by Tim Belben
from Signs of the Times No. 48 - Jan 2013
The parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard should be a warning against responding too easily to demands for equality. Scrutiny of such demands may also lead us to question demands for justice. Are these, justice and equality, a necessary part of the Christian ethic?
Bishop Brian Smith pointed out (Modern Believing January 2010) that the pagan and Christian value systems are both desirable but compete for attention. Have we been led astray by the 'good' of pagan virtues into backing the wrong horse?
I argue that Christians, as Christians, do not have rights, only duties. Our duty is certainly to refrain from imposing injustice upon others, and may indeed (according to individual vocation) be to fight injustice imposed by circumstance. But to support demands for equality of treatment in, for instance, Church structures?
The Episcopal Church in the USA has argued, sometimes stridently, for equality of treatment in gender issues, and even Modern Church publications seem to have a tendency in that direction. Certainly no case whatever can be made for supporting injustice, let alone imposing it, although the Labourers parable would suggest an attempt to do just that. But as individual members of the body of Christ, who are we to demand equal treatment for ourselves? Is the Lord not free to do as he wills with his own? Is he evil because we are jealous?
Gender issues apart, there is a growing, and, I think, dangerous tendency in modern culture to encourage grievance when circumstances produce inequality. We demand our imagined rights - to equal treatment, to health, to wealth, to respect - but do we in fact demand that which will make us self-reliant? It is old-fashioned to talk of God's mercy and provision, and there can be little sympathy with Mrs Alexander's 'non-pc' verse justifying 'the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate' but has the pendulum swung too far?
'Human Rights' is a useful concept in preventing deliberate or careless injustice. However, does the demand for rights not conceal from us the need for humility, acceptance, trust, even faith? Does it tempt us to condemn others for their inaction, say, or for what we see as discrimination?
The demand for an imagined 'equality' may indeed be driving contemporary blame culture. If I haven't got as much (comfort, influence, wealth) as you have, someone must be to blame and should pay. And this leads quickly to our even more destructive revenge culture: if someone is to blame (for anything) am I denied justice until they have been given their just deserts? The Book of Psalms frequently argues in this way. But we, as Christians, are not supposed to expect Justice, but, instead, compassion, mercy, love... Unless we can identify the Christian difference we shall not be able to show the world that there is a better way.
Is not the Christian difference, in ethics, unlimited forgiveness, practical love, active compassion, unstinted service - all summed up in the New Commandment? Is not the Christian contribution to the world, to ethics, to contemporary standards, the demonstration that there is another way? That we do not have to shrivel our lives by demanding equality and justice?
Compassion and service will of course frequently lead Christians to confront injustice and inequality. Paradoxically, this is the reconciliation between the two value systems quoted by Bishop Smith. The pagan virtues - justice, courage, honour and so on - give us the motive and strength to struggle against the conditions (and the human actions) which give rise to exploitation, poverty, sickness and misery. But it is the Christian virtues of, for instance, humility, service, long-suffering, compassion which not only enable us to do something about it, but also provide the values and example which proclaim Christ: and so bring to the poor the good news of his kingdom.
We know, do we not, that we do not get our deserts - that our comfort in this life and our hope of eternal life depend upon forgiveness and reconciliation, not upon justice and equality - for are not the latter this-world values, not of the Kingdom of Heaven? As soon as we move from the practical action of righting wrongs and confronting evil, to choose instead the politics of proclaiming liberty, equality, fraternity (and maybe even justice), do we not forget what we are about? And risk again (one might even say, as usual) facing in the wrong direction?