Friday, 16 January 2009

On interesting times

When I was a youngster I always wanted to live at a time of crisis. I suspect it was largely because I felt that it would mean that school was closed for ever. I also had the naive belief that having adventures would be fun. The reality is, of course, that what we call an adventure is actually an extremely unpleasant experience that is rebadged retrospectively by the survivors. My recollection is that most of these disasters, whether they were alien attacks, month-long snowfalls or Russian invasions, all started in a rather obvious and dramatic fashion. I was really rather envious of those people who on 3rd September, 1939 had heard that famous radio broadcast by Neville Chamberlain with its spine-chilling announcement ‘that consequently this country is at war with Germany’. In short, I wanted to live in interesting times.

I am now beginning to wonder if gently, rather than dramatically, we have entered ‘interesting times’. Our own government seem to be running around like crazy, companies that were once the very epitome of stability and value (Wedgwood and Woolworths for two) are now closing or worthless, interest rates (in Britain at least) are now lower than they have been for 300 years and unemployment is racing upwards at several thousand a day. There has been no sudden fanfare, no radio broadcast á la Chamberlain, no angry crowds in the streets and no distant rumble of the guns, yet suddenly we are in the midst of the unthinkable. Four months ago people were apologetically daring to suggest the possibility of ‘recession’, now the word ‘depression’ is in circulation.

Let me – very cautiously – suggest two questionable responses to this. The first is I think to seek an eschatological get-out. You know the sort of thing: ‘these are the End Times, brother’, ’the Antichrist will be here any day, mark my words’, or, ‘we see Scripture's prophecies clearly fulfilled’. Now actually, those who utter such statements may, for all I know, be right. But when I look at fulfilled prophecy in the Old and New Testaments, it only seems to have been understood as prophetic fulfilment well after the events had occurred. And, in my experience, an emphasis on interpreting signs often comes at the expense of the more fundamental Christian duties of showing love and bearing witness.

The second questionable response is to gleefully rejoice that God is judging a wicked and sinful world. There is a lot I can say here. Of course, I am in favour of God's judgement and I have no real problem in praying ‘thy Kingdom come’. The trouble is that in this world God’s judgement seems to be a blunt instrument. We see that those who are the worst offenders sometimes seem to walk free. So, in the present economic crisis, many of the entrepreneurs at the heart of this sorry mess sold up six months ago and put their wealth in gold. Others have secure, government-backed, inflation-linked pensions. Indeed, it sometimes appears that those who are suffering seem to be, if not the innocent, at least the relatively guiltless. The problems at the moment seem to be descending on some whose only sin was a naïveté that allowed them to be persuaded by men and women who knew better, to take to out mortgages that they could not afford. In fact, the current crisis seems to be punishing many who held onto the traditional Protestant virtue of thrift and actually saved money on the assumption that the interest would cover their retirement costs. Of course, in eternity, I have no doubt that perfect justice will be done. It's just that at the moment it's all a bit rough-edged.

So what is the right response? Let me suggest that at the core is the simple prayer that God will have mercy on us and on our neighbours, that he would spare the weak, that he would bring out of the present economic mess some good and that his kingdom come.

I'm sorry if this sounds a little bit lacking in the clarity and insight that you might like. It seems to me though perhaps the most useful thing to do at the moment is raise the issues and let us try to work them through. I’m not sure that the glib soundbite is helpful; we seem to have had too many of those. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.

Incidentally it is also incumbent upon us to pray for the man who will shortly be the new president of the United States. It has rather naughtily crossed my mind that the Barak Obama will go onto the platform on Inauguration Day and say that having looked at all the facts he’s decided that he doesn’t want the job. Quite simply, a third dubious response – and I hear a lot of it – is to look to him to sort out the mess. And that, friends, is not simply a questionable response, it is a bad one. For him and for us.

Blessings upon you all.