The Revd Brutus Green
‘Those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.’
One of the most eminent moral philosophers of the twentieth century, Alasdair Macintyre, wrote some thirty years ago that Western societies had by and large become a-moral. By this he didn’t mean that we were all boozing too much, being wantonly promiscuous, that crime was high or we were neglectful of the poor. He wasn’t saying that we had become im-moral (with bad morals) - but a-moral - that is without morals.
To explain what he meant he looked at the sort of roles people take in society; the sort of roles that exemplify how people relate to the public realm. The most typical roles he identified are that of the manager and the therapist. And he noticed that these sorts of role are concerned with effectiveness. Neither engage in moral debate. The ends are taken as given, out of their scope. A manager is not concerned with the product, but with the efficiency of the organisation. A therapist isn’t there to help you be a good person, but a functioning, well-adjusted one. Both roles are concerned with the means - how people and organisations can be made more efficient and successful. What matters is being effective.
To give an example, we might think about politicians and civil servants. On an almost whimsical basis there we have people transferred from one sphere of public life to an entirely different one. Take Alan Johnson. His first ministerial post was at the department of Trade and Industry. He then moved to be minister for Higher Education, even though he had left school at 15. Later he was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, then for Productivity, Energy and Industry, then Education and Skills, then Health. Finally, he had his brief spell as Shadow Chancellor, which was perhaps a little notorious for his not knowing the rate of national insurance. But what gives someone the competency for all these roles? Well presumably it’s the rather strange idea that whatever the area, these people are effective.
And nor has the church escaped this culture. It is not uncommon for people to think of priests as an old-fashioned type of therapist/counsellor. And most of my post-ordination training has been concerned with leadership - about how to be an effective manager. Education, healthcare, no sphere of public life is untouched by these models.
A little while ago a friend heard a pastor speaking about a man who was in a prayer group that prayed for people with gambling addiction. Although he made nothing of it this vicar mentioned that the man happened to work for an online gambling company! [as a note the UK Gambling Commission found that 75% of online gamblers are “pathological gamblers”, as opposed to only 20% of visitors to land-based casinos.] As the friend was looking with slight horror at one of his books, Future Leader, he came up behind her, patted her on the shoulder, declaring, “this book will change your life.”
The point is that people these days see no inconsistency in detaching their means from their ends. In fact the ends very often become entirely irrelevant - it’s the means that matter. The worst example of this has been seen this week in the News of the World scandal - don’t forget to buy your souvenir final copy today - an institution that purported to support and express the grief of the nation for victims of crime and casualties of war has by illegal and invasive means worked precisely against these ends, exacerbating and exploiting grief. It has been till today the most effective Sunday paper, but has sacrificed every imaginable principle to achieve this effectiveness.
And it’s worth remembering from the trials that followed the Second World War that the most heinous criminals - those who were responsible for the liquidation - an appropriately managerial term - of millions were bureaucrats, civil servants. They didn’t fire any weapons for the most part. They just organised trains and sent memos. Some of them were genuinely surprised to be faced with the charges and revulsion in the courtrooms, because they were just a link in a chain - they were just doing their job. Perhaps the Dutch peacekeepers at Srebrenica felt the same.
The last few Sundays we have been going through Paul’s letter to the Romans in our readings. And we’ve had this continual distinction thrown up, between those who live according to the flesh, in satisfying every momentary libidinous desire, whose end is death; and those who live according to the Spirit, whose end is peace and life. And Paul’s consistent line is that what matters is where you’re headed. ‘Those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.’ For Paul, the end of every human life is the risen Christ. The Spirit is the means to this end that enables us to grow and become this end. The flesh has no end, it is just a series of immediate means that go nowhere, which is why its end is death.
If we are only concerned with means, whether its pleasure or money, or being effective, we have let go of morality. We have become a-moral. You can be an effective doctor or an effective gangster. What matters first of all is what is your end goal and only secondarily how effective you are. It’s no good being fabulously wealthy if you’ve got no time and no one to enjoy it with.
Today we also heard the parable of the sower. I’ve mentioned before how the word broadcasting came originally from scattering seed, so perhaps a modern retelling of this parable would involve running an advertising campaign. Advertising is a notoriously effectiveness-based activity. So we should probably advise our sower to target the Word of God in certain slots depending on whether it’s likely to be a hit with a daytime audience, or the prime time X-factor slot, if he wants to be effective. Market research would also indicate that perhaps our sower should also be a scantily clad blonde woman in her early twenties, and that the Word of God should be presented in a cool and sexy way with some R’n’B playing in the background. There should be sofas and a smoothie bar and someone should be wearing Ray Bans. Perhaps she could hack into people’s voicemail to find their weak-spots.
But actually no. Because again that is to allow the means to dictate the end. The Word of God is for more than the young, successful and pretty. Though it is for them too. But it is scattered everywhere equally for whoever will take it up. And at the base of its vision is the gathering in of all people. The means must be justified by the end.
For the Ancient Greeks, who really kicked off the whole business of moral philosophy, we are all born into a social role, as brother, son, member of a city. Through life we grow in these social roles through our trade or profession and our familial and friendship ties. We are on a journey towards a given end which is the fulfillment of these roles. The Greeks had an expression which sums this up: ‘Call no man happy until he is dead.’ Ethics was what guided action in moving from birth to the achievement of a good death.
Contemporary society has lost the notion of us having an end. We are nowadays more concerned to identify ourselves with self-expression than social roles. Living in a particular place, family, the ethos of the institution for which we work defines us less than our choice of dress and musical preference. We care more about personal effectiveness than principles.
The final picture of the Christian life though is of the peaceful city, the New Jerusalem. A city of harmonious social relations. This is the end to which we are working and for which we are preparing ourselves. Effectiveness is important, as for the sower, whose good ground yielded grain thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold. But our effectiveness is always subordinate to the end of the peaceful city. Our achievement of this end begins with us taking seriously our role in society, with our neighbours, our work and the people you’re sitting next to.
To become moral people we need to be more than just managers and therapists. We can do this by being aware of our connectedness and by keeping one eye always fixed on where we’re trying to get to and what are our governing principles. We can be effective without being hypocritical. And we can be walking advertisements for a Gospel of social inclusion and responsibility.