I would like you to help. I am increasingly convinced of the need to actually do something about the problems blighting our communities. The most obvious and, in one sense, easiest to fix is litter. Three years ago, I moved to Elgin, Moray, from Easterhouse, Glasgow, and was so pleased to see how green, pleasant and clean everything seemed up here in comparison to back there.
Not anymore. As someone who loves to walk around their local area, I can’t escape seeing the huge amounts of junk and debris discarded and disowned. Nevertheless, rather than just lamenting or complaining, I have resolved to do what I can. After finishing my day job as a Communication lecturer at Moray College, I frequently go out with garden gloves and some of the many plastic bags I have accumulated, picking-up whatever litter I find – mostly high-energy/alcohol drink bottles/cans or discarded fag packets.
Now some might think this futile, but remember all that is required for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing, or be too caught-up in sorting issues far away they miss what is happening in their own backyard. Local Councils cannot afford to spend badly-needed pounds in a vast, bureaucratic top-down cleansing exercise. Already £65 million is frittered away on cleaning up what should not be there in the first place! For those who persist in despoiling our beautiful environment, the best argument against their selfish indifference is to show mercy and actually help solve the problem. Quite possibly, they may even be shamed into stopping when they see whole communities, or even brave individuals, taking positive action. Suppose they did stop littering, there would still be a mountain of rubbish already out there that required an army of volunteers to roll-up their sleeves. You can, like myself, find out more about the situation in your area at www.litteraction.org.uk/ and register interest.
Clearly, better bins, stiffer fines and decent education on the problems litter causes would all help, but ask yourself: how does a child truly learn? Not by being told repeatedly, though obviously education helps! Instead, they imitate an example. We desperately need positive role models. As a Dutch criminologist, Josine Junger-Tas, once explained: “All it takes for the development of a normal personality is to have someone irrationally crazy about you. And it needn’t be a parent.” We do NOT need more analysis of the root causes or even demonising of people, which only alienates those who are most desperately hurting inside and wastes precious time. If born into their shoes, from a dysfunctional ‘family’ or repeatedly told they were ‘rubbish’ at school, we might be even more of a mess – but for the grace of God, there go I! Suffice to say, the reasons are many, but the first step to a solution is more straightforward than we can possibly dare believe.
For inspiration and encouragement, I look to Christ Jesus. You see, we so often miss the point that Easter is the culmination and climax of Christmas – God’s utterly astonishing, completely loving and totally undeserved gift to humanity of our Saviour. As we approach Easter, I remember the One who was humble enough to wash His followers’ smelly, sweaty, sandaled feet – that motley band of odd balls, including duplicitous Judas. This was the most menial of task for the lowest of slaves, but the first step that evening for the Lord to the cross. There, in the teeth of most horrendous opposition, when all hope seemed lost, good triumphed over evil and love conquered hate on a Roman gibbet. Christ cried out: “Father forgive them. They do not know what they are doing”. He realised that even His most vicious enemies were simply ignorant and unable to see true love.
Down through the ages, many have refused to be silent – William Wilberforce, Ghandi, Martin Luther King – and endured the pains necessary to secure redemption for slaves, people bound in chains. I believe that what holds individuals most captive today is basic selfishness. Pride and greed choke out genuine compassion. Yet, we cannot teach anyone to start loving or caring – only show them a good example to learn from. Jesus recognised that the route to moral authority was through showing real, compassionate service. Interestingly, in John’s gospel the servant act of feet-washing is followed by remarkable teaching that the disciples finally seem to actually understand as dialogue to resolve questions gives way to monologue. Sadly, many within the walls of traditional church buildings are still to realise that love, expressed with actions and in truth, is the objective test of subjective faith.
So, this Easter and beyond, whoever you say you follow, what can we do to genuinely serve? Do not be fooled into playing the blame game, which seems fun for a moment but helps no-one. Beware also those commentators, toothless soothsayers, who dissect the entrails of social issues and spout technical mumbo-jumbo, but never actually advocate a solution that involves them doing anything! Watch out also for assuming we comprehend clearly what people’s needs are. Unless we take the time to get to know individuals, being patient and listening to their lives, then we will be repeatedly confounded by the seeming complexities of the issues they face.
Nevertheless, when we see something clearly wrong – a paralysing fear, paranoia or compulsion – we must politely and firmly correct, and possibly even rebuke, that twisted thought which is causing hurt and distraction for the individual. Just as doodles reveal children’s fears, we often can learn much from observing students’ timed exam papers, especially for Higher English Close Reading passages, when under pressure they disclose what could be seen as the “monkeys on their back”. We begin, like Jesus, by connecting with current understanding (“You have heard it said…”) and then move to true revelation (“But I tell you…”) in our task to explode irrational myths.
Remember, at heart, people need to know you care. Sometimes that involves practically assisting the student who is being ripped apart by loan sharks with money we’d only spend on more consumer junk, so they can clear their debts and start afresh. On other occasions, mentoring is required where we address directly their actual fears and anxieties, providing reassurance and tackling the negative messages that pervade our media and society. Yet, whatever we do must be focused on empowering people to live fruitful lives, not creating a dependency culture. As the old Chinese proverb rightly discerns, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him the art of fishing and you satisfy him for a lifetime”. We must never delude ourselves into thinking we’re too “clever” to care or such work is beneath our “dignity”.
Practically, we should realise the importance in teaching of gaining the respect of young people through seeking to genuinely serve their needs. Individuals often need to know we care personally for them before they are willing to hear us share sound, yet challenging, instruction. Interestingly, psychologist Scott Peck in The Road Less Travelled (1978) notes that, reflecting on his cases, the turning point in treating difficult conditions was showing he truly valued and was willing to serve his patient. Looking back on my relationship with a troubled student, one significant moment was going to fetch a glass of water for her, after she made the request. She seemed shocked when I returned, but that is what grace does and why I follow Christ. There is still much ground to travel, but I feel progress has been much smoother since then.
All the small things – smiling, greeting personally, classroom posture, returning marking as promptly as possible, responding to their queries and such like all communicate this message. For example, I often kneel down beside my student if no chair is handy because this helps to show humility and gentleness, which are important qualities I hope to inculcate by example. We should also be encouraged that most students come to College with a willingness to learn and, in Moray at least, a natural respect of authority. Yet, most will see straight through hypocrisy. This is not a programme for mimicking to promote a spurious agenda, but some lessons I’ve learned through tough years of learning to teach. The best “eureka” moments often happen when I am not conscious of overtly trying.
Nevertheless, preparation and planning is important. I am putting together some discussion-based lessons on the importance of a healthy diet for students’ general well-being and I know that this will only penetrate if I am myself disciplined, gracious and willing to invest the time required for what is such a key priority. In 2006, Britain wasted £26 billion in treating diet-related issues, such as tooth decay, heart disease and diabetes. I will need to share my own experiences of struggling to kick bad habits and the vital point: whatever treats we surrender must be compensated by worthwhile work, whether mental or physical. Our energies need to be re-directed from self-gratification to endeavour.
The value of real labour
We need to recapture a sense of the value inherent in real work that positively impacts and transforms communities, making the world a better place one step at a time. Whilst this should never be targeted specifically at the un- or under-employed, there is obviously a golden opportunity to restore their confidence. This would also provide excellent material for students C.Vs, demonstrating a sense of civic responsibility, the ability to take the initiative and a strong work ethic. Sadly, our celebrity culture and hedonistic lifestyles prioritise self-indulgence and paint whatever we do that is genuinely productive, like looking after our environment or helping a child learn, appear as a necessary evil. This is reinforced by the pay-scales used to reward endeavour, which place front-line cleaners and teachers at the bottom.
Why has service been so badly devalued in our society? It is considered a punishment fit only for criminals by our legal system, payback to communities, and businesses are only just starting to awaken to the mantra of meeting customer needs. With pageantry and pomp we reward selected acts of public outreach, as embodied by our monarch, but this touches the lives of only an alarmingly small portion of our society. Why are there many jobs no-one, except for immigrants, want to do? In times when budgets are shrinking, vision needs to expand so that good deeds multiply.
The importance of inspirational symbols
One abiding memory of my Religious Education classroom was a poster that simply warned of the real danger when, to paraphrase, everybody assumed that somebody would do what anybody could do, but in the end nobody actually did anything! Do you remember the powerful films “V for Vendetta” or “Batman: Dark Knight”? In many ways this captured a real zeit geist of the age – that people need symbols to inspire them. Think the solitary protester standing in front of China’s military juggernaut or the Tunisian man who set himself alight. Sparks that set off great conflagrations. However, this is very dangerous because where resentment at injustice festers too strongly, as amongst the poorest and most downtrodden, they can so easily be manipulated into great evil and lawlessness.
Tragically or providentially, depending on your perspective, millions in the U.K. are finding this stimulation and satisfaction in online, fantasy quests or passively watching movies, never participating or engaging with what is going on outside. They need to be gently encouraged out into the real world and shown the satisfaction of actually and productively achieving life goals. Britain needs local role models who will blaze a trail for others to follow. I will not say heroes because that sounds unattainable and out-of-reach. The Bible talks about discipleship, learning from one another and looking to the Ultimate Expert and Practitioner, Christ Jesus.
Personal freedom & harnessing creativity
We must always remember that some people are too busy or unwilling to follow, which is their choice. Often, they will be engaged productively and they should not be made into scapegoats or guilt-tripped, as this does much long-term damage. Good campaigns must be positive that is why picking-up litter is so amazing in being an act that is refreshingly simple, enabling the enjoyment of fresh air, providing exercise and a resulting in a real sense of achievement. We are reclaiming and cleaning-up our own communities or green spaces. All we really need is a pair of garden gloves (cost one or two quid), plastic bags (free – recycled from your local shop) and a willing heart. Do not forget to stuff plenty of empty bags in your pockets as we will be shocked how quickly they fill-up. Then dispose of these as soon as possible in the nearest rubbish receptacle.
Creativity is so important to any movement, meaning that we release the enthusiasm and ideas of individuals and communities. Depending on the personalities, they could get together with a group of friends and enjoy some on-the-job banter, or plug themselves into some upbeat music on the move. We need to show people they can start where they are and do whatever they can. Obviously, we all have different amounts of physical strength and varying demands on our time, so no-one has the right to judge anyone else. I know there are plenty of other issues and opportunities to serve wherever we are, so please be encouraged to make the most of whatever chances we have.
The simplified historical perspective
Every great movement in history comes back to the cross of Christ. How did these early believers subdue the rapacious, violent Roman Empire? As eyewitnesses like Tertuillian noted: “see how they love one another and are ready to die for each other”. The power of this sacrificial love was unstoppable. Sadly, at this point, the church was seduced by two very dangerous extremes: hermits and monks retreated into enclaves that made spirituality elitist and apparently unobtainable, whilst popes and bishops wielded secular authority that corrupted their character by blinding them to true service.
Gradually, as learning spread, the system became so blighted by penances, indulgences and consumerism that the Reformation re-introduced the concept of faith and the “crisis” conversion. Suddenly, dissent was permitted and license to question authority introduced with devastating results in terms of conflicts that rent Christendom into shreds. Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17, “love one another, as I have loved you”, was conveniently forgotten as people sought to justify their positions at the point of a sword and mercenary interests again jumped on the band-wagon. Yet, these forces would eventually topple kings and establish democracies, which served as powerful checks on individual ambition.
Another tipping point was the campaign to abolish slavery, led by the aforementioned William Wilberforce. Now, the concept of freedom from chains and subjugation for all people was introduced into the discourse with a lasting legacy. This license, however, was poorly defined as Enlightenment optimism blinded those who should have known better from the rest of the story. We must live in communities where we serve one another’s needs and learn from each other, or we become introspective nomads, increasingly trapped by our insecurities and insignificance. We are only truly free when loving another. There are many accounts of black slaves, following emancipation, not knowing what to do and at a total loss as to how they should cope without the structure of servitude.
Interestingly, in the early 1960s this concept of love was dramatically highlighted by various movements, most notably the Christian charity, Operation Mobilisation, which recognised the need to unite gospel proclamation with actual demonstration of compassion in what their visionary leader, George Verwer described as a “revolution of love”. Nevertheless, the concept was still too vague and misunderstood to be properly grasped. One of its more warped forms was the “hippie” cult of pot-smoking, hair-brained, spaced-out emotion masquerading as right feeling. The ancient Greeks have at least four different words for love and the highest form, agape service, is the one least commented on or pursued.
Yet what else chains people. We cannot ignore the fact that there is something fundamentally crooked and “out of joint” in our world. Thankfully, Christ provides an extensive list that repays careful study: “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21-22). Definitions and unpacking are required.
Firstly, we must stress that, wonderfully, love covers a multitude of sins. God’s grace to us in Christ Jesus offers free and full forgiveness. We can be assured of His mercy as we care for and serve those around us, being channels through which His blessings pour. How we treat other people is so crucial and should never be minimised: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12). The pure, radiant, holy One was willing to come down and enter into our world of squalor, so that we all would glimpse true grace.
Whilst we should seek to understand and be convicted about the sin lurking within us, we must never wallow in our brokenness as God longs to make us whole by releasing us to serve. The Master Surgeon’s scalpel cuts out the cancer in our hearts and saves the dying patient who is revitalised with new life. Jesus, embodying and inaugurating the new covenant, shifted the focus from the letter to the heart of the law, thereby enabling real change.
Pride is clear-cut. We so easily slip into the mistake of thinking we know everything, can do anything and are above correction – the infantile delusions of omniscience and omnipotence. Boasting or bragging are also ridiculous when every good and perfect gift is from above. Folly is any activity that is not genuinely productive and developing our God-given capacities. For example, when I was younger and an incorrigible loner, I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings at least six times. This could also be understood as saying there is no hope, refusing to work, starving one’s self or any irrational activity. I have on occasion been tempted to withdraw from society and just enjoy my own thoughts, but this would be incredibly stupid. Similarly, the “Mock the Week”-style, supercilious sneering should be questioned – why are these people laughing at what should move us to tears and action? How have we managed to create a whole “comedy” industry that pokes fun at those who try to solve serious socio-economic problems? Of course, the courtly jester or fool was important in keeping the king’s feet firmly planted on the ground, but this function seems to be very adequately covered by a ruthless parliamentary democracy and free press.
Slander, gossip and lewdness are so obnoxious. They might make the listener feel momentarily better, fantasising about seeing another fall or carnal lusts, but they spread negativity, pessimism and distraction to all who happen to hear. Malice is also taking a perverse pleasure in seeing another brought low or fall, like the vultures who circulate around the corpses of crashed celebrities. Teasing, taunting and bullying are all additional manifestations of what is truly awful. I remember one situation when some strong-willed, older students were indulging in mockery of one another – the so-called “banter”. When observed closely, however, I was concerned that one particular young woman who would have been regarded as “pretty” ended up more often than not as the target. From my perspective, she seemed rather vulnerable because her fiancée in the Armed Forces was then away on Tours. As a victim of much name-calling myself when younger – most agonisingly the “Red Retard” from a total stranger in S4 – I always feel enormous sympathy in these circumstances and try to correct this whenever possible.
Greed often displays itself in gluttony, or even the warped self-control of anorexia. Other signs are hoarding possessions or the miser trying to save every single penny, which all result in simply not caring for people. I believe capitalism is morally neutral: at its best, a chance for properly rewarding and incentivising good service; at its worst, an excuse for fleecing the poorest and vulnerable to inflate the bottom line. The global financial crash has, temporarily at least, exposed this evil. The resignation of Greg Smith on 14th March 2012 from Goldman Sachs is another electrifying symbol that could facilitate the reformation of capitalism.
One of the less commented-on manifestations of deceit is the phenomenon observed amongst children of play-acting to attract attention. Obviously, most grow out of this stage but possibly this maturation would be quicker if the underlying problem was directly corrected and rebuked. Of course, lying is actively telling what is not true in order to gain an unfair advantage for self or another closely connected individual.
The most controversial today is, undoubtedly, sexual immorality. I believe marriage – one man and one woman uniting together, becoming one, is an act so special, intimate and wonderful that we must never cheapen, mock or make fun of God’s gift. This is the bedrock of stable families, society and future generations, which we tamper with at our collective peril. Remember the salutary lesson of Frankenstein who disrupted the natural order in pushing the boundaries of knowledge and unleashed the monster he could not comprehend or accept. Divorce or abortion granted under specific conditions, once permissible, quickly became the norm and a “get out” clause from personal responsibility, as can be observed in the statistics. For example, there were 22,654 divorces in 1968 (on grounds of unfaithfulness or physical assault – set by Jesus Christ Himself). By 1993 – where the subjective criteria were based on whether the relationship was “irretrievably broken down”, without any need for “proof of fault”, the figure stood at 165,018 – representing many more innocent children.
Platonic friendship or fellowship between those of the same sex is another remarkable reality of the human condition and one we must treasure and celebrate, rather than simply seeking equal recognition or status for all things under the sun. Still, each must make their own decision as compulsion in matters of sexuality only breeds resentment. We have been given the wonderful gift of free will and, those who agree that the natural order generally works best, must prove this truth through the reality of fruitful, productive lives and communities.
Recent theological developments have again stressed humankind’s role in stewarding and looking after God’s good creation. Environmental concern is a noble aspiration and one that needs to be nurtured as a way that so many can re-connect with Biblical truth. As with anything in the created order, this can become idolatrous, but the key is to ground our responsibilities in community. We can be encouraged by the fruitfulness and fecundity of our planet, which means that there is enough to feed everyone (and incidentally make each individual a dollar millionaire). Interestingly, many of Paul’s sermons, such as to the Athenians (Acts 17), begin by establishing common understanding of God as Creator and Provider, which leads into gospel proclamation.
Tragically, so much ink is wasted by commentators in trying to answer questions that simply must be classed as secondary. How exactly was the world made? When will it all end? The Bible simply does not tell us. Crucially, however, we are assured of fair and just judgement when God will ask account of each individual for what they have done with whatever He has given them on this earth. If we are truly following Christ – living in love and hope that is inspired by our faith – then we have absolutely nothing to fear and much to eagerly anticipate. Until that Day, we work with all our heart and mind at whatever we do, always conscious that we are to seek and labour for greater fruitfulness. The key question: how exactly does this doctrine or exegesis practically make a difference?
In terms of picking-up litter obviously this only a small first step. We need to be connecting with communities, visible for those who have never met us and actually seeing the issues they face on the ground. Whilst walking and cleaning the streets, we are praying to meet and converse with people. Every opportunity to challenge stereotypes about church must be utilised and God’s amazing grace should be our calling card. We keep pointing to Christ, as we ask our Lord to show us how we can genuinely get alongside people and engage in Good News dialogue. Remember, moreover, many are unsure about how to share their faith and this is such a natural way into deeper matters. As a church, we should also be ready for following-up contacts made and welcome the involvement of other organisations.
Wider actions on litter
Whilst we must start at the bottom, we can clearly do more than just pick-up litter. On a legal level, there are clear laws that require Local Councils, Network Rail, businesses and landowners to deal with significant accumulations of litter. Council need to be alerted by citizens, reminded of their responsibilities, and find out more at http://www.keepscotlandtidy.org/documents/Leaflet-LitterAndTheLawInScotland.pdf.
We should also be pushing and working for regeneration of urban wastelands as that is where rubbish flourishes unchecked. People’s environment obviously makes a difference to their mentality, but should never be used as an excuse. How can you tell someone to look after their “wonderful” world if it looks like a dump? Education, inspiring children and adults to see what we can all positively do, as well as taking responsibility for our actions, is another vital component that will require time, creativity and patience to achieve. We need to move beyond the liberal principle of pursuing pleasure without harming another to discovering satisfaction in caring for each other.
Most importantly, we need to be empowering local communities to take action together as we live in such a fractured, divided society where people rarely think outside their little bubble of selfishness, encompassing “You and Yours”. So, government and leaders of all kinds could organise and call a day of action where anyone and everyone is invited to go out together and do what they can to solve the problem, redeem our environment. The groundswell of support was already demonstrated in the clean-up after the riots in London, summer 2011, and by the existence of website or forums on the litter epidemic.
This is an initiative that no-one can really argue against and would be a powerful force for bringing together neighbours who have for far too long been strangers. The magnificence of the plan is every able-bodied person can and should be involved. This could be a tangible and strikingly beautiful sign that we will not tolerate the creeping moral rot of our society. We could start to bridge the growing chasm between the haves and have nots, those who like to tell people what to do, without helping, and those who, understandably, rebel.
Do not just give them a “nudge”. This will only stoke conspiracy theories and fuel distrust as individuals loathe manipulative hypocrisy. Yet, the powers that be can work to create conditions where goodness can flourish, such as using the tax system to properly reflect the human cost of alcohol, tobacco or fatty foods. Such an approach requires real rigour as those who feel persecuted will instinctively look for loopholes. Currently, “Monster” and other energy drinks are filling the vacuum vacated by what is now increasingly declared taboo.
Government, authorities and communities are all actually here to assist us in living productive, fruitful lives – this must be the message and the clear example. Looking to the Far East, countries such as China or Japan, we admire most the spirit of corporate endeavour in these countries, their sense of cohesion as individuals make sacrifices for the good of the whole. We must do what we can to build-up communities who think globally but act locally. God has placed us where we are for a reason. Again, why do so many of our brightest and best leave Scotland? If they have visited Africa, they are probably now disillusioned with the culture of selfish materialism in this country and long to be useful. Of course, where those nominally in charge fail to provide leadership, others must assume the mantle and do what they can, though less effectively and requiring much more time.
Just ask yourself, do we want to live in a world where everyone becomes so obsessed with what’s on the flickering screens inside their cosy, little homes that the Great Outdoors suffocates under the mountain of litter? Do we want to just zip past in our car or even on our bike, eyes closed to what’s all around us? Will anyone else care if we do not? Yes, people matter so much more than discarded consumer debris, but maybe this is the moment where we can actually all agree on the action point. Please, just like Toby Ord recently encouraged us to “Give What We Can”, let us add in the “Do”. As is often said, yet rarely put into practice, be the change. Remember what is tried and tested: actions speak louder than words. Take the next small steps on the journey outside self that will make a world of difference, metamorphosing what is hell on earth into what begins to look more like heaven. True transformation wells-up from within but pours out to all around.