Friday, 2 September 2011

An unholy trinity

Earlier this week I entered hell. Bank holiday Monday hell. Before the weekend my iPad experienced a nervous breakdown and I was booked for an appointment at the Apple Genius Bar to exchange it. Unfortunately, my nearest Apple store is at Lakeside shopping centre and so at lunchtime on a bank holiday I headed to an icon of modern day consumerism with another icon of the same tucked under my arm. My journey was surprisingly smooth and I was in and out of the shopping centre with little delay thanks to some excellent service from the Apple staff. Not quite the hell I was expecting.

lakeside I know Lakeside well. I served my curacy in a neighbouring parish and was there during the completion of the shopping centre and retail park. I remember my first visit to the site and how impressive the building looked. One thing in particular struck me and that was that Lakeside looked like a temple or a church. The centre of Lakeside is topped by a dome and spire and it reminded me on first viewing of one of the American mega churches from the 1980s.

The image of church or temple is appropriate because Lakeside has become a symbol of our culture’s values and priorities. In the aftermath of the summer riots, which I observed from a distance while on holiday in France, one of the most incisive comments came from French political commentator Agnes Poirer. Many of the foreign papers had taken some time before reporting the story including the French press. This was not a bad thing as it gave them time to reflect in a way that was sadly lacking in many of our media outlets. Poirer, interviewed on the BBC Today programme, argued that the wider social and economic context had to be considered in order to understand the rioting and looting. In a devastating observation she argued that London had become the epitome of inequality in the Western World before going on to suggest that ‘profit, speculation and consumption are Britain’s holy trinity’.

I think Poirer is right. Our culture is obsessed with profit, speculation and consumption. These forces have driven our politics, our economics, our priorities and values as a society. I do not in any way excuse the violence and the looting of the summer’s riots, some of which happened in places I know very well because I’ve lived there and friends and colleagues still do. But I am astonished at the way many of our politicians and commentators refuse to step back and look at the bigger picture. Only this morning the Prime Minister was again reluctant to accept that the behaviour of those in positions of authority and power in our society may bear some responsibility for what took place on our inner city streets.

For decades we have celebrated the Gordon Gekko ‘greed is good’ outlook on life. This attitude crosses the political boundaries. I remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when Peter Mandelson was reported as saying ‘we are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich‘. No surprise to discover that Mandelson and his chums have spent a good deal of time holidaying with the world’s wealthiest and once out of office many have touted their services to the highest bidder, one describing himself as being like a ‘cab for hire’. It is this culture that led so many of our politicians to think there was nothing wrong with fiddling expenses, decking out houses with the most luxurious goods on the public purse, playing the tax system to best advantage and all the while condemning the 'undeserving poor'.

And then I remember the reason I was heading to Lakeside and my own part in the whole sorry mess we have got ourselves into. I know that I am just as caught up in the profit, speculation and consumption culture as the next person, be they Prime Minister or brick throwing Hoodie. So I find myself driven back to those words from Romans 12:1-2:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. 

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