Lord Mandelson’s now infamous quip has come to define the worm in the rose of the New Labour project – “I’m intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich (as long as they pay their taxes)”
Our society is more unequal now than ever. Lots of research shows that the more unequal a society is, the more unhealthy it is in all sorts of ways, and the more unhappy people in it are.
Christians and others who care about their neighbours’ well-being should not be relaxed about people getting filthy rich – because we now know – social psychologists have shown – that keeping up with the Jones or more especially getting one over on the Jones is not only harmful to your own soul – which would be your own business – but is also harmful to the Smiths and the Bloggs and the Singhs – and everyone else pushed deeper into the bottom end of the social and economic league table – and so that becomes all our business.
We used to think smoking was a person’s own business – until we discovered the perils of passive smoking and realised smoking is also harmful to those who don’t smoke and are sharing the same space. So we are discovering getting rich is actually psychologically damaging to those who don’t get rich within the same community.
It doesn’t mean people can’t be poor and happy – it shows that where people live in the same society with the same rules and responsibilities but there is a huge gulf between life opportunities at opposite ends of the social spectrum – there is unhappiness and discontent created – – the more unequal society gets, the more unhappy it gets. Could this be the explanation for so-called “broken Britain” – it’s not because of moral failure or educational failure – it’s actually because the rich have got too rich for our own good! We cannot any longer be intensely relaxed about that – if ever we were. This is not about envy or witch-hunts – it’s an observed and documented feature of modern society.
Jesus knew that human beings left to our own devices generally are interested in being better off than others – more possessions or more status or more power or more recognition or more respect – we define success in terms of being bigger, better, greater. No-one is immune from this virus – it’s been circulating in the human bloodstream for ever – even when we tell ourselves we don’t want possessions or power for ourselves – how do we feel when our country is pushed down by others for example – or are we so sanguine about our children or grandchildren choosing not to grab opportunities to get as rich and comfortable as they can?
The Church isn’t immune either to this gravitational pull of worldly success. Power, status, importance, influence are big temptations. The debacle at St Paul’s Cathedral over the Occupy London camp has elements of this tension between worldly influence and vulnerable service.
The disciples didn’t understand that Jesus might be so unsuccessful and so fail to gain respect and recognition for his message that he’d end up crucified. What they were talking about – who is the greatest – showed them still to be in the fevered grip of this mind-set of being bigger and better than our neighbours – of being the first. (Mark 9: 30-37)
It is the opposite of God’s way. Jesus undermines the whole notion of being first – striving to get power for ourselves over others – by reversing the polarity – to be first you must be last and be the servant of all. The crucifixion is the seal of that way God does things – God ‘s own Son gave up his power to dominate– he put himself totally into the hands of the powerful. And the Resurrection was God’s affirmation of the truth and power of the way of love.