“More like philosophers”: what are economists?

Reposted (with minor corrections) from November 9th, 2017 because it relates to my current work on the relationship between theology and economics. The title of the post is new to reflect the key quotation from Varoufakis at the end.

Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil: dystopian fiction to change the world.

Sermon, University College, Durham 9/11/17


Exodus 23: 1-9 KJV

Matthew 19: 1-15 KJV

“What must it be like, I wonder,” 

says Katniss Everdeen 

“to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to rill in and die for their entertainment?”

It’s traditional to begin a sermon with a text. As indeed I have. 

However, not a text from Scripture but from dystopian fiction. In this case The Hunger Games.

Here’s another. From one of my current favourites, Divergent by Veronica Roth:

“I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different.”

And a final text, from Majorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses. Not quite dystopian fiction, but certainly a fantasy world:

“I used to comfort myself with the belief that it was only certain individuals and their peculiar notions that spoilt things for the rest of us. But how many individuals does it take before it’s not the individuals who are prejudiced but society itself?” 

There has been much speculation about the success and popularity of this kind of writing in recent times. Why do young people particularly seek out these descriptions of disintegrated societies? Why have these books been so popular in these first decades of the 21st century?

Life, I believe, is a journey from the utter selfishness of a baby, who is just discovering what is me and not me; to the utter selflessness of the mature human being, who like Jesus, is able to give themselves entirely for the other.

Most of us do not get all that far along that journey.

I have worked for almost my whole adult life with children and young people teaching 4 to 18 year olds. There is a common theme to adolescence around what is fair and not fair.

“It’s not fair.” Might well be said to be the slogan for the early teenage years. We were all there. It’s not fair that I have to go to bed, don’t get enough pocket money, cant go to the party.

But quite quickly as young people grow up that not fairness is applied less selfishly. Many teenagers notice the larger unfairnesses in the world. Some of the best groups I’ve seen in schools have been Amnesty International or Anti-Homophobic bullying or Anti-racist groups.

It seems to me that dystopian fiction is in the best tradition of naming what is wrong with the world: the evil, the darkness, the selfishness and showing how an individual can work against it. Dystopian fiction is in the tradition of the true fairy-tale, not the Hollywood film, but the aptly named Brothers Grimm.

Dystopia, literally means, in the Greek, ‘bad – place’. It names what we all know, that the world is not a Utopia. It names what Christian tradition calls original sin, the tendency to evil, to selfishness and destruction. And that naming is the essential first step to change.

So, here at last is a biblical text:

Exodus 23 verse 2, from tonight’s first reading.

“Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.”

You know the story of Exodus. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and led by Moses they leave slavery behind to approach the promised land. But like the best dystopian fiction there is a good deal of moral ambiguity around, Moses has committed murder. The people whisper and murmur and make golden idols to worship. But they do make the journey and here in chapter 23, near the end of the book, they are given the laws which will govern their common lives.

The Bible knows nothing of an individualised spirituality. Belief and practice are enshrined in common laws and practices. The highly individualised nature of our society allows us to avoid responsibility for the injustices of the world. 

Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil: let me name just two evils in our world, which are linked and which demand of us, I believe as much heroism as Katniss Everdeen.

The destruction of our planet 

and ever increasing wealth inequality. 

We can easily feel overwhelmed by the sheer impossibility of doing anything about these. But isn’t it that overwhelming impossibility that is the very theme of dystopian fiction? The heroine fighting back against the massive powers arrayed against her.

The first thing we have to do is acknowledge the dystopia, the bad place we are in.

You don’t need me to tell you where to look information on climate change. 

I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different. Veronica Roth wrote.

We all need to be braver to tackle climate change. Angrier with our politicians so that they will prioritise it. Selfless in our shopping, our consumption so that manufacturers will change their processes.

The Christian tradition calls change repentance. We need to repent. To make changes to our lives and lifestyles so that we don’t follow the multitude to do evil.

On all measures the distribution of the world’s wealth is at its most unequal since before the First World War. It is a stark warning to us that some economists believe that only something like a major war can disrupt inequality sufficiently.

But there are others who are more hopeful.

I have just read Yanis Varoufakis’ book Telling My Daughter About the Economy, and am re-reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century.

Of course they don’t have all the answers, and certainly they are not right about everything.

But we can hardly claim to be educated, intelligent people if we are not educated about economics. 

We cannot name our dystopia, our bad places if we are ignorant of its causes.

“I used to comfort myself with the belief that it was only certain individuals and their peculiar notions that spoilt things for the rest of us. But how many individuals does it take before it’s not the individuals who are prejudiced but society itself.”

Jesus in our second reading tonight, said, let the children come to me.

Can you imagine what  our children, our grandchildren will say if we allow the continued destruction of our planet? Increasing economic injustice?
Imagination is often underrated. The writers of dystopian fiction are doing exactly what the biblical writers did.

And what we can do.

Our reading, our learning should be the food for our imaginations, to imagine a better world, a different world.

When we imagine something we make it possible.

This week has been the centenary of the October revolution.

I am not suggesting we need a revolution. We need something much more subversive than that.

The great biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes:

“Imagination is the capacity to image a world beyond what is obviously given.

That’s the work of poets and novelists and artists –

And that’s what biblical writers mostly do.

I think that’s why people show up in church.

They want to know whether there is any other world available than the one which we can see, which we can hardly bear.”

Varoufakis, is very clear about what he thinks are the limits of economics:

“We face a choice: we can keep pretending we are scientists, like astrologists do, or admit that we are more like philosophers, who will never know the meaning of life for sure, no matter how wisely and rationally they argue.”

For those of us who are Christians, the economy is too important to be left to economists. We need the biblical witness to justice and community. We need to follow the utter self-lessness of Jesus to enable us to be brave. To be pioneers, Subversives for a better world.

We need individuals and we need to be this individuals, who can imagine a better world and who can take the small steps not to follow the multitudes to do evil.

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