Advent 2009, Week Two, Day Two

When the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon, their Persian liberators and benefactors were seen as God’s agents. Cyrus and Darius had even provided subsidies for the rebuilding of the Temple and the practice of worship. Before long, however, the subsidies stopped and the time for taxes arrived. Why? Because the Persian universal mission had not been completed. The Egyptians would not stay defeated and the Greeks would not be defeated. The response? Vast increases in military spending. Large fleets and massive armies all had to be paid for. But as one unsuccessful campaign was followed by another, the need for yet further military build-up grew. Darius was held back by the Greeks at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC. His chosen son Xerxes continued with his father’s unfinished business. But though successful in re-conquering Egypt, Xerxes was defeated by Athens at Salamis in 480 BC. And that was it. Persia’s universal mission had been thwarted. (Does all this sound familiar?)

 

 

Advent 2009 – A World In Waiting

Week Two – A New Covenant

Day Two – Hard Times, Free Choices

 

Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But

you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes

and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are

robbing me – the whole nation of you! Bring the full

tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in

my house, and thus put me to the test, says the

Lord of hosts’ Malachi 3: 8-10

 

 

Good times followed by bad. When the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon, their Persian liberators and benefactors were seen as God’s agents. Cyrus and Darius had even provided subsidies for the rebuilding of the Temple and the practice of worship. Before long, however, the subsidies stopped and the time for taxes arrived. Why? Because the Persian universal mission had not been completed. The Egyptians would not stay defeated and the Greeks would not be defeated. The response? Vast increases in military spending. Large fleets and massive armies all had to be paid for. But as one unsuccessful campaign was followed by another, the need for yet further military build-up grew. Darius was held back by the Greeks at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC. His chosen son Xerxes continued with his father’s unfinished business. But though successful in re-conquering Egypt, Xerxes was defeated by Athens at Salamis in 480 BC. And that was it. Persia’s universal mission had been thwarted. (Does all this sound familiar?)

 

But their defeat on the western edges of the empire gave encouragement to some in the east to attempt a rebellion. Babylon revolted in 479 BC. Even greater military expenditures – and increased taxation – was needed to put it down. Faced with cuts in subsidies and increases in taxes, how did God’s people respond? Did they pass the test? Not really. Hard times made for hard choices but they were still choices. They could have chosen to accept full financial responsibility to maintain their worship in a fitting manner. It would have entailed real sacrifices but it might also have meant a kind of purification, a loosening of at least one of the bonds of dependence on Persia. Instead they began to cheat. First they cheated one another, taking advantage of their most vulnerable members – the poor, the laborer, the widow, the orphan – as well as the alien. Then they began to cheat God, offering shoddy sacrifices of second-rate goods. Malachi confronted the people with God’s reaction: ‘A curse on the cheat who pays his vows by sacrificing a damaged victim to the Lord, though he has a sound ram in his flock…I will lay a curse upon you. I will turn your blessings into a curse’ (Malachi 1:14).

 

Today, we are experiencing our own version of hard times and although hard times mean hard choices, the choices remain free choices. Hard times reveal our true priorities, where our loyalties lie and what kind of people we are. Hard times put our commitment to justice to the test. The year of the credit crunch may be on the horizon but a much longer period of austerity is just beginning. We are a heavily indebted nation. Simple arithmetic is sending a bitter message. The Ratio of U. S. debt to Gross Domestic Product is slated to reach 120 % of GDP by 2017. In July of this year the Net National Debt of Great Britain was £799 billion (over 56% of GDP). By 2012 the Great Britain’s Net National Debt could exceed 100% GDP. For a while it looked so bad that the UK government’s own Triple A credit rating might be under threat. And that would have severe consequences for international finance. But even greater than the Government debt is the level personal debt. In April alone there were 126,000 personal bankruptcy filings in the United States, up 36% from the month before.

 

So we are faced with choices – hard choices, free choices – and these at all levels. Central government is faced with choices between increasing taxes, for example on pollution and on unearned wealth, postponing cuts in inheritance tax, extending capital gains tax on the sale of one’s primary residence or making cuts by, for example, scrapping new defense projects, postponing ID cards, jettisoning targets for increased university attendance, reducing aid for international development, and many other cost cutting measures. Local authorities, having already made efficiency savings and increased charges for services, are considering reducing support for care services and sheltered accommodation, as well as cutting some services altogether.

 

Voluntary organizations, which in some cases are being asked to fill the gaps left by cuts in public assistance, are themselves having to decide which services to offer, how far to dip into reserves, and, in some cases, whether to continue operating at all. At a personal level, we have to choose between what we deem luxuries and what we deem as necessities, between meals out and the education of our children. One poll suggests that we would sooner give up our holidays than our access to the internet. Personally, we’re being forced to ask: where will we shop? How much should we save? How much are we able give to ‘good causes’? It’s a sobering climate. But it’s also a dangerous climate. While it might help us behave more responsibly, we need to resist being sucked into a kind of fatalism. Rhetoric about an ‘Age of Austerity’ could be used as a convenient cover for the deliberate dismantling of public services. We are faced with hard choices, but they are still free choices. And in the run up to next year’s General Election, we need to ensure that we are honestly presented with the real choices – and their consequences.

 

A major inquiry into how public services can respond to the significant challenges of the next decade has been launched. What it all adds up to is not so much a pick ‘n’ mix list of particular services and particular taxes. Dealing with precisely the same issue, an editorial in London’s Financial Times pointed out in April this year: ‘That is a debate not just about where the axe will fall but about the sort of society citizens of the UK want…this implies a context of ideas, even a rebirth of ideology. Let that contest begin now.’ But will it be a fair contest? Or will decisions to cut services be taken by those least dependent on them? One think tank, for example, has recommended a one-year freeze on Social Security payments and on public sector wages. But what about a limit on bonuses and a cut in Chief Executives’ pay? As for tax concessions, will these be made in favor of those whose votes are considered most crucial – for example a further easing of inheritance tax – rather than those in greatest need? And who will make the choices? We may well be faced, not so much about a debate about justice, as about a renewed struggle for justice? And are we ready?

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