Christians are called to help those in need whenever we can, says Jonty Langley. Supporting structures and systems that turn vast profit at the expense of the most vulnerable is the opposite of that
Sin is a funny thing.
Not ‘funny ha-ha’, but funny as in we’re-wildly-selective-talking-about-it. And the unfunniness of sin was more evident than usual last week, as we learned that oil and gas giant Shell made profits of $40bn (£32bn) last year. Because profits like those, when countless Britons are having to choose between heating and eating, as food bank use soars and average households face untenable energy bills, are sinful.
I get it, that’s a big statement, and it probably makes you uncomfortable.
A lot of us would prefer not to bring sin up at all – it’s awkward and embarrassing and makes us feel judgmental, unkind or even arrogant. This makes sense. We are not called, primarily, to police the morals of others in the Church (and even less so outside it), and almost every time someone in scripture asks Jesus to comment on the sin of another, Jesus turns the question back on the would-be-judge.
But sometimes, it is our job to call out sin, particularly where it harms those without the power to resist it.
In the case of last week’s news, the sin is clear. It is the sin of greed. The sin of injustice. The sin of selfishness when others are in need. That is the sin of all billionaires (who could do so much good by giving away enough to become millionaires without sacrificing a jot of comfort or pleasure) and all those who Jesus compares to camels trying to pass through the eye of a needle.
The problem is an ungodly system that does not value the human beings God loved enough to suffer and die for
But in the case of oil and gas companies, who are currently extracting exaggerated charges and inflated profits from families, national grids and the world at large, the sin is more direct. It is an oppression that will lead to the misery of many, while the few are enriched beyond the wealth of any biblical king brought low by the Lord.
At this point, most of us have been trained, as if in a liturgical call and response, to intone: “Having wealth is not a sin…” And this may be true. But the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ’s own template for what makes a good neighbour, shows that inaction when we could help another falls short of his standards.
The threshold for where blessing enjoyed becomes a sin of omission may be impossible to calculate, particularly for ordinary people, but it is not so for any person (or corporation treated as a person under law) making billions.
The principle is that God does not begrudge us good things. He wants us to have them. But if we gorge ourselves on fine food while someone at the end of our table starves, our prayers of thanksgiving ring hollow. The Bible speaks clearly enough about gluttony and greed for both to have been considered mortal sins for much of Church history.
Even in this era, when sin-naming Christians seem more comfortable talking about sins of sexuality or identity than issues that receive more attention in scripture, we must surely be able to recognise that excess and greed while others suffer is sin.
Where, then, are those churches who proclaim their status as unconformed to this world when Shell not only allows suffering, but causes it?
Inaction when we could help another falls short of God’s standards
When they are preaching against certain types of love, or tiny minorities of bullied people who do not feel at home in their given bodies, they roar like lions. But when the sinner is powerful, rich, influential and accepted by the systems of this world, they become meek as lambs.
Is this cowardice? Probably not. The fact is, many of us have been conformed by worldly thinking.
We assume, because the world assumes, that capitalism in its current rampant and rapacious form is inescapable. Perhaps we think it is even natural. But this system is only a few hundred years old. God, I probably don’t need to remind you, is older than that.
He says woe to the rich who send the poor home hungry. He says that our enemy is not flesh and blood, not individual humans, but rulers and principalities, the roles and power centres that continue regardless of the people occupying thrones. And who behaves more like our rulers than transnational corporations who charge us for the warmth we need to stay alive and pollute the oceans and the air that God created and once called “good”?
Straining out sin
It’s time we stopped being timid about calling sin that harms millions what it is. It’s time we stopped straining the gnat of personal morality out of the world while allowing the camel of corporate greed to rot our storehouses and lie festering in our wells.
Shell is in no way unique. Shell isn’t even the problem. The problem is an ungodly system that does not value the human beings God loved enough to suffer and die for. That system allows and encourages almost infinite concentrations of wealth in the hands of princes while workers and beggars languish and starve.
You don’t have to be a revolutionary to recognise the damage that mammon worship is doing. You just have to be a Christian. And there are enough of us to make a meaningful change, if we can just renew our minds.