Last Sunday, the choirmaster was jumping out of his skin ... stormy then still, playful then tender, on the most upright of pianos and melodies. He sang his invocations in a beautiful oaken tenor with a freckle-faced boy at his side playing conga and tambourine as if it was a full drum kit. The parish sang to the rafters songs of praise to a God that apparently surrendered His voice to ours.
I come to lowly church halls and lofty cathedrals for what purpose? I search the Scriptures to what end? To check my head? My heart? No, my soul. For me these meditations are like a plumb line dropped by a master builder — to see if the walls are straight or crooked. I check my emotional life with music, my intellectual life with writing, but religion is where I soul-search.
The preacher said, “What good does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” Hearing this, every one of the pilgrims gathered in the room asked, “Is it me, Lord?” In America, in Europe, people are asking, “Is it us?”
Well, yes. It is us.
Carnival is over. Commerce has been overheating markets and climates ... the sooty skies of the industrial revolution have changed scale and location, but now melt ice caps and make the seas boil in the time of technological revolution. Capitalism is on trial; globalization is, once again, in the dock. We used to say that all we wanted for the rest of the world was what we had for ourselves. Then we found out that if every living soul on the planet had a fridge and a house and an S.U.V., we would choke on our own exhaust.
Lent is upon us whether we asked for it or not. And with it, we hope, comes a chance at redemption. But redemption is not just a spiritual term, it’s an economic concept. At the turn of the millennium, the debt cancellation campaign, inspired by the Jewish concept of Jubilee, aimed to give the poorest countries a fresh start. Thirty-four million more children in Africa are now in school in large part because their governments used money freed up by debt relief. This redemption was not an end to economic slavery, but it was a more hopeful beginning for many. And to the many, not the lucky few, is surely where any soul-searching must lead us.
A few weeks ago I was in Washington when news arrived of proposed cuts to the president’s aid budget. People said that it was going to be hard to fulfill promises to those who live in dire circumstances such a long way away when there is so much hardship in the United States. And there is.
But I read recently that Americans are taking up public service in greater numbers because they are short on money to give. And, following a successful bipartisan Senate vote, word is that Congress will restore the money that had been cut from the aid budget — a refusal to abandon those who would pay such a high price for a crisis not of their making. In the roughest of times, people show who they are.
So much of the discussion today is about value, not values. Aid well spent can be an example of both, values and value for money. Providing AIDS medication to just under four million people, putting in place modest measures to improve maternal health, eradicating killer pests like malaria and rotoviruses — all these provide a leg up on the climb to self-sufficiency, all these can help us make friends in a world quick to enmity. It’s not alms, it’s investment. It’s not charity, it’s justice.
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