Monthly Archives: November 2014

Poverty and our collective responsibility

Emergency use onlyI’ve been following with interest the reaction to the new report “Emergency Use Only” from the Church of England, Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group and the Trussell Trust about why people need to go to food banks. I read one blog here on the Church Action on Poverty site, talking about different aspects of poverty and the church’s response to it. The blog ends:

“[This shows] why the Church has such a vital and on-going role to play. Food banks and Night Shelters are run by the Churches because material poverty needs to be addressed.  Authentic faith always has a social impact. But the Church also has unique resources to address the poverty of relationships and identity.”

I find myself torn in my response to this statement. I haven’t quite finished reading “Emergency Use Only”, which details the circumstances of some of those using our many and growing food banks. But the stories in the report reveal the difficult situations some of our neighbours find themselves in and the tremendous amount of need there is. Of course people in the church (and others) will be motivated to help and to try to meet some of this material need. And yes, the church does have unique resources to address the poverty of relationships and identity. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the church should have an on-going and vital role to play meeting material needs, and even possibly relationship and identity needs.

The welfare state and the NHS were born out of the devastation of the second world war. People looked at the plight of their fellow citizens and wanted to make a response to ensure all those in need would be cared for. A collective, country-wide response to ensure there could be no gaps for people to slip into. The desire to help those in need was there, and those who were able provided this help through their national insurance contributions. The NHS and the welfare state became the agencies which act on our behalf to meet the needs of material poverty and ill-health.

This is not a matter of the state taking over our individual responsibility, but a rather a collective, organised response to the needs of society. We must continue to take responsibility by ensuring we participate in the democratic process and hold our governments to account. We all contribute to each other’s welfare through our taxes (direct and indirect) as well as national insurance contributions.

I’ve had conversations with people who feel that meeting material need should remain the role of the church. But at its best, this could only be a piecemeal response to need, dependent on the finances and social inclination of a particular church in a particular place. A nationally organised health service and welfare provision ensures that everyone can access the help they need. This is the agency through which the church and all its members are able to provide for the needs of others by virtue of being citizens. Looked at this way, we all remain collectively responsible for each other.

Churches will continue to respond to unmet need. I cannot criticise this. But I can and will question why that need exists in the first place. After the war, people wanted to make sure that no-one was left behind. It is quite clear now that many people are being left behind. Left behind to struggle with bereavement, ill health, chronic low wages, poor housing, relationship breakdown, redundancy among other things. The agency, which we (as in our predecessors in the 1940s) commissioned to help them, now fails to do the thing it was designed to do.

Is the rise in the numbers of people accessing food banks attributable to changes in the administration of benefits? The “Emergency Use Only” report says it can’t prove this either way. Are people being let down by a system of welfare support that is supposed to help them? Clearly the answer is yes, as the many stories detailed in the report attest to. There are many more untold stories from food banks around the country. How many of these stories do we need to tell before those responsible for administering our welfare state are prepared to act? The safety net which the citizens of the late 1940s created for the benefit of all now has far too many holes in. The holes need to be fixed, because right now, people are crashing straight through onto the rocks below.

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Values and a Good Society

People do like to talk about “returning to British values” or to “Christian values”! But they are less clear precisely what those values actually are. And if we could agree on the values we think are Christian, would those values be the ones we would like to see in a good society? I’d like to think that a society based on Christian values would be a good one!

The first problem with defining “British values” lies in deciding whether we’re looking for values which are exclusively British, or for values shared by others which we subscribe to and want to share as well. I think we have to go for the second definition – surely any values which a nation believes in would be embraced by other nations too. We may have some idiosyncrasies, but on the whole, things that make Britain a good place to live make other places good too.

You can apply the same thought process to defining “Christian values” – values which are exclusively Christian, or working out which human values are part of the Christian faith and which are not. Again, I’d go with the second option as I’d be surprised to find any values which we might consider Christian which are not shared by other religions.

That was the easy part – much harder to decide what those values actually are. And different Christians will have many different opinions.

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One place to start is to ask what are the values we would like to see in a good society and then to ask if these are Christian values. What makes a good society? What does a society which works for the benefit of all look like? This is a question which Church Action on Poverty has been asking in conversations round the country.

My dissertation was based on research about values. You can read more about this research on the Common Cause website. It suggests that values based on intrinsic motivations are generally associated with behaviour that promotes the common good rather than just individual gain. This is in contrast to values which rely on extrinsic rewards making people less likely to act for the common good.

This set me wondering – are the values which promote the common good the same as Christian values? And what are these values?

The research sorts the values into groups, and two groups in particular are associated with behaviour which benefits others (pro-social behaviour such as buying fair trade products, action to mitigate climate change, concern about inequality). One group, labelled Benevolence, is particularly linked to behaviour which helps family and friends. This includes values of mature love, forgiving, meaning in life, true friendship, a spiritual life, helpful, honest, responsible and loyal. I think it is uncontroversial to say that these are Christian values.

But the group of values most strongly associated with pro-social behaviour is the one labelled Universalism. This includes social justice, equality, a world at peace, broadminded, unity with nature, a world of beauty, wisdom, inner harmony, and protecting the environment. And the opposite group (Power), most strongly associated with stopping people engage in pro-social behaviour, includes social recognition, preserving my public image, wealth, social power, and authority.

This is where I am challenged. The values in the Universalism group do not seem to be obviously Christian. Do I reject them as nice but not central to the Christian faith, even though promoting them is likely to bring about the biggest changes for the benefit of all? Or is my view of Christian values too small?

It was the Beatitudes which convinced me. A radical manifesto to challenge the structural injustice in society. This short passage turns the Power values on their head, and instead of placing importance on wealth, status and power, Jesus says that the poor, the meek and the persecuted are blessed. Also blessed are those who stand with the poor in spirit, who hunger for righteousness and justice, who seek to bring peace and whose motivation is pure – values of equality, social justice, a world at peace and inner harmony.

I don’t think the Beatitudes are an exhaustive account of Christian values, but they are a representative one. Within them we find that the values within Universalism are Christian values. There are a few gaps, most notably those concerned with the environment, which may be why it has taken the church so long to wake up to its environmental responsibility. But most stark is the comprehensive rejection in the Beatitudes of Power values. It is in the not seeking after power, wealth and status that Christianity finds itself most at odds with the world we live in.

A good society cares for everyone and works for the interest of the common good. It considers its impact on all, not just those in its immediate neighbourhood. I think a society displaying the intrinsic values identified by Common Cause is most likely to become a good society, values which we can also identify as Christian values. We can find these values in a gospel which tells us to love our neighbour, to speak out for justice and righteousness, and to reject the self-serving interests of status and power.

This is a slightly longer version of my blog written for Church Action on Poverty, which you can find here.

More thoughts on It’s not Fair

I blogged about inequality for Blog Action Day, wondering if people really thought inequality wasn’t fair, or whether people thought the poor deserve their predicament. Probably a bit of both.

This means we have got to the situation where it is possible to see inequality and think that it is fair. This bothers me. I think we need a new metaphor, so here is my offering.

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Imagine a family, living in a nice house. Dad has a well-paid job and earns lots of money. He pays the mortgage and the bills and has plenty left over for gadgets and games, expensive clothes, costly sports club membership and plenty meals out with work colleagues.

Mum has a small part-time job and looks after the house. Her wages have to cover food, school uniform and expenses, and her own personal spending.

Two children earn nothing and get nothing. They are fed and clean, but their rooms are bare. They’re not allowed to play on Dad’s gadgets and have none of their own. No treats, no school trips, no clothes other than for school, a bed and that’s it.

Dad works hard and deserves to keep his hard-earned cash – the kids aren’t contributing, why should they benefit from his multi-channel TV and numerous games consoles. Mum has a bit left over from basic shopping and spends it on a few nice things for herself. She deserves her hard earned cash too, little as it is.

Unfortunately there’s been a bit of disruption to Dad’s comfortable existence. There’s a leak in the roof, the boiler only works intermittently, and the washing machine has died. Dad doesn’t see why his hard earned money should pay for things which everyone will benefit from. Mum’s wages don’t stretch that far, however fed up of the launderette she might be.

This ridiculous scenario is plainly unfair. Even though I haven’t suggested the children are mistreated, we don’t expect families to behave like this. In a family, we are in a relationship with each other. Children are not valued as economic units, but in their own right as humans and family members. Parents have responsibilities for their children and everyone has rights and responsibilities towards one another. We expect families to care and share, and not to behave selfishly.

It isn’t a big leap to apply this metaphor to our country or even to the world. Clearly, it’s a metaphor and not a policy statement. But if we thought about ourselves as part of a big family, some of our behaviour would look very differently. Ideas about how much money people deserve and how it should be distributed would change, ideas about what it means to contribute, what makes people valuable [basically, just being people]. Thinking about others as part of our family makes us responsible in some way for their wellbeing, makes us interested in their wellbeing. And failure to invest in shared infrastructure or for the common good is revealed as selfish and ultimately self-defeating.

I’m sure there are many more ways we can apply this metaphor to society – I’m just wondering what happens to children who have nothing to do all day! And ways in which the metaphor falls short or doesn’t work. But we need to tell a different story about our fellow citizens as we inhabit this world together, a story that encourages to value each other, care for each other and work together for all our wellbeing.