"How can it be that we all are the unwitting accomplices in a refined collective hunt for profit which evades accountability? A system which is structurally unable to even imagine that there might be a common good worth pursuing? A system in which we all are offenders and preys at the same time?"
Among the highlights of our parish pilgrimage to Scotland, two weeks ago, there was a visit to the ruins of the medieval abbey of Melrose in the Scottish Borders. Even though we were able to see the site only from the outside (owing to risk of falling masonry), the extraordinary wealth and prosperity of the abbey in its heyday was still perceivable especially through the impressive arcs of the Eastern Window. The visit pursued with an exhibition of artefacts discovered over decades of diggings in the site – and in one of the showcases we found an object with an inscription saying that it had belonged to a “commendatory abbot” - which puzzled few of us.
The title ‘commendatory’ comes from the Latin word commenda which means “custody”. It refers to the practice of appointing as abbot of a monastery someone who was not a monk but either a clergyman or a layman who would become the recipient of its income. The commendatory abbot often lived in distant cities or regions, and might never even visit the place, had no interest in the life, mission, and well-being of the community of monks, tended to be increasingly greedy for profit and siphoned off even the funds needed for the ordinary maintenance of the buildings or the subsistence of the monks. With the predictable result that buildings fell into disrepair and monks became fewer and fewer, which is one of reasons for the steep decline of Western monasticism from the 14th century onwards.
Now, if I mention this anecdote it is because I thought that this was a phenomenon of the past until last week when Fr Alan and I took part to a retreat of the clergy of the Two Cities in the Temple Church in which we were invited to reflect on the role of our parishes in the midst of London. We discussed how, among the challenges and opportunities of our parishes here in London there is the fraught relation with an increasing number of businesses run by managers accountable to shareholders. As we know, shareholders are so called because they own ‘shares’ of a company and, therefore, have a financial interest in its profitability. And what is distinctive about this form of ownership is that it insulates the shareholders from liability not only to the company’s debts, but also, and importantly, to the well-being of the local communities in which the businesses are located.
The challenge of this business model to local communities is that shareholders tend to be people who might live on the other side of the planet and rarely visit the businesses in which they invest their money; since they are driven only by the profit they draw from the shares, shareholders have no real interest in the lives of the people who directly or indirectly interact with their businesses. In other words, this is a business model which has no time for what the New Testament calls the ‘neighbour’.
It occurred to me that in fact there a lot in common between medieval commendatory abbots and modern shareholders, especially in the light of what Paul’s letter to the Galatians, has to say about the ‘neighbour’
“The whole law -Paul says- is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another”. (Gal 5.14f)
Have we have thought about how extraordinary it is that the heart of Christian ethics should be the “neighbour”?
Who are the people we love? Naturally, and rightly, family, friends, the people with whom we have affinities or interests in common. Whenever we find ourselves in a new group, or even during our drinks after mass, who are the people we tend to approach and befriend? Is it not the people who are like us, or promise to be more interesting to or for us? All this is normal, and the Gospel is not asking us to change it. Jesus had his friends and favourites too. The Gospel however wants us to expand the scope of our love and include in it the ‘neighbour’. It is an invitation to direct our care, attention, and dedication not only to those whom we are drawn to, but also and quite simply to the person who now, in this moment happens to be physically closer to me, whomever she or he may be. It is right to love those with whom I have in common love, education, interests, maybe even class. But I have much much more in common with any neighbour that happens to be close to me in everyday life – we share the same humanity, and more deeply we are children of the same Father, responsible for each other good, dependent on each other for our destiny.
You might already start to guess what this has to do with what I mentioned earlier, that is our present dominant model of share holding ownership. It is a model that unites us exclusively to those with whom we literally ‘share’ the same desire to profit from an enterprise and makes us completely blind to ‘neighbours’, that is anything else on which these businesses have an impact, included local communities, that is our cities.
Before I go further, it might be interesting to notice that this concerns every one of us here today, you and I. Even if we do not buy shares in the stock market, by the very fact that we deposit money in a bank and save for our pensions we all are shareholders and have no idea of the businesses in which our shares are invested. Indirectly, I might be the shareholder of the arms industry, the oil industry, or in companies that exploit workers. You might remember how, few years ago, it appeared that the Church of England pension fund had unwittingly shares in the very infamous Wonga predatory lending system which it was fighting publicly. I still remember the brilliant interview given by the then newly appointed archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby who candidly acknowledged that often “Church investment managers "didn't pick up" that they had put funds in a "pooled investment vehicle" which, through its investments, had bought into Wonga”.
In other words, all of us here today contribute to an intensely profit driven financial system which shields us from ethical responsibility towards the neighbour, allows us to turn not one but two blind eyes to the exploitation of workers, suppliers, local communities – that is often on ourselves. The irony of this system is the extent to which we are both its perpetrators and its victims. All because we have found a way of ignoring the ‘neighbour’ on a massive scale with the result that, as Paul says, we “bite and devour one another”, we “consume one another” (Gal 5.x15).
Paul makes clear that our attitude towards our neighbour determines whether we are free or slaves. He says
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5.1).
How can it be that we all are the unwitting accomplices in a refined collective hunt for profit which evades accountability? A system which is structurally unable to even imagine that there might be a common good worth pursuing? A system in which we all are offenders and preys at the same time? If this is not a “yoke of slavery” what is?
If this analysis might depress us, we can be deeply encouraged by the fact that according to Paul, and to the Gospels, there is a simple, straightforward way of removing these shackles – a way to freedom available to everyone of us directly, immediately, now – which is “love for the neighbour”. ‘Love’ I agree is a big word. Whenever I hear it in the gospels, I am helped by translating it with “care’. Thus, the sentence by Paul I quoted earlier could be rendered in this way
“The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall care for your neighbour, that is for the person closest to you, as for yourself." Because if you do not care, you are drawn under the yoke of competitive relationships in which all you do is bite and devour one another”.
In the absence of authentic, heartfelt caring for one another -Paul adds- we see the proliferation of our worse instincts: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrells, dissensions, factions, envy (Gal 5.19ff).
“For freedom Christ has set us free” – he liberates us from any form of individual or collective attempt to ignore our neighbour and fills us, and our communities, instead with these heart-warming fruits of the Spirit which Paul enumerates in the conclusion to this splendid page of the New Testament: joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5.22f).