Can infinite values be a substitute for divine love and the economy?

This week I attended a Living Wage meeting. It was part of an ongoing campaign to encourage a retirement village in my suburb of Pt Chevalier, Auckland to pay caregivers a “living wage” which is currently $19.25 an hour. A living wage is distinct from the minimum wage (currently $14.75), as it is set to allow a reasonable level of participation in society. The retirement village in question, Selwyn Village, is run by the Selwyn Foundation which is associated with the Anglican Church. The meeting was extremely well attended and included people from several trade unions, churches and a number of community and social justice groups. 

There are two speeches in particular I want to discuss here. The first was from Jeremy Younger, a resident of Selwyn Village and an Anglican priest. His plea for the living wage revolved around the meaning of Christian love. In essence, he claimed, paying people below the living wage is in breach of this. He along with others, pointed out the poignant, even shameful, irony in paying those who look after other people’s family members too little to comfortably provide for their own.

The second was from the Equal Opportunities Employment Commissioner Jackie Blue, who is also a former member of parliament from New Zealand’s right-of-centre National Party. The part of Jackie Blue’s speech that leapt out at me was a claim that the living wage is good for business and the economy. The rationale for this seemed to mostly concern the capacity to attract and retain good staff. This claim sat somewhat awkwardly with earlier speeches that spoke of the exemplary work being done by the caregivers despite their low pay.

Anyway, what struck me about both these approaches is that these speakers were able to draw on a higher authority to make their case – God for one, and business/the economy for the other.

God, it seems to me as an atheist who often suffers from God-envy, allows those who are comfortable with “Him” to articulate the importance of love without needing to simultaneously claim that they, personally, are particularly loving or compassionate. It positions the “good” as above and beyond any one of us. The fact of the good is unquestionable, regardless of how well we are doing with regard to it.

Now when Jackie Blue talked about the living wage as being good for business and the economy, it sent a dagger into my heart as these institutions do not resonate for me as “good” in and of themselves. They are merely social arrangements or finite games. Nevertheless, she, like Jeremy, was able to refer to something above and beyond any one of us.

We secular types who crave a more loving, compassionate and free world sometimes struggle to draw on a higher authority. We can’t call on God and many of us don’t want to call on the economy. But without a touchstone or reference point that is above and beyond us, we lack a key component essential to collective progress. Can infinite values be used in this way? I think so. What it would take is collective confidence that there is such a thing as a human notion of the good and that it has some core elements including love, compassion, and freedom. It would also mean shaking off our fears that everything is relative and that these values are just cultural illusions. The higher authority would not be God, but it would be ourselves – our collective selves. Imagine that: “I speak to you today, based on what people across time and space know to be at the heart of life…”

To come back to the living wage meeting – I left totally uplifted by the spirit of caring that lay behind it and thrilled to have added to the power of the event by my presence. The symbols we speak are crucial, but at an even deeper level, I felt I was touching the real. In front of me a teenager kept leaning on her mother’s shoulder and playing with her mother’s hair. In the end it is love that matters.

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