Fatih and Reason: The cold within the heart of man: The fourth article in our series on what it would mean to try to be a just rich man in the modern world, inspired by the parable of Lazarus and Dives, is by Kenneth Leech

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The Independent Online
MUCH of Edith Sitwell's poetry is inspired by the parable of Dives and Lazarus. (Whether it is a parable is open to question: there is no other parable in the gospels in which the characters are named. But that is another story.) The theme is particularly central to 'The Song of the Cold' in which the 'two opposing brotherhoods' in the city are contrasted under the symbolic names of Dives and Lazarus. The poem is a plea for compassion and for the recovery of human contact, and ends with a desperate final prayer -

That I may weep for those who die of the cold -

The ultimate cold within the heart of man.

The spiritual climate of the present time, a time of increased polarisation of rich and poor as well as of a polarisation of consciousness of this reality, must be shaped in the context of the cold, the love deficit which marks our culture. We have become a culture lacking in human warmth and compassion ('Compassion - that's not one of Margaret's words,' Denis Thatcher is alleged to have said on a visit to Liverpool). 'The Song of the Cold' is our anthem.

But it is within the assumptions of this culture, rather than in conflict with it, that much fashionable 'spirituality' is being promoted, as yet another product on the market. This spirituality lacks the dimension of struggle, of grief, of rage and of passion which is so basic to Sitwell's anguished work. The proponents of this spiritual industry offer methods of meditation and all kinds of techniques of self-understanding, but they operate within, and do not question, the existing unjust order. As Tawney once said of the Fabians, they tidy the room but open no windows in the soul. Such spirituality lacks the imaginative encounter with the reality of poverty, pain and dereliction.

Yet spirituality which has ceased to struggle, to hurt, to disturb and challenge, is no longer Christian. It is not surprising that our society, which is marked by the very 'opposing brotherhoods' which Sitwell imagined, has spawned spiritualities of affluence, of tidiness and of complacent self-cultivation, new forms of gnosticism on the fringes of the culture to compensate for the new barbarism at its heart. Meanwhile thousands die of the cold.

In Christian tradition, rooted in prophetic Judaism, the commitment to care for, and to defend, the rights of the poor, and to seek justice for the oppressed, is central to spiritual integrity: so central that without that commitment we can no longer speak of orthodox Christianity at all. This has nothing to do with the use of 'proof texts' or simplistic deductions from biblical commands: rather to do with acquiring, through reflection and struggle, and through what Walter Brueggemann calls the prophetic imagination, a biblical mind.

A major problem here is that much contemporary spirituality is not biblically rooted, hence its lack of concern for the poor and the demands of justice, and its lack of recognition that spiritual life includes prophetic rage against those who oppress the poor through unjust laws and neglect.

The prophetic rage against oppression which we find in the Jewish scriptures is continued in Jesus and in the Christian thinkers of the first four centuries.

Here the testimony is remarkably consistent. Jesus talks more about wealth and poverty than about any other subject (including heaven and hell, sexual morality, the law, and violence). He sees Mammon as deeply dangerous to the soul, a major impediment to salvation.

The patristic writers take the same view. St John Chrysostom argues that the reason for the weak state of the Church is that it has abandoned the 'angelic life of Pentecost', the life of sharing and common ownership, and has fallen back on private property. If wealth was shared, he claimed, it would lead to a 'universal upheaval' and to the conversion of the world.

It is in Chrysostom's sermons on Matthew's Gospel that we see the most passionate critique of wealth and insistence on the need to see and serve Christ in the oppressed. He speaks of the sacrament of the brother. Since the Constantinian establishment and the growing conformity of the church to secular society, this radical gospel position has been watered down, though, as late as 567, Canon 26 of the Council of Tours ruled that judges who oppress the poor must be admonished by the bishop and may be excommunicated.

A spirituality able to provide resources for the struggle against poverty must be one which is concerned with truth, with equality and with vision - all of which involve alternative ways of thinking and imagining reality. Like all spiritual discipline, it begins with the unmasking of illusion, of false consciousness, of that refusal to face reality which is so endemic to the maintenance of injustice. It is rooted in the recognition that all people are made in God's image. A commitment to the poor must not be patronising or condescending but must recognise that, as St Ambrose said, when we give alms, we are not giving our own out of charity but are restoring what is justly theirs. Spirituality is known by its fruits, shown in action. It is in concrete encounters that faith is tested, challenged and purified. As Jon Sobrino expresses it in his Spirituality of Liberation:

The Christian intuition is that the choice between nearness to and estrangement from the poor constitutes more than one more Christian option. Somehow we grasp that the future of the faith hangs in the balance.

For the very existence of poverty constitutes a krisis, a moment of judgement.

In Edith Sitwell's poem 'The Shadow of Cain', Dives appears again, now 'like a leprous sun that is covered with the sores of the world'. And to Dives the voices shout: 'You are the shadow of Cain. Your shade is the primal hunger.' The poem ends with a terrifying vision of hell in which the rags of those who once were human cry out, each wound, each stripe speaking louder than the voice of Cain. For - as the poem ends -

those ashes that were men

Will rise again

To be our fires upon the Judgement Day]

And yet - who dreamed that Christ has died in vain?

He walks again on the Seas of Blood, he comes in the terrible Rain.