This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news
4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
7 Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.
8 ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11saying, ‘Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Today the lectionary begins a series of extracts from the book of The Revelation, a difficult but marvellous writing which uses biblical symbols and cunning narrative devices to display the crucified Jesus as the ruler of the world and his persecuted churches as his agents.
It is thoroughly orthodox and Trinitarian in spite of its often strange language. God the father is the one who was, and is and is to come, the creator of all dimensions of space and time. Jesus is the son, the crucified (faithful witness) the resurrected (firstborn of the dead) and Messiah King (ruler of the kings of the earth). The Holy Spirit is sevenfold because that is the number of wholeness and perfection.
John is an otherwise unknown leader of the Asian churches exiled for his faith possibly by the persecuting emperor Domitianus. He receives the content of the Book, he tells the reader, as a revelation from God. The Greek “Apocalupsis” means the uncovering of things which are hidden from others. In this case John is allowed to see the real, divine history behind the ordinary history of the world. But first he has to write down a direct message to each of the Asian churches. The message is from the risen Christ whom he sees and hears in his vision as sharing in the holiness and eternity of God, while sharing also the life of his churches, his golden lamp-stands.
As in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1-2) the vision throws the prophet to the ground but he is told to not to fear as the One who has revealed himself is Lord of life and death; He has been dead and is now alive forever. In God he encompasses all that can happen. Even the prison of the dead is not closed to Him who has its keys.
The extreme weakness of the Lord’s servant John is confronted with the overwhelming power and vitality of the crucified and risen Lord. The vision is one which should comfort faithful, struggling and persecuted churches everywhere but will not even be visible to those which are unfaithful, comfy and compliant with earthly powers.
43 ‘When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but it finds none. 44Then it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.’
46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ 48But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ 49And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’
One of the keys to the scriptures is what I’ve called “oikos theology”. Oikos is the Greek word for house from which is derived our concepts of ecology (the earth as a house for life), economics (household management) and ecumenism (the one world of human beings). The house or household of God is a fundamental concept in both testaments of the Christian Bible. “How lovely is your dwelling place”( (Psalm 84); “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14).
The two stories here illustrate different aspects of oikos theology.
In the first Jesus tells his hearers that the human person is always a house and always has a tenant. If we are not God’s dwelling place we‘ll be the dwelling place of the devil, but we won’t be left empty. The exorcist may cast out the evil one but the person must invite the holy one into his life. This is so different from modern assumptions about human personality as to constitute a profound provocation to our thinking. The idea that refusal of God is openness to the devil; that rejection of good is openness to evil; will be seen as cranky and extreme by many people-which is how they’ll also view the second story given by Matthew.
Jesus seems to rejects the people of his own family household in favour of those who belong to the household of God. In reality what he rejects his family’s assumption that they have priority in his life. This was no more that the normal assumption of his society, but he rejects it decisively: the household of God comes first. Those who prefer to forget this strand of Jesus’ teaching and example lose the terrifying radicalism of the first Christians. They really did believe they were part of a single new household of God which included all races.
For those who’d like to know more about Oikos Theology, I’ve appended a recent paper
OIKOS THEOLOGY AND ECONOMICS
A RECENT PAPER BY MIKE MAIR
OIKOS THEOLOGY AND ECONOMY
The fundamental metaphor of Oikos Theology is that of universe, community and person as contested households: they can be houses of God who gives equal hospitality to all his creatures; or houses of the Enemy who favours ruthless competition amongst inhabitants and domination of one by another.
(Even writing down these phrases should make the theologian pause; for is not “ruthless competition amongst inhabitants” the engine of evolution and therefore the “way” of the Creator? The atheist evolutionist can describe its process without giving competition and mutual domination any moral value but the believer who ascribes the process to the wisdom of a creator will find it hard to disentangle the deity from evolutionary cruelty. It may be the recognition of this intractable problem that fuels the denial of evolution by fundamentalist Christians. The difficulty is real and cannot honestly be dodged by theologies that accept versions of Darwinism. How can the processes described by Darwin be called “very good”? How can the God who permitted the extinction of countless species also be the Father who cares about the fall of a sparrow?
The answers to these questions emerge from a rigorous doctrine of the Trinity: the Father who makes space for the universe by his own withdrawal; the Spirit who inhabits the processes of creation, enabling development and sharing the pain; the Son who bears the evils consequent on the Father’s withdrawal in his cross and opens up new heavens and new earth in his resurrection. )
Oikos the Greek word for house is the root of the English economy, ecology and ecumenism. With the Hebrew for house, Beth, it is a key word in the Bible, especially in the phrase, House of God, which designates the universe, heaven, Israel, the temple, the shrine, the faithful person/ community as dwelling places of God; and on the other hand designates God as the dwelling place of all creatures. The unified theological story is that God comes to dwell with his creatures so that they may dwell with God.
How do I imagine a house of God? It is a part of the universe from which God the Father is absent, as a woman is absent from her own womb, giving space for new life; throughout which the Spirit of God is present as the persuasion of God’s love towards perfection; in which Jesus Christ is born as the first of God’s children. The metaphor could be applied to houses as diverse as the stable at Bethlehem and the community of Jesus’ disciples.
In the theology of the Orthodox Church oeconomia is primarily used to describe the saving justice of the Trinity i.e. God’s household management. THE economy is the way God is and acts, creating, sustaining and transforming life. Christian people can understand God’s household management and use it as a model for their own economic behaviour. As against prevailing orthodoxies they refuse the rule of the market (seeing it as a form of idolatry) and insist that the house and its inhabitants come before its means of management. Anyone who thinks that idolatry is too strong an expression should look at the reports of the U.S Law Society about the number of wives divorcing husbands because the current financial crisis has reduced their earning power.
This leads me to the primary statement of Oikos economics:
1.0 The purpose of economic activity is the re-creation of the human household which is also God’s household. (Genesis 1: 28-31)
Re-creation primarily refers to the endlessly fertile activity of God who brings new worlds and new life into being every day. Human economy should aim to bring forth children in a nourishing ecosystem. The basic agents of growth are families rather than multinational companies but there is nothing here to inhibit and everything to encourage a venturesome economy with the purpose of re-creating life rather than mere wealth. Maybe the word, recreate, sounds too grandiose? The effects of launching a new company or national economic strategy can be new human activity, new relationships and so new life. Often these are seen as by-products of wealth-creation but in an oikos perspective it’s the other way round: wealth is the by-product of life-creation. Often theological criticism seems to carp at the adventure, risk and ambition of secular enterprises; Oikos theology suggests that much “enterprise” is the mechanical reproduction of capital and is not nearly ambitious enough.
1.1 Any economic activity which is fundamentally destructive is also unwise. (Luke 12: 13-21) Of course many destructive activities can be profitable for some people in the short term but in the long term they will prove unwise. The way of creation can be discerned by study and constitutes wisdom. The hokma of the Bible, the sophia of the Greeks, the tao of Asian philosophy, these traditions use the best science of their time and accompany it with profound meditation on natural process. Humanity has not invented wisdom but apprehends it in the life of the universe.
1.2 Any wise economic activity offers creative labour which expresses and develops human character. (Ecclesiasticus 38: 24-34) Creativity is a fundamental expression of human being as ecstatic, that is, as standing out from itself and becoming new. Such labour, however simple, is a human good to be sought out and cherished as a component of the good life.
1.3 All economic activity should produce justice and peace, the qualities which allow the inhabitants of the one household to live together. ( Isaiah1: 11-17) The fact that human beings share in creation is a sign that God does not do everything himself and that what has been done is not enough: the household of God is an ongoing project rather than a finished artefact. St Paul says we are co-workers with God in creating good. (Romans 8:28)
1.4 No economic system can ensure continual wellbeing. ( Ecclesiates 9:7-12) (“The best laid plans o’ mice and men/ gang aft agley” (Burns)) Any system that pretends it can do so is in the grip of an arrogant delusion that makes it dangerous. The biblical doctrine of creation begins with chaos (without form and void and darkness on the face of the deep) and shows how God’s Word brings order by including the void darkness in the rhythm of each day: “And there were evening and morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1:1-4). Chaos is not eliminated but given its place in the new order. Novelty, unpredictability, indeterminacy, waste and death are as much part of creation as law and light. If this sounds negative, remember that randomness is the cradle of new life. Economic systems must find a middle way between excessive control and utter carelessness. Wisdom literature is much taken up with this balance and reveals that there is no easy poise but only a skill in leaning now this way, now that way, without falling. The market fundamentalism of 1980-2008 is a daft certainty that absence of market control is virtuous.
1.5 The product of economic activity should be common- wealth i.e. the well-being of the whole household rather than individual or sectional wealth, for the Christian tradition is quite clear that the possession of wealth corrupts. (The Acts 2:42-47; Matthew 19: 16-26). This is different from those traditions which teach that attachment to wealth corrupts, that it is a question of attitude. This is a hard teaching and unlikely to find acceptance. What about famous philanthropists, people ask. My guess is that for every George Soros who stumbles into the kingdom there are thousands of cold-hearted miserly gits who don’t give a toss for their neighbour and deserve a few lifetimes in the big fire. In any case this teaching to should lead us to use great caution in dealing with rich individuals and institutions: they may be corrupt; and in gathering wealth to ourselves, we may be corrupted.
1.6 Economic activity which does not serve the common good serves common evil. Jesus taught that we cannot serve God and Mammon=Posessions (Matthew 6:24). Bob Dylan sings that “you gotta serve somebody/ it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord/ but you gotta serve someone”. This is an unavoidable choice for individuals and corporations. The service of Mammon is slavery to the “rulers of this dark age” according to St. Paul: arrogance, greed, violence, restlessness. The “house” can be occupied by trans-personal forces of destruction.
1.7 Where debt brings people into slavery or degradation it should be cancelled. It seems likely that Jesus who worked in the building trade would want his bills paid. In a developed economy people will accrue debts for goods and services and ought to pay them. But there are situations in which the debt can destroy the debtor. If the creditor thinks he lives in a different house from the debtor this may have not much concern him. But if in truth they both live in the one house the spectacle of a brother’s need requires the generous cancellation of his debt. This is the argument used by those who wished the cancellation of the debts of poor nations: we live in the one world, we all benefit from each other’s welfare. Without doubt “forgiveness of debt” was a major metaphor of Jesus’ ministry. To what extent it was also a literal expectation is open to question. It is clear that lending money for profit was forbidden in the early church and for many centuries thereafter. Debt cancellation and the proscription of usury could undermine the basis of capitalist economies.(Now there’s an idea!) (Matthew 5: 42; 6: 12; 18: 23-35)
2.0 Creative economy has always existed in the practice of those who live justly. Contrary to modern depictions of “primitive” life as nasty, brutish and short, there is evidence of very simple economies producing enough and to spare while offering considerable leisure time. (Jesus’ story of the feast that the rich have no time to attend while the poor respond gladly is a shrewd observation. Luke 14: 15-24) Problems arise with the ability to produce significant surplus-the issues of distribution, ownership and power.
2.1 Creative economy activity uses the market but gives priority to the welfare of human beings and the natural world. (The Acts: 4: 34-5)The market is not resistant to these concerns.
2.2 Creative economy depends on the willingness of workers to live modestly and to put surplus earnings at the disposal of the common good, as in the first Christian communities depicted in the book of The Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:6). This askesis (discipline) is less foreign to contemporary earners than is sometimes thought: many people are happy to live frugally for a purpose.
2.3 Creative economy refuses to be bound solely by local considerations and makes imaginative connections with people in other places, treating the world as one household. The aid organised by St Paul amongst the Greek churches for the poor of Jerusalem is an astonishingly early witness to this principle. (Corinthians 8:1-15)
2.4 Creative economy is actively opposed to destructive economy. The story of Jesus and Zacchaeus shows how the destructive economy of an oppressive power and its collaborators is undermined by the generous fraternal behaviour of Jesus so that justice is re-established in one household. (Luke 19: 1-10)
2.4 Creative economy recognises that the re-creation of the biosphere is as important as the recreation of human life and more important than the maintenance of rich people and their habits. The Biblical tradition notes a conflict between the good of the biosphere (Eden) and the good of human ingenuity (Genesis 3). The human pair is expelled from the garden because they are determined to know everything. Their successors use their knowledge to build a skyscraper that threatens heaven and is destroyed. Yet human knowledge and its technologies are the engine of history. The Bible is pessimistic about human arrogance and its consequences.
3.0 The earth is finite, as Christian theology has always said. (Wisdom 13: 1-9) There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Even if there’s a miracle the five loves and two fishes are consumed. Just as slavery was taken for granted in classical economy, so the availability of raw materials was taken for granted by Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx, and Keynes. Now it is clear that these are finite and that some of them may be used up already.
3.1 In the linked crises of global resources and global warming most national governments whose concern is a small area of the world over a short period of time will behave with stupidity and the rest with gross stupidity.(Psalm 82) The world church should join with other world organisations to face the crises intelligently. The Bible contains a critique of the nation state as harming rather than housing its people. This remains relevant in a world of interdependent beings who need government to be both more local and more global than nations. The church is well placed to act across national borders.
3.2 Christianity should not equate trust in God with confidence in the continuing ability of the earth to support human life. (Psalm 46) Human beings can destroy the earth as a human habitat and may do so. This would not invalidate an oikos theology which sees a future earth without Homo Sapiens as still a house of God.
3.3 Biblical pessimism is justified when we ask if the nations are ready to cooperate in the profound changes necessary to keep the earth as a home for humanity. Clearly they are not. (Psalm 49:12-14) Far-reaching changes in human economies are probable as people adjust to higher temperatures and more profound changes will be required if global warming is to be stopped.
3.4 All the resources of nations should be mobilised towards preventing/ ameliorating eco-catastrophe. It is highly probable that nations will prepare for change by increasing the capability of their armed forces and weapons. Christian teaching mocks those who put their trust in destructive power. Christian people must stand firm against violence. (Isaiah 31: 1-3)
3.5 As at the time of the decay of the Roman Empire, Christian churches may now disperse into “the desert” to establish ways of living which do not depend on the dominant economies of the age. The desert Fathers and Mothers lived without slaves, without law, without violence, without large scale technologies, without wealth yet out of this monastic movement came human skills for a new age: self-reliance, strong community, frugality, vegetable and animal husbandry. The household management of monasteries provided models for societies. Eco-communities throughout the world, by creating a more just economy may discover how to live with minimal damage to ecosystems and maybe how to enhance them. Churches should not live in denial of eco-danger nor should they indulge in helpless panic. They could be witnesses, along with wise people everywhere, to the practicability of just economy and the possibility of a new beginning. In this way they may act as many Noah’s Arks for our time.
4.0 Along with other dissidents, Churches can refuse to worship Mammon and set up communities of opposition within global capitalism
4.1 The relationship of churches in the rich world with partners in the poor world through organisations like Christian Aid and Caritas should be central to the identity of the former: in and through just partnerships, significant redistribution of wealth can take place. World religions are favourably placed to foster communities of opposition within many nations. It is vital that they recognise this potential, forge agreements and act in solidarity with the poor.
4.2 Fraternal relationships amongst all agencies and persons who oppose the domination of capital are essential for establishing and supporting communities that can be “houses of God.” Fraternal relationships must be honest. It is quite possible to defend the Cuban revolution while criticising its secret police.
4.3. Communities of opposition will refuse to participate in “capitalist” wars such as the Iraq war but will show solidarity with its victims, both civilians and members of armed forces. If possible they will do so without violence, revitalising techniques such as withholding tax, strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, non-violent witness in war zones and areas of oppression, radical use of internet and other media to provide uncensored information.
4.4 Such communities will be creative in key areas of the economy such as housing, transport, food and finance. Housing Associations, Transport Clubs, Food Cooperatives and Credit Unions are the result of creative work and should be supported but much remains to be done.
4.5 Such communities will be committed to politics, arts and sports as the true wealth of communal life. This has only seldom been part of Christian practice and some of what has existed is bad practice. We need a contemporary re-run of the old debate between Jerusalem and Athens, sacred and secular, with a greater understanding of how each may be complemented by the other.
4.6 The church community should reflect on its “in-house” economic practice in forming its political stance. For example the Church of Scotland includes poorer and wealthier congregations, but the wealthier are “taxed” seriously for the benefit of the poorer. Ministries in areas of severe urban or rural deprivation are provided at the expense of congregations in county towns and city suburbs. This has been achieved without magnifying the power of the National Church over its constituent congregations. There is freedom for congregations to manage their own ministries but no freedom to neglect the common good. Clearly this experience furnishes no more than a pattern or metaphor for large scale political economy but it is not therefore without value. Indeed it suggests that free markets must be regulated, personal and corporate wealth taxed for the welfare of the citizen while economic and political freedoms empower the citizen to challenge the policies of the state. That is, while the struggle between socialism and capitalism is not resolved and perhaps cannot be resolved, the church must argue for economic regulation that shackles the power of capital and for enough market freedom to restrict the power of the state. In a time when markets are almost totally unregulated the church should oppose the power of capital.
5.0 Nowhere is the regulation of markets more vital than in housing policy.
5.1 In the UK the policy of allowing tenants to buy their council houses combined with a seven year boom in the price of houses, left many poor people unable to find decent housing. Oikos theology, recognising the divine potential of the household, supports the provision of affordable housing for all citizens. Providers may include private developers alongside the state, local councils and housing associations. The expansion of the state and voluntary sector in housing would increase overall supply and limit the increase in house prices. At the same time the profits of housing development companies should be more heavily taxed to assist with the costs of a more just housing policy. The active engagement of householders in the design/management of their own estates should be compulsory: no-one should be able to neglect the common interest. Tenant and home owner associations should become the basic level of democracy in society. The long experience of the UK housing charity Shelter in assisting homeless and poorly housed people makes its recommendation to government of much greater investment in affordable housing especially relevant. (See Shelter Website: Policy)
5.2 The biblical tradition especially emphasises hospitality to the stranger, i.e. to the homeless and the orphan i.e. to those without a household. The existence of actual homelessness and insecure housing is a disgrace in an affluent society. The overriding priority of housing policy must be to meet these needs. Housing policy must begin with those who have no house.
5.3 Oikos theology emphasises that a house is primarily a place to live rather than an investment. Government policy should express this principle. In the housing boom in the UK houses became little more than their exchange value, condemning poorer people to exclusion from the market.
5.4 Residential areas must be planned rather than left to the operation of markets. The idea that communities will evolve in areas of residence determined by capital is like imagining that flowers will spontaneously germinate in shit. Sometimes they will but weeds are more likely. Middle class ghettos as well as ghettos of race, religion and deprivation are unlikely to be wholesome communities.
5.5 Oikos theology promotes wisdom in household management and in the relationships of households to each other. Traditional versions of this wisdom are found in the Tanakh, especially in Proverbs, 1, 2 Samuel, Ruth, Sirach, and in the New Testament in the letters of Paul. These cannot be applied without “translation” to contemporary households in the UK but their themes of discipline, care, modesty, prudence, mutual respect and affection, hospitality, are more than ever relevant today. Even the apparently outdated ritual legislation of the Bible contains the crucial recognition that the uncleanness of one household pollutes the neighbourhood. In moral and ecological terms this remains true.
5.6 Households that provide stable relationships, affectionate nurture of children, just practice towards neighbours, recognition of communal duty, and grace allied to practicality in the use of material things should be the aim of national economy. All other aims are secondary.
6.0 Expenditure on armed forces beyond what is needed for the defence of citizens and peace-keeping duties under international control is evil. We still train killers, that is, we train troops for aggressive war. Training troops to defend us would be very different. Weaponry that can only be used against the citizens of another country should never be deployed. Selling such weaponry to other nations or groups should be illegal. Resources which can be used to enhance life should not be used to destroy it, except, maybe, when we are under attack. Zechariah 9:9 points to a messianic peacefulness, and is underlined by Jesus’ use of it in his entry to Jerusalem. (Mark 11: 1ff) God’s chosen one gets rid of armaments and the house of God is for all nations. The so-called “peace dividend” of revenue that no longer had to wasted on war, would be real and useful.
6.1 The ultimate gift of the son of God is peace (John 14). In the Father’s House are many dwellings. If it were not so, he would have told us.
The above reflections are tentative and incomplete ways of articulating the meaning of the “house of God” in contemporary society. I would be happy if readers were a) critical of what I’ve written, b) prepared to add to it.
Copyright Mike Mair September 2010