This Advent daily reflection for 1st December is published a day late because yesterday I spent 9 hours on the road travelling to Yorkshire and back to meet our three-day-old grandson , who is a beautiful boy; as indeed is his two- and-a-half- year old brother. The journey was definitively worth it of course!
1st December is many things. For meteorologists it is the first day of the winter season. It is popularly seen as the beginning of the Christmas festivities. For consistency, Advent calendars start on this date. And it is World AIDS Day. I’ve chosen instead to notice one of the major item of news in Britain on 1st December this year.. It is the call by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, NICE, to local government to do more to reduce air pollution, which is linked to more than 25,000 deaths a year in England and Wales. This news reminded me of the huge corporate scandal about this time last year when it was revealed Volkswagen had cheated emissions tests for many of their vehicles especially in the United States, allowing diesel engines to discharge nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed.
One of the Bible readings set by the Church of England for 1st December (Matthew 7: 24 -27) contains a parable of Jesus, popular with children in churches where it is captured in a fun action song known as “The Wide Man built his house upon the rock”. He is compared with the foolish man who built his house upon the sand. I could make a link with environmental protection issues in this story since it is the rain and flooding which reveals the foolishness of the builder upon sand when his house is destroyed. But the spiritual message to which Matthew’s text links this story is the more general one, contained within these words which preface the story:
“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Matthew 7: 24
The words in question are in fact the golden rule which appears in some form in the teachings of many of the world’s faiths and spiritual teachers:
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12
The story of the wise and foolish builders is an illustration of the final consequence , which is disaster, of ignoring the gap between what is said and what is done, the discrepancy between saying the right thing and doing it; between looking good and doing good. It is part of the Christian hope at Advent that the coming of God’s kingdom of love, peace and justice does involve the unmasking of this gap and its closing – that practice, especially action impacting on others, will be brought into line with values. It is the burden of much of the writings of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; the work of the prophetic figures such as Isaiah, and Jesus in his role as a prophet, to call out that gap and to “speak truth to power”.
The image I’ve chosen today is a portrait of Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855), the Danish philosopher. From a position of sympathy towards the faith he challenged Christians and churches over complacency and accommodation to self-seeking values; and in particular, over the gap between the corporate power of the church and actual Christian practice. He stressed the importance of personal responsibility and accountability. He observed that almost all of us prefer the idea of love to the reality of it. We prefer to choose to whom we shall show love and care – our family, friends those like us and those we like – rather than be under the obligation to treat every person equally in respect of care and consideration. Without this tendency there would be no room for a gap to open between the ideal of love of neighbour and its practice.
Today there are many organisations in civil society – some with explicit reference to Christian values – which exist to hold governments and corporate bodies, to account by shining a light on the gap between stated values and actual practice. Often this is done by careful scientific research to highlight the facts of the case. This was the situation in the VW scandal. It was work by scientists commissioned by the International Council on Green Transportation which revealed the discrepancies in emissions.
Increasingly shareholders are pressing corporations to close the gap between values and practice. One of the oldest and most effective shareholder advocacy bodies is the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility in the USA. It enables shareholders to call “the world’s most powerful companies to address their impacts on the world’s most vulnerable communities.” Rooted in faith bodies who are concerned to ensure ethical investment, today ICCR’s membership has grown to include many other shareholders and institutional investors who recognise the ethical dimension to financial decisions. There is a similar organisation in the United Kingdom, the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility (ECCR), which I served as a board member and chair for a few years in the 1990’s. ECCR ” undertakes research, advocacy and dialogue to encourage companies to meet the highest standards of corporate responsibility and transparency”. Less well-known and more difficult to portray, nonetheless bodies like ICCR and ECCR are further examples of action in the world inspired by hope and the desire to bring closer God’s kingdom of love, peace and justice.