Words have tremendous power. The old adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is complete nonsense. Bullies know this. Political campaigners and advertisers know this. The clever memes on social media know this. Name-calling, insults and lies spread about someone can hurt deeply and are designed to. They are an aggressive act, which is looking to do damage to their target. And in the same way, words of blessing and healing can do a tremendous amount of good. They can offer hope, sooth the anxious and isolated. They can mobilise others to action to make a difference and transform. Behind these is the reception they receive. Is the ground on which they fall fertile and conducive to their seed? Are those who hear them ready to believe the worst or the best, suspecting of conspiracy or knowing that sometimes things go wrong, even when there are good intentions.
There is a principle in moments of conflict and deep disagreement when we make a conscious effort to interpret what we hear in the best possible light. Our political climate and the way so much of the news reports come to us, do not encourage this. They look for the worst, for the base motives and the conspiracies at work. Sadly they often find them, but if a fruitful way forward is going to be found then giving the benefit of the doubt opens up the chance of finding a way through. Our paranoia needs to be bridled and kept in check lest it master us.
So our readings this morning all touch on the power of words. For James (James 3:1-12) it is that whether we bless or curse comes from our inner character. That character may be showing strain, wariness from past experience and suspicion, as well as temperamental predispositions. Those are not malicious in themselves, but can affect just how we respond or comment. The gospel (Mark 8:27-38) also touched on who we are being seen in what we do. Jesus asked who people said that he is and the response was based on what they saw and knew. Suffering being part of the way of Jesus came as a shock to them, with some sharp words for Peter, and being reminded that being prepared to be true to who we are and what we believe, even if this leads to suffering, are strong and difficult words. Have the courage of your convictions because if you truly believe in this, then nothing else matters as much. What will it profit to gain the world and yet forfeit the eternal? In the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 50:4-9a) courage in the face of beard pulling and spitting was held up for ultimate vindication.
None of this means that we can’t say something critical and the Bible has sharp words at times, especially when matters of justice and oppression are at stake. Words have power to call to account, remind and confront. Even when being critical their aim is to heal and bring a miscreant to their senses. Look carefully at the Old Testament prophets and we find this is what they were aiming to do. It is in this spirit that Archbishop Justin Welby got up to speak at the TUC earlier in the week. His fire was aimed at a major employer in this city, the online retailer Amazon. He criticized them for being a ‘tax dodging, employee exploiting parasite’. My paraphrase, but his words were strong. While the company are adamant they pay the tax required by law, that is not the same as what is fair when payments are made to parent companies in other countries, with lower tax regimes, and the effect of these being to achieve a substantial reduction in that liability to tax. With a turnover of nearly £2bn, tax of a few million seems rather low. If we do the maths, that gives them a profitability of something like 1%, which would imply frighteningly stark margins and doesn’t match their rising share price. They are not alone; many companies do this and we’ve heard a great deal about them over recent years. They are not contributing to the common life of the nation on which they depend.
The ‘employee exploiting’ refers to low pay and zero hours contracts. The morality of zero hours contracts very much depends on how they operate. There is a long standing and accepted practice of casual engagement as staff are needed on a temporary basis. And some work flexible hours, expanding and contracting as work is there. So if zero hours is casual work, and we take people on on that basis in the cathedral, it is a way of bringing in extra staff for one off occasions. The questionable side comes when there is a requirement to work and the risk being unfairly shifted to the employee who is not equipped to bear it. Employment brings responsibilities, even if orders come and go. If there is a requirement to show up each day then there should be a basic level of pay, with extra hours as available. This is a more responsible and just way to behave.
The low pay, to be legal, will mean that they only pay the government minimum wage, rebranded as the living wage, which in reality it isn’t. That is currently £7.83 per hour (a mere £3.50 for apprentices) whereas we pay the Living Wage Foundation’s level of £8.75 as a minimum. The parasitical element of this is that they are relying on the benefits system, funded by taxes they don’t pay fairly, to top up the living costs of employees who can’t make ends meet. Zero-hours compounds the problems. As we know universal credits are not going well and so many people on low pay find themselves at foodbanks, run by churches and other volunteers, and at debt advice, and going to loan sharks, like Wonga. Enter stage left, the MP Frank Field and his suggestion that the Church of England call together a group of ethical financiers to take over the loan book of Wonga. An imaginative idea and one I hoped would happen when Wonga went into receivership at the end of August, and Tweeted to that effect, so who knows the power of a Tweet, not least if others say something similar. It creates a groundswell for an idea to bed in.
So we have sharp words mixed with ones of hope, which makes them a blessing. Words of challenge about the justice and consequences of actions – corporate, governmental because they create the legislative climate, and personal. Words of hope and blessing with the prospect of how we can make a difference. Just to add to the complexities here, it turns out that the Church Commissioners have investments in Amazon. And a superficial look would either accuse this of being double standards, of hypocrisy, or an embarrassing oops moment. Actually there is a more subtle judgement here. Investments can be used to change a company’s ethos and practices. The power of the shareholder to work with the board of directors is quite strong if the holding is large enough or they get organised. And I know that the ethical investments group does this. There comes a moment when a company refuses to listen and then a decision to disinvest comes. This is where investment money is used to work for good. And life is compromised, so sometimes there is a decision to work from the inside rather than shouting from the outside. So I don’t see an inconsistency here, it depends how it comes through. And there have been Church Commissioners who have made this point this week, not least the head the Share Centre.
Words have power and our thoughts this morning are taken to how we use them, to our assumptions and whether we are looking to build up and transform, or just attack and destroy. To my mind it should always be the former, and if I stray into the latter, then that means I have some work to do on what has wound me up so much. Anger that turns to aggression always has an injury in the background that needs healing. It may be the stone we need to pick up, hold and then place on the hand in the prayer station by the Lady Chapel. Let go of the burdens that weigh you down, that are too heavy to carry and need to be jettisoned for the sake of our health.
An encouragement from today’s readings is to watch our words and what they reveal about us. They are to be a means of blessing and healing, of challenge and grace in order that justice and freedom may ensue.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 16th September 2018