thoughts on competition

“That most of us consistently fail to consider the alternatives to competition is a testament to the effectiveness of our socialization. We have been trained not only to compete but to believe in competition. If we are asked about it, we unthinkingly repeat what we have been told. Unfortunately, the case for competition, as most of us have learned it, does not stand up under close scrutiny … Most of all, the case for competition is based on a great deal of misinformation. Specifically, it has been constructed on four central myths … The first myth is that competition is an unavoidable fact of life, part of „human nature.‟ ..The second myth is that competition motivates us to do our best … {The] Third [myth], it is sometimes asserted that contest provide the best, if not the only, way to have a good time. … The last [fourth] myth is that competition builds character, that it is good for self-confidence.”14
Kohn, Alfie, No Contest – The Case Against Competition: Why we lose in Our Race to Win (Revised Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1992), p.

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organic food good?

Yesterday I read this in ‘The Rough Guide to Ethical Living’

‘The third principle deals with the lesser-known aspects of organic farming: social justice (“those involved in organic agriculture should conduct human relationships in a manner that ensure fairness at all levels and to all parties – farmers, workers, processors, distributors, traders and consumers”) and the humane treatment of animals…the idea of fairness also applies to preserving resources for future generations.’

I have to admit that I didn’t know fairness was one of the guiding principles of organic food. Another page on The Soil Association website states

‘This principle emphasises that those involved in organic agriculture should conduct human relationships in a manner that ensures fairness at all levels and to all parties – farmers, workers, processors, distributors, traders and consumers. Organic agriculture should provide everyone involved with a good quality of life and contribute to food sovereignty and reduction of poverty. It aims to produce a sufficient supply of good quality food and other products.

Finding all that out has been making me think more about organic food that I had previously.
Many people I know are very passionate about Fairtrade coffee, chocolate etc because it offers a fair deal to the people producing the food.
We are even happy to pay a bit extra to make sure that happens and might make a conscious decision to seek out Fairtrade products if possible.
Yet so many of  our daily essentials are not available in Fairtrade.
I haven’t  noticed Fairtrade flour, Fairtrade meat or Fairtrade tins of plum  tomato for example.

But now I find out that there are products (i.e. organic ones) that claim to be based on a principle of fairness and that is uncomfortable for me to think about because THEY ARE SO MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE.

Last night (and to my general reluctance) we did our grocery shopping at Asda. For the first time I went with this knowledge about organic food.
I eyed up the Asda ‘Smartprice’ tinned tomatoes and they were priced at 31p. Then I eyed up the Asda Organics tinned tomatoes and they were priced at about 62p.
Twice as much.
What that means is that if I wanted to buy 12 tins of tinned tomatoes to keep me going for a month it would be roughly £3.60 more expensive than buying 12 tins of Smartprice tomatoes.
Taken over a year that choice of buying  12 tins of organic tomatoes per month instead of the Asda Smartprice would be £43.20.
And that’s only for tomatoes.

I was also looking at strong bread flour. 1.5kg of non organic flour cost about 60p (it might have been on offer) while 1kg of organic flour was £1.20.

What that means is that if I wanted to make two of my sourdough loaves the non-organic ones would be working out at about 60p (plus cost of electricity) while the two organic ones would be working out at about £1.80 (plus the cost of electricity). Three times the amount.

From a Christian point of view it was playing all sorts of tricks in my head.

1 There is the stewardship of money question. Growing up money was tight so people like my gran or mum watched the pennies with the idea that you got the essentials as cheaply as possible and then used whatever was left over for the non essentials. ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees’ so we needed to be wise in its use which means that if you can buy a tin of tomatoes for 31p instead of 62p it would be wasteful to buy the dear one.  Plus you simply mightn’t be able to afford the more expensive one if money was tight

2  That thing Jesus said about ‘not worrying about what you will eat or drink’ came to my mind. Here I was, a relatively wealthy westerner procrastinating over whether to buy a tin of tinned tomatoes. Do I not realise how fortunate I am to be able to make that choice? On the way home from Asda H___ was saying how a missionary family in Malawi couldn’t easily obtain sugar due to shortages in the country.

On the other hand Jesus mentions that rather than worrying about food we should ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ which means that we should live lives that just and right.
I suppose that means  we should also treat people fairly and with love, which means choosing fairness over exploitation even if that means at personal cost to ourselves.

So even though organic food is more expensive and costly, maybe the cost is something I need to consider paying as a Christian?

I don’t know. I’m still thinking through this one. And there are lots of issues at play.

worrying about clothes

What can I say, the last few days have been pretty rough. There has been the odd ‘heated discussion’ around the house, I’ve been feeling rough and thwarted.

There was a moment on Thursday coming over the rail bridge in Lambeg when I felt as light as feather, like everything would be OK and that there is redemption and hope. I had read through the sermon on the Mount and came to the bit where Jesus says that anyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who builds his house upon a rock, a house that won’t be overwhelmed by the storms and flood waters.

For a moment I ‘got it’.  I haven’t prayed much over the last number of years and the only two I can usually muster are
1) The Lord’s Prayer
2) For Wisdom

Yes, I’ve prayed for wisdom as much as anything over the last years as I feel overwhelmed by the floodwaters of empires, consumerism, my own sinfulness and inability to to do good, ugliness, fake religion, and on and on.
It felt like God had answered that prayer.
If you want to be wise and not be overwhelmed you need to put into practice what Jesus says. Simple.

After reading the sermon on the mount I felt the storehouse of wisdom had been opened and that I was allowed in.
So Thursday night up over the rail bridge feeling light as a feather (blessed?) whistling ‘We Are Alive’ from the new Bruce Springsteen album.

I suppose the bit I zoomed in on was the bit about not worrying about tomorrow, about what you will eat and drink, or about storing up treasure in heaven. Put those words into practice and you will be wise. Often those words seem to be a like a floaty devotional, wispy and ethereal. Yet they are supposed to be sold, like a foundation that you live.

There are contradictions as well.
One bit say let your good deeds shine before men while another bit says when you give to charity don’t even let your other hand know what you’re up to. One bit says don’t judge other people while another bit says watch out for false prophets who you can judge by the fruit they produce.

But I was so happy on Thursday night that those bits didn’t even frustrate me, I put them down as paraodox and the complexity of life. Light as a feather I was, almost blessed.

Now though, those words seem like dust because in  ‘real life’, a life which I often seem to avoid in my internet bubble and idealistic thinking (or false thinking) these words are very hard to put into practice – as Jesus says we should  do if we want to be wise.

An example.
My youngest brother is getting married next week so here I am in Belfast city centre walking around looking at suits to buy and worrying about it. They’re expensive (even the cheap ones) I don’t want to worry about buying a suit but after conversation with my mum she has got me worried.

‘Have you bought a suit yet?
Have you bought a shirt and tie yet?
Have you bought shoes yet?
Have you got your hair cut yet?

She also wanted to know if I had shaved my beard yet.

Suddenly there are fights about how I always leave everything to the last minute, how I can’t just go with the flow of worrying about what clothes to wear at the wedding months before hand and that I’m awkward( ‘You’re being a tit!).

Which in fairness I probably am, as that does happen on occassion.
A tired and grumpy tit who for reasons he doesn’t altogether understand is walking around worrying about  to wear for next week, for a reasons I’m not altogether sure about.

This is a theme that seems to come up again and again, trying to actually do what Jesus commands in real life here in 2012. If you’re unfamiliar with the words here is what Jesus says

 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?

   28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

This is what Jesus says we need to do to be wise. Yet so often in the push and pull of life the words seem impossible to implement, or at least to implement without fights and causing loved ones hurt and pain. If you stick to your guns of not storing up treasure on earth there is the pain that not providing for the future might cause. If you try to wear basic clothes and not spend much on them you are said to be ‘through-other’  or not looking after yourself. If you try to find a job that you think doesn’t take advantage of other people or try to seek first the kingdom of God by forgiving your enemy he does it again or takes advantage of you.

H___ is right, I am a tit. Stubborn and lazy, proud, so proud.
But I can’t help feeling that if you do want to be wise there are some things which you’ll probably get a hammering for. The problem though is knowing if you’re getting a hammering because you’re being a genuine tit or because you’re being persecuted. It’s hard to know when you’ve just got a persecution complex and when you’re just being selfish and self-righteous.  It’s hard to know if you’re really doing it for Jesus or because you’re being an arse.

favouritism?

‘It is also true that many corporations are efficient and well managed.
But they are, by definition, managed in interests at variance with those of the public.  Their directors have a ‘fiduciary duty’ towards the shareholders: they must place their concerns above all others. The state, by contrast, has a duty towards all members of the public…’

George Monbiot, Captive State

I’ve been thinking about corporations and shareholders for years now and wondering how I am supposed to react to them as a Christian.

Obviously it would be very hard, if not impossible to function in our society without coming into contact with corporations.
Right now as I type this I can see a ‘Dell’ logo staring back at me and another ‘Samsung’ logo on my mobile phone.

But there is a problem as I see it from a Christian or church going point of view.

As George Monbiot mentions above or as this clip from ‘The Corporation’ shows they are required (by law?) to place the bottom line of it’s owners above the public good.

Or to put it another way, public corporations operate by favouritism at the expense of  other people. They favour (by law?) those who are the  shareholders. The financial interests of its owners (whoever they are) are more important than the public interest.

The problem from the Christian point of view, or for someone who is trying to follow Jesus with their whole life (not just the Sunday morning church going life) is that Jesus doesn’t do favourites.
Or at least that’s the official line on Sunday mornings from the pulpits and on the pages of the New Testament even though we fail miserably at living it out.

Surely it should be fundamental that the Christian doesn’t favour one group of people over another group of people? If Jesus loved and died for everyone and we’re called to follow him then that means that we’re to show self sacrificial love to everyone, not just a select group of people such as the shareholders of a company.

This is not the way the good news should operate if it’s really the counter-cultural kingdom it’s supposed to be and not some made up myth.

When I worked for that well known DIY company with the black and orange shirts there was different levels I worked on.
On one level I was simply working to earn money for rent and food, for clothes and the occasional trip to the cinema. This is the basic survival level, the level at which you would do nearly anything to make sure you’ve enough money to keep going and function in society.
But it was the other bigger picture level that always troubled me.
Who was I working for?
Who where these shareholders that I was earning money for each time I hauled 20 boxes of polished porcelain tiles into a Nissan Micra?

Perhaps there are other bigger things to worry about but our work matters and who we are ultimately working for matters as well.  If this stuff is really true then my whole being has been redeemed and every minute of every day matters. Is there any  point in me or any Christian singing something like ‘Only by Grace’ on a Sunday morning then going out on Monday morning to try and win the biggest gains for the company competition?
With a company such as B&Q it was nigh on impossible and far too complicated to ever know who I was ultimately working for.  That used to really trouble me.

The bigger picture beyond my monthly wage was that I was contributing to  shareholders profits and playing along with ideal of competition that seems to be the way the world works and is designed to work.  I wasn’t just selling tile grout, I was using my body to do devils work and trying to grow the company at the expense of smaller companies and my neighbour. I was playing along the strong arm tactics of world leaders and trying to help them build Babel.

Is that too dramatic? I don’t know, I’m only saying this stuff out loud as that’s how I feel about stuff but can never express it when asked about it on the spot.

It’s the whole question of how we’re supposed to live our lives if we’re following Jesus. The way of favouritism and working for a select group of people at the expense of another group of people, doesn’t seem to gel with the truth that we are too love our neighbour as our self. And neighbour means anyone, not just those who are on our side and in our group.

So, there you go. In one way it seems pointless to even mention stuff like this as that’s just the way the world is and sure we have to eat and earn a living and it’s messy, sometimes (or most times) we just have to do stuff we don’t like doing in the race of survival. It’s seem impossible to live without leaving a trail of destruction and death around the place.
I’m using energy writing this that will pollute the atmosphere, who knows how the materials for this computer were mined, who knows how the person who made my fleece and shorts was treated while making them. I guess that’s the way the world has always been as well. Perhaps the last and best bit of advice for making sense of it are the words of a Buddy Miller song I’ve been listening to the last few days

This old world just stays the same
one man wants what the other man gained
one man’s greedy one man’s not
you can’t worship money and god

Cain killed abel that was his brother
sons of abraham still killing each other
c’mon children understand
Jesus washed all away the sins of man

Pray! Pray!
time to love every man woman and child
just forgive and let live for a little while

fear and death in the north

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been fairly disillusioned by Christianity in recent years and that the disillusion doesn’t seem to be shifting anywhere fast.

And as I’ve mentioned before that is an unsettling place to be when you’re married to someone who is training t0 be a minister in a church.
There are just so many overlaps and confusions that it seems to become a mire that is impossible to escape sometimes.

On top of that there is an extra  layer of mire – Northern Irish, evangelical, Presbyterian, cultural baggage mire that I’m also having to wade through.

When I first lived in Northern Ireland I always  had my doubts but they where simply overwhelmed by the size my Christian bubble.  Any doubts I had got forgotten about in the rush to do church stuff or hang out with my Christian friends.
There was a hint of something different during my student days, especially around Queen’s  CU with talk about grace and about not wearing masks but it wasn’t until I moved down to Dublin in 2000 that I can say I experienced something approaching grace in practice as well as theory.

I experienced something approaching freedom in a spiritual sense and also culturally. I had never enjoyed Belfast as a city but always loved Dublin. Happy where the rainy afternoons spent in Bewley’s by the fireplace drinking tea and eating a rock bun.  It was an amazing time to be in Dublin, so many different cultures and languages on the 66A into town, the IFI showing foreign films, music and good friends.
In the churches/ places I worked I experienced a different sort of community and most of all I knew that I was accepted no matter what happened.
A simple way to put it was that it felt like home to me. A different sort of home, but in a really good way.

That’s not to say that I still didn’t struggle with Christianity or church, but the thing was that I felt that I was accepted and given space to wrestle with God without any expectation that I had to hit a certain standard or wear a mask. There was freedom to wrestle with stuff, to wrestle with God and that was freeing.

Fast forward to my current situation and that doesn’t seem to be the case. I don’t feel that freedom to wrestle and worst of all there seems to be a merry-go-round of Christianity that I am expected to jump on which is made even worst by being married to a minister who is near to finishing up.

But that’s a discussion for another day.

There are many reasons I have found it hard to fit in and don’t feel as free or as joyful, that Christianity is good news.
My more holy, biblical friends might be tutting and saying that it’s not our job to fit into  church or to be so individualistic, that the church is not a consumer choice and that we can’t be shopping around for the perfect church as there are none but I’m just about hanging in there with any faith I have so I’m not going to get too theological about things.|

There is the fear, life weakening fear that seems to hang over our churches and sneak about the pews up hear. Fear is like damp mist that drains any life out of so many people I see and has wrecked havoc with me and members or my extended family. Fear is all over the place, and fears seems to lead to control and abuse of power.
Or rather control seems to play into the hands of fear. Much of the religion I grew up with and have been witnessing again seems to be controlling things, about getting as many disembodied floaty souls to heaven as possible.
And this meant that you shouldn’t piss of the God who could send you to the flames of hell for all eternity, and the best chance of achieving that was to do what the minister said as he was the professional who understood what God wanted us to do the best.

Fear is coupled with death, particularly the fear of death and suffering. I honestly think this is the main problem with the religion I grew up with, this fear of death and of suffering and pain and of not hearing any or very little good news about how death is actually defeated.
Of course there is great suffering and pain in Dublin but up here the population seems significantly more obsessed with death.

So if there are two issues that I would love to hear more good news about it would be those two, the FEAR and DEATH. Those are the main components of the mire that has been bogging me down.

church history (repeating itself), Lent and Occupy London

So I eventually finished the book on church history and my conclusion is pretty much summed up in these words by Robert Farrar Capon.
It’s long but it says it.

‘In spite of the fact that Jesus insisted that the Comforter would not speak of himself but would simply take what was Christ’s and show it to us, Christian’s have all too often decided that there was indeed one thing of Christ’s that the Spirit would not bother to show us – one whole set of things, in fact, that Jesus stressed but that the Comforter would not bring to our remembrance – namely, Christ’s insistence on using left-handed power.
The idea quickly got around in the early church – and has stayed with us to this day – that when the Spirit came to act, he would do so in plausible, right-handed way. Whether those acts were conceived of as involving a program of miraculous, healing interventions in the world, or as displaying various straight-line ‘spiritual’ phenomena such as speaking in tongues or guaranteeing the Papacy’s infallibility in matters of faith and morals, the church all too often gave the impression that the Spirit could be counted on to deliver in a way that Jesus never did. And thus the mischief was done.’

Robert Farrar Capon -Kingdom, Grace, Judgement

It’s those last lines in particular, those about the church trying to deliver in a way that Jesus never did that strikes me.

Much of the church history as told seems to recount the church mixed up with trying to rule in an earthly sort of way.

Maybe it strikes home particularly at Lent and reading how Jesus refuses the ways of the devil while being tempted in the wilderness. The devil tries to tempt Jesus into carrying out his mission in worldly, some would say very sensible ways and Jesus refuses.
Or in passages such as when Jesus washes the disciples feet or mentions that if you want to be great you must be a servant.
And of course the way that Jesus ultimately demonstrated his power and the way to do things was in dying alone on the cross as a criminal.

Christians simply aren’t supposed to demonstrate The Way by worldly shows of power or ruling like the kings of the world would and have. It’s about laying down our lives and turning the other cheek.

Watching the TV pictures of protesters at Occupy London being evicted from St Paul’s cathedral seems like another example of the church going about things in an unchristian manner.

Here you have people being forced of church property by bailiffs and riot police in a display of earthly power and force.
Meanwhile the occupiers are displaying power in a more much more Christlike manner. I was thinking particularly of the way that some people are puzzled by their lack of demands or clear vision about what they are up to, or how people can’t really figure them out easily.
That is a worldly way of power, having a sound-byte or two and a mission statement, clearly defined goals or targets to hit. Or the way people say that they’re just layabouts or hypocrites. In that you almost hear echos of the pharisees calling Jesus a glutton and drunkard.

I’m not sure God being on the side of the Occupy movement, but there are images and hints from it that seem much more in keeping with the spirit of Jesus than much of what goes on in our church life I reckon. Which seems more in keeping with the life of Christ? The description of Christians on their knees in prayer on the steps of St Paul’s being dragged away by police or the Archbishop of Canterbury vs Richard Dawkins in argument at Oxford University?