It is increasingly obvious that the old political paradigms do not work. The debate is no longer cast in the binary terms of Left and Right but is about the relationship between techno managerialism and populism, and a new blending of these two. In a similar way, situation ethics, process theology, and liberation theology no longer fit our changed economic, political and social circumstances here in Britain. We need to think again about the resources and prophetic witnesses to which the Christian Churches can look for inspiration and guidance.
Bonhoeffer in his day suggested the response of faith to the political situation could be a new blend of monasticism and the Sermon on the Mount. In more recent times, Pope Francis has exhorted us to become “a poor Church of the Poor”. But have we the courage to become the Church of the excoriated, the ‘scroungers and skivers’ as the poor are written off in popular culture? To explore how we might go about that, we can follow Karl Barth’s suggestion that we start with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.
THE EMERGENCY BUDGET IN THE NEWSPAPERS
8th July 2015
For some time the Conservatives have been threatening to take £12 billion out of the welfare budget and in the Emergency Budget on 8th July, we got some detail of where those cuts would be made. The initial impression of the press was of a new living wage that led to celebratory headlines. The Daily Express wrote, “Hooray! It’s Pay Rises All Round” while The Daily Mail had “A Pay Rise for 6 Million”. The Times was less euphoric with “Higher Wages and Welfare Cuts in Britain’s New Deal” and The Independent suggested “A Headline Grabbing Living Wage of £7.20…but make sure you read the small print.” Indeed, careful reading of the tables of tax information printed in all these papers illustrated that there would be tax gainers in the middle, with both higher and lower incomes being the losers. The Daily Mirror alone headlined it “Con Trick” declaring “Osborne says UK is getting a pay rise…but millions will be worse off…..He brings in a bogus ‘living wage’ and then cuts tax credits.”
The problem with the headline soundbite approach is that it denies the real “devil in the detail”. The following day the respected Institute of Fiscal Studies crunched the numbers to reveal that some 3 million of the poorest people would lose over £1000 a year in tax credit reductions and a further £13 million would lose over £300 as a result of losing benefits even with the promised living wage pay rises by 2020.
For many, the accountability of public finances rests on the ability to (ac)count. I recall a woman tenants’ leader some years ago berating councilors for not being aware of how much she had to live on saying, “Those of us who have to pay the price can do the arithmetic. Why can’t you?” More recently an MP told a public meeting that tax and benefit matters were too complex for him and so he forwarded those cases to the Citizens Advice Bureau. Of course, tax – benefit interactions are complex not least because people are complex in their lives, needs and relationships. For example, the construction of Universal Credit has hit the problem that people do not live passively in tax years. Within the year they may change or lose or regain a job, marry or divorce, have children, and move address, all of which complicate their circumstances for assessment.
The Emergency Budget disturbingly assumed an initial level of innumeracy. Revealingly in The Times it reported, “The Treasury admitted that it had not calculated the net effects after the reduction to tax credits, including changes that will remove 500,000 from eligibility for top-up payments altogether. Aides said that it was ‘too complicated’ to model how much the introduction of a new living wage would increase the pay of those above the minimum but entitled to benefits”.
In summary, this budget hits the poor and the vulnerable disproportionately. It is significant that the new “living wage” in future will boost the hourly rate but in the economic context of increasing zero hours contracts and part-time work, a few good hours are no compensation for a salary that regularly sustains a family income. Perhaps the focus needs to shift to a Living Income?
HOW TO RESPOND AS CHURCH?
Notably, for the first time in recent history, a recession has turned people against the poor and unemployed rather than increased sympathy for them. As Church in this context, we need to find a way to stand with the poor and vulnerable. Bonhoeffer’s dictum to look to monasticism and the Sermon on the Mount gives us a starting point.
The monastery, as exemplified by the Cistercian Kirkstall Abbey from 1132-1535CE, was a place of prayer, work and contemplation, whose watchwords were Hospitality, Stability and Community. The lives of the monks were centered on prayer and the founder, Abbot Ralph, described contemplation as a means to develop the capacity to take a “long loving look at reality”. Prayer and contemplation are to be what enable Christians to look at the harshness of life with love and compassion. They are not escapism but a way to be resourced to respond to real life.
When commending monasticism, Bonhoeffer directs us straight to the Sermon on the Mount. We are all familiar with the start, “Happy are the poor in Spirit… Happy are the gentle… Happy are those who mourn” and so on. However, in Chapters 5 to 8, Matthew presents a nuanced account of how we are called to live together. Not only must we not kill but we must not call our brother ‘fool’. Not only must we not commit adultery but we should not look at each other lustfully. We are urged not to swear at all, to give away our cloak, to go the extra mile, to forgive our enemies. Furthermore, prayer is central and this is exemplified in the prayer given to the disciples. In this teaching, there is a solid insistence on the need to transform the way we live our daily lives and any danger of despair in the face of this challenge is to be set in the context of prayer.
Matthew’s Gospel is strong on making connections with the Old Testament books of the Jewish tradition. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “don’t give with one hand and take with another”, echoing the short book of Lamentations written after the 587BCE Fall of Jerusalem. For Christians today, we are familiar with the reading from Lamentations used in the Good Friday liturgy relating to the dismantling of Christ on the cross. However, the Book of Lamentations does not begin with a focus on the individual suffering but by mourning the city of Jerusalem and the breakdown of the community. At this time of distress, however, it acknowledges that out of this darkness shines a ray of unconquerable trust in God. This is clear in the passage below:
Brooding on my anguish and affliction
is gall and wormwood.
My spirit ponders it continually
And sinks within me.
This is what I shall tell my heart
And so recover hope;
The favours of the Lord are not all past,
His kindnesses are not exhausted
Every morning they are renewed
Great is his faithfulness.
‘My portion is Yahweh’ says my soul
‘and so I will hope in him.’
When we learn from this approach, we are encouraged not to succumb to compassion fatigue or despair when facing the reality of poverty and in tackling unjust structures. In practice, the role of the Church today is precisely to blend compassionate, personal and practical responses to individuals, families and communities with being courageously and outspokenly prophetic.
We are a people called to mission, that is to go out together and listen. As Pope Benedict reminded us in his letter Evangelium Gaudium (para 46) “going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity does not mean rushing out aimlessly into the world. Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way”.
We are called to feed the hungry, house the homeless, release the imprisoned, pick up the alcoholics and drug addicts, and support struggling families. At the same time we are called to be prophetic witnesses, to challenge injustices and the systemic causes that generate poverty. Compassionate response and prophetic witness need to be held together and sustained by prayer. A last reminder from Pope Francis, “We cannot become starched Christians, too polite, who speak of theology calmly over tea. We have to become courageous Christians and seek out those who need help most. The Church does not need a new spirit; it just needs the true one”.
This article is based on an address given at the closing of LCTiM on 9th July 2015 at LCI