"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

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Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Rediscovering Values

This half term week reminds me of another half term; it must have been many years ago - my boys are now young adults. It was a rain soaked Sunday, and we had the misfortune to visit a large shopping mall outside town to return some goods to one of those internationally known super stores.

All those years ago the elder of our two boys was in a religious studies lesson at school. They were discussing Sunday Trading. “It is just wrong,” he said. No reason was needed – it was simply wrong!

Ever since it was introduced I have abhorred Sunday trading, and actually I also loathe those big soulless monuments or temples to consumerism and materialism we call superstores and shopping malls. But as I said we needed to change something and thought we could save petrol by calling in on our way to visit a local house and garden of historic interest with the kids. I had completed my morning duties at the Sunday service in our local parish church. This trip to the shop was meant to be incidental only, en route to our traditional Sunday afternoon family excursion, this time to Down House, the country home of Charles Darwin for the last 40 years of his life until he died in 1882.

Now I realize that for many Christians who like me abhor Sunday trading the mention of Darwin and his views on evolution may itself open up a fairly passionate discussion about The Origin of the Species and his theories of Evolution and Natural Selection. I’ll take that risk, but that isn’t the point of this story.

The car parks around the superstore were practically gridlocked, cars jostling for the scarce, almost nonexistent empty parking spaces, and families with their children were pouring into and out of the store, those on the outward home bound journey pushing trolleys loaded high with consumable goods. There were several thousand cars there, with perhaps 3 or 4 or more in each car. The arithmetic is simple and the disquieting effect on my previous feeling of spiritual calm was very real!

The damage to the environment inflicted through our collective behaviours around that one store on that one day must have been colossal. It doesn’t bear contemplation to multiply the effect by the number of other similar stores around the country presumably displaying the same patterns of greed and consumerism! These places have become for many the new religion, shopping malls replacing the church as the Sunday venue of first choice.

At least I was trying to economise that day and avoid two car trips where one could suffice; and our shopping trip was intended to be fleeting!
And my sense of spiritual uplift and sustenance nourished by the liturgy and Christian fellowship of the morning’s church service, was in no real danger of being permanently destroyed by that retail experience. But let’s consider the shoppers themselves. For how many was this outing their main Sunday family entertainment? Next weekend how many of those same families will be burdening our already overflowing landfill sites with the goods displaced by their latest retail bonanza? What sort of long term satisfaction do they obtain from their shopping frenzy, from their obsessive accumulation of material goods?
Such behaviour is simply not healthy or sustainable and certainly does not make for any lasting and real happiness. On the other hand, once we could escape the gridlock and the obvious tempers and aggressions of many of the trapped drivers, the onward drive to Down House, not more than a few miles away, took us through some of the most beautiful autumnal colours in the Kent country lanes, a spiritual joy to behold, and food for the soul. How sad therefore that during that whole day, a half term weekend, we were informed by the staff that Darwin’s house, with all its interest and artefacts, its gardens and greenhouses, and brilliant exhibits of his life and work, with plenty of child friendly diversions and so close to the conurbation that is Greater London, had been visited by only an estimated 150 people! Yes, 150 people in the whole day!

I am reading the new book by Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values – on Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street. Part Two, How We Got Here, writes of our culture of greed, not need, of self- interest without the restraint of ethics, of it being “all about me,” of mass consumption and consumerism being a part of the American identity (and it is no different in Britain I can assure you). He explains how such behaviour has brought us to where we now find ourselves, struggling out of the Great Recession.
Wallis writes of the loss of values within our modern economy and suggests that the financial Market, with a capital M, is our “idol of ultimate allegiance,” the modern day equivalent of the Golden Calf that Moses found being worshipped when he came down from Mt Sinai with his Tablets. He argues that the market, without the capital letter, must serve us, not the other way around. The first commandment of The Market, he writes, is “There is never enough.” This, he emphasizes, must be replaced by “the dictum of God’s economy; namely, there is enough if we share it.”

This book is a call to us all to rediscover values in our lives, as individuals and together, to work for an economy that is for the “common good,” not just for Me. I am only half way through the book at present and will write a full and more measured review when I have finished it. But it has a strong and sound message for us all and it reminded me of that Sunday trip all those years ago.

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