Sometimes it is good to sit down and learn something. The DVD of Lincoln has sat on our shelf for over a year and I decided to watch it on a cloudy uninviting morning. It really is a good film, though at times it feels like the great film you hoped they would show you in history class but never did.
What struck me most were the scenes of Lincoln debating with his cabinet or close allies. They were debates which were elegant, articulate and full of passion. The reason for this was the scope of the subject matter. How could this great experiment in democracy called the United States be kept from being derailed by slavery and the conclusion of a civil war. Keeping it alive and dynamic was the important aim. Once the nation settled into the purpose of just carrying on was the day the nation began to die.
Unfortunately, regardless of which side of the Atlantic you live on today, you can see the signs of what happens when you settle for just existing and holding on to what you’ve got. In the West, we have stopped being an experiment in human freedom and progress and instead become an experiment in serving prosperity.
In this new experiment of prosperity for its own sake, the idea that prosperity only benefits everyone when everyone has a stake, both as contributor and recipient, has died. When that crucial element is ignored leaders are transformed into managers of a system that cannot be changed or challenged. All you have to do is apply rules and dig in your heels and hope for the best. Leading an experiment meant to be for the general human good requires wit, imagination, resolve, negotiation and partnership. It requires a bigger vision than hoping that enriching the rich will enrich us all.
In this country the general election has truly started even though we don’t vote until May. We will be offered a ballot paper, for the most part, full of managers who seek only to serve prosperity as a good unto itself. And when one of those parties have the votes to form a government they will be looking for the scapegoats for our current financial situation.
It won’t be bankers or theorists who told us credit could buy us happiness. It will be the poor, the working poor, disabled people, immigrants, public sector workers and anyone else who can be construed as takers of prosperity. In short, there will be people branded as losers who are taking prosperity from the winners. And they will bear the brunt of the coming cuts of public spending.
We already see this in profitable companies when their profit isn’t high enough for their shareholders. Walk into any major supermarket and ask why there are more self service checkouts than human staffed tills. It’s not to make shopping more convenient. It is because a group of machines can be looked after by one paid human being. Machines don’t need time off or pensions or wages or national insurance paid.
The state is trying to learn the same lesson in the name of prosperity.
After the election in May the national discussion led by our manager-politicians will not be about how we live together but rather about how we all live with money. It won’t be about living within our national means for the good of all but rather how we live within our national means for the “winners”.
The bible has many grand visions of the future. You might even argue they are proposed experiments in what the Kingdom of God might look like. They are never for the winners nor exclusively for the poor. They are exclusively for all those who want to be a part of God’s great experiment of dwelling with his creation, on his terms. Terms we see so unclearly through the cracked and dirty glass of humanity in the process of being restored.
There is one picture I love from the Old Testament. It speaks of peace, security, employment and a place one can call one’s own. It speaks of a share in God’s Kingdom which does not favour the winners but rather those who desire a great future and existence for humankind.
He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
All the nations may walk
in the name of their gods,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord
our God for ever and ever.
There is no place for managers in the Kingdom of God. The only place is for those who are not afraid to walk into the unknown future of a creation that nourishes and benefits all rather than the few.