Changing the Narrative….


2015-07-26 by Jeremy Clarke

Preacher: Geoff Thorington-Hassell
26th July 2015
Based on today’s lectionary readings (detailed further down the page)

Sitting at the dining table in our eve flat in Frinton you can see, between the tree canopies in full leaf and the assorted roof lines, the slender masts and silver turbine blades of the Gun fleet array. The rotating daffodil stalks are at a distance of five miles away. At one level they may seem to have industrialised the horizon but to my mind they are a welcome addition and a beauty of design and appearance. They – and the much larger array further out on the southern part of the North Sea – help power the Tendring District with sustainable, renewable, clean, energy.

We have just spent two weeks in the special and rarefied air of this small coastal town in North Essex. The old musical hall joke about Frinton is, “Harwich for the continent. Frinton for the incontinent.” The High Street still has the 1950’s ethic of conformability and comfort of small family businesses – although, in the words of one of the fishmongers in Young’s, the recent addition of a mini Sainsbury’s (it opened the week we were there) was a needed “kick up the bum” for the East of England Co-op anchoring the top end of Connaught Avenue.

Sainsbury’s now sits where the cycle shop used to be which has now relocated near to the mobility centre end of town in finer premises. The place where The Elms is situated is amongst the winners of the baby boom generation with a gilded life on golden pond in large, and largely empty, houses – except when filled with grand children in school holidays. Its occupants are increasingly aged and for much of the time it is rare to see a single person. A testimony too of much foreign travel and the small army of tradesmen and gardeners that keep properties in chocolate box condition in wide, tree-lined streets and with copious mature planting. Movement appears restricted to the appearance and disappearance of estate agent signs and removal lorries and the plethora of bird life. It’s a bit like the day after the bomb dropped.

This thought apocalypse and “changing the narrative” informed much of my holiday reading. First up was the book on the Promised Land by Nicholas Lemann. This detailed the largely untold story of the biggest internal migration seen within the United States of six million African-Americans from the cotton fields of the South to the urban centres of the North, particularly Chicago. It followed the introduction of a workable mass produced cotton-picking machine in 1944. Furthermore, the introduction of new chemicals to replace the hand labour involved in “chopping the cotton” removed at a stroke the share cropping subsistence culture and pushed people North in search of work. Yet they were also “pulled “by new and better paid work with better prospects. However, the North did not prove to be safe haven as the narrative changed. In rapid succession the Northern cities became the rust belts of de-industrialisation.

Promised Land details life in the projects (our equivalent of the housing estates) and the war on poverty (the US version of the Welfare State), its failures, (which were many) and its successes (the creation of a thriving black middle class). It also gave me a new, favourable appreciation of Lyndon Brian Johnson as a person and as a president – not an obvious political hero. Even as the narrative changed, the consistency of white opposition and racism did not and instead simply found new expressions. There was a role too, both positive and negative, for faith and religion: not only bringing dignity, value, meaning and purpose to the poor and envisioning others but also protecting privilege and rich people’s “common sense” narratives. Most of the book, however, was looking at the difficulties of “changing the narrative “contextualised within entrenched opposition of interlocking power bases. These, themselves, were deeply set within enclaves of vested interests, protected lifestyles and consumer choices.

As you may have picked up we have had confirmation from Oasis that they have agreed that we can hire the use of their café space on the fourth floor for our Radical Routes book club discussion, and in the other weeks run the Fellowship Group. We have booked this now from September 2015 to March 2016.

All that now remains to be resolved is the small matter how we use this time. We will be working in partnership with the Anabaptist Network in running the book club side of things. Church and community life has been a bit disrupted of late and this has limited the conversations we have been able to have internally. Yet from those we have had and in conversation with Alex from the Anabaptist Network, we will likely be looking at Climate Change. To link this with the lead up to the Paris conference in December 2015.

The question then is what book should we use and the recommendation we were thinking of was the papal encyclical released in June On Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis (which link takes you to a .pdf download). This one hundred and eighty page document did not appear to receive a great deal of media attention. The media rapidly lost interest once the fact of it being leaked out beforehand had made headlines. It nonetheless remains a significant document of our time, albeit one from a very different tradition to our own, and was released as part of the lead up to this Paris conference. So I thought I had better read it.

It covers a remit beyond climate change and its attendant economics and science – and the consequences and controversies attached to that. One commentator (an atheist and ecologist) wrote “Pope Francis is allowing us to go back to what motivated everyone I know – not logic but love.” Part of this is in recapturing both a sense of beauty and wonder. It is also interesting that although the encyclical frames its theological argument both within modern thinking on the environment and ecology, it also clearly sets it in the wider context of the lived experience of many ignored earthlings on this “blue marble.” The cry of the deteriorating earth is also the cry of the poor- for whom God calls us to give the highest attention.

Some issues, such as population growth, are side stepped; elsewhere the document is a little coy about the failures of theology and the narrative – or what we think was (or should be) the biblical narrative – that allowed the “ common sense view” to play out as it has done .

The other book I (have almost read), following Jeremy Clarke’s suggestion, is Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything. She is less coy at labelling villains, chief among them the philosopher Francis Bacon who encapsulated the mood of human invincibility over the earth. Condoned by people like the clergyman and philosopher William Derham in 1713 ( p 171) quoting “We can, if need be, ransack the whole globe, penetrate into the bowels of the earth, descend to the bottom of the deep, travel to the furthest regions of this world to acquire wealth.”

Also in court is the inventor of the steam engine James Watt, liberating commerce from the constraints of living on a planet bound by geography and governed by the elements. The steam engine overcomes all difficulties blithely ignoring (as Klein sees it) the attendant need for “sacrifice zones” required of mining and its consequences for lives and landscapes.

So, I was reading these while contemplating the wind farm out to sea and also reflecting on the fact that the sea horizon itself was a product of catastrophic climate change thousands of years ago. Researchers believe two massive floods completed the separating of Britain from France 180,000 years ago. The last flood was a product of a vast glacial lake that broke its banks, having formed from the northerly rivers of the east coast of Britain, as the glaciers melted.

How does this link to the lectionary readings we have for today? I remember watching in the 1970’s documentaries by the science historian James Burke in which he explored an alternative view of change. His view was that he rejected the conventional view that change was linear with a common sense purpose but rather a result of a web of interconnected events whose components act for reasons of their own motivations with no concept of the final modern result to what they or their contemporaries expected. It seemed to me at the time, as a teenager, that these connections were somewhat arbitrary and suspect – but in this reflection I simply draw a number of connections over “ changing the narrative “ from existing common sense views – which is what Burke was seeking to do and is Naomi Klein’s hope in writing“ This Changes Everything. It is also a hope contained within the papal encyclical where Francis writes:

“The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. For this reason, the ecological crises is also a summons to profound interior conversion. It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive, they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they need is an ‘ecological conversion’ whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ becomes evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue, it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

[A space for discussion. Is Pope Francis right about this? If so, then how do we do it?]

Klein comments on some of her own personal resources. How her becoming a mother in an age of extinction brought the climate crises to a new level beyond low level melancholy, “punctuated (p419) by moments of panic, rather than full blown grief.” But also by undertaking a shift in world view beyond domination and depletion reflected (for example) in fossil fuels extraction but on regeneration, and renewal – and by the same token (I assume) sustainability.

These verses, scattered through Old and New Testaments offer a rich reservoir on which to draw, renew strength and re-purpose both for individual and community. They help us “change the narrative” from a common sense views to a fundamentally different understanding of a new reality – and hopefully draw better connections than James Burke.

The lectionary readings include:

2 Samuel 11:1-15 – covering the incident of David’s adultery, his attempt at cover up and finally conspiracy to commit legalised murder. I was reminded of this incident of David from 2 Samuel in reading in Klein’s book the story of the Athabasca Chipewyan First nation in taking on Shell and the Canadian Government over the approval of a huge tar sands expansion. This was a mismatch of 1,000 members and a $5million dollar budget compared to Shell who alone had 92,000 employees and global reserves of $451.2 Billion. Even where land and treaty rights both locally and internationally had been recognised they had not the muscle nor the means to turn rights into a reality. When Nathan confronted David with inconvenient truth and what he did to Uriah the Hittite (a foreigner) outside of the law he was courageous in speaking truth to power. In David’s case it lead to repentance and a change in the narrative.

Psalm 141-7 is concerning the folly of evil men “Fools say in their hearts “There is no God”, they are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is no one who does good.” The Psalm contrasts this with the character of God. Whereas they consume people – “eat up my people as they eat bread“ with heartless greed- God is with the company of the righteous, he is the refuge do the poor. He brings deliverance and restores the fortunes of His people.

In 2 Kings 4:42-44 the theme of bread continues but where and when God gives it is sufficient and with generosity and abundance. Elisha tells his servant to serve one hundred people with, on the face of it, not enough food in order to change the narrative of common sense “so that they ate and had some left.”

So in Psalm 145:10-18 and from v13 this is written from a place of humility and a realisation of hope. “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom and your dominion endures through all generations. The Lord is faithful in all his words and gracious in all his deeds. The Lord upholds all those who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. The Lord is just in all his ways and kind in all his doings. “

The change to the order in the lectionary moves us to John 6:1-21 in which we see the character of God revealed in Christ at work when he has compassion on the crowd. Changing the economics of limitation, scarcity and cost (linked to an ability to pay) where six months wages would not be enough for each of those present to get a little. Yet in the end they had as much as they wanted of fish and bread and with twelve baskets left over.

It is in developing “faith steps“ that gives strength to do ridiculous things in the face of privilege, power , wealth and might that can “change the narrative” from existing common sense views to a fundamentally new reality based on justice and truth.

It is Jesus’ invitation and instructions to the disciples, as they gave out the bread, to do ridiculous things against common sense and pragmatic, sensible realities based not on those things but on what they knew of Him and the character of God.

Which takes us to this last reading in Ephesians 3:14-21 from Paul.

Ephesians 3:14-21

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father
15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.
16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through His Spirit,
17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and ground in love.
18 I pray that you might have the power to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ
19 that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to Him who by the power at works within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine,
21 to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

Love. I suggest. Will find a way.

The Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy (the author of The God of Small Things) wrote in another book The Cost of Living: “To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair.”

Perhaps, for a few minutes you would like to think about and discuss something that struck you as of great beauty:

– What was it?

– Why was it beautiful?

– How did it change you?


One thought on “Changing the Narrative….

  1. Dara says:

    I commend you all at Wood Green for continuing to search your hearts for peacefulness and truth! I was blessed to attend when I lived in London in 2010 (and in this way connect to my Kansas Mennonite roots), and it’s a delight to read that you are expressing care for creation and heeding the call to ethical living. Before I left England, the congregation was studying Richard Bauckman’s “The Bible and Ecology”, and I am glad to see the growth continue. I would like to share with you this video clip from a special sermon/event we held in our church (Unity Center of New York City) two weeks ago; this speaks to food choices we can make every day to align ourselves with our values and care for animals and the environment. God Bless you and all of God’s creation!

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