Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 5:8-23) transports me to England’s Hurlingham Park, January 20, 1970, where John Cleese is providing color commentary and play by play for the 127th running of the Upper Class Twit of the Year competition. You join us just as the competitors are running out onto the field on this lovely winter’s afternoon here, with the going firm underfoot and very little sign of rain. Well it certainly looks as though we’re in for a splendid afternoon’s sport. Cleese introduces the five competitors, who have to make their way through an obstacle course involving extreme feats of skill including walking a straight line, jumping over a fence comprised of matchboxes stacked 3 high, making their way under a wooden bar suspended five feet in the air, insulting a waitress, and kicking a beggar. Now they’re moving up to the starting line, there’s a jolly good crowd here today. Now they’re under starter’s orders … and they’re off! (the starter fires the gun; nobody moves) Ah no, they’re not. No they didn’t realize they were supposed to start. Never mind, we’ll soon sort that out, the judge is explaining it to them now. I think Nigel and Gervaise have got the idea. . . John Cleese continues the running commentary on this steeplechase for the elite class of British society. My favorite part of the satire on the dim-witted British upper crust comes when poor Oliver freezes at the stack of matchboxes and refuses to jump. Leave it Monty Python to brutally berate the pompous presumptions of British nobility like nobody else can.
I’d love to hear John Cleese and his fellow Flying Circus buffoons do a reader’s theatre of the prophet Isaiah in his much earlier lampooning of class privilege. Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth! . . . Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope: That say, Let him make speed, and hasten his work, that we may see it: and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw nigh and come, that we may know it! . . . Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink: Which justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him! It’s interesting to see what we can learn about the class system of ancient Israel through reading the prophetic rants against privilege. Conspicuous consumption was at the top of the list, with people expanding property and buying second and third and fourth homes, just because they could. Exploitive treatment and abuse of the labor force was also there, in the demands for faster and faster work on the assembly lines. Throw in a measure of hubris in the self-righteous exercise of power, a dose corruption in the criminal justice system, and the frivolity of wining and dining while the poor suffer at their gates, and you’ve got a recipe for an indictment of divine judgment that far exceeds satirical lampooning. In the middle of this mix is a woe targeting those who call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! There couldn’t be a clearer description of a culture that has confused conspicuous consumption with God’s blessing, equating the values of capitalism and the profit motive with the Jesus Way. Adding house to house and field to field and chasing cheap labor around the world is now a legitimized aspiration for people claiming to follow the One who didn’t have a place to lay his head, who identified himself and his presence as being among the least of these in society.
A lot has changed in England since the Monty Python troupe broadcast their weekly satire on the BBC. Fiona Devine, a professor of sociology at the University of Manchester, is one of the co-authors of what the BBC calls its great British class survey. Where traditional thinking put all Brits into one of three categories: working class, middle class, and elite (aka upperclass twits), there are now seven distinct classes, depending not only on material wealth but on social capital (who you know) and cultural capital (what you do in your leisure time). At the top you still have the elite, and at the bottom you have what Devine calls the Precariat, the proletariat whose daily existence is deemed at best precarious. From the values of the world in which we live, everyone should aspire to upward mobility, to make more connections with people in power, even if the material wealth never puts them in the elite category. But from the prophetic value system, people of faith should aspire to a downwardly mobile trajectory. For the more closely we are connected with the Precariat, the more closely we will connect with the precarious Christ. The more we race to the bottom to experience the daily lives of the most vulnerable, the more chance we have to escape divine woes and access divine blessings. It’s not an easy race; all the imbedded cultural presumptions of privilege make it a veritable Hurlingham Park obstacle course, but it does look as though we’re in for a splendid afternoon’s sport.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.