Advent 2009, Week Three, Day Four

 

Advent 2009 – A World In Waiting

Week Three – A New Morality

Day Four – A False Dawn

 

Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk – a formidable trio. More or less contemporaries. Prophets of doom,

who, with the most violent of images, announced the unleashing of God’s terrible judgment on his people:

 

The great Day of the Lord is near…That day will be

a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of

ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a

day of clouds and thick darkness… I will bring such

distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind;

because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood

shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung…

In the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be

consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all

the inhabitants of the earth’ Zephaniah 1: 15-18

 

 

Such outbursts bore witness to the prophets’ exasperation with the people and their despair of genuine repentance and reform. Twice in the past one hundred years, reform movements had got off to a promising start but then petered out. It was back to business as usual – but it was not the Lord’s business.

 

First, a century before Zephaniah, the reign of King Hezekiah (715-687BC) seemed to promise wonderful things – moral reform, the defeat of the Assyrian invaders, the reuniting of Israel and Judah, the renewal of the Davidic covenant. But then regression. Under the abominable 45-year reign of Hezekiah’s successor, Manasseh (687-642), it was back to subjection to Assyria with its gods, the reopening of local pagan shrines and the toleration of sacred prostitution in the Temple itself.

 

Now, in Zephaniah’s time, under the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BC), national renewal once again seemed to be underway. The power of the Assyrian empire was beginning to slip. The moment seemed right to seek independence, to attempt once again to reunite Israel and Judah, to centralize worship in the Temple. It was a time of almost Messianic hope, hopes boosted by the discovery of tablets containing the old Deuteronomic law. The Davidic covenant would now be supported by the even more fundamental commitment to the original Mosaic covenant with its strong demands for strict moral and religious observance. Josiah had a special reason for being delighted at the find. It could be used to bolster support for his nationalistic ambitions.

 

But it was another false dawn, resulting in even more bitter disappointment. It was not that Josiah was not sincere in his reforms or that they were not radical enough. Nor was the failure due simply to the strength of opposition by local communities to whom the centralization of religious and political power posed a threat. What proved fatal was the foolish alliance Josiah made with Egypt and Assyria against Babylon. It would lead to his death in battle, a casualty of placing national glory ahead of the concern for justice. Another false dawn.

 

Are there lessons for our recovery from the present economic crisis? Are we on the way to recovery? Is it back to business as usual? Or are we simply seeing a series of false dawns?

 

There were signs of a possible recovery in the first half of 2009 as investor confidence and consumer confidence began to pick up. Many economists professed to believe that the recession might just about be over. But then, in June 2009, ‘insiders’, who held key positions in the top 500 companies listed on the US stock exchange, sold off 22 times more stock than they bought. Did they know something the rest of us did not? By August, the signs of recovery looked much surer. UK share prices had rebounded, bank profits (largely in the investment sector) had picked up and manufacturers were expressing optimism about the future. Meanwhile US stocks, according to the Standard and Poor Index, had risen by 50% since their low in March – the greatest market rebound for over 60 years. Best of all, the recovery in the financial markets seemed at last to be translating into recovery in the real economy. First France and Germany, then even Japan, all reported growth – much to the surprise of their own governments.

 

Would it last? What would happen when the economic stimuli were withdrawn? When the restocking of inventories had been completed? When the ‘cash for bangers’ ran out? When markets started anticipating

how and when the recovery would end? Or when inflation began to return and interest rates were raised? And, in any case, how much of the bounce-back was a case of investors simply seeking to follow the herd, and simply accelerating a more positive trend? It was simply too early to tell. The Bank of England stunned the optimists by deciding that the economy was still in need of another £50 billion stimulus.

 

Whether or not the recession was over, there still remain the harsh realities of massive public sector debt and likely cuts in services and jobs in the public sector. Furthermore Moody’s reported that in the US personal income had suffered its biggest drop since January 2005 and that wage income, 5% down on the previous

year, was still on the way down. The likely effect of falling incomes would be lower levels of consumer spending which might translate into fewer jobs and lower incomes, etc.

 

The point is not to pour cold water on hopes for a recovery. The sooner a real and lasting recovery comes the better. But will it really herald a new day? Or will we once again lapse back into our old ways, with the bonus culture as before and the assurance that if banks behave badly again they can always count on being bailed out? Zephaniah warned where that would lead: ‘Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath…for all the traders have perished; all who weigh out silver are cut off’ (Zephaniah 11, 18).

 

And what about today’s young people and tomorrow’s retirees?

 

For the retired, the great fear is about the steady shrinking of the size of future income as well as their increased riskiness. As for young people, in spite of all the various schemes to help the most disadvantaged young people,

the number of NEETS (those Not in Employment, Education or Training) has risen to 827,000 in England alone by the first quarter of this year. The implications of this are alarming in that evidence suggests that the experience of having been neither in employment, education or training for a significant period is likely to make a person more prone to unemployment and low paid work for the rest of their working lives.

 

The prophets of doom had had enough of false dawns. What they wanted was justice. Are we headed for a

new day – or a darker night?

 

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