Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 17th November 2013

17 November 2013 at 11:00 am

The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon of Westminster and Rector of St Margaret's

Can you spot the connection?

•    John Smith, Admiral of New England and leader of the Jamestown colony;
•    Vladimir Lenin, Russian communist revolutionary, politician and political theorist;
•    and Kevin Kramer, Republican congressman for North Dakota.

The answer lies in that simple but startling phrase: ‘Anyone unwilling to work should not eat’.

In 1609, the nascent colony in Jamestown was facing a difficult time, to put it mildly. Just a couple of years earlier, the colonists had set sail aboard the three ships – the Discovery, the Susan Constant and the Godspeed – with a royal charter from James 1 and the backing of the Virginia Company of London.

But very soon the new terrain, hunger, disease, predations by those whose lands they were occupying and, frankly, idleness all took their toll.

John Smith was asked to take control which he did with great force. Indeed, he brought to bear a very particular interpretation of scripture to encourage any who didn’t seem to be pulling their weight. He was blunt and to the point:

'Countrymen, the long experience of our late miseries I hope is sufficient to persuade everyone to a present correction of himself, And think not that either my pains nor the adventurers' purses will ever maintain you in idleness and sloth...

...the greater part must be more industrious, or starve... You must obey this now for a law, that he that will not work shall not eat (except by sickness he be disabled). For the labors of thirty or forty honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintain a hundred and fifty idle loiterers.'

Not surprisingly this phrase then became a motto for the settler movement.

But even John Smith in those distant days might have been surprised by the one who took up the mantel in the last century.

In his 1917 work, The State and Revolution, Vladimir Lenin takes the phrase to be a necessary step in the creation of the Communist state. The core of his argument is that only those who work for their living should be allowed access to the fruits of their labours.

The socialist principle, "He who does not work shall not eat", is already realized; the other socialist principle, "An equal amount of products for an equal amount of labor", is also already realized. But this is not yet communism, and it does not yet abolish "bourgeois law", which gives unequal individuals, in return for unequal (really unequal) amounts of labor, equal amounts of products.

In a remarkable spin, Lenin took a phrase that was all about self-sufficiency and applied it to the middle-class, to the bourgeoisie. Those who did not labour, should not reap the rewards. In other words, someone who inherited wealth or who built up their capital on the labours of others had no right to enjoy their fruits.

And, of course, you’ll have guessed by now that Kevin Cramer, a Republican Senator for North Dakota caused outrage among some, and rejoicing among others by quoting the scripture to justify his decision to vote against food assistance for 1.8 million Americans, including 170,000 veterans and 210,000 children who receive school lunches.

‘Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.’

So the easy thing to say is that this scripture is just too difficult to handle properly – it has been used and abused by colonists in the seventeenth century, communists in the twentieth and right-wing politicians in our own.

That’s the easy thing to say. The more difficult is to ask how should we interpret this text? Because without a doubt, unemployment is one of the great social ills of today. It ranks as one of the great evils which Beveridge sought to address in the creation of the welfare state: Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness, Disease.

But it is also linked to one of the key political – and spiritual – questions of our time: How should the State step in, indeed, should the State step in, when unemployment or underemployment robs a person of the means to support themselves?

This is as much an issue in the United Kingdom as it is for our friends elsewhere in Europe, or in the United States. While general unemployment here is moderate compared to our neighbours, youth unemployment is a scandal – with nearly one million young people not being in work, and close to 300,000 being unemployed for a year or more, 115,000 for two years or more.

The Prince’s Trust, established in 1976 by HRH The Prince of Wales, produced a report a fortnight ago which highlighted the impact of youth unemployment: depression, low self-esteem, self-harm and feelings of shame are all commonplace. The report also warns that many of our young people are unable to compete effectively with more skilled and motivated workers from other European countries.

So what might a Christian response be? Should only those who get to work, get to eat?

As with all Scripture, the interpreter has an obligation to set the text in context, and to allow the rest of the Bible a voice.

One of those who responded to Senator Cramer, did so rather effectively by quoting another scripture, this time Matthew 25 which describes the judgment of the nations in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. To those condemned to hell, the Son of Man says:

'for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'

And who are these that need help? His reply is:

'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'

So any discussion of social support has to take place within the Christian framework of a priority being given to those who have least, who are most vulnerable and who are marginalised. This is not unequivocal and itself risks being misused as an injunction to help whatever the circumstances.

But within that framework of care for those who need it, there is another nuance in the text which has to be attended to:

‘Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.’

This is an equally important point: it wasn’t about whether someone was able to find work, but that those who were unwilling to work should bear the consequences, and that in a society which in St Paul’s day made no social provision.

And the challenge for our own time is to ask whether society itself – through its provision of support – has not induced in a small number a form of unwillingness because social benefit has on occasion exceeded what a person could ever realistically hope to earn in work. In other words, the state, us, society – we must take responsibility for having induced an unwillingness, not as a lack of desire to work but through robbing individuals of the incentive to do so.

‘Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.’

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