Rulers come and go

This blog post was originally written for the ‘Reimagining Europe‘ project

Just days remain until the ‘Brexit’ referendum; on the whole, the view here from the Baltics is still one of bemusement. It seems perverse to most people here, in countries which have fought to achieve their right to belong to Europe, that anyone would deliberately choose to turn away from all that membership of the European Union brings in benefits – economic, political, cultural and philosophical.

Not long ago, my husband and I had the privilege of visiting Bulgaria. All countries in Europe have histories, many of them complex and painful; but Bulgaria’s legacy of history and culture is among the richest and most astonishing. In fact, at the very heart of Sofia lies ancient Serdica, which came close to being the capital of Constantine’s Roman Empire, instead of Byzantium.

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The ruins of Roman Serdica

 

In modern Sofia, there are still clear traces of ancient Thrace, Rome, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire, the Bulgarian national revival, the Soviet era – all brought together in the vibrant and self-confident city of today.

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A ruined Communist-era monument

Looking at the clearly very mixed origins of passers-by in Sofia, it is obvious that there are many cultural strands that are woven together; but also that a distinct identity has been created from the weaving process. In our hotel, we found a magazine with a brief introduction to Bulgaria, which said something like this: Over the centuries invaders have come and gone. Rulers have come and gone; but the people remain.

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Resting in the shade of St George’s Basilica

In today’s complex political situation, overlaid with anxiety about national sovereignity and the impact of migration, European societies, and the United Kingdom among them, are increasingly voicing fears about a loss of identity. And yet it is not membership of the EU which threatens identity, any more than migration or the threat of climate change. The greatest threat comes from within ourselves, and from the possibility that our fears and insecurities will change our core values and make us increasingly wary of the stranger and the vulnerable, increasingly hostile and inhospitable.  Conversely, it is clear that the greatest challenges to our civilisation will be much better handled together, jointly and in co-operation with other countries and nations in our region.

Identity has always been a fluid entity; and in the end, rulers and political unions will continue to come and go, but people remain.

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Monument to Sofia at the heart of the modern city

So is this World 6.0?

So: two more educational and inspirational pieces of work – this time not books, but presentations.

A couple of weeks ago at our Deanery Synod we listened to a talk by Rev’d Dr Mika Pajunen, who is Theological Advisor to the Lutheran Archbishop of Finland. Mika talked us through a fairly classical model of developments in church history – of paradigm shifts in the way that the Church understands God, faith and itself, in the philosophical and metaphysical underpinning of the Church’s theology and worldview. The aim was to apply these understandings to our current obsession with matters of sexuality – but of course they have a much wider application. For what it’s worth, Mika’s opinion is that the church is in many ways stuck in Enlightenment mode, which requires that there is a right and wrong answer to problems to questions, which permit of no shading and not enough latitude to allow us to find solutions which are fuzzier.

Then last week at an International Conference here in Rīga organized by the Latvian Lutheran Women Theologians Association, Rev’d Dr Linards Rozentāls from Luther Church presented a different way of analyzing these shifts in humankind’s understanding of God, and the presence of the Divine in Creation. His innovative classification led us from God 1.0 to God 6.0, with the possibility of development onwards. It was fascinating to hear, and will, I hope, be published somewhere soon.

But it got me thinking (or, as Poirot says, it made me furiously to think). What is it that moves our civilizations and faiths from one paradigm to another? What kicks us from God 4.0 to God 5.0? Could it be that the present world crises I wrote about previously – the inherent instability of the global monetary system, climate change, poverty, inequality, wars – which are leading to this acute flow of refugees are actually a first sign of a real paradigm shift? And if so, which direction are we heading in – towards a deeper understanding, greater freedom and openness (marks of God 6.0) or backwards to greater prejudice, a more childish view of how the world works, a greater desire to see God as judge and strong ruler?

What will we do (Part II)

…and this is the most difficult part, of course.

As far as the economic crises go, the two authors I mentioned (Rickards and Goodchild) have solutions to offer, one of a radical free-market nature, the other more of an ‘to each according to their need, from each according to their gifts’ concept. And just today, a video surfaced on my ‘Facebook interface’ – this by Paul Mason, a well-respected economic journalist and analyst. The video is entitled

capitalism is failing, and it’s time to panic

and it suggests that technology, combined with a willingness to share more freely without necessarily demanding payment for everything (non-market collaborative ventures such as cooperatives), may offer a solution. For those who might think that this is impossible, Mason says: “What is impossible is the democracy of riot squads, of oligarch-run political parties, of fiscal coercion by central banks, the surveillance state.”

What will happen to the global financial system in reality? Personally, I don’t have the faintest idea, and it’s all way above my pay grade. But respected and respectable commentators from many angles are saying that – whatever else –  the status quo is untenable.

The church world, indeed the world at large, has watched and listened in fascination to the words and actions of Pope Francis. Much of what he says is truly radical, especially in the context of Vatican politics and formalised religion. Not least, his Encyclical Letter this year, called

Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home

which has caused waves because of its tremendous outspokenness on the issue of – well, care for our common home, the planet that we live on and should be caring for. The encyclical tackles climate change, pollution, waste, inequality amongst other issues; and says

” These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.”

So we are faced with this unpredictable future, with a whole complex matrix of interconnected problems which no-one really knows how to resolve, or perhaps has the political clout and courage to tackle radically, in the real sense of the word – from the root. And we are faced with the question – what will we do?

The New Statesman recently published an article which made me cheer through this depression, because it articulated so clearly how many of us feel. The greatest threat to Europe – to our way of life, our European values, our standard of living – is not migration, it is creeping fascism.

“Fascism happens when a culture fracturing along social lines is encouraged to unite against a perceived external threat. It’s the terrifying “not us” that gives the false impression that there is an “us” to defend.” (Laurie Pennie, New Statesman, 14 August 2015)

And that’s the thing: our culture may well be fracturing, but the real reason is all the above – financial instability, increasing inequality and sheer bloody poverty, climate change, pollution and all the rest of the unfairness that, basically, dying capitalism is forcing on us.

What will we do? Will be build higher and higher walls to keep migrants out? Will we put broken glass on top of the walls, and then barbed wire on top of the broken glass on top of the walls? Will we say ‘I’m alright, Jack’, and pursue our goals of comfortable life and massive over-consumption, no matter the environmental consequences?

“Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.” (Laudato Si’, para 51)

Will we continue to close our eyes to inequity, the ecological debt – to be blunt, the greed which blights our lives and those of the poor?

And as Christians – how will we square the circle of living in the comfortable West, knowing that there are human beings worldwide who are suffering NOW? One suggestion for migrants to Latvia, where I live now, is that our country should only accept Christian migrants. Why? To paraphrase Shylock, if we prick a Muslim, does he not bleed? If a Muslim mother loses her child in a suicide bomb, does she not weep? Do we not share a common humanity with all of God’s created children?

For me this is all still thought in progress. One thing I do know: tomorrow, 1 September, Christians throughout the world will be fasting, praying and reflecting on Creation.

On the 1st day of September this and every year, let us join in this global Christian observance, and let our prayer, fasting, and personal reflection lead to action and the shaping of lifestyles which enable us to walk lightly on “this fragile earth, our island home”, as an Anglican Eucharistic prayer describes our planet. (Bishop David Hamid’s blog)

Joining in one day of fasting and reflection seems like a very small first step, but still worth taking.

What will we do (Part I)

Over the last months, I have read two fascinating books, both of them outside my normal range of reading, and both partly outside my range of understanding. Both of them have ‘money’ in the title, and both are very critical of the current global monetary system, but there the resemblance ends. The Theology of Money by Philip Goodchild (Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham, UK) is described as ‘a philosophical inquiry into the nature and role of money in the contemporary world’; and for someone who is not a philosopher or an economist, it’s a pretty challenging read at times. But essentially, Goodchild regards our present global monetary system, which is based on the premise that money=debt=money=credit, is irretrievably broken; that economy and ecology are mathematically incompatible; that in a capitalist system, the drive to profits will always take precedence over sustainability, and therefore economic growth is incompatible with ecological finitude; and therefore, in the end, capitalism is unsustainable.

Theology of Money

The other book, more apocalyptically entitled The Death of Money, is by a free-market economist, James Rickards, a financial wizard who has worked with the Pentagon on some fascinating projects attempting to predict security risks from market movements. His premise is also that the current global financial system is extremely fragile and built on systems of unrepayable debt bolstered by no real substance, and is likely to end in a huge upheaval something like (but probably worse than) the Great Depression on the 1930’s. Rickards also thinks it very likely that this will lead to massive social unrest, specifically in the US, which the government of the day (Republican or Democrat) will use its multiple and highly developed surveillance technologies to try and suppress. James Rickards’ blog can be found here.

What is really interesting about this is that these two highly intelligent and knowledgeable people both think that our current global financial system is close to collapse, although they come at the problem from very different viewpoints and offer radically different solutions. The theologian sees a need to deal with debt in theological terms, playing on the term often used in English for debt relief – i.e. forgiveness, and sees redemption from debt as holding the potential to bring good out of evil, and forgiveness as flowing from divine creation. The financier recommends a return to the gold standard, while acknowledging that that in itself will cause instability and hardship to many people. Strikingly, though, Rickards last words are: ‘We live in an ersatz monetary system that has reached its end stage…A return to true value based on trust is long overdue’.

In the background this summer have been equally apocalyptic images of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, and often drowning there, to leave behind lives in conflict zones, lives scarred by poverty and hatred, and seeking shelter in the perceived safety of Europe.

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Photo taken from Joe Brennan’s Facebook page

There have been stories from and about Calais, where thousands of migrants live in appalling conditions, in a legal limbo, hoping against desperate hope to make it to the UK, so as to rebuild their lives in a country which has not experienced war or famine in 70 years.

And year on year the pressure of the urgent messages from climate scientists and campaigners is making it clear to us all that we can expect more migration worldwide, more conflicts and wars – partly because of territory lost to desertification or rising sea levels, partly over access to water and food security. In years to come, numbers of desperate migrants are very unlikely to decrease; and whether we call the economic migrants, refugees or asylum seekers will come to seem like a complete irrelevance. They will just be people who are fleeing from the four horsemen – famine, plague, war and death.

This is how it is. For those of us who were lucky enough to be born into the almost uniquely peaceful and comfortable setting of post-WWII Western Europe, the future seems dark indeed as we look back to the light of our younger years. The question, though, is: how will we deal with this? Mostly the impending catastrophes are not within our capacity to influence, and indeed both Goodchild and Rickards make the point that in many ways today’s complex systems of governance and financial regulation are so abstruse and complex that no one really does understand how to influence them anymore.

What we can influence, though, is our own actions and reactions to the world around us – a truism of cod psychologists everywhere, but none the less true. Faced with desperate people in Calais, presented with quotas for accepting migrants, asked to accept a potential reduction in our living standards, for example – what will we do?  How will we respond here in Latvia, or indeed anywhere in Europe? That’s for Part II.