Virtue Signalling

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20

Morality is making a comeback.  When Greta Gerwig was pitching her vision of a new film of Little Women, the studio executives all told her the same thing.  Morality doesn’t sell a picture.  And yet she got the funding and made the film.  And millions of people have loved this deeply moral tale of Jo, Amy, Beth and Meg.

Those studio executives were a long way behind the curve.  Morality is everywhere today.  We tweet and re-tweet moral judgments all the time, approving and disapproving.  We make endless moral statements under the line of youtube videos.  On Instagram we depict our goodness, from the ethically sound vegan starter to the whiteboard statement in green marker on why we’re in favour of motherhood and apple pie.  It was the ice-bucket challenge that started it off, being drenched in icy water for charity, and publishing the video.  Started off what?  Virtue signalling.  Here am I – and I’m good.

According to Wikipedia, virtue signalling is the making of empty acts of public commitment to unexceptional good causes.  The phrase is about seven years old.  But the idea is ancient.  In De Republica, from about 50 BC, Cicero wrote: Many wish not so much to be virtuous as to seem to be.  And the Old Testament lesson today, from many hundreds of years before Cicero makes a similar point.

Isaiah gives voice to the divine view of much of Israel’s religious life.  They appear to practise rites and rituals, fasts and festivals.  They make themselves seem virtuous, but beneath the fasting, their lives go on as before – serving their own interests, oppressing their workers, fostering injustice, being argumentative, even violent.

Instead, God says, let the fasting be real.  If you give up food for a day, then give that bread to the hungry.  And there is more to give up – your power over the poor, the oppressed; and your resources compared to the poor, who don’t have a home, or even clothes to cover themselves.

This will cost more – in money, time, comfort, even safety.  But it will be a much better response to God’s faithfulness to us.  Instead of virtue signalling, it is time for signal virtues in our community.  If they’d had Instagram in 6C BC Israel, they’d have posted pictures of an empty plate.  Hashtag Hungrybutholy.

Jump forward a few hundred years to the time of Jesus, but under a hundred miles from where Isaiah was prophesying.  And once again morality is making a comeback.  In a few chapters, Matthew records some of the most famous ethical teaching the world has ever heard in the so-called Sermon on the Mount (not that Matthew or Jesus called it that).  The teacher was Jesus, and these few stories and teachings get to the heart of his vision of our moral lives.  Blessed are the poor, he begins.  What emerges is a picture of what a community could look like, one that was shaped by Jesus, around his teaching, and by the way he lived, and died and was raised to life.  He calls it the kingdom of heaven – and it is in profound contrast to the way that most earthly powers are organised.  It doesn’t work by power.  It has no use for oppression.  It turns away from personal comfort.  Blessed are the poor, the humble, the grieving, the victims of lies, the objects of persecution.

And then there’s a question.  If that’s what this community is like, this Jesus-shaped network, how should we relate to others?  To those not already part of this fellowship?  To the world, curious, indifferent, hostile?  This is where things get interesting.

You are the salt of the earth.  That’s what Jesus says.

It’s become proverbial, a fond if slightly patronising expression often used by the middle classes of their working-class neighbours.  But that’s not how Jesus meant it.  Salt was added to food, the most fundamental need humans have, to preserve it, to conserve it, to save it.  Without refrigeration, without freezing, salt was the way human societies survived the long season without fresh food.  Salt saved.  Yes, of course, it adds flavour, but we can live in a tasteless world.  But we cannot live without safe food.

You are the salt of the earth.  Your lives will save the world.

You are the light of the world.  Jesus says that too.  His disciples would hear echoes there of their own Jewish faith.  Israel, their country and community under God was to be a light to the nations.  It’s such a simple, all-pervasive metaphor we’ve almost forgotten it’s metaphorical.  Light makes things visible.  Light dispels its absence – darkness.  You are the light of the world.  Your lives will make things visible.  Your lives will show what is good and right, what is shoddy and selfish. Your words and actions will show others how to live.  Your virtue will point to the source of light, to God and to his son, also called the Light of the world.

A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.  There is no hiding-place for this community.  Their saltiness will be tasted.  Their light will be apparent.  They will not be crouching around the next ridge, or in the mist across the river.  You see a city on a hill from a long way off – Edinburgh Castle is visible from much of the train journey from Leuchars.  On the cover of the order of service we see San Gimignano in Tuscany, its medieval towers still pointing to sky, announcing to the world we are here.  We are not hiding.  You can find us.

Sometimes the church has behaved so badly we wish we’d been hidden.  But even if we do get it right, there’s a danger.  How to be salt, light, a city on a hill and not to be smug?  Not to be annoying?  Not to be unbearable?  Sometimes you encounter a Christian who’s somehow just got to get the whole gospel into every conversation.  Or after ten minutes with someone else you’ve heard of their volunteering with the homeless, their donations to charity, their climb up Kilimanjaro for the blind.  Enough already!  The point about salt is that you don’t have a whole mouthful at a time.  It’s seasoning, and a little goes a long way.  The point about light is that a bright harsh light can be a weapon.  A little light, a soft light, a candlelight, can dispel the darkness without hurting the eyes of everyone there.  The point of a city on a hill is to be visible, approachable, findable, welcoming – not to lord it over the villages on the plain.  Christians can be rather too keen for the world to be all-salt, all-light, all-under-the-city.  Not so much virtue signalling as virtue saturation.  And just as unappealing.

So, should we give up?  It seems so easy to get it wrong, between a mistaken morality and being insufferably smug.  And yet virtue truly matters.  There are countless ways we can be that salt, that light in the world, in our world.  I’ve known of countless ways students have been like that here.  Listening to a friend in trouble, really listening to them, so that they finally know that someone cares, that they matter, that they have not been rejected again.  Reaching out to someone who’s hurt everyone else in their social circle, finding out why they’ve become so angry.  Offering to go to an event with someone to help them feel able to be there, when otherwise they’d duck out of it.  Standing up for the truth, when the popular people prefer the falsehood.  Not gossiping when you know you’d love to be someone with something to say.  Spending part of the week volunteering – at a breakfast club, or gardening, or visiting the housebound elderly.  Interning, or working in a tough workplace, where the culture is pretty selfish – and maintaining integrity.

You may be wondering – this is an impossible ask.  We’re not good at being salt and light.  We mess up, put the wrong spice in at the wrong time and spoil the meal.  We do things we want to keep in the darkness.  And indeed, Christians believe that God is forgiving, that Jesus died on the cross for us, that we cannot earn salvation through what we do.  That’s true.  And so we may conclude that it doesn’t matter then what we do.  It will all be forgiven anyway.

But what kind of response is that to God’s love?  To Jesus’s life?  The cross is the sign of the most costly love imaginable, of the ultimate self-sacrifice.  If we are part of that community, with that love, then we too will live lives of costly love, salt scattered, light bravely shining.

It is hard to imagine a time when this was more important.  We are clearly now in the Anthropocene, an era when our planet’s eco-systems are being radically changed by human activity, our population, our food, our fuel, our waste.  How will we be salt and light in this era, this crisis?  It is all-too-tempting to resort to virtue-signalling, to boast of our green credentials, our commitment to recycling.  The environmental movement has its own word for virtue signalling – greenwash.  Hogwash with a green dye.

Instead, we are called to be a community, a kingdom of heaven which believes in the earth, God’s earth, this planet, our world, and its creatures – from the lonely student on our corridor to the family from Mali living on marginal land, from today’s neighbour to those born after we will have lived.  There’s no way to approach these problems without being moral.  It needs to make a comeback.  And where else should that happen than with the people who follow Jesus, the one who gave himself up for the world?  A proverb says: Spilt salt is never all gathered.  Let’s get spilt.