Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Justice, Mercy and Humility

If we are to believe the Sunday Times Rich List, the rich are getting richer. In spite of the recession in 2009, which wiped £155billion off of their assets, the UK's 1000 richest people are now worth £395.8billion, up by 18% from last year.

If you’re rich, you can employ an army of tax advisers to exploit fiscal loopholes and transfer wealth to offshore accounts. One estimate suggests that the rich probably only pay 9% tax on their income.

Micah declared God’s message to Judah and Israel in the time of King Hezekiah. In a time of growing trade and prosperity, small holding farmers were being dispossessed of their land as rich property developers bribed judges to rubber-stamp their illicit deals.

We should be under no illusion about the underhand tactics that the big brands and the wealthy employ to destroy every threat to their expansion and dominance. The oligopoly of market visibility, a fawning press corps, threats of legal action against rogue critics, illicit sources of supply (employing child labour, foreign ‘sweatshops’ and depleting local economies of resources), even distorting the current legal framework that regulates competition. Yet, for all these practices, the rich also try to build a contrasting image of philanthropy through their claimed ‘contribution’ to the economy, self-promoting ‘worthy cause’ sponsorship, honorary titles, charity events and high-value tax-deductible donations. As Christ said: ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.’ (Luke 22:25)

Micah described the sacrifices that the rich proposed to regain God’s favour and salve their guilty consciences: ‘With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ (Micah 6:7)

They had forgotten Samuel’s censure of Saul: ‘Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.’ (1 Sam 15:22)

Instead of proposing extravagant diversionary reparations out of their expanding wealth, Micah clarified that God specifically wanted them to follow the stifled voice of conscience:

‘He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ Micah 6:8.

James re-iterates this demand of practical devotion to God: ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.’ (James 1:27)

The Old Testament delivers repeated and emphatic warnings to those who plunder, rather than do justice towards those whose rights are compromised by a lack of an advocate. The fatherless and widows are those who are helpless to defend their rights. Giving someone their due is not the same as being charitable towards them. To judge the fatherless is to fight for the recognition of their just claim against those who exercise undue influence. It is to break ranks with the system of favours that ensures the rich expand their empires at the expense of the less fortunate.

Consider Donald Trump’s vulgar, but successful bid for permission to build a £750million golf course in Aberdeenshire. Since the diggers were brought in, an 84 year old widow, Mrs. Forbes, has been threatened with a compulsory purchase order because she refuses to sell her home to him. Unsurprisingly, the council which gave full planning permission and the rich have shown no interest in advocacy on her behalf. Neither has any church made a public statement in her support. I suppose many would consider it suicide to take on Trump, so she becomes collateral damage. This is oppression plain and simple. The voice of the free press is far from stridently critical of Trump. Perhaps, he who pays the piper, really does call the tune!

James goes on to echo Isaiah in also condemning the mean-spirited companies who use deceit to cheat staff in lower pay-grades of fair pay in line with their employer’s financial performance. Today, that deceit might include extending a pay freeze unnecessarily, or unfair gender and race pay differentials: ‘Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, cries: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.’ (James 5:4)

The vast armies of heaven are arrayed in preparation to dispossess by sudden calamity those rich who steal, bribe and blackmail their way to greater wealth.

In contrast, Jesus calls His followers to service: ’But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.’ (Luke 22:26)

An attitude of service clarifies what others actually need by asking and listening. It then delivers personally where possible, leading others by example. Service does not just wield authority, telling others to execute our grand designs and aspirations for charity on command.

May the Lord help us to remember that difference!

As a footnote, although Mrs. Forbes lost the first case and is facing eviction, the Scottish Legal Aid Board is reviewing its decision to refuse her legal aid.

She is considering an appeal, so you never know…

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