Skin-care must have been important to fashionable Roman women. A small pot dating back to the middle of the second century AD has been found in an excavated Roman temple in London. It appears to be foundation cream. It was discovered in a waterlogged ditch preserved under wooden planks in thick layers of mud. Its high quality suggests the Romans were almost as skilled as we are today in enabling women to display their beauty to effect.
Human priorities have not changed much over the centuries. This weekend we remember another one as we recall the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in war. They did so in the hope of creating a more beautiful world. Those in the First Great War displayed their gallantry in waterlogged ditches and thick layers of mud but their belief that their deaths would be the foundation for a new, more peaceful world turned out to be false. They were betrayed by the inability of the generations which followed to create the conditions where peace would flourish.
We also remember this weekend those who in our day serve in our armed forces in the hope that they are bringing freedom from terror and oppression. If their sacrifice and courage is to have that outcome, it will need more than military success. It will need all peoples of all countries to be committed to a freedom that is more than skin-deep.
The archaeologists who found the pot of Roman make-up presumably turned up that day to do their work in as professional and skilled a way as possible. Little did they know that in so doing they would discover a unique treasure. The treasure the world has sought since well before Roman times is a peaceful and just world. Perhaps it is as we, and everyone else, go about our ordinary business in as loving, generous and tolerant way as possible that the foundations of such beauty are being laid.
The furnishing store Habitat is forty years old. Founder Terence Conran’s success was partly because he met a need in a generation which only barely remembered the austerity of the war years. Sunday newspaper colour supplements emerged at roughly the same time and Conran’s wife, Caroline, initiated the production of Habitat’s colourful and inviting catalogue, the first of its kind. A friend of Conran’s remarked, “The problem with Terence is that he wants everybody to have a better salad bowl” and the means were there to persuade large numbers of people that that’s what they wanted too.
Most people however don’t need persuading. Wanting a brighter and aesthetically appealing environment is entirely natural. But such advertising can have the effect of focussing attention only on improving our own lifestyles.
Today the Fairtrade organisation begins a fortnight of promoting its products. Sometimes the things we buy were manufactured or brought within our reach by people working for very low wages. They have very little opportunity to improve their living conditions. Fairtrade’s aim is to bring, into the kinds of shop most of use, a whole range of items that are not brought to us at the expense of other people’s hardship.
Many of us have more attractive homes because of what Conran and others have done. Their motivation has naturally been commercial. But perhaps we should all want “everybody to have a better salad bowl” and buying fairly traded goods is one way to help that happen.
The University of Michigan wants to choose from applicants to the law school in such a way as to ensure that the overall make-up of the year-group is ethnically mixed. You could call it affirmative action or positive discrimination. America’s Supreme Court has ruled that it can.
This Friday and Saturday, campaigners for Trade Justice will hold a vigil in London. They want to highlight the way the international trading system is heavily weighted at the moment in favour of the rich. The positive discrimination in world trade is not on behalf of the poor but to protect the rich. The Trade Justice Movement is calling for the balance to be redressed.
There is a lot of unfairness in the world. We should campaign for change. But there is also often injustice in the situations in which we are daily involved. Sometimes affirmative action, even if it’s only moral support for the underdog, is what’s required. Sometimes people who hold the power and won’t share it need to be challenged. Often change seems impossible. Usually it is from small beginnings and apparently insignificant actions that more just relationships and power structures seem to emerge. So today, wherever we notice unfairness, let’s think about how we might redress it.
Today's vigil is part of a Global Week of Action for trade justice with events and activities in over 70 countries across the world. This weekend also millions of Indian citizens will be taking part in mass protests in 25 state capitals across India. Any small contribution to greater fairness we make in the situations we're in is part of a wider human longing for justice in all aspects of life.
Five years ago today 70,000 of us gathered in Birmingham to try and persuade leaders of the world’s richer nations to cancel the debts of the poorest. Hopes were high when positive noises came from the leaders and especially our own Chancellor. Five years later only 20% of the debts have been cancelled. Today a variety of activities in Birmingham mark the anniversary. These include the ceremonial carrying of a coffin to where the next stage of the campaign will be launched.
In a coffin is where some would say the hopes of that gathering in Birmingham should be laid to rest. Despair at the inability of world institutions to act, even if their leaders wish them to, is confirmed by the history of these last five years. I, with many others of my generation, campaigned thirty years ago for development aid to reach 1% of the Gross National Product. But the level remains today roughly what it was then. Into the coffin then with our longing for a fairer world?
In a graveyard in Nazi Poland, a young Jewish woman in hiding gives birth to a baby. The eighty year old grave digger assists. When the new-born baby utters its first cry, the old man prays: “Great God, hast thou finally sent the Messiah to us? For who else than the Messiah Himself can be born in a grave?” But after three days, the child is sucking his mother’s tears because she had no milk for him.
The emergence of a just world is not guaranteed. And hope does sometimes die. But the biblical tradition speaks of a God who inhabits places of death and despair and who does have the capacity to bring new life from the grave. That belief keeps campaigning energy flowing when reason says it’s wasted.
10,000 Womens’ Institute members were once surveyed by a tea merchant in Minehead to discover whether, for the best taste, milk should be added before or after the tea.
Screw-capped wine bottles can eliminate cork taint, say the experts, but Which magazine found that 74% of consumers think such bottles are not so socially acceptable.
Yet 45% of the population in the Congo have no access to clean water and 66% of the world’s population are facing critical water shortages in the next 25 years.
How do we respond to such painful inequality? Jesus’ story
about a rich man, and the poor man who begged at his gate, suggests an answer. When they both die, the chasm that existed between them on earth is reflected in heaven but now it is the rich man who experiences desperate thirst. He wants Lazarus to come to his aid with some water.
The rich man never got past seeing Lazarus as a dogsbody to do his bidding. He was never a real individual. So too, statistics can widen the chasm between the wealthy and the poor by removing the individuality of each hungry or thirsty adult or child. To narrow the chasm, we need the imagination and courage to see in each poor person, a struggling, hurting human being. This will make us hurt too. But as we respond to this on-going tragedy, drowning our sorrows in a glass of wine or “putting the kettle on” is not enough. We need to face the pain as the first step to discovering what appropriate action might come next.