When the dust finally settles on the mismanagement by St. Paul’s Cathedral of the tented protest on its doorstep, one abiding image will remain. Prominent in the T.V. coverage has been a placard with the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’
It’s a deceptively simple question, much more useful and easier to handle (though even then often far from straightforward) in the realms of personal moral decisions than in the complexities of corporate decision-making. An individual deciding whether or not to tell the truth is one thing: a pension fund deciding how best to invest ethically can be quite another. In part it’s a matter not just of values but of the level of technical knowledge needed to make an appropriate ethical choice. Turning out money-changers in the Temple when they’ve been cheating their customers is relatively clear cut: it’s a long way from that to deciding whether a Transaction (or ‘Robin Hood’) Tax should be levied on share, bond and currency transactions as a way of re-directing funds from speculative bankers to the ‘real’ economy.
It isn’t the job of the Church to get too closely involved in the detail of economic policy. That is both its strength and its weakness: its weakness, because it will forever be told that it doesn’t have the technical competence required and should therefore stick to general platitudes; its strength because what the Church exists for is to point people towards Kingdom values – to justice and fairness as the things which God demands, to having a concern for those least able to help themselves, to seeing that idols such as the pursuit of money don’t take the place in life which properly belongs to God.
The Church is there to proclaim God’s values, to articulate them as best it can by word and action, to call people and nations to account according to how well they respond to those values, and to work with others in helping to see those values translated into public policy. The danger for the Church is always that of compromising or trimming its message because it doesn’t want to offend one or other powerful group in society. And when it sticks up for its values it can always be accused by its opponents of naivety, of not living in the ‘real’ world.
The protests outside St. Paul’s have caught a public mood – one of the unfairness of ordinary people paying for the irresponsibility of bankers. That chimes strongly with biblical notions of justice, and the Church needs to say so. Yet it is far from easy to see what the protesters are ‘for’ – how a more just arrangement could be conceived in practice. But because that’s the hard part, it doesn’t mean the Church should go quiet on its values. It should at the very least be trying to ensure the ‘direction of travel’ of public policy is towards greater fairness, a sense of what the common good requires of all of us, and a willingness to keep its head above the parapet when opposition from powerful forces comes its way.
We’re now beginning the season of Advent. It’s not only a period of preparation for Christmas, but also a time to reflect on the theme of hope – hope for the difference Christ’s coming into the world makes. The language of Advent is dominated also by a second coming of Christ in which the world will have been transformed into that Kingdom of peace and justice intended by God. And the route to that Kingdom is one of judgment, justice and accountability, where human actions are disclosed and judged for what they are. To the unjust, the words can be terrifying: to others they can be words of healing leading to grace and the transforming of human relations.
What would Jesus do? Talk to everyone who will listen about the nature of God and life in his Kingdom which is even now breaking in upon us, and show by acts of mercy how even the poorest and most vulnerable can have a share in that Kingdom. And go on doing it without fear or favour.