The writer Brian Aldiss either invented or quoted from somewhere the adage that “civilisation is the distance between Man and his own shit,” which he thought mistaken and proceeded to construct a novel that illustrated a radically different possibility. I am reminded of this argument every time I see a report on my local beach at Monifieth, where the water is frequently “polluted with faecal material” in spite of the recently installed Great Outflow which is intended to take it all elsewhere, possibly Germany.
My excuse for this unsavoury opening paragraph is the increasing evidence that humanity has a maybe fatal difficulty with the waste products of all its activities, especially those which create carbon dioxide of course, but also with nuclear and chemical waste from agriculture, not to mention the plastic particles which already clog most of our oceans. A measure of how serious the difficulty is can be seen in the self-congratulatory tone of the decisions of the recent Paris Conference which agreed more stringent hopes for limiting poisonous wastes without agreeing a single binding commitment.
In spite of the romantic view that all this is due to modern civilisation which has destroyed the wisdom of our more remote forebears, I guess that from the start Homo Sapiens has been a tad careless about the natural world. The greatest destruction of the Caledonian forest we are now told, took place in prehistoric times, when it was cleared to create land for farming. There’s no doubt however, that the ruthless consumption of natural resources and deposition of waste products in earth and air and water, by private and state- owned industries in the last 100 years, is of a different order from anything that went before. Currently the most profitable and polluting industries try to persuade us that the environmental crisis is not as bad as some fear, and that as long as they can continue to pollute, they will try to provide a fix.
In truth I am not competent to write about these issues, and certainly do not have clean hands: I still drive a car powered by a pollutant (diesel) and would still consider using a plane to get to Europe.
The thing is I understand the human impulse to forget the mess we leave behind us, only too well. I can remember as a young man hiding the vast collection of glass milk bottles I had accumulated in the attic of my flat, only to be found out by a colleague who had taken over the flat and found my bottles when he tried to use the attic to hide something else. It may be the memory of such acts of shame that has turned me into a furious recycler, ever ready to remove rubbish from my house to the council tip.
More seriously I know that I have sometimes moved jobs when the problems I’d created seemed beyond me and could be safely abandoned for someone else to sort out. I know people who do the same thing with relationships. The attraction of being clean, of being able to make a new start, is very powerful when we begin to smell the mess we’ve made. Perhaps that’s why we have invented the phrases, “clean sheet, clean start.” The impulse to move on quickly may owe something to an animal fear of being tracked down by our spoor, but its human form is nearly always irresponsible. We hope something can be abandoned while knowing that nothing disappears, and that all actions have consequences.
But doesn’t the Christian Gospel, with its offer of forgiveness through Jesus, encourage just this mindset, that we can leave the mess behind us and be saved? Well, yes, sometimes it may have been misunderstood to mean just that; but in fact the forgiveness that Jesus offered released people from social condemnation and self- loathing to deal with what they had been, while reaching towards what they could be. The story of the corrupt collaborator and tax collector Zacchaeus, is of a man who is freed by Jesus’ advance of trust (forgiveness) to restore the money he has extorted from his victims. (Luke 19). In fact Jesus was always dealing with the mess that others had left behind. The diseased outcasts, for example who had been judged as suffering for their sins by the rigidly righteous; or the prostitutes, whom men had used and forgotten.
I like the gospel word “redemption” which originally referred to the buying back of captives or of slaves. It is used as a metaphor for the liberation Jesus brings. It is not a matter of “at one bound he was free”; there is a price to be paid. People who are in a mess have to be empowered to tidy it up or make reparation to others. Often they have been unable to do so, but somehow Jesus helps them do so by transferring some of his credit to them. Jesus loses some of his public honour in order to give honour to Zacchaeus, who in turn deals with the mess he’s made.
Indeed we could say, that in Jesus, God takes responsibilty for the mess he’s made by inventing human beings and permitting their evils. In Jesus, God shows that he will avoid no suffering to clean things up, that he tolerates no pollution at all, but fights it to his last breath, and invites human beings to share his passion.
So, yes, the ending of a year brings time for urgent reflection on the messes I make, so that I can help to clean them up. And , oh yes, which Council department do I contact about the state of my local sea water?