Former generations excelled at avoiding waste. My grandparents, having lived through two Word Wars, knew how to make sure that seemingly useless packaging, or clothes that were coming to end of their life, found a fresh purpose. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s this seemed to me to be a needless attachment to things best thrown away. I appreciate now that if more of us had living with their attitude to possessions the world now might be a better (and cooler) place. The disposable society is minting new mountains of refuse every day. By and large, we have not lived carefully with the planet or appreciated the consequences of a cultural attitude of ‘buy-and-bin’.
Living in York I am reminded of the care and thought that has gone into repurposing things that have come to the end of one life, and begin another. Whether the eroded masons’ work, now removed from the Minster, that forms a border in the garden, or the spectacular pinnace – replaced in the last decade – which sits in the grounds of the Deanery. (It is pictured at the top of this blog, lit with tea lights). In some ways this recycling can be functional, in others a curiosity, like the stonework brought down to ground level from well over 100 feet.
Last week a news report feature one of the UK’s largest centres for ‘upcycling’. Here, items that would normally have gone into landfill are careful brought back to life and refreshed so that they can continue to be used. In some cases items find a new purpose – perhaps in a garden or elsewhere around the home. Seeing the large warehouse full of items awaiting attention was a salutary reminder of how much we dispose of without a second thought as to value, purpose or potential.
“Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I haste to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.”Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Physical ruins are a visible reminder of the fragments of re-purposed ideas; conventions; and language, which are part of our current reality. Like the rubble of Roman occupation on which York Minster is built, we know that the civilisation of two thousand years ago is visible in our road system and forms of political administration. Very little is without precedent and each generation makes use of the past in its own way. Perhaps we are rather better at recycling (or up-cycling) ideas than physical items. Certainly politics seems to offer little more than various re-castings of former ideologies. The process to find a new leader for the Conservative Party – and Prime Minister – has candidates raiding the perceived ‘glory days’ of Thatcherism to curry favour with a nostalgic party membership.
Christianity is a material religion. The incarnation fuses matter and spirit, flesh and breath. God is not separate from this reality and, when discarded and destroyed, Jesus is encountered in resurrection as a physical being. As the central event of the Christian faith, this divine refusal to abide in death suggests that even our most disastrous experiences can never be wholly written-off. Like Lazarus in his tomb, we may find ourselves unexpectedly dragged back into life. Whether it be the prodigal son; a disgraced woman cast before Jesus; or the sick separated from society, God appears to be unusually concerned with what we rubbish. As the UK heads towards what the NHS Confederation this week characterised as the risk of a ‘humanitarian crisis’ it is the responsibility of the Church to speak and act to ensure that we are not complicit in forgetting people below the political horizon. Healing and restoration abound in the presence of Jesus and the Church cannot be itself without fulfilling the same mission.
“Bricolage involves skill in sewing, mending, refashioning, and building, but it also involves perception of possibilities and imagination; one must wonder what things might become once they can no longer be what they were…”Lang Hearlson, C. (2021). Theological imagination in a throwaway society: Contending with waste. Theology Today, 78(2), 158-169. Chicago