Sunday, 7 November 2010

Journeying through the wilderness

This article appeared in the 'View from the Pew' column in the November 2010 edition of Newslink, the diocesan magazine for Limerick & Killaloe.

We are entering a wilderness
We feel a bit like the Children of Israel, I think, as Moses led them from Egypt into the Sinai desert, to wander for forty years before reaching the Promised Land.

The economy has crashed; the public finances are in crisis. In successive budgets we have already suffered painful cuts to jobs, pay and services, as well as higher taxes. And now we are told we face four more years of increasing pain to bring the public finances back into balance. We long for the Celtic Tiger boom days, as the Israelites longed for the fleshpots of Egypt.

We won’t return anytime soon, I believe.
Even if we reduce the deficit to 3% by 2014, to which all the major political parties are committed; even if we make the budget adjustment of €15 billion economists say is necessary. The problems we face are deeper than the perennial instability of capital markets.

It is dawning on us – too slowly - that our modern consumer lifestyle is unsustainable. It cannot continue. To feed it humans are over-exploiting the Earth’s resources of fossil energy, minerals, water and fertile land. This damages God’s planet which nurtures us. Humans will suffer with the rest of creation, unless we change. This lifestyle is also unjust. Everyone cannot enjoy high consumption in a finite world. If the rich take the lions’ share, the poor are deprived of their aspirations.

We cannot go back, we can only go forward. Our journey through the wilderness will likely last decades.

How did we get here?
The root cause is surely old fashioned greed, a sin to which humans have always been liable – greed for money, for possessions, for a lifestyle richer than our neighbours. We know we must repent and change our ways, but we do not yet see clearly what and how, so we are anxious, frightened. It is as if God is humbling and testing us, as he did the Israelites, while we journey through our own wilderness.

But as Christians we should take heart from their experience, and go forward confidently. God will look after us on our journey. He will make ‘water flow from flint rock’ and feed us ‘with manna that our ancestors did not know’ (Deut 8:15-16). He will continue to bless us with enough to meet our needs, if not our unreasonable wants. And God will eventually lead us into our Promised Land. With his help we can and will build a society which is sustainable and just, more like the kingdom of heaven than the one we know today, even if like Moses we will not enter it ourselves.

Budget 2011 will be tough
We should not complain about a tough budget. Our public finances must be balanced as soon as is reasonable, because it would be unjust to pass an undue burden of debt onto our children. But Christians must judge Budget 2011 by God’s standards – its justice - not our own selfish interests.

The balance between cuts and taxes will be critical. The least well off must be protected. Those with good incomes and large assets must pay more tax. The rich should rejoice to be able to pay a lot, but that will not be enough. Even families with quite modest incomes must accept paying a little more with as much grace as they can muster.

For me, as in previous years, the acid test will be whether the overseas aid budget is maintained, because that supports the very poorest of the poor.

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