It is a real pleasure to post the transcript of the conversation featured in the Cathedral this Sunday with Professor David Tombs, Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues.
The Many Faces of Love Exhibition
Questions for Social Services Sunday: A Conversation between Trevor James and David Tombs
St Paul’s Cathedral, Dunedin, 24 July 2016
Trevor James: I described this as being an ‘ambitious conversation’. As you can see, we are surrounded by exhibits that offer a small sample of the social services in our city. Some of these exhibits are committed to special causes; others attempt to remediate suffering and hardship and, by that, mirror social and economic disparities in our society. You are involved in the interface of theology and public issues: when you look at an exhibition like this and consider what it represents, where does your thinking take you?
David Tombs: The dedication and energy given to social services in this city is truly inspirational. In the Cathedral today we can see exhibits by: Anglican Family Care; Presbyterian Support; Servants Health Care; Night Shelter; St John’s Ambulance; Foster Care; Buddy Project; Plunket. And we know of many others in the city as well, such as the Red Cross (and its provision for Syrian Refugees), and the Salvation Army. Some of these services are motivated by explicitly Christian values, and others by a more general humanitarian concern, but a shared value in all of them is a willingness to reach out beyond ourselves to meet and serve others.
In Christian terms, this reaching out to others is a mark of discipleship. In Mt 25.31-46, Jesus describes the final judgement as like a separation of sheep and goats. There are two important points here. First, the criteria of this separation is how people responded when they were confronted by others in need, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the naked and the imprisoned. Second, the encounter is Christological. The response (or lack of response) to people in need, is also a response to Christ. Thus Mt 25.46 ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (NRSV).
Thinking about the title ‘Many Faces of Love’ in light of this verse, I can’t help thinking of a line in the musical ‘Les Miserables’, ‘To love another person is to see the face of God’. In view of Mt 25.46, this might be changed slightly to ‘To serve another person is to see the face of God’. Love for another person, and service to another person, are closely related and inter-dependent. Of course, the musical has romantic love in mind at this point, but it is an invitation to think of it as Christian love, a love that sustains concern for others and service to others.
Christian recognition that love for service to others is also an encounter with God, needs to be a ‘both and’. The recognition of God or Christ in the other should not displace the importance of the other as a person, and their importance in their own right. Rather it adds to it, and acknowledges that in Christian terms, as a person they are created in the Imago Dei—the image of God—and they carry the Face of God’s in the world.
TJ: In the last few weeks the lectionary has set several readings from Amos. I was especially struck by Amos 8:5-6 and found myself responding and making connections between the prophet’s critique of financial corruption and oppression and the growing gap between most of our society and the top 1%. How might you respond to Amos and what connections would you make?
DT: It is the role of the Prophet to call people to account, and especially to call the powerful to account. And Amos does this with full force in these verses.
Sometimes it is right for the church to do the same. There are things in our society that need to be forcefully challenged. It cannot be right that wealth is so polarised and some people have excess and others are living in car and garages, whilst others have to borrow huge amounts to stay in emergency accommodation because nothing else is available.
However, there is a danger that in the role of prophet the church can become ‘self-righteous’ rather than ‘servant-righteous’. The church is called to a prophetic role as a service to wider society. It can’t just criticise others, it has to constantly critique itself as well, and it needs a sense of humility when it criticises others. I hope Amos had that in mind.
If Amos was with us today, one issue that I think he would have to wrestle with is the danger posed by an erosion of concern for truth. In his day, Amos ‘spoke truth to power’. He spoke the truth as he saw it, and as God guided him, and he believed that people would be swayed by the truth of what he said. Today social and political commentators warn us of the growth of ‘post-factual politics’ or ‘post-truth politics’. Where facts and truth become less important than in the past, and politicians refuse to be held accountable in the same ways as previously.
We saw this in the UK with the false claims over Brexit, we have seen it in the US with Donald Trump fear-mongering, and there are signs that some politicians do not see themselves as accountable to truth or facts. An optimist might think this is just a passing phase. But I fear it may be more of a threshold that is hard to reverse. Of course, politicians have always argues about facts, and have wanted to avoid hard truths; but to reject the principle of being held accountable to truth has much more serious implications.
Post-factual politics is neatly captured in the phrase ‘A lenient attitude towards truth’. The phrase itself is suggestive of the problem. It is a highly misleading euphemism, which allows those in power to disguise something negative and destructive (a disregard for truth) as if it were something positive and generous. Amos would have a lot to say about that!
TJ: The Church designates this Sunday as Social Services Sunday and it is an occasion when we review how we serve our society. Are we speaking just to ourselves? Can we still speak to the society about us?
DT: Service is one of the most effective ways to speak to the society. It is commonplace to refer to New Zealand as a secular society, yet the churches are still an influential social institution, and church-based social services are very important. The good work that they do is usually recognised but perhaps there is not enough awareness of the transformational message that underlies these good works.
One of the biggest political forces in the world at present is fear of the other, and rejection of the other. We saw this last month in the Brexit referendum, and we saw it last week at the Republican Convention, where it was captured in Donald Trump’s address and the chants to ‘Build a Wall’.
One of the most important messages that Christian service offers is that the church sees the world differently. It is not about the fear and exclusion of others, but reaching out and embracing our neighbours and the wider community.
A second feature of Christian service, which also carries weight in the eyes of wider society, is that is not just talking about this different set of values, but ‘doing’ them. Service enacts and incarnates these Christian values in our society. It shows what they really mean, and what they actually look like.
This witness to transformation is hugely important for wider society, especially in these difficult times.
TJ: We talk a lot about globalisation: many of our economic and social problems seem to lie beyond our control, even of parliament, because the issues are embedded in the policies of global corporations, international trade agreements and the international financial sector. It feels very disempowering. Maybe the Brexit can be read in part as a reaction to disempowerment. As a theologian how do you approach Globalisation?
DT: Globalisation has greatly increased the free movement of goods (by trade), the exchange of culture and ideas (by communication), and the movement of people (by travel). Globalisation should be a reminder of our connected world, and how we need to live together in the global household of God.
However, each one of the benefits that globalisation has also brought an underside.
In principle, trade should benefit everyone involved, but in practice weaker parties are often exploited. Did anyone hear the Radio NZ account on what it called the ugly side of the banana trade last week? It showed how imbalanced the benefits from this trade are.
Likewise, in principle, globalisation promotes the flow of ideas and culture, and this can enrich us all. We can keep in touch with friends and family around the world more easily and more frequently than has ever been possible before. We can also access information and services from around the world as never before. We can read the news in the New York Times as well as the Otago Daily Times.
However, the global availability of media also means that privileged cultures and ideas will become even more dominant, and less powerful cultures and ideas will be undermined and marginalised. People who feel that their culture and identity are threatened can react with frustration and violence in response to these global forces.
In addition, when the free flow of capital is prioritised ahead of the movement of people, we have to ask who this is really benefitting. It takes us back to earlier discussion on whether the common good is to be served, or just the interests of the economic elite. The rich elite then try to disguise what is happening by blaming migrants, and encouraging populist hostility against immigration. Both in the US and the UK we are seeing this retrenchment. Borders are strengthened, with the intention of shutting people out and excluding them.
If globalisation is about handing over the global economy to unrestrained free market forces for the benefit of a rich elite, we have a huge problem. Globalisation needs to be about serving people, the common, and the global family.
TJ. Have you got any thoughts about the future of employment? As technology advances we see job opportunities contracting? Can society adapt to paid employment as the privilege of a few? Is this sustainable? Is a new kind of society needed or is it already emerging? Thinking about the future of work, where does your theological reflection take you?
DT. The biggest shift I see is the shift beneath the obvious changes in the employment scene, and this is the shift towards digitalisation. It is this shift that makes so many of the other changes possible, and is likely to accelerate them more and more.
It is amazing how much of our reality is controlled by the most simple of all binaries – the presence of a 1 or 0. So much of life is now determined in this way. In the home we take it for granted in our music, in our photos, in our reading, in our communication, and in many other areas. In our work place we see a similar transformation. Where will this take us in 20, 50 or 100 years is hard to anticipate, but we can be sure that the pace of change will keep getting faster and faster.
Dunedin is ‘GigCity’ (www.gigcitydunedin.co.nz) so we need to be thinking about work opportunities in digital enterprises. However, we also about how digitalisation will transform every other area of work and jobs, whether we are working in a digital enterprise or not. And beyond the jobs’ sphere, digitalisation will also increasingly challenge us to think about our lives, our future, and our identity and sense of selves. We have barely begun to do this.
TJ: Looking back to the exhibits, ‘The Many Faces of Love’, how do you imagine the future of Social Services generally? Also, even more, do you think Social Services can transition from the ‘band-aids’ of society to agents of real change?
DT: Many of the exhibits include the question ‘What would you wish for government be?’ and they link what they are doing themselves to what might be done by government at policy level. This linking of local action to national policy initiatives is important if voluntary social services are to help real change and not just short-term relief.
The reading from Luke this morning (Luke 11.1-13) tells of the man with an unexpected guest, who keeps knocking on the door of his neighbour at asking for food to offer his guest (Luke 11.5-8). He is eventually rewarded for his persistence, not because the neighbour wishes to get up to help him, but because this is the only way his neighbour can stop the knocking. This reminds us that sometimes politicians and policy makers will want to do the right thing and fix social problems, but sometimes it is easier to try and ignore them. When politicians don’t want to do what is needed, making a noise and steady persistence can help to encourage them.
Looking to the future, we can be sure that service organisations are going to have an important role to play, and they will need to change and adapt as they confront new challenges. To return to your first question, and my belief that Matthew 25 offers a theological grounding to social service, we need to remember that Christian service is not about just ‘doing good’. It is also about living by alternative values, and in doing so witnessing to a different life and a different reality. A life in which we more fully encounter the presence of God in our world.
 Sharon Brettkelly, ‘Homeless family faces $100k WINZ debth’, RNZ (24 May 2016). Available at http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/304607/homeless-family-faces-$100k-winz-debt
 Jonathan Freedland, ‘Post-truth politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are no joke’, The Guardian (13 May 2016). Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/13/boris-johnson-donald-trump-post-truth-politician
 Donald Trump, ‘Transcript of Speech at Republican National Convention’, Cleveland, New York Times (21 July 2016). Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/22/us/politics/trump-transcript-rnc-address.html
 Tess McClure, ‘Banana Republic: the ugly story behind New Zealand’s most popular fruit’, Checkpoint, RNZ, (19 July 2016). Available at: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/201808688/banana-republic-the-ugly-story-behind-new-zealand's-most-popular-fruit
 Frances Valintine, ‘New Zealand risks missing digital wave’, New Zealand Herald (23 July 2016). Available at: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/education/news/article.cfm?c_id=35&objectid=11679480
 ‘Ironically, the Gig’s single most important contribution to the city won’t come from the infrastructure itself, but from an enhanced collective understanding of what the future holds, a shift in attitude, and a refocusing of our city’s perception of itself.’ Gigatown - Plan for Success, p. 1. Available at https://www.chorus.co.nz/file/65245/Gigatown-Dunedin---Plan-for-Success_FINAL.pdf