In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage......
And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route (Mt.2:1-2;12)
I took this image of a shop front in Hull on Saturday to convey something of the shabby reality of the prosperity myth which has manifested so cruelly amongst us. Looking at the windows we see a distortion of reality: economic greed has consistently warped what we have seen and financial illusions have been reflected back to us. For liberty read oppression, for promise read despair. So whilst the name of the store is irrelevant, the name of the street points to a cruel credit-crunch irony.
This prosperity myth has been peddled by generations of politicians and has been exploited wantonly by bankers and financial greed-merchants the world over. The bright shining star of wealth and money which has burned so persistently for so long, promise-laden with the lure of liberty, has turned out to be a meteor crashing to earth with cataclysmic power. The name of Bernie Madoff resembles a blackened fragment of meteorite amidst the destruction. Woolworths has been obliterated. More carnage will follow.
Writing in today's Guardian Jackie Ashley traces the contours of this new wasteland: "This year, many hardworking people will lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Many businesses, built up with care, will be destroyed. Millions of savers, often older people, will find they don't have the interest or dividends they'd depended on. High streets will have more boarded-up windows."
She then poses a question which I want to put alongside the photo I took in Liberty Lane:
"The political challenge is whether this dark and burgeoning recession could actually make us a better country." If the promise of the free-market star has crashed to earth, where can we look for an epiphany? The Christian Festival of Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th. The story of open-minded, truth-seeking wisdom outwitting conniving, self-serving political power is beguiling. For those of an imaginative, self-reflective turn of mind, however, the outsider / insider dynamics of the tale are more than a little unsettling. It is much easier to cast ourselves as Magi than to see ourselves as Herod. Vested interests are habitually resistant to the challenges outsiders bring. Politicians find it hard to say sorry and accept responsibility for messes they have made. So often we are little different. The bankers, fat-cats and Madoff's of this world delivered a star which politicians - and so many of us - found irresistible. The price of all this is being paid for in untold misery right across the world.
I wrote about epiphany last year and said "epiphany is hard won and costly; it has all to do with the question "what are you looking for?" and the sense of emptiness and incompleteness out of which it arises." This seems especially so now.
As you can see, the units in the new St.Stephen's Shopping Centre in Hull are warm and inviting. Yet the emptiness of the dream is all too apparent. Is there enduring liberty here? Can we spend our way out of emptiness? Will the latest fashions remove our incompleteness? The mannequins look desolate somehow, lovely clothes on something that is anything but real, and the sign to the cash desk showing what this transaction is really about. Profit rather than wellbeing; debt rather than fulfilment. Here in the dark night of the credit crunch, consumerism has turned up empty handed to the cradle where promises are birthed. Not-so wisely we have followed a bogus star.
Yet the Liberty Lane street name stands like a cross offering a different star, a fresh dream, a dependable promise and a guaranteed epiphany for those searching in the economic wreckage for a way ahead. Just around the corner is the house where William Wilberforce was born. Does this not say something about the power of Christian Faith to motivate people in every age to challenge the forces of exploitation and to hold to account the merchants of misery and purveyors of despair? True liberty and real freedom cannot be bought and sold. Goodness is not for sale. Kindness is not a commodity. These virtues arise out of that living truth of love which alone sets us free. Jesus offers in his kingdom way of life a liberty that does not depend upon cash, stocks, shares, equity, derivatives or financial instruments. Kindness, compassion and justice are his way to liberty. They offer the potential for a new politics.
Saturday's Guardian carried an extract from 'On Kindness' by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, a book which reads like a word in season. They have uncomfortable things to say about religion and its woeful track record on kindness. Like the Magi they are deeply challenging to our vested interests. Yet they bear gifts to us. Kindness may yet be our credit-crunch epiphany. If we are prepared to travel home by a different route.