Read: Exodus 19:1-8
Last week Leonie and I watched The Hobbit. The story starts with the dwarfs losing all their treasure, and ends with them mountain an expedition to win it back from the wiles of the dragon. In the midst of it all we are introduced to Golum, and to Bilbo Baggins who manages to take Golum’s personal treasure, which he has named ‘My Precious’.
Great movie. Wonderful fantasy. And yet expresses a profound truth: The quest for treasure does not leave us. The thought that somewhere there is something that will make work unnecessary, or give us beauty, or deliver success, or make life easy – or better still – eternal, is deliciously captivating.
Truth is: We are all seeking some kind of treasure.
This desire lies at the core of the human heart. And we direct our lives to pursuing it.
Here’s an email I received while I was writing this sermon:
Look at how this ad is positioned: it tasks about what you love; it panders to your interests, passions and preferences; it’s addressed to your needs, and asks you to follow. It’s a profound example of how our culture works.
Advertising tells us a lot about ourselves, and what we think is important. They say that kids in the USA are exposed to something like 40,000 ads per year. A study in Queensland found that because of the use of children in advertising, by the age of 7yrs, 71% of girls want to be slimmer.
Advertising knows the truth of the human heart: that we all treasure something.
Broadly speaking, our economy is build around the laws of supply and demand. Around the belief that healthy markets and economies should always expand. And markets expand by producing things that people want. You’ve got to be competitive, so companies look to reduce costs: labour, utilities, plant & equipment, human resources.
When I was a kid, cheap stuff was made in Japan. As conditions improved in Japan, the cheap labour market labour shifted to Taiwan, and then to China. Then on to Vietnam, and now? Bangladesh. Recently, 1200 people died in a building collapse in Bangladesh. The pressure to keep costs down led to shortcuts in safety and building standards. These workers endured terrible conditions to produce fashion items predominantly for our shops.
It happened because the manufacturers and retailers place more value on profit and production than on people. [You can view an excellent report on this terrible tragedy on ABC Australia’s “Four Corners” via iView]
It is an unpleasant thought, but this is actually part of our culture’s history. English colonists simply settled in Australia, believing it to be Terra Nullius – owned by no one. No one considered the rights of the people who were already here. Efforts were made to settle peacefully, but when resistance came, it was met with terrible and disproportionate force.
The Dutch did no better in Batavia (present day Indonesia). The Dutch East India Company’s Captain Coen wiped out whole settlements of natives so he could build the colony and the walled defences of the Citadel for the Governor.
How did these world powers justify their actions? Because lucrative spices, resources, and a colony was more important than people.
“…we cannot carry on trade without war, nor war without trade” [Capt Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, 1618]
Those words make me squirm. They should give us pause when today the harsh treatment of people is justified in the name of national interest. And they give us pause because we realise that western society – our society – has for hundreds of years been built by seeing the lives of some people as expendable. We treasure things, and dispose of people.
The point of this hard truth is not that we send ourselves on an eternal guilt trip, but that we repent of the tendency to devalue people in preference to possessions. I don’t know exactly how that should be done, but we can start by considering where, and how, the goods we purchase are manufactured. We can do it by persisting with questioning retailers, and realising that there is some power in the dollars we spend in their establishments.
Grace and peace
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