was humans that invented this economic system. Humans that decided to expand it. We have all to some degree or other chosen to have an economic model that depends on growth. More and more people consuming more and more things. This in turn damages the environment and it cannot go on growing as we live in a finite world with linted resources. There is no more room for any more cars for example. People are practically at war in my local community over lack of places to park as mafioso type people move in to exploit the situation with wheel clamping. All the easy to get oil has gone. Whenever there is a shortage of a resource its price goes up. We all buy into this capitalist system as consumers. Instead of investing in non-tangible values that matter people turn to sky TV, their ipods, cars, satnav etc etc. What I feel is the cause of our problems (and I say cause rather than blame as it is more like a sickness we have) is our ignorance of the way the causes and effect process works in relation to our economic, social and ecological environment within what is clearly a highly complex series of interdependent actions and events. I do feel if we consumed less, if we spent less time trying to expand out bank accounts and more time expanding our minds we might not be in this situation. Or at least we could say that after we had made all the effort we could to act in harmony with our environment that any other crisis was an act of God. However we haven’t made enough effort. We have become greedy. We lost touch we our essential values. But we are all a part of that cause and effect process. We have to acknowledge that we have free will.

    Science now tells us that after a certain amount the number of material possessions we have makes no difference to our happiness levels. Science also says that having a common cause and engaging together in altruistic aims makes us happy. That giving lights up parts of the brain that makes us happy. Of course people have known this intuitively for centuries. Also scanning the brain shows that meditating also makes us happy. Meditating means reflecting and thinking deeply which I am sure is part of all religious tradition as well as non-religious lifestyles too.

    Though logically speaking the protesters don’t know the answer and have probably not understood the situation according to an experts point of view intuitively they are right to a degree and do deserve sympathy because we all share the same problem. I have seen shop and after shop close in my local area as a result of the fierce, ruthless and highly competitive growth of large supermarkets. Research shows that this does effect local economies and communities. So people feel these values are being eroded away. There is so much less social mobility. If you haven’t got a degree these days it’s much harder to climb the ladder. It is our duty as ministers of fairness and justice to try to understand peoples feelings. Even if we don’t agree with their interpretation. The light of the divine stills shines out from behind their confusion.

    This is more than simply a financial crisis. However I do feel that we have to hang fire with the blame factor and acting like victims. As we all buy into the same system to some degree or another. I don’t know what the answer. All I do is try not to consume so much I suppose and do my best to promote happiness in the best way you can according to your own beliefs.

    • I may be wrong, Steve, but I suspect you wouldn’t be inclined to see anything as an “act of God” whereas I would like to interpret the whole of creation history as God’s mighty acts. That’s just a basic difference between a faith in a personal God and other ways of experiencing life. I’m not sure I find it an easy get out. If I at once assert my faith in a God who loves us and intends well towards us and also say that human misfortune as suffering are attributable to that same God then this creates considerable tension and difficulty. I have a real problem with the kind of Christian witness that claims the good stuff (the beauty and wonder of life) for God and ascribes the bad stuff to human sinfulness. That, for me, is the easy way. That’s why I’m always drawn back to parts of the Bible like Job and the story of God’s instruction to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Our faith is most real when it confronts the facts of suffering (and death) without what I see as the evasion of making (other) humans responsible for them.
      I’m also not comfortable with the suggestion that humans “invented” our economic system. It evolved, in ways quite analogous to the evolution of species. Nobody ever controlled it or decreed it. I also think, for what it’s worth, that it’s considerably better than any alternative we have available to us. We do need to regulate and control it as best we can but we shouldn’t imagine that there’s a radically better way of organising economic life ready for us to implement.
      You are right that we should sympathise with the distress, confusion and anger that are expressed by the occupiers, which is why I suggest that offering the resource of lamentation is the best response the church has to offer. There’s no point in our going along with or in our resisting the incoherent anger of these protesters. We need to bring to them something from our distinctive traditions and framework.

  2. Steve Nicklas said:

    I’ve looked up a bit about the protesters and it doesn’t seem as if they really know what they are protesting about. Nor do they seem to have put forward a viable alternative answer. I saw in the paper a picture taken by a infrared heat sensing camera at night and none of the tents bar one were occupied at night.

    So I do sympathise with them? On one level I am not sure if they are gaining public support. However I think that I can still understand their disillusionment.

    I don’t want to get into a philosophical debate about creation. But for the sake of argument basically I would say sin itself could not come from God. Everything else could. But not sin. It is sin that separates us from the divine. There is a relationship between sin and the results we gain both in this life and the next. But everything can be seen as a creation of God. Even adverse conditions are a creation of God. God is not there to embellish everything in beauty or wrap us all up on cotten wool. However sin prevents us from seeing that creation and its higher purpose and meaning.

    Could the banks alone have averted this crisis. Probably not. But I still feel that people’s disillusionment is not simply due their lack of belief or understanding in creation. I still feel there is something to protest about. When a baby is hungry it can’t say ‘feed me’ it just cries and when a dog wants a biscuit it barks and wags its tail. Even though they can’t articulate themselves we can understand them. So what can we understand from peoples distress and the way they are crying out for help. Is this Gods message to us? I think it is!

    I personally feel that the current situation is not sustainable economically, socially or environmentally. You can see the economy as a creation of God, yes. But how does God want us to use it? Have we used Gods creation in the right way. I feel the answer to this is, no. I feel that banks do exploit the economy, not all the time and not all banks but when they do it goes against Gods wishes. So if the crisis is an act of God that still doesn’t get the bankers off the hook or anyone else for that matter who has exploited the economy for personal gain. Jesus said ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his own soul’. ‘It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than it for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle’. Clearly the accumulation of material wealth for personal gain is not part of the Christian faith. As I have tried to point out there is a general feeling that society is losing its soul.

    The pressure and drive there is these days towards materialism seems greater than ever before and it is impacting on peoples lives. Especially the poor. And all of us in terms of the environment.

    The church is there to take a lead through Gods work. What is that lead? How can the church help the poor who are really suffering, how can the church encourage the correct use of the economy as God would have intended it, how can the church help the environment, how can the church guide us towards a fairer society. How can the church help us to come to terms with all of the social injustice people feel so strongly about. How can we give young people the direction and purpose they need in life. That’s what I want to know.

    I am not sure totally sure what lamentation is exactly but I I think expect much more than that from the church. Much more.

  3. Thanks Steve, I agree with you about creation and about sin. By lamentation I mean exactly the kind of cry to be fed that you refer to. I’d be very uncomfortable with the churches trying to give a political lead in terms of the concrete steps towards a fairer society because I don’t think they (we) have the expertise and it would introduce more divisions that we just don’t need. However I do think we should cry out to God that the ways things are is causing us pain and demanding that it be put right. This doesn’t mean, either, that everybody should sit on their hands and wait for God to fix it. It’s just that I believe the Church has a special role in the relationship between humanity and God, and in this case I think it’s best discharged this way.

  4. Steve Nicklas said:

    Yes, getting involved in politics is a tricky business. As Jesus said ‘render unto God what is Gods and render unto Caesars what is Caesars’. I guess that means knowing when its time to draw a line between spiritual affairs and worldly ones. We can leave it at that I guess. Thanks for the discussion.

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