The shrinking of our safety net and the lies we tell ourselves.

This week the government has instituted major changes to UK social policy. Now, of course, governments are entitled to do just that. What has particularly animated me, however, is not only that these changes worsen the situation of some of the most vulnerable but also the nature of the narrative used by government and its media apologists to support and justify them.

Over these last months, I have sought, where possible, in conversation, in social networking and on this blog to challenge, correct and offer an alternative narrative. Links to the most relevant blogs are given below.

My contributions on the social networks to which I subscribe, Twitter and Facebook in particular, have brought the range of responses one would expect: from opposition to support via all shades in between. The support is welcome and the opposition – when graciously and well argued in particular – also welcome; and if I didn’t want it, I shouldn’t post in the first place. Anyway, as I said to one challenger yesterday: I do not pretend to have all the answers. However, and this is back to the narrative issue above, I firmly believe that policy decisions affecting the lives of citizens must be made on the basis of facts and that has not been the case in relation to these changes to the welfare system.

To quote an ancient prophet: Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Isaiah 59:14

In other words, just decisions cannot be made on the basis of lies and half-truths.

A challenge from and to the church

I am pleased to note that my denomination, with others, took the trouble to challenge the narrative around these changes with facts and figures in a document called: The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty. (Link below)

If you like your data via graphics, have a look at this:

For a short film tackling some of the same material, see this from Applecart: Poor People: The Factual Facts:

Recognising the fact that church people are often complicit in this false narrative regarding poverty and its causes, the report is introduced thus:

In 1753 John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said, “So wickedly, devilishly false is that common objection, ‘They are poor, only because they are idle’.” Yet today many churchgoers and members of the general public alike have come to believe that the key factors driving poverty in the UK are the personal failings of the poor – especially ‘idleness’. How did this come about?

The myths exposed in this report, reinforced by politicians and the media, are convenient because they allow the poor to be blamed for their poverty, and the rest of society to avoid taking any of the responsibility. Myths hide the complexity of the true nature of poverty in the UK. They enable dangerous policies to be imposed on whole sections of society without their full consequences being properly examined. This report aims to highlight some comfortable myths, show how they have come to prominence and test them against serious evidence.

The report concludes:

In researching this report, we found many of the facts made us uncomfortable. Reading much of the press coverage around poverty and welfare reform was equally uncomfortable. We hope many readers of this report are a little less comfortable at the end of it than they were when they began, and that some prejudices and assumptions have been challenged. Most of all we hope readers are moved to seek to understand the reality of poverty as it is experienced in Britain today.

As citizens we have the right and duty to expect more from our politicians and the media. We expect them to cease perpetuating myths which, although convenient for themselves, are no longer credible. We ask them to enable real leadership and be willing to say things that we may all find uncomfortable, even unpalatable.

We need to develop an understanding of the depth and breadth of UK poverty that is compatible with the evidence available. Just as importantly we need to match the language of public debate with the reality of people’s lives. It is a task we must approach with humility one which puts the lived experience of poverty at its heart, and one which is committed to truthfulness – no matter how uncomfortable we find those truths to be. Please join with us in this challenge.

Between these comments the report challenged a number of myths central to the false narrative used in support of these changes to our welfare system and odiously apparent on the front page of the Daily Mail of 3rd April (to which I will not provide a link) in relation to the tragic deaths of six children killed in a blaze started by their own father, the views therein echoed by the Chancellor in an interview on 4th April (link below) and later by the Prime Minister.

Those 6 myths about poverty and the poor

The myths regarding the poor tackled in the report are:

  • Myth 1: ‘They’ are lazy and just don’t want to work
  • Myth 2: ‘They’ are addicted to drink and drugs
  • Myth 3: ‘They’ are not really poor – they just don’t manage their money properly
  • Myth 4: ‘They’ are on the fiddle
  • Myth 5: ‘They’ have an easy life on benefits
  • Myth 6: ‘They’ caused the deficit

Anyway, do read the report for yourself if you are interested.

Why this blog? Who speaks for the poor? Should I?

As I wrote earlier, I expect people to challenge my contributions to this debate as well as, I hope occasionally, to support them. I’d like to think I’m on the right track if only now and then!

What gave me pause for thought recently was not that someone agreed or disagreed with my views but that someone thought that as a minister of religion I ought not to express them.

X sent me a message asking that I stop making the contributions on the grounds that I am a man of God and that my anger against the effects of these attacks on the poor made X feel insecure. Quite clearly, I would not want anyone to feel insecure as a result of my words, unless their security was built on the insecurity of others. That is not the case here. I have asked X to explain the reasons for this response but to date, several days later, I do not know what they are.

I do take criticism seriously – (some would say too seriously for my own good!) – but reflecting on it is one of the ways we develop our humanity. So, in response to the message I took a day off from responding to such issues and spent some time in contemplation of the situations of my neighbours. The former was not easy, the latter something I try to do in any case as part of the daily round.

I had replied to X that I would try to have greater regard as to the effect of my words on the victims of the injustice of others, but my immediate response was that to stand by in silence while that injustice is done would be to collude with the unjust. Nevertheless, I wanted to spend some time considering X’s point and whether a man of faith should be speaking out as I do.

What was the result of my time away from such comment?

Without an explanation from X, I can only guess at the reasons for the comment. It may be that X (although not a regular church-participant) sees the church as a refuge from the turmoil of life, a place of safety in the midst of a sea of troubles. X would not be alone. There are those more deeply involved in the church who see church in that way, and certainly church, the gathering of the disciples can, does and should provide comfort and support to each other in adversity. But that is not the same as church being an escape from adversity.

It may be that X sees me as one who, as a result of my faith, is not battered by the winds of change and conflict that afflict others. There may be some truth in that (although I am human too!), but I am speaking out not for myself on these matters but for others.

Even so, what mandate do I have as a minister to speak out publicly? None other, I would say, than that of the Jesus I seek, however stumblingly, to follow, and the broad thrust of the prophetic tradition in which Jesus stands. That, I suggest, is not a matter for clergy alone but for every Christian.

As the Report says: Churches have a special interest in speaking truthfully about poverty. Both the biblical warnings of the prophets and the example of Jesus teach us to pay special attention to the voices of the most vulnerable and underprivileged. The systematic misrepresentation of the poorest in society is a matter of injustice which all Christians have a responsibility to challenge.

It quotes Reinhold Niebuhr who spoke of the need to:  “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. It continues: This is apparent in Jesus’ encounters with people on the margins: the poorest, the vulnerable, the outcast. His response is to comfort those on the margins, but also to challenge the dominant ’truth’.

That ‘truth’ may well be a lie or half-truth but repeated often enough it becomes a sort of accepted wisdom, something we ‘know’ to be true.

Despite our apparent complicity in the myths regarding poverty, churches have been at the forefront of responding to increasing poverty in our communities by supporting the food banks developed largely under the auspices of the Trussell Trust, a Christian organisation.

The home page of the Trust carries the Bible verse: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me…” Matthew 25:35-36

As my family does, many of the people in my congregations support local food banks, as well as a Breakfast Project for homeless people among other things, but I was moved to suggest recently that food banks represent taxation of the willing (that is those who contribute voluntarily) to relieve those who are unwilling to be taxed and by that I do not mean the poor!

Interestingly, a report today suggests that the poor give proportionately more of their income to charity.

Another report describes the trillions of pounds stashed away in offshore accounts:

I am conflicted in my support of food banks. While I want to support those who are hungry I am concerned that food banks are becoming a formal part of the welfare system.

What do I do in response to this? Just keep giving and stay silent. Say some prayers in church for the hungry and do nothing? We read in James, the answer to that question:  What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. James 2:14-17

However, giving to food banks, while necessary for the time being, perhaps, is merely a sticking plaster for a wound and not a proper solution. Dom Hélder Câmara, the late Roman Catholic Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Our leaders may not like churches to challenge them. They may prefer church to be a place where people can go to indulge in some sort of spiritual forgetfulness, to say a few prayers and to come out ready to accept whatever is thrown at them or their neighbours. They may prefer church to be an instrument of social control. Well, it’s not like that!  (Even if sometimes it has been.) It’s a long time since Henry II said of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Even if he didn’t say that, the alternative suggested by Simon Schama carries similar irritation: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?” For sure, the church has challenged government throughout its life. Not often enough maybe; sometimes on the wrong issues, maybe. But church – Christian discipleship – is about much more than spiritual practices to help us cope with life, or escape from it.

Mr Osborne, the Chancellor, spoke of “vested interests” opposing his actions and “depressingly predictable outrage” from the church. Well, if I had some small part in defending the poor, then call it a vested interest if you will. As to “predictable outrage” – if that means he expected the churches to stand up for the poor and vulnerable, well, hallelujah – in my eyes, we’ve got something right!

Do I accede to X’s request? Regrettably, because I have no desire to upset X, I cannot. I have no choice. I must speak.

My faith is no hiding place for me. Indeed it is often a most uncomfortable place to be. It would surely be easier sometimes to ignore the needs of others. Church for me is no hiding place either. It is, at its best, a beloved or loved and loving, community, supporting each other and reaching out to those beyond and particularly those in need. That is the nature of discipleship. As Bonhoeffer said, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”

A Christ-following Christianity will live out its call to be a prophetic community, incarnating a divine hope in the world and speaking out when we see our neighbours ill-treated or suffering.

X says that I cannot affect those in power. Maybe not, but I look at those first few disciples, ordinary people all, and the great movement that spread out from them and I think, maybe I can change nothing, but when we act together in the cause of divine justice, change can and does happen. (That is not to say that the church has acted justly throughout our rather chequered history. Our first challenge must always be to ourselves, which is why I was pleased to see the “Lies” report acknowledge Christian complicity in the myths. On the other hand, we cannot wait until we are perfect before we speak out.)

Our action and speaking are to be in direct imitation of the Jesus who announced at the beginning of his ministry the manifesto for his life (and death): “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)


Righteous anger?

Am I angry? Not about X’s comments, no. I welcome and respect them and X. About the treatment of the poor and vulnerable, yes. Very. And I think here I come to understand more fully that rather uncomfortable picture of Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple and driving out the money-changers with a whip.  It’s a difficult image to fit into the character of the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of my Sunday School days. But for sure, Jesus was no mystic cut off from the realities of human life. He was, rather, a man with a heart full of compassion and a thirst for justice.

His followers have often manifested similar qualities. I recall the words of William Booth of the Salvation Army: “While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry, as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end!” To be a disciple of Jesus is often to find oneself in a fight, at least in a conflict. If we are called to make peace, it is not a peace based on injustice for that is no peace at all.

I am reminded again of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor, theologian, dissident anti-Nazi and founding member of the Confessing Church who was executed for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Not every Christian would have taken that course of action, but Bonhoeffer was not prepared to collude with injustice by his silence or inaction.

When Jesus engaged in that dramatic act in the Temple he wasn’t necessarily condemning Judaism’s religious or spiritual practices but the related economic practices that were keeping the poor from participating in society and fleecing pilgrims who needed to buy the animals or exchange the coins to make their appropriate offerings. The wrongdoing of the traders was not so much that he found them in the Temple’s outer court, nor that they were trading, but that they were acting like “robbers.”

We cannot read the gospels without seeing that Jesus challenged the religious and political status quo of his day. It seems right, unavoidable indeed, that one of his followers should do the same, particularly one charged with leading others.

I write this on the day it is announced that Desmond Tutu has been awarded the Templeton Prize. There’s a man not fearful of challenging injustice, and an Archbishop no less, not a mere Methodist Minister and one described as a man whose life’s work has revolved around fighting racism, poverty and government corruption.

I may not, alone, change the world but I can be part of a prophetic community that lives as if with one foot in a different world, all the while calling ourselves and others closer to the divine peaceable realm of justice.

In the end, if I do not speak, I am no follower of Jesus and it would be as well I cut up my dog collar and call an end to my ministry. As I continue to try to live out my calling, I am grateful for all those who support my efforts and who have engaged with me in my small efforts for justice, be they from outside or inside (or even on the borders) of the community of faith and to X for giving me the opportunity to reflect on that calling.

If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading! Peace.

Thanks to you all who take time to come and visit my blog, and also to those of you have responded. I haven’t opened this up to responses yet because of the way that some blogs tend to attract some very negative thoughts and people get into quite nasty arguments. I don’t mind if you don’t agree with me or would like to expand on my comments, ask questions, or maybe even suggest where occasionally I might be near the right track. I always welcome your thoughts. The best way to share them with me is through the page’s contact button which will send me an email or find me on Facebook and PM me or Twitter and DM me. Thanks.

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