Sermon by the Reverend Trevor Jamison preached at St Columba’s United Reformed Church, February 24th 2019, At the beginning of Fairtrade Fortnight
I have to tell you, as an autonomous, independent, individual human being … I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in fair trade. As an autonomous, independent, individual human being … I could not care less … about marking Fairtrade Fortnight. Yet, having got all that off my autonomous, independent, individual chest, I also have to report to you that there is no such thing as an autonomous, independent, individual human being.
Now, that might come as a surprise to you. After all, twenty-first century Western civilization is based on the notion that we are, before we are anything else … autonomous (in charge of ourselves); independent (not depending on others and they having no call upon us); individuals (our identity coming from the self, not from membership of a group). Most advertising proceeds on this basis. It’s what lies behind the notion that “you can be anything you want to be.”
Although some found it shocking at the time, and some still do today, when Margaret Thatcher said, “there is no such thing as society”, she was simply expressing the logical outcome of this widely shared understanding of human life; that, as she acknowledged, “there are individual men and women and there are families. And no governments can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty [said Mrs Thatcher] to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.” Individuals who form families and who have neighbours: not much of a basis for global fair trade there, then.
And, I suppose, from a commonly held perspective, Mr Thatcher was right. If we are a collection of autonomous, independent, individuals we might choose to have a relationship with others, but there is no obligation upon us to do so, and there is no collective entity, going by the name of “society” which has such authority over us, or to which we have obligations. The only relationships which may be required of us are personal relationships. Well, from a (minority) Christian perspective, though, the main problem I can see with that (majority) view is that it’s completely wrong. And when we shine the light of today’s scripture readings upon it, we why that’s so.
‘God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations”.’ (9:12) Covenant is not a much-used as a word these days. A covenant is where one declares their relationship with another and what each can expect to happen and be expected to do in future days. Here, in the Genesis story, the ark having settled on dry land after the flood waters have subsided, God is the one who makes a declaration about future relationship and commitments.
The bow in the clouds, usually taken to mean the rainbow, is the sign of this covenant. It symbolises the promise never again to destroy ‘all flesh’ upon the earth (9:15). This covenant is declared by God and it is ‘between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ (9:16) And this covenant is everlasting. (9:16) Note that assertion: God’s covenant is with every living creature; not just with believers, nor even just with human beings, but with every living creature upon the earth. And since it is an everlasting covenant it is not just about God’s relationship with all creatures in an era before history came to be written, but in every age since, including today, and also into the future. There is a collective entity – a society – of all living creatures, because, together, they are in relationship with God.
We human beings did not create this shared relationship with God – that’s far beyond our capabilities. Instead, God has chosen us – all living creatures – to be in relationship with us. It’s not unlike when Jesus says in John’s Gospel, ‘I have called you friends … you did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’ (15:16) We did not choose God, God chose us, and since God chose to be in relationship with all of us, then we are, whether we like it or not, in relationship with everybody else. And everyone else, by virtue of being in relationship with God, is in relationship with us, and with all the others. That’s a very different way of looking at the world and our relationships with and obligations towards others.
So, since God has chosen to be in relationship with all of us all at once, we have a shared experience and relationship with everyone else. See what happens when Zacchaeus gets to meet with Jesus. First, there’s the question of divine choice. Zacchaeus is interested in Jesus but it’s Jesus who chooses Zacchaeus: ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down [from that tree]: for I must stay at your house today.’ (19:5)
Second, there’s Zacchaeus’s realisation that since he is one of God’s chosen then that affects how he sees and treats others. Zacchaeus had cut himself off from his fellow Jews by becoming rich in the role of chief tax collector for King Herod and his family, and so ultimately for the Roman Empire. This involved collecting the maximum in taxes from others in society, probably driving many of them from their land, from their work, and perhaps, on occasion even into a life of crime. And all this whilst he took a generous cut of the revenues for himself. For all we know Zacchaeus may have been a good family man, but he had no regard for wider society.
How things changed when Zacchaeus was chosen by Jesus. It led to him radically re-ordering his economic relationships with everyone else: ‘half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor’; when some of these poor people were so because of the tax burden he had enforced; ‘and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ (19:8) Does our sense of being chosen by God, of being picked out by Jesus, make us appreciate the relationship we then share with others? Like Zacchaeus, does it affect how we conduct our economic relationships with others?
And let’s be clear, in the context of a conversation about fair trade, we’re talking about justice in our economic relationships with others, not about matters of charity. As the prayer we prayed earlier in the service said, “Just and loving God, just as Ruth did not seek charity, but the right to harvest, we do not seek charity for our brothers and sisters; they who grow the world’s food, stitch the world’s clothes, mine the world’s metals, and yet so often remain poor.”
Of course, if Zacchaeus only talked a good game and never quite got around to making good on his promises to give to the poor and compensate the unjustly treated, Luke’s Gospel story would lose a lot of its force. Yet Jesus declared, ‘Today, salvation has come to this house, because he too [i.e. Zacchaeus] is a son of Abraham’ (19:9). Zacchaeus has now returned to Jewish society, and this suggests to me that Jesus – and Luke – were confident that Zacchaeus would deliver. But delivery really matters here. As the Letter of James, has it, ‘what good is it … if you say you have faith but do not have works?’ (2:14) And notice that James writes this with reference to how believers treat those who lack the means to keep warm or who do not have enough to eat.
So, God has chosen to be in relationship with every living creature – in a covenant. This means that each share with all the experience of being chosen by God for relationship with God. It follows then that each are now connected with all in something that goes beyond personal relationships; let’s call it “society”. It’s good to recognise that, but it won’t have much significance unless it affects how we live our lives, as the Letter of James points out.
All of which brings us back to the specific issue of fair trade. If you or I are autonomous, independent individuals, then fair trade – we can take it or leave it. But we’re not autonomous here – God, not us, makes the choice to be in relationship. We are not independent because we all experience a shared relationship with each other because of God’s relationship with all of us. We are never only individuals, and the ethical choices we make can not be restricted only to personal relationships. Our ethical choices then, need to reflect the gracious, just and loving attitude that God has shown to all God’s creatures in this committed, for all time, covenant relationship.
And isn’t that what we see in the definition and principles of fair trade? For fair trade, defined simply, is when producers in developing countries (people, who like us, have been chosen by God) are paid a fair price for their work, by companies in developed countries. Fair trade is about when the price that we pay for products gives enough to our fellows who are also God-chosen, for them to afford life’s essentials – like food, education and healthcare. Disregarding such matters; obsession with extracting the maximum possible out of others for our own benefit, in a sort of Zacchaeus-the-unreformed-tax-collector sort of way, flies in the face of our shared of experience of being God’s chosen.
To trade fairly with others, expressed both in the practices of large companies and in our own “individual” buying practices, is not just good behaviour and it’s certainly not about making a charitable donation. It’s our opportunity to make an appropriate, joyful response to being chosen as the recipients of God’s love; to realise that God’s wonderful, committed, everlasting covenant love is an experience that we share with all our fellow-creatures, including those who depend upon us to treat them fairly.