Imagine the prophet Amos in 650 BC travelling through the southern kingdom up to Bethel in the Samaritan north to sell his figs. It’s a long journey, but that’s where the money is. There’s abundant toll revenue from passing traders, slave-trading and money lending galore leeching off the poor without mercy. There’s bribery, corruption, profanity, promiscuity and perversion, all bubbling away beneath a shallow veneer of religion, empty rituals of sacrifice and nominal tithes. “Repent!” cries Amos. “Prepare to meet thy God!” And he warns of the coming judgment; of famine, plagues, suffering and humiliation.”Seek the Lord and live! Seek the Lord and hate evil!” he cries.
“Oi, Amos, mate,” says a fellow merchant. “Your figs are the most expensive in Israel. Why is that? And why are using these boys to carry your wool and fruit? Are they paid? And I saw you last night with a prostitute. At least it looked like you. What did that cost? There’s no point you coming from Judah to preach social justice and righteousness when your own heart is desperately wicked.”
There’s no hiding from God’s anger; no escape, especially for hypocrites.
Or imagine Jesus in AD 29 travelling to Jerusalem for Passover, and entering the Temple. He rails against the merchants, whips the money changers and turns over the tables of Mammon-worship, accusing them of turning his Father’s House into a den of thieves.
“Oi, Jesus, mate,” interrupted a pilgrim, “Isn’t that one of your disciples over there selling pigeons? They might be doves, I can’t tell, but it’s definitely one of your crowd. I saw him here earlier with another one, counting their gold. Or is it your gold? You can’t barge your way in here and proclaim it’s a house of prayer when Jesus Inc. is profiteering from avian sacrifice.”
There’s no point singing ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God’ when you’re steeped in consumerism and materialism.
And so it came to pass that the Archbishop of Canterbury went to the TUC and preached about Amos and Jesus: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he cried, as he railed against Amazon and zero-hours contracts. “They don’t pay a real living wage, so the tax payer must support their workers with benefits,” he proclaimed. “And having leached off the tax payer once they don’t pay for our defence, for security, for stability, for justice, for health, for equality, for education.”
“Today there are some who view that kind of oppression of the employed as a virtue,” he continued. “The gig economy, zero hours contracts, is nothing new, it is simply the reincarnation of an ancient evil. And God says, ‘let justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’.”
“Oi, Justin, mate,” prodded a journalist from the Daily Mail, “Your church has got shares in Amazon. And it’s not just a few, mate, neither – its bloody millions and millions of pounds worth. So the Church of England is profiting from what you say is tax evasion, or at least immoral tax avoidance. How do you justify that?”
The Archbishop gulped.
“Oi, Justin, mate,” said Bill from Gloucester Cathedral. “I’m a porter and I earn £8.75 an hour, which is just about enough to live on. But my contract is mostly for evenings and weekends, working on a flexible basis. To be honest, mate, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going sometimes. And I don’t always know if I’ll have enough spare cash at the end of a week for a pint with my mates, which isn’t great, is it?”
“O, hello Archbishop,” whispered Doris from Norwich Cathedral. “I’m a refectory assistant, and my contract – for which I’m immensely grateful and appreciate enormously and thank the Lord every day – says: ‘This is a casual zero-hours post’. Is that the same as a zero-hours contract?”
The Archbishop glared.
He meant well, of course. But if only his speech to the TUC had been a little more politically rounded and ethically nuanced; if only he hadn’t deployed the Manichæan ‘E’ word to scratch a few unionised itching ears, for the revelation that the Church of England is actually one of the top 20 investors in Amazon and uses zero-hours contracts in its own cathedrals renders it complicit in evil, or at least complicit in the “reincarnation of an ancient evil”. The Archbishop isn’t entirely to blame, of course: he doesn’t determine where the Church Commissioners invest their £8bn, but he does chair their board of governors, and you’d think his advisors and speech-writers would have checked to ensure some contiguity between his preaching and the church’s practice, wouldn’t you?
The Church Commissioners have issued a woefully embarrassing justification for retaining shares in Amazon: “We consider aggressive tax avoidance or abusive tax arrangements to be both a business risk and an ethical issue,” a spokesman said. “As with other issues, we take the view that it is most effective to be in the room with these companies seeking change as a shareholder.”
And yet when Justin Welby railed against Wonga for exploiting the poor, and it was subsequently revealed that the Church of England held shares in the company, the Archbishop said he was embarrassed and irritated, and so the Commissioners dumped all their Wonga shares the following year. That’s them practising what the Archbishop preaches. And when the Archbishop and all the Bishops condemned global warming and the evils of fossil fuels, the Commissioners discarded their holdings in fossil fuel companies. That’s them practising what the Bishops are preaching.
So why, pray, is it important to be “in the room” with Amazon in order to seek change, but it was absolutely necessary to exit Wonga’s room like a bat out of hell? Surely one either stays in both to be salt and light, or one comes out of both for fear of corruption by association. Why fling the fossil fuel companies into outer darkness instead of nudging them incrementally toward sustainable eco-fuels? Why is Amazon worthy of collaborative correction and ethical tolerance, but other companies may not even be touched because they are so unclean?
If the Archbishop had not talked of ‘evil’, the fallout from this apparent hypocrisy would be manageable. But having invoked the themes of justice and righteousness to the TUC and the nation, and having held up Amazon and zero-hours contracts as examples not only of injustice and unrighteousness but “the reincarnation of an ancient evil”, Justin must now act justly, swiftly and consistently, or his spiritual authority will be diminished, the church will wither and the righteous will perish. ‘For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God.‘ Evil must be opposed and supplanted by good; not tolerated or come to terms with, ‘for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?‘ If the Church of England continues to profit from its Amazon shares to swell its own coffers, and if carries on exploiting its own workers with zero-hours contracts for economic expediency, then Archbishop Justin’s soul will be seen to have a double movement, and the world will whisper with Milton’s Satan, “Evil, be thou the church’s good.”