It is the 15th October 1978. A fresh-faced 22 year-old man arrives in London. The Labour Government of Jim Callaghan is on its last legs. The right wing of the Labour Party is preparing to jump ship and join-up with the Liberal Party to form the Social Democrats. The far left, known by the name the Militant Tendency has begun a concerted campaign to destabilize the Government and to take the Labour Party in the direction of the loony left. Militant already has control of several large municipalities, Liverpool being the most infamous example.
The country is weary of the last five years of weak and indecisive Labour Government leadership. The economy is in a downward spiral and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has recently had to go cap in hand to the IMF for a bail-out loan (echoes of a current Greece) just to keep the lights on. The Unions are militant and restive.
Flipping forward to May 4th, election night, 1979. The young man by accident finds himself following the crowds to Margaret Thatcher’s Chelsea residence. His heart is heavy with foreboding as the woman who would later become known as the Iron Lady fixed the crowds with her steely gaze. The next day outside number 10 Downing Street she would echo the words of St Francis of Assisi:
Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.
Former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, currently awaiting trial at the Old Bailey for conspiracy and incitement to murder, having been found out in the time honored British political tradition of the sexual scandal – in his case of having and affair with a rent boy – reacting to Mrs Thatcher’s victory he said: “I am horrified. She makes [her predecessor] Ted Heath look like a moderate.”
During the election campaign, Mrs Thatcher said the Conservatives would cut income tax, reduce public expenditure, make it easier for people to buy their own homes and curb the power of the unions.
Some of you may wonder why am I remembering all this? The more keen-eyed among you will have already spotted my likely direction of travel.
My reason for remembering is that this is the Labor Day Weekend.
Labor Day Weekend has an equivalent in Britain of the August Bank Holiday. Both mark the transition from summer vacations back into the rhythms of work. Both honor the contribution forged in the struggle of the Labor Movement for the improvement of the lives of working men and women.
The Labor Movement arose out of the classical age of entrepreneurial capitalism. In order to create social stability it was necessary to force capital to concede some of its fruits to the engine of its success – its workers. Wise governments in the first half of the 20th century, despite their often deceptive rhetoric, understood that the best way of keeping Bolshevism at bay was to ensure a more level playing field in the imbalances of power between those who created the conditions for jobs (employers)and those who created the wealth (the workforce).
I began with my memories of 1979 and the following 10 years because I want to make it clear that I know first hand the fear that fuels the current loathing in some quarters for Organized Labor. There is a lot of the language of political scare mongering painting a stereotype of labor unions that is pure fantasy. However, I also know what it’s like to live in a state where that fantasy has become a reality. Where the pendulum has swung too far to the Left. Where governments of both Right and Left are powerless to protect a society held hostage by the corruption and tyranny of Union power.
But that is not the situation that faces us in the America of 2012. In fact the opposite situation pertains. SOme political rhetoric seems only to recognize the rights of job creators as if they, by themselves, generate the wealth required for a healthy society. The language of the dignity of work and of legal protection for workers has fallen into a cone of silence. Entrepreneurs do not create wealth! They create opportunities for a collaborative enterprize with workers who through their labor create wealth.
In Mark Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus confronts the conventionally religious-political figures of his day. In criticizing the way the conventional religious party uses the Tradition of the Elders, Jesus is not attacking the heart of Jewish Law. He is accusing his interlocutors of misinterpreting the Tradition. He accuses them of reducing the Tradition to something small enough to suit their own purposes.
For the religious, religion has become merely a matter of external form. Jesus reminds them that religion is not a matter of ritual practice. Religion is a matter of the heart. The human heart is the source of all that is truly spiritual. The human heart is also the source of all that most profoundly corrupts. The corruption is not only an individual matter. The corruption of the human heart has wide ranging social ramifications.
Often its important to see Jesus’ voice emerging against a background of the Old Testament Prophets. The prophet Isaiah admonishes his hearers to:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17).
You seem eager for God to come near you. Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Yet is not this the kind of fasting I, your Lord, have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice…to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them?” (Isaiah 58: 2-7).
The language of the Biblical Tradition is neither the property of the Right nor of the Left. However, it can be captured and distorted to support worldly political agendas. Labor Day weekend is a celebration of the dignity of human labor. Our history shows us that that dignity requires protections. Our history also shows us that those protections can also become corrupted.
James goes to the heart of the matter. He is concerned that his hearers conform themselves to pure religion. Pure religion is not something that applies only in the bedroom but can be jettisoned in the boardroom, office, or factory.
James offers us three tests by which:
The Father looks to see the lineaments of his own life in the lives of those who claim to be his children (J.A. Motyer p75 The Message of James).
1. Bridling the tongue, i.e. avoiding speech that results in harming others. James is not concerned with saying the right thing. He is concerned with the way the tongue is connected to the heart. The tongue is the royal road through which the resentments of the heart emerge unbridled to damage our relationships with others placing the common good in jeopardy.
2. Attending to the most vulnerable. This is more than a generalized expression of kindliness (Motyer). This is a prophetic stance that requires actions which may cost us dear. Championing the vulnerable among whom woman and children are emblematic is an actual demonstration of care for others that reveals us as bearing the characteristics that allow God to locate and trace the lineaments, the presence of the divine life of the Trinity- God-in-community, within us.
3. James’s third test is to keep oneself unstained by the world. This is not a contemporary religious culture-warrior’s cry against contamination by a sinful world that allows contraception and gay marriage. If James were to use a more more contemporary language he would be speaking about our implication in a society that perpetrates and perpetuates injustice.
James is saying don’t let yourselves become co-opted into the systemic abuse and corruption of power. Do not deceive yourselves that it is acceptable to justify discrimination and exclusion through an uncritical stance towards wealth and privilege. Essential human dignity requires a means for leveling the uneven playing field upon which access to opportunity really depends.
I invite us all to put the political label of our choice to one side and take up only one label – that of being Christian. We need to reject the capture of the Bible by strident political voices. Their version of Scripture reduces it to a very narrow definition of what it means to be an American. To be an American in this view is to celebrate the rights of ones own self interest and to live in the pursuit of ones own personal well-being. It is to give oneself over to a language of fear and greed that flows unbridled from the human heart, polluting the public discourse.
James, invites us to become doers of the word and not merely hearers whose listening is distorted by the corruptions of hearts, rooted in fear. We need to pay close attention to the state of our own hearts.
Only the human heart, Jesus reminds us, has the true power defile us and to obscure the lineaments of God’s own life in the lives of those who claim to be his children.