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The antidote to self-centredness

Fr Terry writes: The Letter of St James is unusual. It mixes shrewd advice and social commentary in a way that really speaks to our times.

In today's extract from James we find an extended meditation on the power of peacemaking and the roots of aggression. About aggression, the letter of James is quite blunt: it comes from our desire to have more. And more again. There is much here for us to ponder. Western culture and Western economies are built upon this desire. Since the downturn in the world economy we read that consumers have lost confidence, and they are buying less. Similarly Brexit is said to have stifled consumer-led economic growth. Once we buy more (we are told) the economy will pick up to produce the goods that are being bought. At the same time, we know that much of our culture is based on the creation of changing tastes and fashions: not just clothes but interior decoration, furnishings, clothes, even gardens have to be reshaped as tastes change. We are part of a cycle of wanting more. This desire runs our culture.

Reading James 3.16-4.3 gives us pause for thought. If we want more and more, is it ever possible to have enough? The letter warns us that if we are caught up in bottomless desire, then a spirit of sourness takes over. When we do not have what we covet, we become resentful, and in some cases, bitter. From here to aggression is only a short step. We think that our age is obsessed with sex, but perhaps covetousness and greed are our true obsessions. If we can never have enough, then can we ever have a spirituality which will lead us to true contentment? Always wanting more, can we ever have a spirit of gratitude?

James invites us to think again about what it would be like to base our lives more closely on a following of Christ. Surely there would be greater simplicity in our lives, a gratitude for what we have, a desire to share more. Jesus in the gospel today (Mark 9.30-37) helps us find this as he commends a spirit of service and of hospitality. Greatness, he says, is found in looking after the needs of others. What a challenge to us is found in those simple words! He then goes on to commend protection and nurture of children. After the child abuse scandals we cannot read these words without a pang. The sadness that we feel must not stop there, however: it needs to challenge us to raise the standards of how we care and protect children.

A spirit of service, nurturing of the young, humility. These are not dramatic virtues, but they reshape the world, by making it a place where others feel welcome and at home. Simple gestures of hospitality are open to all of us, and create an atmosphere of generosity and of safety. In such ways as these the world is reshaped. It is the antidote to ceaseless self-centredness.

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