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Sunday, 30 October 2011

St.Paul's and the Crisis in Capitalism

The crisis is happening in a sort of slow-motion car-crash way. We all know it – and may feel powerless in relation to it. But it is a crisis.

I was down at St.Paul’s Cathedral early last week, spending some time there (mostly in the rain), trying to absorb what is going on, what this ‘Occupy London’ movement is about, trying not to let my mind be filled with how the media are representing it, but seeing for myself, talking to people, wandering round the site into the educational centre and the multi-faith centre and the media centre and the volunteer-run kitchens and the legal aid centre and the entertainment centre and the first-aid centre – I use the word ‘centre’ but actually I should say tent, because all of these centres of activity are under canvas, (well, polyurethane, to be accurate), but anyway, tents large and small, spread out higgledy-piggledy and yet in a curiously tidy way, around the Cathedral, with clear and safe access to and from the building for those who want to use it.

There seemed to be a lot of good-natured conversations going on that day, between camera-wielding visitors and those living there or just giving up time to be there – academics and lawyers, teachers and the unemployed, young and old, sober suits in earnest conversation with dreadlocks and grunge – discussions serious and jovial, with the great religious building providing a backdrop - and a silent commentary (apart from the bells) – on the social and political issues at stake for all of us, but being given specific attention by the inhabitants of these makeshift booths plastered with posters and quotations and lists of daily events, discussions and lectures and films on worthy issues like the dangers of deep-sea oil drilling or political oppression in South America or the implications of the savage cuts to legal aid in the UK.

It felt like a new hybrid, a cross between politics and street theatre, an on-going act of performance art that, like all art, wants to change the world – or perhaps, less grandiosely, just help us see the world differently.

Trying to see the world differently, trying to live out certain ethical values, is of course a Jewish preoccupation, a Jewish meshuggas, that stubborn refusal to accept the world as it is, a stubborn belief that we could live in better and more life-enhancing ways. During Sukkot there was a Jewish tent, a sukkah, offering hospitality; and on Simchat Torah dancing and song; and a Shabbat service is planned. Jews have been bringing their values into the mix – and they bring their humour.

‘Now is the Winter of our Discount Tents’ reads one banner [for my blog readers in other countries for whom English is not your first language, this is a rather delicious re-working of Shakespeare’s line from Richard III, ‘Now is the winter of our discontents’] - humour being one of the hallmarks of this gathering in the centre of London , along with civility and co-operation and a principled spirit of commitment not to inconvenience those who live in the area or work in the area or who have businesses in the area. It was all curiously tidy – not a scrap of litter and large recycling bins at the very centre of the encampment.

And the talk was of a range of issues – political and environmental and economic – and the commitment to try and create a particular form of community. And to my surprise there seemed a lot of respect, praise, for the church officials and workers who have been involved with them this last fortnight – this was even before Canon Giles Fraser’s principled resignation on Thursday – and, again surprisingly, what seemed a mutual respect (muted but apparent) between the police and the protesters. Though they say they are not protesters, but ‘resisters’.

And what they are resistant to is encapsulated in one of the largest banners on the site: ‘Capitalism is Crisis’ it reads; which as a slogan is rather simplistic, and makes it easy for us to be sceptical. But as propaganda for a cause it is quite effective, because it can provoke us to think more deeply, more rigorously, about what is going on in relation to the values we live by; and how we organise ourselves in societies; and the systemic failures we have to endure.

I don’t agree that ‘Capitalism is Crisis’: it might be in crisis but Judaism traditionally didn’t disparage wealth creation – it just insisted (regularly and rather boringly) that when wealth had been generated it needed to be distributed fairly, equitably, that spreading justice was a higher value than accumulating wealth, that charity was an obligation, that with wealth comes responsibility; that a society that neglected the poor, the widow, the orphan, the outsider, that deprived them of the means to live with dignity, that refused to listen to their cries for help, their needs, their well-being – that such a society where wealth was generated but not used for the good of all, that kind of society was – to use a traditional word – sinful. And, as both the Torah and the prophets intuited, such societies were doomed, would in the end be destroyed (from the outside), or destroy themselves.

I was very impressed by what I saw this week. More than impressed, I would say I was rather inspired. It is easy to poke fun at this gathering, it’s easy to be a bit scared (as I felt for moments) by the otherness of people, the way they look, the way they sound - you inevitably get people at these kind of open gatherings with a variety of mental health problems - but what was inspirational was the tolerance I saw, the kindness, the commitment to a laborious form of collective decision-making: meetings open to everyone at 1 pm and 7 pm each day with a slow process of listening and speaking and respecting different views until some coherent consensus was achieved – that’s a commitment to a particular kind of inter-personal respect; it’s a commitment that unites a secular belief in the dignity of the individual with a religious belief in the holiness of each human being.

And percolating through it all, what is inspirational is the passion on display for a different model of living together in community. And yes it is easy to be sceptical and dismissive of this as naive – or to condemn it, as a lot of the media and Tory MPs have done, as hypocritical because some of these people have a coffee at Starbucks, or charge their mobile phones there. But this smug moral point-scoring quite misses the point.

And the point is that all around the world this year, starting in Spain with the los indignados protests, there have been groups coming together, for one-off events or day after day – 400,000 in Tel Aviv in August on the streets demanding of the Israeli government a fairer ordering of society, prioritising jobs and homes and education and care of the elderly – people gathering in 900 cities world-wide this month, and they are not all saying ‘Capitalism is Crisis’ but they are all responding to global capitalism being in crisis.

This Shabbat we read the mythic Tower of Babel story, Genesis 11: 1-9. But a myth can contain powerful truth if you know how to read it right, if you listen in to its message, to what is hidden inside its fairytale-like exterior. And the Tower of Babel is a story that speaks about what is happening now, it tells us about a society that ‘had the same language and the same words’ and the people said ‘Come on, let’s all build a city with a tower that reaches to heaven’ – literally a skyscraper – ‘and let’s make a name for ourselves...’

And this is what we have done, more powerfully than ever before in the history of this planet – the same language, the same words, whether you in London or Berlin, New York or Brussels or Beijing: ‘globalisation, economic growth, free-market turbo-capitalism, deregulation, consumerism based on the manufacture of desire’ – this is what we have built over the last fifty years or so. This is the name of the game – and what a ‘name we have made for ourselves’.

You can go up to Hampstead Heath and look out over the city, this wonderful, awesome, awful city of ours, London, and you survey the thrusting Canary Wharf-Gherkin-Shardification of our skyline, all that glitter and glass and phallic cold steel – and you don’t have to be the God of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, to think: no good will come of all this, the omnipotent building and the idolisation of growth; and you don’t have to be the Holy One of Israel to think: who do these people think they are, playing god with people’s lives?

There is an extraordinary story in the Jewish tradition, a midrash about the Tower of Babel, where the rabbis said that the Tower had seven levels on its east side and seven on its west side: builders brought the bricks up one side and then came down the other. And if a person slipped and fell down and died, nobody paid any attention and the work went on. But if a brick fell down, everyone stopped working and wept: ‘OMG, they said – Woe is us! How, when, are we going to get another brick to replace it!’

So you don’t have to be a Marxist critic of capitalism to see what is going on in this story. Two thousand years ago the rabbis were aware that people were quite ready to put the projects of empire-building before care for people, for individuals. Building the brand becomes more important than the conditions of the workers. Profit margins take precedence over alleviating poverty. It’s a universal story and it has led us in our own times into a profound crisis.

But this time no God is going to look down and destroy the project and scatter the people and confound their language. We are the gods now – or think we are. Co-incidentally this Shabbat, because it was a new moon, we also read another part of our mythic narrative from the Book of Genesis, about the fourth day of creation, which describes the creation of the sun and the moon and the stars: it’s a story wrestling with the mystery of how did they come to be here, these celestial bodies, how did they come into existence? how is it that we live just the right distance from the sun – 93,000,000 miles – not too hot, not too cold, that we can live at all on the fragile surface of this tiny planet in the middle of nowhere? how can that be, how can that possibly be?

And we, who have become the gods now – or think we are – we have a universal language now, just like in the story of the Tower of Babel, and with this language of science and technology (on which of course the global markets now depend) we can measure the heat of the sun, and we can land a man on the moon, and we can see pictures in wonderful colour and awesome detail of stars being born and stars dying: we can do all this miraculous stuff, we have build a civilisation brick by brick, with information added to information, a world solid and towering and magnificent – and I don’t decry it, because I wouldn’t want to live in a world without penicillin or be operated on with a carving knife - so we have build this world with towers of knowledge and expertise; but we can’t yet care, we still don’t care, for those who fall off the edge, who depend for their homes and their well-being, and their very lives sometimes, who depend on the politicians and wealth-creators to devise ways of sharing it – more equally, more justly, more compassionately. If we can put men on the moon and capture the birth of stars, surely we can use our ingenuity to prevent one fifth of the children in this country living in poverty?

And those protestors, resisters, are saying: We can do this, if there is the will to do it, we can do things better, we can pay attention to those who fall off the project. And around the world there are many, many who fall off, who slip out of sight, who are exploited and abused and used for the sake of the Babel projects of profit and consumption. We can do it differently, we need to do it differently, and the challenge for the younger generation growing up in this world – and the majority of those I saw at St Paul’s were young (but then most people look young to me these days) – the challenge is to do it differently, to do it better. They are not going to have any choice – because the Tower is tottering, and when it falls, who will have the energy, the experience, the wisdom, to re-build on more secure foundations, on more deep-rooted human values?

Those people in those tents may be gone by Christmas, by choice or by eviction; this may be an ephemeral, a transient occupation of the space around St.Paul’s. But they will be back, in one form or another, here and abroad, they will be back because they represent something eternal, something very Jewish actually, a belief, a hopefulness – what use to be called messianic hopefulness - that we can do better than this. We can build a society, brick by brick: dignity, justice, generosity, compassion, care, companionship - these are the building blocks of real community and a good, a godly, society where people are more valued than profit margins, where sharing what we have is more important than share options. We can do it better.

[Extracted and adapted from a sermon given on October 29th at Finchley Reform Synagaogue]

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Thoughts on Impermanence

How much insecurity can you bear in your life? How much awareness of the randomness, the sheer contingency and unpredictability of life? How much do we want to be reminded of the fragility of our bodies, our minds, our social structures, the innate vulnerability grafted into the carefully-constructed fabric of our daily lives?

Religious traditions can seem to offer some respite from the unsettling reality of inhabiting bodies that gradually fail us, and societies where our sense of well-being is dependent on social, political and financial forces outside any individual’s control. Religions attempt to create – through a rich interweaving of communal and personal rituals, ethical practices, sanctioned behaviours and elaborate theological gymnastics – a meaningful world for believers to inhabit. They seek to keep existential terror at bay – the terrifying fear that life has no inherent meaning; is, in Thomas Hobbes’ words, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’; and that we avoid this fate more by luck than our own good judgement.

I offer these thoughts during this week-long festival of Sukkot. I find it hard to get excited by Sukkot when it is thought about solely as a late autumn ‘nature’ festival with the waving of the traditional lulav and etrog akin to an act of primitive ‘sympathetic magic’ where one asks ‘God’, as opposed to the gods, to bring rain in sufficient quantities to ensure the survival of your crops, and therefore of yourself. This might have given the festival a real existential edge two millennia ago; but it doesn’t justify it now.

However there are other customs which do speak to me. The questions that surround The central symbol – the temporary shelter, the sukkah, constructed next to one’s home, where one eats and sometimes sleeps for the duration of the festival – seems to me to be is an antidote to religious certainty: it opens us to a range of questions about our personal and collective need for security, and our fragmentary awareness that genuine security may not be achieved through attachment to the material world.

Made of organic materials, branches and leaves, the roof of the sukkah must be such that one can see through to the stars at night: as one looks up, and out, there is a dawning realisation of the impermanence and fragility of all we build and hold dear. We recall the origin of these ‘booths’ in the mythic narrative of the Israelites’ forty year journey through the wilderness towards a distant ‘promised land’. The Biblical story describes the temporary homes the people built – sometimes for months, sometimes for years – and their education into the reality of following the peripatetic divine force that always moved them on in ways they could never predict or control.

For me, Sukkot is a reminder that permanence and certainty are antithetical to a spiritual sensibility. The great German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, scribbling a new theology on postcards in the trenches of the First World War, saw the festival as symbolising something vital both for his diasporic people and, he intuited, something with a universal resonance: it ‘serves to remind the people that no matter how solid the house of today may seem, no matter how temptingly it beckons to rest and unimperilled living, it is but a tent which permits only a pause in the long wanderings through the wilderness of centuries’ (from The Star of Redemption).

In sensitising us to our transience, the festival invites us to think of those for whom unsettledness and transient living are the norm, not merely an annual religious ritual. The invitation of guests, strangers, ‘outsiders’, into one’s home is a habitual part of Jewish social living that receives a special emphasis at this time of the year. Hospitality as an everyday virtue takes on a deeper religious significance. My own synagogue – Finchley Reform Synagogue (www.frsonline.org) - is making itself available this winter, along with local churches, as a host venue for Homeless Action in Barnet, offering a cooked meal, a warm place to sleep, washing and toilet facilities, fresh clothes, conversation and breakfast for the area’s homeless.

Our guests will help us understand what George Steiner has called ‘an arduous truth’ that emerges from the mystery of Jewish resilience: ‘that human beings must learn to be each other’s guests on this small planet.’

[This is an expanded version of an article that first appeared in The Guardian on October 15th: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/oct/14/sukkot-festival-transient-living-guests?INTCMP=SRCH]

Monday, 10 October 2011

What's 'Appropriate' Supposed To Mean? - some thoughts on Yom Kippur

The New Yorker is a magazine famous, amongst other things, for its cartoons. They often manage to illuminate an aspect of contemporary life with just an image and a caption. Memorable cartoons do this – they are better than my blogs and sermons because they have pictures, and very few words.

One cartoon that caught my attention recently portrays the Devil – in whom, of course, we moderns don’t believe: ‘It’s getting much harder for me to distinguish good from evil’, laments the Devil, ‘All I’m certain about is what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate’.

This isn’t hilarious, but it strikes me as having a sly profundity. I’ve been struck for a long time now by how often those two weasel-words – ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ - come up in conversations. And not only in everyday informal conversations. You hear this language from politicians, from social workers and the police, from doctors, therapists, businessmen, teachers, TV interviewers, even the military. And yes, you hear it from liberal-minded clergy, those who might fight shy of offending congregants with the traditional Biblical distinction, basic to all monotheism (as even the Devil knows), the distinction between good and evil.

Why am I so disparaging about these words? It’s not because I don’t think it is important to think carefully about these terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but because almost every time I hear the words used what I really hear is someone using ‘inappropriate’ to mean “this is something I happen not to like”; and ‘appropriate’ to mean “that’s something we happen to approve of”. The word is invariably used in a deeply subjective way, while trying to give the impression of objectivity.

For example, when discussing how the synagogue to which I belong will be offering hospitality and a bed and meal to local homeless people one evening a week this winter (alongside local churches), someone complained to me: ‘But a synagogue is not an appropriate place for people to sleep’. When I expressed my puzzlement about this, it soon became clear that what they meant was ‘I personally feel uncomfortable about this, I feel a bit frightened, I would really rather not think about the fact that there are people living within a half mile of me who don’t have a home.’ But this mass of subjective feelings got covered up by the immediate use of the word ‘inappropriate’.

It’s a hand-me-down word, an off-the-peg word we often reach for to avoid really thinking about an issue, or doing the necessary work to uncover what might be a whole mixed range of our emotional responses. I think it’s often used as a way of hiding feelings; or as a substitute for thinking.

But what that New Yorker cartoon intuits is that in some quarters there has been an apparent cultural shift in recent decades away from the old certainties, the clear moral judgments you find reflected, for example, in the liturgy of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur . This liturgy presents a simple binary opposition between good and bad, righteousness and sinfulness, what God wants from us and what God condemns. The cartoon though is pointing to the way that those simple dichotomies of old have fallen away, that there’s been a sea-change in our culture, and that a form of moral relativism has overtaken the old moral certainties.

There may be a deep confusion when we are thinking about goodness, truth, personal conduct, a society’s values. Once the rigidity of those traditional distinctions between good and bad is called into question, we have nothing left except subjective feeling, or the transience of whatever is deemed fashionably correct. But to hide all this subjectivity from ourselves we reach for the pseudo-objectivity of describing everything as either ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’.

And yet at the same time, those old polar opposites which have been part of religious thinking for millennia haven’t disappeared. On the contrary: you just have to glance at tabloid headlines, or listen to Question Time on BBC TV, to discover that ‘evil’ is still a regular part of popular thinking - even when people no longer believe in the religious framework where the concept originated. Evil has become secularized. And we fall back on the laziness inherent in believing we really do exist in a world of black and white choices and values.

There may well be a deep wish for the world to be securely divided up in this way – it makes life much simpler. But we know in our hearts that life isn’t simple; and that the traditional religious mind-set of simple moral absolutes is over, the days when we can talk in a child-like way about ‘good’ people and ‘bad people’, as if the world is divided, George W. Bush-style, into ‘evil-doers’ and the rest of us.

Although many of the narratives of the Hebrew Bible (like all great literature) show a remarkably sophisticated awareness of moral complexity, there are parts of the Bible (and much of traditional Jewish liturgy) where the thinking reflects the belief that the world is split into simple opposites. And yet one of Judaism’s great insights evolved out of, and away from, this dualistic tendency within the Hebrew Bible.

Because Judaism was, and is, an evolving civilization - one that grew more and more aware of the emotional and psychological complexities of life – the realization emerged early on that there is a battle that goes in within each of us between what the Talmudic rabbis called our yetzer tov and our yetzer ha-ra, our inclination towards goodness and our inclination towards evil. These forces, these drives, are in constant tension with each other inside us, and being human means living with that tension, wrestling with ourselves in order that more of our innate goodness shows through than its opposite.

In other words Judaism does not believe in original sin, it doesn’t believe we are born one way, or fated to be one way. It believes in the struggle within each of us to allow our creative capacities - our capacities for love and kindness and compassion and justice - to win out over our destructive capacities, our capacities for hurting others, for contempt and hatred and jealousy and envy. And because we are struggling with this, knowingly or unknowingly, every day of our lives, those ancient rabbis, in their wisdom, built into the Jewish year a period of time when one can concentrate on that continual ebbing and flowing between our creativity and our destructiveness. They suggested that the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer this opportunity, the opportunity for teshuvah, which means change, return - return to our better selves.

It may be that we moderns are all, in William Blake’s immortal words, ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’ – because the Devil seems to have all the fun, and the freedom to wreak havoc, to be selfish, to be careless about what matters; and the Devil doesn’t have to feel guilty, or that he should try harder. But what Yom Kippur offers – for those who want it – is the devilishly difficult opportunity to assess if we are capable of changing this precarious balance between our capacity for goodness and our capacity for selfishness. Can we shift the balance between what is constructive and life-enhancing in us – and what is destructive and deadly?

David Brooks is a Jewish American author whose new book ‘The Social Animal: A Story of How Success Happens’, in spite of its rather slick and superficial title, has some important things to say about how our minds work, how we work, how our brains can take in 11 million pieces of information at any one moment - of which we are consciously aware of maybe 40, at most. And that most of the time there is a gap between the thoughts in or heads and the emotions and intuitions that actually guide how we experience the world. So we might have an idea like ‘More money – that’s what I need to be happy’ or ‘I need to work harder, earn a better living and then I’ll just feel happier and more fulfilled’. That’s what our heads might say. We might really believe it – or we might have been told we should believe it.

But inside us another voice we are less familiar with will be saying – and this is a voice nearer to the truth of how we really experience well-being – this quieter voice will be whispering: ‘Actually the relationship between money and happiness is very tenuous; it’s relationships, personal connections to other people that count - that’s what leads to real contentment’. And what David Brooks shows, with a mass of evidence drawn from neuroscience and related studies, is that joining a group that meets just once a month to do some activity produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income. (And that is just as well – because none of us is going to be doubling our income any time soon, if ever again).

Beyond a certain minimum income, well-being is all about the number of people you associate with and how intimately you associate with them.

There are many ways to feel this kind of connectedness. I have a particular interest in synagogue communities, for all their problematic nature (they can drive you mad, if you let them). But community is also a place which can bring blessing to others, and into the world.

That might sound very grand, even grandiose. ‘We can bring blessing to others’ – but this is the promise encoded at the heart of Judaism, promised to Abraham in that mythic saga of chosenness, ‘through you all the peoples of the world will be blessed’ (Genesis 22:18). An absurd promise, an incredible promise, you’d have to be mad to believe it, it’s inflated and deluded – and yet Jews have believed it for generations, secretly in their hearts even when their minds wanted to reject it. Believed it and lived it. ‘We can bring blessing to others’, this is our purpose, our destiny, our mission, our rationale. We can be a blessing to others when the goodness within us emerges from the pain, the confusions, the doubts, the scepticism that is also part of what it means to be Jewish.

But first I think we have to learn to be a blessing to ourselves, to forgive ourselves our failings and inadequacies, our lack of moral vision, our lack of insight into what is truly important, our seduction by material values that don’t in the end make us happy. It can be hard to stop feeling guilty, feeling bad about our failures: we are often more cruel towards ourselves than to anyone else. Part of the work of Yom Kippur, as we ask for forgiveness, is to find a way to forgive ourselves.

These are difficult times we are living in. You don’t have to be told. You know it every day of your lives, every time you listen to the news, every time you lie awake at night worrying, every time you reach for your anti-depressants or the whisky bottle. Out there is the manic-depressive behaviour of stock-markets, the shortsightedness and greed of the financial sector, the growing unemployment, the growing gulf between rich and poor here and abroad, the endless impotent political game of blame and denial – our lives are bound up in a global system that is in deep trouble, on a planet that is itself in deep trouble.

So to talk about the role of forgiveness – of oneself, of others – might sound laughable. To talk of being a blessing, each of us developing our capacities to give and to love, might seem absurd and irrelevant in the face of the growing darkness around us.

Opening our hearts to family life and friendship and community - it doesn’t sound much, it might seem like lighting a candle in a storm; but our tradition suggests that this light we offer is how God becomes present in the world. Now, you don’t have to believe that - but it is an insight that has sustained our people for generations. Our goodness, our compassion, our acts of lovingkindness – these are fragments of divinity trapped within the chaotic, confused, messiness of our lives.

Our work on Yom Kippur is to consider how we can release and live out those divine fragments: can we return to the love we are capable of showing? can we renew our hope from amidst the wreckage of disillusioned lives? can we restore our confidence that random acts of kindness can lighten the darkness we see, can make a difference, can tip the scales, can help us inscribe our names in the Book of Life for the year ahead?

On Yom Kippur we open ourselves up, individually and collectively: we are reminded that we are flawed and fragile and yet have courage and strength grafted to our soul. We look around us and see other flawed and fragile and vulnerable human beings – we are all in this together. And we see how much we need each other, need each other’s help, need each other’s blessing.

[Extracted and adapted from a much longer (!) sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue on Kol Nidrei, the eve of Yom Kippur, October 7th 2011]