16 June 2005
Capital and The Kingdom: The Impact of Globalisation on Human Consciousness
By: Stephen Green— 2004-2005
Stephen Green is Group Chief Executive, HSBC Holdings plc Seminar on 16 June 2005
I must start by admitting that this is not the first time that I have given a version of this paper. I gave it about six months ago in a different context, and perhaps it is worth opening up and explaining the context.
It was in Lambeth Palace, to an organisation called The Tyndale Society, and it is a slightly poignant thought to be giving a version of a lecture that I first gave at The Tyndale Society to the Thomas More Institute. When I looked up my Elizabethan Tudor History, I found that William Tyndale and Thomas More, if they never actually met, certainly knew each other and exchanged a rather vituperative correspondence on the availability of an English-language Bible. They were, I think it poignant to note, in a way rather like one another. They were highly intelligent men and very international in outlook. Tyndale is known to have spoken at least six different languages fluently. Thomas More had for a while a position of considerable political power which Tyndale did not. They were both men of principle whose principles clashed – and clashed, as was often sadly the case in those times, with the threat of violence in the background. Both, moreover, died for their beliefs, and within a year of each other – Thomas More in 1535, William Tyndale in 1536 – meeting their ends in the context of violent times.
So in a sense it is poignant, but not actually incompatible, to be delivering a lecture that was first formed in the context of The Tyndale Society, and which started from the fact that Tyndale was, I think it fair to say, the father of English-language Biblical translation. He was not the very first to do it, but he was certainly the person with most influence in the creation of the English-language Bible. 80% of what we now know as the Authorised Version is in fact Tyndale’s, and in many ways I do not think it unreasonable to regard him as having been, alongside William Shakespeare, a key influence in the formation of the English language.
With that as background to this paper, what I want to do is to address the issue of capital and capitalism and the Kingdom and to start with a New Testament story. Tyndale would have approved of starting any such lecture with a Biblical story.
It is the parable of the Talents, familiar to all of us. Two servants take what they are given by the master, who is embarking on a long journey, and are invited to make use of those talents while he is away. He tells them to make good value of the talents and two of them make use of the talents to gain more. One servant, however, buries his money, unwilling to risk it for fear of the consequences. When the master returns and calls them to account, he is furious with this servant. In Tyndale’s translation: ‘thou oughtest to have had my money to the changers, and then at my coming should I have received mine own with vantage’. And the talent is taken from him and given to one of the others, and he is thrown out of the house.
The ‘changers’ referred to by Tyndale were money-changers, or bankers. They dealt in money, they made loans, they sold insurance. Modern Greek uses the same word. The ‘vantage’ referred to by Tyndale is in fact the normal Greek word for ‘interest’ – translated as ‘usury’ in the King James Version, and as ‘interest’ in all modern versions. The parable is, of course , not really about money but about human gifts and commitment. As a banker, I am particularly struck with it, though, because it is the only point in the New Testament when either bankers or their activities are referred to. I cannot help but take an interest, if you will pardon the pun.
It is a convenient stepping-stone to a question not directly discussed in the New Testament – the role of capital in human society under God’s kingdom. This is an important question because capital has often been felt to be an ambivalent factor in human affairs. Down the ages from Old Testament laws on usury, through Aristotle, into mediaeval Christian thought as well as into the core of Islamic law, interest was regarded as inappropriate or immoral.
And in post-enlightenment European thought, the much wider question of capital ownership, its accumulation and its relationship to power and the abuse of power became a major focus of ideological controversy, which extended well into the late twentieth century.
Today I am not going to dwell on the issues posed by Biblical, Aristotelian and Islamic attitudes to interest. Not because they are unimportant (witness, for example, the effect that Biblical attitudes had in mediaeval Europe, of turning Jews into bankers to Christendom). Still less would I want to deny that usurious and/or excessive debt can often be a terrible source of suffering.
Rather, I want to focus on the central – and much wider – question of capital and the Kingdom of God. Neither the Old Testament nor Islam argue that capital as investment is wrong. From earliest times, any farmer, any merchant invested for a return. And what would now be recognised as equity investment – or venture capital – was a well recognised phenomenon of human commerce from earliest times.
And to limit the terrain still further, I am not going to dwell on a question which was a major preoccupation of the 19th and 20th centuries – whether the private ownership of capital per se is (a) an essential underpinning of democracy and freedom or (b) intrinsically sinful and socially unjust. This debate was alive as an ideological dispute at least until the 1960s. As important, and perhaps longer running, were the practical differences about the respective merits of the state and the private sector in deploying capital for development.
To be honest, even that debate about practicalities has run out of steam in the last two decades. There are a few left who are prepared to ignore the mounting evidence of inflexibility, inefficiency, corruption – and excessive debt – which seems to result from the state playing a major, or central, role in capital investment. When I look at my old economic development text books from the 1960s, they seem about as antiquated and unrealistic as the views on, say, geography or medicine which were prevalent in the times of Thomas More and William Tyndale. As the Finance Minister of a large emerging market with a left-wing government put it recently: ‘Our history is so bad in this respect, the least we can do is learn from it’.
And of course the greatest experiments – in terms of both scale and radicalism – in state-led social reconstruction and economic development (the Soviet Union, and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China) were so horrendous in their consequences – that even in Russia today, with all its turmoil and agonising about its place in the world, there are very few voices saying ‘back to that’. And I shall come back to China later.
Is this the triumph of an ‘-ism’? Did 1989 represent not just the demise of the Soviet Union but triumph of capitalism and the defeat of socialism and ‘the end of history’? – to use the famous phrase of Francis Fukuyama. What about the moment when Deng Xiao Ping said, ‘It doesn’t matter what colour the cat is, so long as it catches the mouse’?
No. To treat the 1990s as the triumph of one ideology over another is, apart from anything else, to misunderstand the nature of capitalism. For it is important to recognise that capitalism is not an ‘-ism’ in the sense that socialism, communism or fascism are. Capitalism is not just a system imposed by fiat, or chosen by governments, at a particular point in time. It is something more fundamental than that. It is the default mode of human commercial behaviour – one of humanity’s most unchanging and apparently unchangeable characteristics. Whatever else humanity may be, it is a species which tends to produce traders and investors. You can suppress the tendency for decades (some societies have done that). It always reappears, as soon as it is allowed to do so.
To elaborate: capitalism is not a system; it is a behaviour pattern intrinsic to commerce, and is as old as recorded history. The Mediterranean was criss-crossed by traders well before the time of Christ. In the British Museum, the treasure trove from a fourth-century burial ground in Suffolk includes a pepper pot – trade with the spice islands was already flourishing then. Graves from mediaeval Spitalfields show traces of silver from India. And so on.
Capital was, and is, essential to such trade. Whenever you invest to grow, make or buy goods for subsequent sale or use, you invest capital. And, except in the most basic subsistence economies, that capital takes the form of financial capital. Commerce is not new. Nor is international capital. Indeed, a very early example of a government raising an international loan was that of Edward III in the 14th century. (He seems also to have been the first in a long line of governments defaulting on international debt!).
But of course there were limits to this through most of human history – limits posed by poor communications, a state of affairs which was in turn due partly to official restrictions and partly to technological limitations. The official restrictions were designed to control thought – something which has, thank God, become more and more difficult over the centuries, from the invention of the printing press through to the spread of the Internet. Even from the perspective of the 21st century, we can certainly see why Tyndale’s translation of the Bible was such a profound potential threat to the established order.
The technological limitations did not begin to change until the 19th century. It took over a month for a letter to get from London to Rome until well into the 18th century. It took weeks to cross the Atlantic and months to get to Asia. And the risks to property and life were high.
But then, about 150 years ago, things began to change – fast ships, trains, telexes. And, of course, industrialisation dramatically increased both the supply and demand for goods in trade. So goods and money began to flow more rapidly and in ever greater amounts. By the First World War, about a third of all British output went overseas as exports – 80 years previously, that was unthinkable. And trade began to spread ever more broadly throughout the world. In the 19th century, two thirds of American exports went to just two countries – Britain and Germany. Now 80% of US exports go to continents other than Europe. Capital also travelled ever more widely: the City of London financed railways, for example, in China, India, Russia and Latin America. Nowadays, the value of British-owned assets overseas is about nine times as large as Britain’s gross national product.
Economists have often argued that this process of broader and broader commercialisation is the most powerful way of achieving material progress that humanity has ever known. Most of their theoretical arguments derive by one route or another from Adam Smith – he of the ‘invisible hand’ of competition – and from David Ricardo, who formulated the law of comparative advantage to explain the benefits of trade.
Often economists have been naïve, over-optimistic, proponents of the benefits of capitalist commercialism. But not Adam Smith, who had no illusions about the motives of many traders, as when he wrote that:
‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment or diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or in some contrivance to raise prices.’
There are obvious implications of this, for both domestic and international government policy. There have been times and places where monopolies and cartels have created and abused economic power. But the key point, for the moment, is that there is something fundamental about the relationship between capital and commerce. Human beings trade with each other, and they invest to do so. To use Tyndale’s phrase, they trade for ‘vantage’. They are not commercial islands.
This means that capitalism and commerce are part cause and part beneficiary of that much-discussed phenomenon of the present age: globalisation.
Not that globalisation is just a matter of economics. Its ramifications through sociological and psychological thought, and its implications for the balance of power and international relations, are profound.
What has changed from earlier times is the flow of information. There is, it almost seems, nothing left to discover in the world. Not really, of course: but there is a huge psychological difference – even from the 19th century, let alone earlier – when, for example, Europeans regularly referred to Africa as the ‘dark continent’, or to the Far East as an exotic place that few actually ever saw, or to America – in a deeply significant phrase – as the ‘New World’. Now, geographically at least, almost all is familiar. Humanity’s footprint is almost everywhere. Coca Cola bottles have been found on the deep sea bed; there is trash on the route up Mount Everest; and traces of soot have been found in Antarctica.
Indeed, not only has the earth been by and large discovered; it has become familiar to us. Until the 20th century, the vast majority of human beings never travelled more than a hundred miles from where they were born. Now, in the developed world, people travel increasingly widely. My grandfather could remember the first aeroplane flight; now there are probably around 10 million passenger flights per year.
And as for ‘virtual’ contact – well, we are all aware of the instantaneous ubiquity of the email and of digital images. And there is more to come; we are still in the foothills of the telecom and internet revolution. It will change, in a generation, many things we still take for granted. There will be phone calls (voice and video) to virtually anywhere in the world at virtually no cost. We will change the way we learn, the way we relate, the way we shop, the way we manage our money. All this represents an enormous strategic challenge for institutions as diverse as banks and supermarkets and universities, because it will radically affect the way they do their business.
Indeed, almost every aspect of life is bears the impact of globalisation. From dry statistics to telling anecdotes, we can see how our lives have changed. We live longer, we travel more, we consume more. Wine consumption, for example, goes up year after year (and globalisation has ensured that when we visit our local Oddbins, we can get these wines from all over the world). We interact with people from more and more different places – especially in London, by the way, where there are over thirty different linguistic groups with more than 10,000 speakers resident. Not even New York is a global city to such an extent. It is easy, perhaps, to overlook all these features of modern life – we have become so familiar with them that we forget how recent it all is.
Then there is the impact on businesses and jobs. The last twenty-five years have seen this country lose over three million manufacturing jobs due to competition from lower-cost suppliers in emerging markets. Conversely, there has been an increase in the number of services jobs, in everything from IT to restaurants – over six million over the same period. Meanwhile, agriculture now employs less than 2% of the working population. Similar patterns can be seen in every developed economy.
This process continues. China, in particular, has become almost the ‘workshop of the world’ in recent years. It makes 50% of the world’s cameras, 30% of all air conditioners and 25% of all washing machines, as well as one-third of all the ties in the world. There is not a manufacturer in the world which is not either manufacturing in China, sourcing from it, thinking about doing so, or worrying about the competition from it.
Nor can developed countries assume that all their service jobs are safe from international competition. India is developing a parallel reputation as the services centre of the world: as the cost of a phone call from Britain to India has fallen by 80% over the last three years, it has made it possible to have everything from call centres to IT software development to medical diagnostics done in India for the benefit of a business here.
It would be easy to dwell on the problems, the upheavals and the uncertainties caused by all this. I will return to some of these issues shortly. But first it is important to focus on two things.
To begin with, we should note the way in which an open world economy has delivered huge changes in people’s standards of living in many countries in the world. Over a period of time, trade leads to more efficient production, which leads to higher levels of economic growth than would otherwise have been achieved. And over time, the effects are dramatic: growth, even at quite modest levels, has extraordinary effects over a generation or two. John Maynard Keynes, the famous British economist and one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, once produced a little essay called ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’. It was written before the Second World War, and in it he calculated what would happen to the standard of living in this country if the economy grew by just 2% per year – which is not a very high rate. In fact, the British economy on average has done somewhat better than that since 1950. Indeed, the changes in Britain have been remarkable: in 1950 all too many houses up and down the country did not even have an inside lavatory; they did not have a telephone; and very few people had cars. Furthermore, the impact of economic growth tends to be understated by the raw statistics because they do not fully measure the extent to which technology has improved products as well. Cars, for instance, are far more comfortable, reliable and safe than they were then.
It is not only Britain that has changed. If we look at Asia, the change has been even more dramatic. From being a closed mediaeval society in the 19th century, Japan has become the world’s second largest economy. Places like Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have evolved from dire poverty in the 1950s to prosperous, productive economies, rivalling Europe in their economic sophistication and standards of living. In Hong Kong in 1949, 100,000 people died of cholera. Anyone who thinks of these as mere ‘sweat-shop’ economies seriously underestimates them. Hong Kong is home to the world’s largest private shipping fleet owner. Korea is home to the leading-edge electronics capabilities of companies like Samsung. Taiwan has the world’s largest share of the semiconductor market. Singapore, and now Korea, are developing reputations in nanotechnology and microbiology. These countries are certainly no longer low-cost, low-sophistication, manufacturing bases.
Then there is China. If China continues on its present growth path, its economy will equal in size that of America in about thirty years time. This is not just an economic phenomenon. It will have a major effect on the balance of influence in international relations. India too will become more and more influential. Those two countries today account for 6% of world GDP and about 40% of world population. That gap is going to narrow over the next generation. In 1820, at a time before the real momentum of the Industrial Revolution, a country’s economy was about the same size in proportion to the world’s total economy as its population was in proportion to the world’s total population. So the two biggest economies in the world at that time were China and India. They are going to take their place on the world stage again. The gap will narrow, and in one sense this is nothing mysterious, particularly when you think what has been happening in Asia over the last fifty years. China and India are only following a path that has already been trod, first by Japan, and then by places like Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore… The difference of course is the law of large numbers and their effect on the world scene overall.
The implications are clear: globalisation and its consequences will soon move us out of a brief period of global dominance by one power or one group of powers – into a new era characterised by much more multiplex relationships. I am not sure to what extent the West has really taken this in. The economic modernisation of Asia is arguably the most seismic consequence yet of the globalisation of human commerce. From the printing press (invented first, incidentally, in China) to the Internet, knowledge has spread, technology has advanced, commerce has expanded, capital has accumulated, wealth has grown – and the balance of influence is slipping from the unipolar to the multipolar, as the East takes its place on the world stage.
Globalisation is also having other effects, more subtle perhaps, but arguably just as profound. For whole cultures are being changed before our eyes. For one thing, everything seems to be subject to commercial-isation. We fear that cultural variety may be succumbing to a kind of consumerist homogenisation; that humanity is busy reducing the amount of cultural diversity in the world in the same way as we are busy reducing the amount of biodiversity in the natural world through the way in which we treat the environment.
Image consultants will tell you that two of the most widely recognised symbols in the world today are the golden arches of McDonald’s and the Nike flash – both of them more widely recognised than the cross or the crescent. It is as if the shopping mall has become the dominant image of our times. If you can get everything everywhere, what is the difference? It is as if all that is left of the different cultures that made up the rich variety of the world is a series of museum pieces. As tourists, we get to see these museum pieces more and more easily. We can check them off one by one: Westminster Abbey, Red Square, Venice, the Taj Mahal, the Forbidden City – you name it – and outside all of them are the coaches, and near everyone of them is one of those recognisable restaurants with the golden arches. We can never stray far from the familiar.
It is easy to overstate this, of course. It is also easy to assume that it is all bad. After all, if Japanese paintings come on exhibition in London and Beethoven is heard in China, what is so bad about that? It is pessimistic to assume that the end game is nothing else than a sort of ‘dumbing down’ of the whole of humanity into crass materialism. But it is at least reasonable to ask what effect all this is having on human consciousness and values, as we lose the sense of the exotic and the mysterious. For increasingly, in the rich parts of the world, there is nothing that we cannot have, either actually or virtually – and seemingly without any struggle, pain or anguish.
What do we say about the effects of globalisation on traditional loyalties? For the old gods are losing their sway. This is clearly true in the case of nation states. Nation states are less and less able these days to deal with the issues which profoundly affect their citizens. There is the whole challenge of climate change and the ozone layer. In these days of international terrorism and the drugs trade, there is widespread worry about international flows of laundered money. Recent years have also seen a well-founded concern about the destructive effects on real economies of so-called hot money and the activity of financial speculators. How do individual countries cope with the political pressures which arise from the conflicting interests of labour forces in different countries, as the growth of open trade changes the international pattern of employment?
As the modern world struggles to find a collective response to such challenges, nation states find themselves losing part of their sovereignty. It is thus no coincidence that the rise of globalisation has also seen the rise of numerous international institutions of one sort or another. Some have proved to be impotent, while others certainly have not, even if they are controversial – perhaps increasingly so – particularly in the area of international trade and tariff negotiations. The European Union is, of course, a supranational institution which profoundly affects our lives in this country in all sorts of ways – as consumers, as employers, as employees, as citizens.
But it is not only nation states that have lost influence. It is happening to all sorts of other institutions in modern society. In Europe, we cannot fail to notice the decline in membership of the churches (or at least in the traditional churches). But it is not only churches which are affected; it is a commonplace of social science that organisations like the scouts, guilds, liveries, social clubs, working men’s associations, all of which were a common feature of the British social landscape in the 1950s, seem to be in decline.
People are becoming more mobile, more individual and more flexible in their affiliations. So new loyalties spring up as the old ones weaken – just as brushwood grows in the spaces where old trees die. If national loyalties seem to be weakening, new regional identities have clearly been mushrooming. It is interesting to note that in several European countries (with the possible exception of France) there are significant centrifugal forces at work; in Spain, Italy, Germany and, of course, Britain.
As for traditional religious allegiances, there is now a whole raft of alternatives, from the mainstream to the outright bizarre.
Some of these kinds of changes are obviously good. What, after all, is the matter with a growing consciousness of regional heritage and identity? Some of them are surely harmless. Some of them have a much darker side, manifested in, for example, football hooliganism and the spread of drugs. But we should be under no illusion about one thing, and that is that these are manifestations of, or responses to, that globalised market which affects us all and seems to make all sorts of things available, though always at a price. What they are absolutely not is alternatives to that globalisation. Effectively we cannot opt out of this great change which is sweeping through humanity – except, perhaps, in nostalgic dreams. Certainly not in reality.
So this is the human condition in its present state: a swirl of global markets which we cannot escape. More and more we seem to get what we want as consumers, as long as we can pay for it in money or in time. Conversely, as producers or workers, we live in a world of fewer and fewer barriers, and therefore less protection and more instability. Indeed, the cynic might say that as consumers we have become ‘shopaholics’ in a great global bazaar, whilst as producers we have become slaves in the same bazaar – slaves to a new, impersonal, unelected, transnational system of open competition.
Does the weakening of older authorities mean that new ones are emerging to take their place? Who or what dominates in this new globalised world of capital and commerce?
For some, the answer is multinational companies in general and, perhaps, banks in particular. Or sometimes the emphasis is on the IMF or the WTO. More subtly, some would point to a loose network of individuals and institutions, private and public, with common interests, assumptions and ways of life – what Samuel P. Hurstington called the ‘Davos culture’. Sometimes, people see the whole phenomenon of globalisation itself as a result of, and indictment of, western values which turn into nothing but greedy commercialism.
But the truth is much more complex, and more fluid, than any of this. There are very few sectors of world economic activity where any one institution or any group of institutions or individuals can control their environment for any length of time. No business I know can afford to act as though the world were its oyster, moving production from A to B solely at an accountant’s whim. Rather, they confront whole series of agonising choices, because they are locked in unremitting competition fought out in the context of constantly shifting influences – consumer demand, politics, regulation, exchange rates, technology change, and so on.
The profounder truth is that globalisation has led to a massive diffusion of power. Governments, electorates, businesses, unions, community groups, supranational organisations, terrorist groups – all can make use of the information channels available now. None can dominate or control them.
No wonder, then, that the whole phenomenon causes anxiety. We may live in a global market, but we know it is not the new Jerusalem. If the Victorians were naively optimistic about progress, we are afraid of it even whilst we enjoy its benefits and know it is unstoppable. The shopping mall may be the dominant image of our conscious lives: but Frankenstein may be the dominant motif of our subconscious fears.
First, we are appalled by the social fragmentation which seems to threaten our society: the breakdown in marriage: the lack – in some communities – of successful male role-models; the spread of drugs; the abuse of alcohol; the rise in crime; the loneliness of the old.
Secondly, our conscience gnaws at us, or should do so, about the marginalised people of the world – those who have not benefited from this great global market I have been talking about – those whose main experience of globalisation has been the loss of stability and even of livelihood.
What does it feel like to be long-term unemployed because your industry has collapsed? Whole communities were turned upside down in the last generation by the closure of steel mills, or coal mines, or docks. The newer service industries have created new opportunities, but not on a secure and predictable basis. Redundancy, which used to be as rare as divorce was, has become as common as divorce now is.
There are also the marginalised of the world at large: the people who live in countries which have never participated in the benefits of trade and international investment and never enjoyed any significant economic growth. These are countries which are often crippled by debt taken on in earlier times for white elephant projects by corrupt leaders who siphoned off what wealth there was into their own offshore bank accounts. These are countries dealt poor hands by history and geography, which were then played badly by corrupt or incompetent governments. Some have been dogged by civil war for decades. What chance have they had? In many of the world’s forty or so poorest countries, most of the indicators of social well-being have slipped backwards – mortality, health, education, the status of women. Something like 20% of the world’s population is in this sense marginalised. What do we do about it? – pretend they don’t exist?
Thirdly, we are unsettled by the implications of the privatisation of everything. Privatisation was in fact a word coined in Britain, to describe the sell-off of state-owned assets. I am not talking of privatisation in that sense, but about privatisation in a much more fundamental sense which is profoundly characteristic of our modern secularised, atomised, commercialised society; about privatisation meaning that beliefs and values become privatised, in the sense that they become irrelevant to our dealings with others.
It is important to see the connection with globalisation. There was a time when you fought those whose beliefs were alien to your own. Fortunately, most of the world has moved a long way from crusading against the infidel. For it gradually discovered that trading with the infidel was more profitable, and indeed that it broadened the mind. Increasingly, in fact, as people come together in the great global bazaar, they cease to care about what others believe or do in their private lives – meaning anything outside the business relationship. This means in turn that as the global market becomes the focus of human relations, there seems to be less and less room for anything we can collectively agree to be sacrosanct. There is an irony in this: John Donne’s immortal phrase ‘No man is an island …’ was meant to draw attention to the connectedness of all human experience. But the reality of modern globalisation is having the apparently opposite effect: we have less sense of community, fewer shared beliefs and more individualism than ever before.
In one sense, this is nothing other than the development of true individuality and the working out of the great liberal principle of toleration. It is not my business (to use a profoundly significant phrase) what another believes about the meaning of life. But in another sense, we are unsure and uneasy about where this leads. What happens when a sense of values recedes ? What happens to the venerable principle ‘do to others what you would have them do to you’ when all most of us want is to be left alone to do our own thing? How do we preserve any sense of positive obligation? Or of community? What do we tell our children to do?
It is plain enough that the real issue behind all this is spiritual. Human history is a learning experience; and through the process of globalisation we have been learning some home truths which have a familiar ring. First, we learn that human beings are not just economic animals – consciously or subconsciously, we are not content just to ‘eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’. We know that ‘man cannot live by bread alone’. Secondly, especially in the wake of the horrors of the 20th century, we are all too conscious of our capacity as a species to lay waste and do wrong. We resonate, perhaps, with those words which Handel’s music has done more to imprint on our minds than any amount of preaching: ‘all we like sheep have gone astray’. These words all come from the Bible, of course. They therefore lead us naturally to the question of what Christian theology has to say about the signs of our times: about capital, commerce, globalisation – and the Kingdom of God.
I believe its answer is at once distinctive, fundamental, ambiguous – and a call to action. To elaborate: first, we learn from the Bible that God is deeply interested in our history, past, present and future. What else could his invasion of our history 2000 years ago mean? We have not always understood this clearly. Christian thought has often focused too strongly on the notion of rescuing individuals from a ‘lost’ world of human experience, as is evidenced, for example, in mediaeval art with its images of human beings being helped up to heaven by angels, or hauled down to hell by devil.
Such imagery does not do justice to the overriding theme of the Bible, which has a great deal to say about human history in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The message which becomes increasingly clear as you work through this massive epic is that whatever the wrongs of past and present, there is a promise of new relationships and new community , to be realised somehow in human history on earth. It clearly holds out new hope for a stage of human history we have plainly not yet reached, in which, to use the words of Isaiah: ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea.’ It burns, in short, with a sense of both the waywardness and the preciousness of human history, and therefore with God’s anguished determination to be involved in it and redeem it.
If God is so engaged is human history, then a second proposition follows: that we should face this global present and future of ours with hope in the end, not with despair, and not with indifference. Globalisation for all its incompleteness and discomfort, stress and imperfection is, nevertheless, in essence part of God’s final vision for the human race. Our slowly developing sense that we are citizens of a shared, precious and rather fragile world is not merely compatible with, but is directly implied by, the Christian gospel. We may not understand all the implications of this, or agree on what we should actually do from one day to the next, but it is no part of the Christian gospel to turn our backs on the modern era and the process of globalisation. The Church of Christ cannot avoid sounding internationalist in its sympathy and in its openness to a global future.
Then a third proposition automatically follows if we are true to the Christian gospel – a proposition about judgement and justice. If despair has no place in our approach to the present and the future, then nor does uncritical optimism. As we have seen, we have the marginalised and the dispossessed in this world, and some of them are on our doorstep. We have to live with Jesus’s enigmatic saying (enigmatic because of the context in which he says it) that ‘The poor are always with us’ . Because of this, there is work to be done and neither individually nor collectively can we duck the challenge. Hence it is wholly right to press for responsible behaviour by the institutions in which we work or with which we deal, whether they be multinational corporations or banks or governments or international agencies (or indeed official churches, come to that). It is wholly right to expect generous giving by Christians who live in parts of the world like ours. A market free-for-all where the devil takes the hindmost is an absolutely unacceptable way of running society. It is wholly right, furthermore, to support the gradual and painstaking development of an international framework for humanity to approach its future on a more controlled and sustainable basis.
Finally, it follows from all of this that the Christian response to all the complexities, confusions and difficulties of the world must be to be engaged and involved. It will not do for either the church institutionally or for us as a church individually to stand on the sidelines enjoying the role of critic, pontificating about what is wrong without offering any very specific or realistic solutions. For the truth is, of course, that the church, i.e., individual Christians, is in the thick of an ambiguous world where we work from day to day with only a provisional and incomplete understanding of how it all fits together.
We have no choice about that – we live and work and consume in a world of compromise. There are very few black-and -white issues: most are grey of varying shades. If we work in the commercial world, or in the public sector – whatever role we play – we live in an imperfect world. The institutions we work for are imperfect. Our bosses, our colleagues, we ourselves, all of us, are imperfect. We are called therefore to wrestle with thousands of decisions, big or small, simple or complex, often painful – and all we can do is try to see how this relates to the wider perspective, to discern the implications for the Kingdom of God on earth, and to face up to whatever challenges confront each of us personally through this process of discernment. The only thing we know for sure is that if we are not challenged, not made uncomfortable, not called to some action by this process, we will not be true to the faith we profess. And so we pray as we go – a familiar prayer, but in Tyndale’s less familiar words – which perhaps help us to face up afresh to their implicit challenge:
‘O our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Let thy kingdom come. Let thy will be fulfilled, as well in earth, as in heaven …’.