Monday, March 03, 2008

Thou shalt not shop at Tesco (a sermon)

Evensong: texts Micah 7 & James 5

Those who know me appreciate that I tend to refer to certain texts and principles from Scripture more often than others; I particularly like the prophets, and I particularly like the prophetic teachings denouncing economic injustice and promising God's terrible wrath upon it. I refer to these principles when, for example, I go off on one of my rants about Tesco. The trouble is, I can start to sound like a stuck record - and I don't really want to become a caricature of myself - so I've tried to avoid preaching on the topic too much, not least because I really don't want to end up in the pages of the Daily Mail again - although those of you who read my blog will be well aware that my views, especially on Tesco, have become even less moderate as time has gone on! But those good intentions rather fail when faced with the sorts of texts that we have tonight. So, with just a little heaviness of heart, I'm going to get up onto my soapbox again.

"Now listen you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you."

I should say early on that the problem isn't really Tesco - Tesco is simply an extremely well-run company that is operating within a certain context and playing the game according to the "rules" it finds in operation. The problem is that basic context, and it is that basic context which God will soon act to destroy - but I will come back to that. For now, let's run with Tesco as an example of what I feel needs to be named and shamed from a Christian perspective.

James 5.4-6: "The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you."

What James is criticising here is the exploitation of the weak by the strong - the abuse of power undertaken in order to increase financial wealth at the cost of the lives of those being exploited. This is not a new insight for James - he is drawing on the insights which run consistently throughout the prophetic literature, as with tonight's reading from Micah which points out that "the powerful dictate what they desire".

Now how might this apply to Tesco? Well, let's think about invoices. Normal business practice would be to invoice a company for goods and services rendered, and for those invoices to be met within a certain time period. Once upon a time I worked in the finance section of Anglian Water and it was my job to process the sequence of invoices, and I would have got into trouble if an invoice wasn't paid on time. Now, according to a survey by Accountancy Age magazine, Tesco only pays 67% of its invoices below the value of £5000 within standard terms. Think about what that means. If the invoice is below £5000 then we are dealing with a small supplier, someone whose livelihood may well depend upon a prompt payment. On the other hand we have Tesco which, given that it makes billions of pounds of profits in a year, can certainly afford to pay bills promptly. Yet it doesn't - and the high rate of non-payment - a third of their small bills - suggests that this is not an occasional accident. What we have is an example of a large company squeezing the supply chain in order to maximise its own cash flow and the income that can be generated from it. "The powerful dictate what they desire". Essentially what happens is that the supplier is forced to lend money to Tesco, and Tesco doesn't even have to pay interest. The trouble is that Tesco has become so good at practices like these that, according to one critical book I read recently, Tesco in the financial year ending in 2006 was able to 'borrow' over £2bn from its suppliers, at no cost in fees or interest payments.

Now as I said, the problem is not particularly with Tesco as such - they are simply the biggest player in this particular market and to a greater or lesser extent the criticisms apply to all the major supermarket chains. I just believe that we need to start somewhere, and not using Tesco is a good place to start. After all, it's not a great hardship for most people, and if a committed Christian cannot achieve that then most areas of Christian discipleship will also be too much for them.

"Now listen you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you."
The other great theme in the prophets is that the injustice of the rich will provoke God's wrath: "because I have sinned against him I will bear the Lord's wrath" as Micah puts it. The truth is that we cannot avoid sinning, we cannot avoid playing a part in the sins of the world. If you are a single mum struggling to survive on benefits, or a frugal pensioner, and Tesco is in walking distance then shopping there is the only reasonable option. It is the lesser of two evils and it is not at all part of my plan to heap yet more burdens upon the shoulders of those who are already vulnerable. Yet that simply points up the truth that what is needed is systemic change - and that is what God is bringing about. The way in which this systemic change is going to take place - the way in which we are going to experience God's wrath - is starting to become clear. You will, I am sure, be aware of the rise in the oil price to a new all-time record high; part of the rise due to the peaking of oil production throughout the world. Yet what has now started to happen are the secondary effects from that. The price of wheat has gone up by 46% in the last two months, corn by 20%. This is because significant parts of the American mid-west have shifted their agricultural land to the production of corn-ethanol. In other words, the farmers can make more money - as a result of government subsidies - from providing fuel for cars than food for people. The consequences of this are frightening. How will our economic system cope when the fuel that it relies upon is taken away? Our transportation system - not least the transportation system - is entirely dependent upon liquid fuels, and as that system breaks down all our assumptions about economic life will be challenged. And what will we do when the car drivers of the west out-compete entire nations in the third world in the demand for food and fuel. Are we really prepared to stand by and watch the wars and mass human migrations that will result? The system has entered into a time of crisis, and God knows how it will end.

It is our entire way of life that needs to change, and that will change. What we need to do is to start living in the light of the change that is coming. There is a particular Christian language that refers to this, and that language is "living in the kingdom". We are children of the resurrection. The resurrection shows the nature of God and the nature of humanity, it shows the way of life that we are to follow. Yet we are not there yet. What we are called to do is to live by that different understanding, to walk towards the light and to keep faith with it, even when it seems utterly absurd by worldly standards. What that means in this context is that we need to begin disengaging from the globalised production of pre-packaged food, and return to the sort of system that was universal as little as fifty years ago, where there is the possibility of a much more direct relationship with local food and local food suppliers. The implications extend into our entire habits of life. This is what the Transition Town movement is all about, and I am so glad that Mersea now has an organisation dedicated to pursuing that objective.

God is in this process. It is one of the principal places where the Spirit may today be found. For one of the other abiding themes of the prophetic writings is that God's love will not always be eclipsed, that there will always be the possibility of redemption. Micah writes "Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light. Because I have sinned against him, I will bear the LORD's wrath, until he pleads my case and establishes my right. He will bring me out into the light; I will see his righteousness." There is a way out, a way that God will bless. That way, for us as a community, lies in turning away from highly efficient and soulless corporations and returning to the resilient, the local and the organic - in every sense. There is a challenge in the book of Deuteronomy which encapsulates this message, and which we would do well to meditate on: "See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live..."

May the Lord guide all our choices that we may do his will, that we and all God's children may prosper in this land.

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