Putting Things Right

159 - SunsetI hope you all had a good Christmas.

The next and final stop on the festive roller-coaster is the New Year. Amid the traditional parties, celebrations and singing of Auld Land Syne, most of us will also find time to make some plans for the year ahead, perhaps including promises or resolutions to ourselves or others.

In thinking forward to the next year, we of course review the year that has gone – both what went well, and not so well.

Earlier in the year I heard the progressive liberal Rabbi Pete Tobias give a short Yom Kippur talk on the radio. Yom Kippur is typically a time of looking back and also often referred to as The Day of Atonement: atonement meaning righting wrongs, making amends, putting things right, reflection, reconciliation, restitution and reparation.

I thought his words were probably apt for us all.

 

Let us ask ourselves hard questions – for this is the time for truth

How much time did we waste in the year that is now gone ?

Did we fill our days with life, or were they dull and empty ?

Was there love inside our home, or was the affectionate word left unsaid ?

Was there a real companionship with our children, or was there a living together, but growing apart ?

Were we a help to our partner, or did we take them for granted ?

How was it with our friends, were we there when they needed us, or not ?

The kind deed – did we perform it, or postpone it ?

The unnecessary jibe – did we say it or hold it back ?

Did we live by false values – did we deceive others, did we deceive ourselves ?

Were we sensitive to the rights and feelings of those who worked for us ?

Did we acquire only possessions – or did we acquire new insight as well ?

Did we fear what the crowd would say, and keep quiet when we should have spoken out ?

Did we mind only our own business, or did we feel the heartbreak of others ?

Did we live right, and if not have we learned . . . and will we change ?

 

Wishing you all a very Happy New Year.

Photo by Jebulon, via Wikipedia

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Meet Martin Sheen

Born Ramon Estevez, to immigrant parents, Martin Sheen went on to become a famous Hollywood face, appearing in numerous films and TV shows, including Apocalypse Now, Wall Street and The West Wing.

He is less well known for his lifelong faith and social conscience. At the age of 14 he organised a golf caddie strike at the golf club where he worked, to stop the players using abusive and anti-Semitic language. Despite loving golf all his life he has never been a member of a golf club, because, he says, he doesn’t believe in their exclusive nature.

He is Hollywood’s most arrested celebrity, having been arrested 66 times in the course of numerous peaceful social activism demonstrations. He notably has supported the homeless and foodbank schemes, and opposed the fur trade, capital punishment, seal hunting, migrant worker exploitation, the Iraq War, international conflict and has campaigned against polluting industries and dumping.

Though a committed Roman Catholic, Martin is also a strong supporter of same sex marriage, and recently has attended meetings of the environmental advocacy group Earthfirst.

Listen to Martin Sheen interviewed on Desert Island Discs in 2011.

Photo from Wikicommons

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Jubilee: A Shout for Joy

If you’re living in the UK it’s a busy summer.

First we had the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, then (for the English anyway) the dubious pleasure of cheering on the England football team in the Euros, and in a few weeks we’ll be hosting the London Olympics – all with the added fun and excitement of the traditional British rainy season in June and July!

It’s the first of these I want to ask you to briefly consider: the Jubilee.

Not another debate about the pros and cons of a constitutional monarchy, but the word Jubilee itself.

Originally it meant something very different to celebrating the length of a King’s or Queen’s reign. In the Old Testament it means a year in which debts are cancelled and slaves are freed – etymologically it’s often described as literally meaning shout for joy‘.

Releasing slaves and freeing people from debt, obligation and bondage, is a recurring theme in the Old Testament, which very clearly considered ongoing cycles of debt as a bad thing – something to be avoided wherever possible.

It also contained another piece of economic instruction – a prohibition against something called usury.

Usury is the charging of excessive interest on debt, though some interpretations consider the prohibition to be against the charging of any interest at all. The usual literal translation of usury is ‘a bite’ – relating to the painful process of being charged interest.

Usury is still prohibited under Jewish tradition and Islam – though Christianity largely seems to have stopped being concerned by it centuries ago.

Interesting stuff, but the real question is – what, if anything, does this mean for us today ?

The charging of interest is something so deeply embedded in our economies and culture, that we not only take it for granted, but generally fail to see it for what it is: a mechanism by which money flows from the poor, who need to borrow, to the rich, who can afford to lend.

The charging of interest, therefore, is a powerful driver of inequality – both between the rich and poor of our own societies, and also between rich and poor countries.

Another consequence of an interest based economy is that it requires the economy to continually grow in order to service it – a company borrowing it’s start-up costs at a rate of 7%, will have to grow by 7% the following year to repay the interest.

Needless to say infinite continual growth is simply not possible, due to real-world limits and constraints, and this endless need to deliver growth, many argue, exacerbates resource depletion, environmental degradation and aggressive competition for resources.

Unfortunately our entire banking system is based on the concepts of debt and interest.

If you were the first customer of a brand new bank and were to deposit £100 in the bank, you’d be given a debit card with the ability to withdraw £100 at any time. The bank would have your £100 and you would have a promise from the bank that you could withdraw it at some time in the future.

If you were the second customer of the bank and wanted to borrow some money, the bank might lend you £90 (keeping the required 10% fraction in reserve) and give you a debit card which grants you the ability to withdraw £90 at any time, on the basis that you would then pay it back (plus interest) at some point in the future.

The first customer has £100 available and the second customer has £90 available: £190 is now available to be spent in the real-economy. In effect the bank has created £90 from nothing.

With successive deposits and loans this original £100 of ‘real money’ (what economists call the monetary base or central bank money) can be transformed into several thousand pounds of ‘debt backed money’ (what economists call commercial bank money). Over 95% of the money supply in the UK economy has been created by commercial banks.

This process of money creation through lending and debt creation is referred to as fractional reserve banking,with banks effectively creating money by putting their customers into debt – financing today by endebting the future.

For many, this understanding goes against the grain and can be a little difficult to accept.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith taught at Harvard for many years and served in the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, famously said: “The process by which money is created is so simple that the mind is repelled.”

Ninety percent of the world’s population owns just fifteen percent of the wealth.

Or to put it another way ten percent of the world’s population owns eighty five percent.

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider how we organise the world’s money.

 

If you’ve got a couple of hours to spare and want to learn the origins of the words tally and stock – not to mention how the Wizard of Oz was supposedly originally a protest against exploitative banking – watch Bill Still’s fascinating documentary on the left below.

If you’ve only got 7 minutes to spend, the bank run scene from the fantastic It’s a Wonderful Life is there on the right for you :o

 

Photo from digitalworldmoney via Flickr

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Eggs and Bunnies ?

A friend of mine has written under under the religion section of her Facebook page: It’s all about the eggs and the bunnies, right ?

Whenever I see it, it makes me smile.

Most Christians would agree that It’s all about Easter, if not exactly eggs and bunnies, and that Easter is pretty much all about forgiveness.

Our Western culture often seems far more focused on revenge than forgiveness. Our films and TV is full of examples of getting even and journeys of self-righteous vengeance. In sports people talk about settling scores and payback against the opposition. The debate on prisons and reform tends to focus on punishment, rather than rehabilitation. I know it’s hardly science, but type revenge into Google and you get 276 million hits, forgiveness gives 56 million.

This shouldn’t be a surprise – revenge is part of our basic human nature, indeed it’s one of our strongest emotions. In primitive tribal societies,without any other systems of justice, revenge served as both a way for wronged individuals to achieve emotional satisfaction, and also served as a visible public deterrent to others.

But in our modern complex societies, with rule of law, our desires for personal revenge usually result in far from positive consequences – perpetuating cycles of violence, entrenching division and splitting families. After all, it’s not as if those being ‘punished’ always resign themselves to a rap on the knuckles and changing their ways – frequently the response is further anger, resentment, and a desire to retaliate against the person doing the ‘punishing’.

As neighbours fall out, relationships break up and community relations break down, escalation can easily occur – in some cases leading to frosty avoidance or internet slanging matches, in other cases slashed tires or physical violence. It’s estimated that around 20% of the murders in the Western World are motivated by revenge !

Obviously societies need to have justice, and sometimes actions need to have consequences – but forgiveness is really about something else.

It’s the emotional process of letting go of personal feelings of injustice and resentment. It’s what we do in our own heads and hearts.

Research by Dr R Enright and others indicates that people who are more inclined to forgive others are typically happier and healthier, experiencing less stress, less depression and less disease. Forgiving those who we perceive have wronged us also means we’re less likely to carry unresolved resentment and anger into new relationships and situations.

It’s not so much what we’re granting the other person, but what we’re granting to ourselves that matters. Freedom to move on – letting go of hurt, loss and bitterness. Ultimately forgiveness is a choice.

Sometimes it might seem impossible.

But we can learn forgiveness, the best teachers being those who have themselves been able to forgive some terrible wrong done to them, such as with Abiola Inakoju or Linda Beihl, or in Sierra LeoneNickel Mines USA or South Africa and many other places around the world. Many more inspiring and remarkable stories can be found on the website The Forgiveness Project.

The two videos below might also provide food for thought – with the journalist and author Naseem Rakha on the left, or the Christian writer and minster Rob Bell on the right. Many more videos about forgiveness can be found on the Fetzer Institute Youtube Channel.

 

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Photo by prakny.przewodnik via Flickr

The Art of Giving Up

Are you giving up anything for Lent this year ?

The thought may well not have crossed your mind – obviously you might not be a Christian, or even if you are, you might not observe Lent.

Lent, like Christmas, has a more complex origin and history than you might think.

The word Lent comes from the word lengthen, referring to the increasing length of daylight in the Spring. In theory it comprises the 40 days before Easter Sunday, though in practice it always lasts for a few more, as traditionally Sundays are not included as being part of the 40 – church calendars aside, it means the last day before the beginning of Lent is always taken to be Shrove Tuesday: Pancake Day.

Like Christmas, there’s no direct biblical basis for Lent, but most Christians would consider it to be a period of reflection, repentance and self-denial. Historically people undertook some form of fasting over Lent, often by not eating meat, but it’s now more usual to consider giving-up some small vice for Lent, such as chocolate, crisps or alcohol.

There is something attractive about the idea of giving something up that appeals to a wide spectrum of people.

For most of us there is some degree of disconnect between the way we would like to be, and the way we are. We know eating too much is bad for us, but we still do. We know staying up too late is bad for us, but we still do. We know we waste too much time watching TV/surfing the internet, but we still do.

Despite the best intentions we don’t always live-up to being the people we’d like to be.

Why ?

Because we’re human. We’re emotional, not just rational, and struggle with highs and lows of mood and resolve; we’re impulsive – frequently more concerned about enjoying the present moment than about the long-term consequences; and we have limited willpower – psychologists talk about ego-depletion, the idea that our self-control is a finite resource, and once we’ve used it up we inevitably cave-in !

It does us good to strip some of the ‘junk’ from our lives from time to time – a sort of personal defragging. It also doesn’t hurt to exercise our willpower muscles occasionally. Matt Curtis of TED advocates trying something new for 30 days – short enough to be achievable, but long enough to make a difference to our long term habits.

Whether you’re thinking about giving something up for Lent, committing to some other short-term change in your life, in the hope of empowering something more permanent, or (perhaps) just pondering why not everyone is as perfect as you – you might want to ask yourself a few questions before you start:

Why am I giving this particular thing up ? What permanent change do I want to create ? How am I going to motivate myself when I start to run out of willpower ? Should I share what I’m doing with others or keep it private ? How am I going to celebrate when I’m successful ?

This Lent a number of friends of mine are taking part in something called the 6 Item Challenge (Blog Facebook) – only wearing six items of clothing for the whole of Lent (underwear thankfully excluded) !

The Challenge is in support of the organisation Labour Behind the Label, who campaign to draw attention to, and improve the often poor working conditions of those in the developing world who produce the majority of the clothing you’ve got in your wardrobes at home and you’re probably wearing right now.

As well as highlighting the ethical aspects of the global garment trade, they hope to raise money through sponsorship and donations, to support Labour Behind the Label’s work. If you’re looking for a worthy cause to support, minded to have a go yourself, or just pass on messages of support and encouragement, I’m sure they’ll be very pleased to hear from you (especially when they start to smell) !

As well as encouraging fairer, more ethical trade, the challenge also asks us to us to examine our attitudes to material possessions, and our ideas of personal image and sufficiency.

Whether you call it giving something-up for Lent, or spring cleaning – dejunking our lives from time to time might not be too bad an idea, and perhaps our clothes and wardrobes might not be too bad a place to start.

Photo by from The 6 Item Challenge

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