US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote off half the population of his country in a recent address to a fund-raising meeting. Wait, not half, just under half. 47% in fact, presumably with the thought in mind that that leaves 53% out there who are on his side and 53 trumps 47, so he can afford to do down just under half the country as long as the rest vote for him. This is part of what Romney says:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.”
Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/closeread/2012/09/mitts-forty-seven-per-cent-problem.html#ixzz276bYcZvc

The 47% are apparently those who pay no federal taxes, a claim that conveniently ignores the fact that they pay tax in many other forms, and some may be contributing to the wealth of others like Romney with the low wages they earn.  However, the picture is much more complicated than Romney’s views suggest. Take a look here for a breakdown:

http://news.yahoo.com/mitt-romneys-47-percent-breakdown-070451942–election.html

Romney also seems to think that his own massive wealth has nothing to do with the position he started from. As the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson wrote: “Romney was the son of a governor and an auto executive who gave him a wealth of connections, a private education, college tuition, a stock portfolio that he lived on while in graduate school, help buying a first house. “ Isn’t it sad that a man given many opportunities seems to have no idea of what life may be like for others, many or most of whom may not have had such a good start in life, particularly given the role he seeks.

Why is someone in the far west of Cornwall worrying about what an American presidential candidate says? Well, as Suzanne Moore said in the Guardian, Romney’s division of society into wealth makers and wealth takers is reflected in the policies of our present government.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/19/mitt-romney-divides-society

There is from government and its media supporters a continuing rhetoric aimed at the supposed “takers” and an implicit description of them as the “feckless poor”. As Jeremy Seabrook shows, there is nothing new in this.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/26/feckless-poor-cameron-long-history

The renewal of this rhetoric is not without purpose, however, designed as it appears to be to oil the wheels of an ideologically driven attack under cover of a claimed economic need on what the government proposals define again by implication as the wealth takers. These people belong to a wide ranging group that appears to include those on disability benefits, those in receipt of support for low wages, those in receipt of support towards high housing costs, those with children and public sector workers. I’m sure I’ve missed a few but you get the drift: shirkers every one of them, a curse on the body politic and a drain on the national coffers. Not my views, of course, but the message that is being dripped into the national consciousness. Wide enough, however, is this group, that the inevitable happens and the poor and vulnerable, like rats fighting for scant food in a cage, resort to attacking each other with cries of “I’m more deserving than you, you scrounger.” The worst and most disheartening example of this is the increase in attacks both verbal and physical on the disabled.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/feb/05/benefit-cuts-fuelling-abuse-disabled-people

While government spokespersons and apologists couch the cuts in language of fairness to tax-payers, they forget – oh so conveniently – that, like the 47% in Romney’s America and unless those in receipt of these benefits are dead or spend their lives begging for all food and clothing and salting the benefits away for a rainy (rainier?) day, they will be paying taxes and at proportions above those of their richer compatriots. According to Tax Research UK: “the poorest 20% of households in the UK have both the highest overall tax burden of any quintile and the highest VAT burden. That VAT burden at 12.1% of their income is more than double that paid by the top quintile, where the VAT burden is 5.9% of income.”

http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Documents/VATRegressive.pdf

Of course, the poor will also be helping keep the wheels of commerce turning by purchasing the 50 inch plasma TV that is, apparently, to be found in the home of every benefit claimant. Hmm, I guess we never had one when we claimed benefits because they weren’t invented then. We just blew our Supp Ben on caviar and cigars.

While the wealthy can avoid or evade large parts of their tax liability, for the poor, including those on low wages and just about everyone on PAYE, there is no escape and they, therefore, contribute a proportionately higher share to the national exchequer because the rich – lest we scare them away with their pots of gold – do not pay their fair share.

Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and I know too little about his faith to comment on whether his views are true to them. There are, however, plenty of his supporters who claim to be Christian so I feel justified in commenting on his views and those of our own government from a Christian perspective.

According to R Elena Tabachnick, “In his Rule, Benedict says that monks do not bless the guests they receive and serve. It is the guests who bless the monks. This is especially true when the guest is poor, sick, or otherwise in need of care. How un-capitalist! The one who “gives” – whether food, shelter, medicine, or instruction – is in actual fact the taker. The one who takes these things is the more generous giver. How our charity marketplace would be changed if givers gave in full knowledge that in doing so, they are the greater takers.”

http://seekerswanted.blogspot.co.uk/

An interesting perspective, indeed and one with which I have great sympathy. We might have difficulty selling the idea, however.

Maybe we need to begin somewhere else. For some Christians, faith is very much a personal thing. It’s between them and Jesus and salvation is a matter of their personal and individual destiny. That is, I believe, an aberration of Christianity, and certainly cannot be based on the Bible that many such will claim to hold in high regard. As  John Wesley, one of the founders of my Methodist denomination, said, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”

Back into the age of the Hebrew Scriptures, before the time of Jesus, God’s people were understood to be God’s people for a reason. They were to be a light to the Gentiles, to show others how people should live with each other before God. They were to have care and concern for those who lived among them as strangers; they were to have care and concern for widows and orphans, for the needy of their communities; they were to ensure that trade was honest, that wealth was distributed among the people and not hoarded by the powerful. Being God’s people carried responsibilities. And when the people offered God worship but failed to live up to those responsibilities the prophets tore them to shreds in the most uncompromising language and action. God says through Amos, for example, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.” Powerful stuff, isn’t it? He is talking, of course, on God’s behalf as he sees it, of faith without works.

Such views are not confined to the Old Testament. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves,” says James in his New Testament letter. “Do what it says.” “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” “The royal law,” James reminds us, is to “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

James goes on: “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. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”

This is not merely about being nice, and responding positively to people down on their luck should we happen to come across them. It is also about living justly and about this, like the prophets of the Old Testament, James doesn’t mince his words: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.”

The words of the Old Testament and the New were written in very different societies but still they are about how we live together, how we organise our lives, how we relate to each other and most importantly, about how the divine riches so freely given are shared among us.

If, “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” and our greatest call is to love God in our neighbour then, in complex societies, we have to build systems that encourage and enable that. To rely on charity alone is to condemn to poverty and struggle any who find themselves overlooked by such charitable souls as their respective communities may harbour.

Many of the rules of the Old Testament, very strange though some of them are, are best understood as given for the good order of society, for peaceful and just co-existence.

That, finally, may be the best reason why we should care for those who are poor, who have fewer opportunities, who are cast aside by an unfeeling economy: it is in the interests of all of us.

A vicar found himself in the news a while back for reportedly saying that it might be alright for some people to steal if they do not have access to finance that would allow them to purchase necessities legally.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/22/thou-shall-steal-york-vicar

People who do not have access to the goods and services available to the majority, and those peddled by the advertisers as essential to the existence, wellbeing and happiness of all of us may well be forced to steal, or feel that stealing is their right. In the end, however, unjust societies will fall. The Arab Spring serves as a reminder of this, and also of the violence that often accompanies such change.

We are not collections of individuals but communities of people who, like it or not, are dependent upon each other. The more seriously we take that, the better it will be for us all.

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