Tag Archives: Christian Aid

Clean up our cash

I believe this is my 100th blog post! And to mark this momentous occasion, I’m hosting guest blogger, Hannah Seekings. She’s been volunteering in the Christian Aid office I work in, and was inspired by our campaigns training session on climate change.

big-shift-eve

On the first Wednesday in February we met together to hear about “The Big Shift Campaign” from Luke Harman who is part of Christian Aid campaigns team.

The evening started by discussing all the success that we have achieved together so far. Christian Aid is part of a movement which has been advocating for change to be made to help stop global warming getting worse and slow the effects of climate change. Together we have made an impact. The UK government announced that by 2025 it would phase out the use of coal-fired power stations. We also witnessed the historic signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015 where countries from across the world came together and agreed to limit the global temperature rise to only 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Furthermore, Luke mentioned how the UK and its actions have been mentioned in the Washington Post, showing that the UK is a real influencer and leading the way for a change in how we approach the response to climate change. There is such a great momentum for this issue and therefore we should be encouraged and keep pursuing change.

The next section of the evening we talked about the effects of climate change and how we can prevent the financing of the fossil fuel industries. We watched an insightful short video, which I’d encourage you to watch.

As many of you know, the climate is changing and this is greatly influenced by the burning of fossil fuels in industrialised countries. We believe that we must act in order to protect our planet. There should be a shift from industires such as coal, oil and gas to renewable energy sources such as wind farms and solar panels and move towards a zero-carbon world. However, to achieve this we need a Big Shift in the way our economy works. Money is a key factor in influencing whether we lock ourselves into more fossil fuel dependence or build a better world that we know is possible. The UK is a global financial hub. Shifting finance in the UK can create a huge momentum for global change.

“We all want to save for a rainy day but what happens if we are fuelling the storm”

The money that we keep in our banks in the UK collectively is trillions of pounds and is invested into a wide range of things. This includes investing in coal plants and subsiding fossil fuels. Christian Aid has written a detailed report about this titled which you can read here. It summarises why Christian Aid feels that asking banks to take responsibility is a good idea. It looks at individual banks, their policies on the environment and their strategies to help phase out the funding of fossil fuels.

High Street banks and pension fund managers rely on our customers to make a profit. We need to make sure that they use our money in a way that which helps create and sustain a low carbon economy. We need to do this as soon as possible.

Many banks, corporations and companies signed up to the “Paris Pledge for Action”. This is an outward sign that they support the objectives of the Paris Agreement and will actively help to achieve this.

Christian Aid wants to know what steps the banks are taking to achieve their Paris Pledge. Many banks are still financing the building of coal power stations which lock countries into a high carbon infrastructure. Furthermore, they are still financing oil and gas companies much more than they are renewable sources. To add to all this, many banks are reluctant to set up measurable targets to phase out support for fossil fuels. Christian Aid has focused on 4 major banks; Barclays, HSBS, Lloyds Banking Group and RBS, who we have researched and don’t think are doing enough to commit to helping reduce global temperatures.

So. What next? What can we do about this?

Luke laid out 3 easy steps that we can do to campaign as a response to this knowledge:

Step 1: Spread the word – strike up a conversation with your friends, neighbours, colleagues, people in your church about what they think about climate change. Give them a campaigns pack and invite them to explore this issue some more. Explain to them why this issue it matters and why you want to do something about it.

Step 2: Ask people to take action – invite them to come to your next campaigns evening, ask them to join you in writing a letter to your MP, be bold and encourage them to get on board with you!

Step 3: Take it to the banks – go down into your local branch and ask to speak to the manager and ask questions about their environmental policies and how they plan to phase out investments in fossil fuels, alternatively go in with a letter in hand addressed to the manager with this information. Even better, ask a few people to come with you.

We have lots of resources to help you contact our banks and keep them accountable. Be that writing a letter, or going into your local branch. What these banks do with private finances is the public’s business. Are they helping to preserve God’s creation?! Are they doing enough to reduce climate change?

Find out more here. If you are inspired to campaign to help clean up our cash and help reduce climate change then email campaigns@christian-aid.org and they can send over relevant resources and information to help you help the world.

Rejoice in the Lord always!

rodah

This is the text of my sermon at St Nicholas, Bradfield, for Christian Aid at their Harvest Festival on 9 October 2016

Autumn is that time of year when we celebrate God’s abundance and rejoice in His blessing. I love the changing colours of this time of year, the rich reds and golds on the trees. We get to have real English plums, and the hedgerows are full of bounty too. One of our family Autumn rituals is blackberry picking. All those juicy berries in the hedge ready to pick without any of the hard work beforehand!

Mind you, I get to enjoy all the harvest without any worry or effort beforehand. I don’t have the stress of getting all my grain in before it rains, or worrying about whether my carrots and parsnips are too skinny or too knobbly for Tesco, though maybe Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall’s efforts mean our parsnips can be a little more knobbly these days. The harvest is not a foregone conclusion, which is why we’re here today to give thanks for it. Some of us are more dependent on the land than others for our livelihoods, but in this country we can be fairly confident that it will rain, it will at some point be sunny, and we have resources to make up for it if something doesn’t grow.

But I want to tell you about a part of the world where Harvest is much more tricky. Christian Aid met a woman called Rodah and her neighbours in the countryside in Kenya, where the weather is very dry. Everything needs water to grow, so when the river dries up, Rodah has to go and fetch water. She uses a container a bit like the one we use when we go camping. I took it to church full of water and asked the children to try and lift it up – far too heavy, one of them nearly fell over! But everyone guessed correctly that Rodah has to carry two of these almost as far as from Bradfield church to Sheffield city centre and back. Her water supply is six miles away. When you have to carry water like this, you can’t carry enough to make everything grow. Sometimes Rodah couldn’t grow enough food to feed her children and they would be hungry. She would have to spend money to buy food instead. So that meant there wasn’t enough money to pay for school, so her children had to stop going. Who here would be sad if they couldn’t go to school?

In Kenya, they don’t have spring, summer, autumn and winter like in England. But they do have seasons – the rainy season and the dry season. So, in the rainy season, the rain waters the land, and the water comes back in the river so it is much nearer to collect. Then, in the dry season, the river dries up. But because of climate change, the weather in Kenya is changing. The rain doesn’t come when Rodah and her neighbours expect it, so they don’t know when to plant their crops. The dry season lasts longer, and sometimes the rain doesn’t come at all. So the people living there are no longer able to grow enough food, and the six mile trip for water happens all year round, not just for a short time. That’s why Christian Aid went to meet Rodah.

Christian Aid is supporting the Anglican Development Services to work with Rodah’s neighbours to see how they can help them make their lives better. ADS gave the farmers different seeds, ones that grow better in dry conditions, so they can grow more food. The farmers were given some training too, about new, better ways to farm their land so that things would grow bigger and better. And ADS also helped the community to build a sand dam, which would trap the water in the river so that it would last through the dry season.

Now Rodah grows enough food to feed all of her family, and she has enough left over to sell in the local market. Her children are back at school – hurray! She has enough money and enough work to employ other people to work on her land too, so now they have more money. This story is repeated throughout the area, so now quite a few people have more money to spend. This means that other people can set up small businesses. There is a tailor in town, making school uniforms for all the children who can now go to school, women selling hand-woven baskets and other businesses too.

This is just one of many stories of Christian Aid helping communities build a better future, one story that we wanted to tell you so that would know where your money goes. Christian Aid made some resources to tell this Harvest story and showed them to Rodah. She burst into tears, she was so overwhelmed by the idea that people like you cared so much about her and her neighbours. When asked what message we could pass on to churches in the UK, Rodah said ‘Go and thank them very much for the water source. Because if it was not for this water source, we would not have this crop.’

Now we’re going to turn to the Bible passages that were read out earlier (Philippians 4:4-9 and John 6:25-35). The story in John’s gospel takes place just after Jesus has fed 5,000 people. The well-fed crowd seems pretty impressed by this. So impressed that they go looking for Jesus, wanting more from this miracle worker.

But Jesus is very astute. He cuts through the veneer and challenges them – are they looking for more signs of God, or more food for their bellies? Jesus knows they’ve been drawn in by their physical desires, but he wants to take them beyond this to understand that their spiritual needs require more attention.

He tells them to focus on working for food that will sustain them for eternal life, which means believing that Jesus is the one sent by God, the son of God. But they are still asking for a sign, still asking for the bread of heaven, the food of eternal life. So Jesus has to spell it out for them. He is the sign. “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever come to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

We need to recognise that we are one a spiritual journey, to give attention to our spiritual life. On our spiritual journey towards God, to eternal life, Jesus is all we need. He is our guide, our light in the darkness, our strength to carry on, our shelter in the storm. He is utterly dependable, with us every step of the way. Like bread, he will sustain us.

It’s interesting that this is the text for Harvest. Superficially it looks perfect – Bread of life and all that. But just under the surface it is a little at odds to focus on a time when Jesus was speaking about food for our soul when here today we are really celebrating our physical food. Harvest is just a real world, ‘flesh’ festival. Churches are full of real, physical offerings. We are thankful that the harvest has been gathered safely in and there will be food in our bellies for the next year.

And then Jesus tells us “do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures for eternal life.” What are we to make of this? Do we say that all that we don’t need to do anything but pray and worship , and all these other things will miraculously fall in our laps?

This is plainly stupid. Unless we sow and reap, there will be no harvest. Unless we milk the cow, there will be no ice cream at Our Cow Molly. But perhaps Jesus means us to go about our daily lives, but to do it trusting, believing in him. We all have our part to play in making the world turn, in business or public service, on the land or in the office. Perhaps Jesus means that we play our part, but do it with prayer and trusting our lives to him, and then the Bread of Life will ensure that we won’t go hungry or thirsty.

This somehow seems to make more sense, and various versions of this can be heard between Christians everywhere.

But then why is the church collecting for the foodbank? Are we saying that people need food parcels because they didn’t have enough faith? Or that good Christians don’t need food parcels? Or consider Rodah and her neighbours in Kenya. If only they’d prayed harder, then the rain would have fallen. They just need to trust in God, then there will be enough to feed their families. I don’t think any of us can accept this analysis.

We know that Jesus is the path, the way to God. There are no hoops to jump through, no exams to pass, no 11+. To know Jesus is to be reconciled with God and to be fully resourced for our spiritual journey through life. We’ve created symbols and rituals which can help us on our way, but the bottom line is that all we need is Jesus.

But God remains concerned about our physical life too. He gave the Israelites manna every day when they were lost in the desert to meet their physical needs. The passage from Philippians also tells us to let our requests be known to God in prayer and supplication.

We have to deal with this mismatch. We have the gift of eternal life. But this earthly life is precarious, many are only just holding on by their fingertips, and some do not make it. What does it mean for the church to say ‘Jesus is the Bread of Life’ while people are going hungry?

I think we know what it means. We cannot stand by. We do not stand by. That is demonstrated here by your offering of food, and hopefully later by your offering of money for Christian Aid. I just want to take you to James, who expresses what we know is true, that our faith in Jesus is revealed when it turns to action, and that without action, our faith is exposed as being no faith at all. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16).

The church is called to be Good News. Christian Aid is the outworking of that. 70 years ago, people in churches in Britain and Ireland saw the plight of displaced people in Europe after the second world war and could not stand by. Christian Aid was formed as the way for these churches to live out their calling and help these refugees however they could. Today, Christian Aid is still the agent of the church, working round the world to bring an end to poverty. We are your organisation. So that’s why we come back to the churches regularly, to ask you to continue to give to support the work we are doing in your name.

I’ve shared one of Christian Aid’s stories, and there are many more to share. Our vision is an end to poverty. Wherever we are involved, we always work through local partners. We don’t parachute in with our solutions, but ask grassroots organisations to work with those in need to bring about their own solutions to their problems. Christian Aid and the partner organisations can add value in terms in terms of knowledge or finances, but poor communities are the experts in their own situation and they can be the agents of their own change. This empowerment is the key to unlocking long term change towards that vision to end poverty.

One part of the solution in Kenya that I didn’t mention earlier involves cameras. A few of Rodah’s neighbours were given cameras to take pictures of the dam, the thriving crops and the new businesses. They documented in detail the transformation of their community brought about by simple interventions. Now these photographs are being used to show what a difference can be made. They are being shown to the Kenyan equivalent to local councillors to advocate for the same transformation in other neighbourhoods and communities. With the right help, the people in Rodah’s community were able to build the dam and transform the way they look after their land to build sustainable farms and businesses, lifting them out of poverty for the long term. But they also have the power to support their neighbours, and help them to advocate for their own solutions to poverty. To call the local leadership to account, to ask for funding from the powers that be in Kenya, so that the balance of power is shifted in favour of the poor.

I wanted to tell you about this because it shows how the effects of one project can be amplified. Christian Aid’s partner can work with a small group, but once that group is empowered to advocate for their rights and the rights of their neighbours, then the same transformation can be wrought many times over. A neglected community now has influence to challenge that injustice and bring about change. Money brings power. Christian Aid works with the poorest communities in the world, those without power, those who have a voice that doesn’t get heard. Making sure that voice is heard is one of the most important things that Christian Aid can do.

So how do we respond? What does it mean for the Church to say Jesus is the Bread of Life while people are hungry? What does it take to be a church that cares for people’s physical as well as spiritual needs? I can make a few suggestions, and I’m sure you can think of more. Please give generously to the work of Christian Aid today. It takes around £500 to construct a sand dam like the one built in Rodah’s community. Training for 5 farmers costs around £160, and seeds for 28 farmers costs about £64. Christian Aid’s work is not just about Harvest, but goes on throughout the year. If you would like your support for Christian Aid to go on throughout the year, please make a regular gift. Regular gifts really help us to plan what we can achieve in the long term. We can also amplify the voices of the poor. Partly we do that when we give to Christian Aid, and we do it again when we join in Christian Aid’s campaigning. But we can also do it when we challenge injustice and make decisions which shift the balance of power in favour of the poor, for example when we buy Fairtrade tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar. There are voices in the UK that need amplifying too. Perhaps it is time to ask your MP why 1 million people needed food parcels last year in the UK – one of the richest countries in the world?

This harvest, we give thanks that Jesus, the bread of life, gives us food for eternal life. We also give thanks that God has provided us with this harvest and takes care of our physical needs too. And our response of love and worship is to give, act and pray so that we can be good news to those who are hungry.

Tax havens and the wealthy

tax-haven-protestDid you see the desert island appear in Trafalgar Square last Thursday? Christian Aid, Oxfam and Action Aid all came together to create a sandy tax haven to highlight the issue of tax dodging while David Cameron was hosting world leaders at his anti-corruption summit.

By hiding profits, obscuring who owns what and disguising where business is actually carried out, big business and rich individuals can avoid paying the tax that is due, and cream off billions of pounds of what is rightfully public money. And if you think the British economy could do with a bit more money to spend on elderly care, schools and hospitals, just think what that money could do in Zambia or Haiti.

What campaigners would really like to see is a public register of the real people behind company names. Company names are often just shell names for the real interests behind them, and there can be many layers, but finding out who really benefits from the money a company makes (the ‘beneficial ownership’) would shine a light into the dark places where money is hiding. A few countries (including the UK) have agreed to publish a public register of beneficial ownership. But others have only agreed to make this information available to those with a ‘legitimate need’ ie tax enforcers. Good, but not as good as full accountability to civil society. Crucially, those digging their heels in are the British Overseas Territories. Cameron could insist on a public register, but he has not. We must mark this down as ‘Could do better’.

Cameron did manage something though. Foreign companies of property in the UK will have to declare these assets and make transparent who is the ultimate owner, or beneficiary. This is particularly relevant for many hugely expensive properties in London, and has caused quite a stir. Apparently these wealthy owners would prefer to be anonymous and this rule change would make them sell-up. This is being presented as a ‘bad thing’. But as far as I can tell, super-rich foreign investors have caused London property prices to be so hugely inflated that getting rid of them would be a good thing. For more on this, try this article by Giles Fraser, a bit old now but the issues haven’t changed much.

Critics of the public register say it will drive ‘wealth creators’ away, and it was this phrase that finally drove me to my keyboard. It’s one of those phrases that appears everywhere in defence of tax cuts for the rich and austerity for the rest of us. But it’s a phrase that is carefully designed to pull the wool over our eyes. For who in this country truly creates wealth? Those who make things or build things, those who create, those who make something of value from raw materials or their own creative talents. In other words, working people. The rich do not create wealth, they mainly inherit it, and then hide it in an off-shore bank account. Or they become rich on the back of the workers who have created and enabled them to build their fortune.

Rich people don’t boost the economy. Their money is largely static, invested in buildings, or in a complicated tax-free arrangement. But put money in the hands of ordinary people, and they will spend it, on goods and services, on holidays, on food, on the essentials as well as on leisure.

I’ll be glad if so-called wealth creators are driven away. Then we might be able to restore some sanity to the housing market and leave space for the rest of us to truly create a society where the wealth can be spent and shared more fairly.

Who is my neighbour?

pastyI had the following conversation with two friends, well, Mums of my son’s friends, so I’m only just getting to know them. A colleague of one of the Mums was doing the “Greggs run” on the way to work, and saw a homeless man outside the shop. She was moved to want to help him, so she gave him a pasty on her way out and got on the bus. But then, the man ran up to the bus, banged on the window where she was sitting and shouted “This is what I think of your pasty!” And he dropped it onto the ground and stamped on it.

The colleague was shocked and upset, and my friends were outraged at the man’s response. But I found myself unsure how to respond. Why was this reaction so outrageous? Because we think the man should have been grateful? Grateful for something that may not have been what he wanted or needed at that time? Grateful for whatever he can get, beggars can’t be choosers, and all that?

At what point does a person lose the right to decide what kind of help he or she can ask for, accept, or refuse? Surely the answer to that is at no point. Unsolicited help is good to offer, but equally may be refused. We would all prefer to be asked what it is that we want or need, and being homeless doesn’t change that.

Perhaps we are outraged not by the refusal to accept the pasty per se, but the way it was refused? Do we judge the man for being rude? How many other unsolicited pasties has he been offered? Perhaps he is vegetarian, but perhaps we judge that is not acceptable to insist on being vegetarian and homeless? Perhaps he felt judged as the offer of food suggests that he couldn’t be trusted to spend money appropriately? Who is it who decides what is appropriate for an adult to spend money on?

I realise that I have only come up with a load of questions, and no answers. The only realistic answer I have is that we should ask people what they want before we offer, or at the very least, make sure our help is actually an offer that can be refused and not insisted upon. But I didn’t feel able to say this to my friends. I only managed something vague about not knowing what had gone on before and sympathising with hurt feelings.

Meanwhile, my own response to homelessness remains inadequate. I’ve been shocked at how many people I’ve seen on the streets in Sheffield – many more than I ever saw in Liverpool. I buy the Big Issue occasionally (but not always) and I’ve even set up a regular payment to a project that supports homeless people in Sheffield. But I still cycle passed people sitting on cardboard boxes in the pouring rain outside the station and the guy who is always in the subway (under the ring road by Waitrose, if you know it) and use the fact that I’m on my bike as a way to avoid eye contact.

Meanwhile, it’s Christian Aid Week, the annual big fundraising initiative for Christian Aid. This year our theme is ‘loving our neighbours’, from the story of the Good Samaritan, told in Luke 10. The first day of the 7 day reflection asks the question ‘Do you need to expand your understanding of who your neighbour is?’ Yes indeed, not just the families in Bangladesh whose homes are regularly entirely washed away by flooding, but also the man I cycle passed nearly every day in the subway.

The Big Church Switch

the-big-shiftHow long has changing to a green energy supplier at home been on my to-do list? Too long! So having someone do all the hard work and find a good deal for me was too good an opportunity to miss. So at last I’ve made the switch.

But the trouble when you want to change the world is that it is all too much for one person. I can’t tackle global climate change on my own. So I was determined to do what I could to persuade our church to join in with Christian Aid’s campaign and make the Big Church Switch to clean energy.

As a family, we’ve only been going to our church for a couple of years and it still feels fairly new to us. It is a big, busy church, with lots of services, home groups and a myriad other weekly activities. Many, many things compete for attention, and Christian Aid is only one of them. I wouldn’t like to guess where climate change fits in!

I bided my time – I needed to find the right moment, when climate change would be recognised as a priority. And here was my chance. We held a series of lectures through Lent with theological reflections on contemporary issues, including one on the topic of climate change! It was a thought-provoking evening exploring how contemporary materialistic measures of success and what makes for a good life drive consumption and the exploitation of the Earth – our shared home.

How much impact could the church have if we truly valued a good life based on relationships and community? Our values are revealed in where we spend our time and money, so it’s time I thought to put our money where our prayers and hopes are; with our neighbours suffering the devastating impacts of climate change, both around the world and in recent times closer to home too.

Perfect! Immediately after the lecture I approached our vicar. Would the church review where it bought its energy from and consider switching to a renewable tariff? Thereby taking our money away from dirty fossil fuels driving climate change and towards something that builds a brighter future, something that can help all God’s people to flourish.

Apparently this would be a matter for the church’s Executive committee, which happened to be meeting the following Monday! “Write me a briefing paper,” the vicar said. I knew I wouldn’t need to do that, because the perfect thing was already in Christian Aid’s Church Contact Pack! I could put it in his hand on Sunday morning. I told him it was a joint initiative between Christian Aid and Tearfund (that helped as the church supports Tearfund too). At this stage, all we would need to do would be to register our interest, and when the quote came back it would be up to us to accept or decline. It might even be cheaper than our current bill, though our vicar was confident that the committee would be happy to pay a little more if it felt it was doing the right thing.

On the Sunday, I gave the briefing papers to the vicar and the treasurer. On the Monday, the matter was discussed by the Exec committee. By Tuesday I got an email asking me to register the church’s interest, copied to the Finance manager who deals with the bill. We’re nothing if not efficient once we’ve made up our mind! Unfortunately we’ve come to a bit of a standstill for now. I’ve registered our interest as a church, but I can’t complete all our details just yet as the Finance manager isn’t well.

Despite this minor delay, I’ve had a really positive response from everyone in the church who has been involved so far, summed up by the sentiment ‘thank you for taking this forward’. We believe that looking after the creation is a part of our faith and ministry, but it’s not always easy to express that as a church. And it’s not always easy for a church full of busy people to find someone who wants to make this a priority. It was great to be able to take a very practical step as an immediate response to our Lenten challenge. I hope we can hold up our corporate action as a church as an example for everyone to follow as we find ways to work out in practice our ministry to care for our creation.

Song of the Prophets

IMG_0784This is an edited version of my talk at St Andrews Psalter Lane church this morning, an joint Anglican/Methodist congregation in Sheffield. They are an eco-congregation, so it was great to be able to talk with them about climate change.

At Christian Aid, we believe that tackling climate change and caring for the environment is as integral to our faith as worship and prayer, not merely an interesting add-on, and I’m sure we’re not the only ones. But sometimes it’s good to think about why being green is an act of faith, and what it has to do with Christian Aid, an overseas development charity.

Some theology

Christian Aid has a unique perspective on climate change because it works through its partners with those who are experiencing climate change now. It is really important that we listen to the voices of our sisters and brothers in the Global South, the theologians who live with climate change every day. Christian Aid describes them as modern-day prophets. For more detail , take a look at this report, ‘Song of the Prophets’. As it says (p9) , “climate change is real, [it is happening now,] and its impact is experienced by those who are least responsible and most vulnerable.”

Christians are called to act on climate change not just because we have been tasked with looking after the world, but because it is an issue of justice. “Those who will bear the brunt of predicted changes are the poorest people in the world”(p7). Nazmul Chowdhury, a Christian Aid partner in Bangladesh, put it like this, ‘Forget about making poverty history. Climate change will make poverty permanent.’ (p7) Our reading from Deuteronomy 24:14-22 shows some of the ways God, a God of justice, asked his people to take care of the vulnerable members of society – the alien (or foreigner), the orphan and the widow. Guillermo Kerber, from Uruguay, says that today, ‘victims of climate change are another face of the vulnerable ones’ (p12). If you like, we have a duty of care. To act on climate change is to act to bring justice for the vulnerable. To not act or to fob off the global poor means we are perpetuating injustice.

The reading from Deuteronomy also reveals that our relationship with the land is not one which exploits every last drop from every corner. Owning or farming the land doesn’t give us the right to extract everything – everything the land produces is much more like a generous gift. Dr Sathianathan Clarke, from the Episcopal Church of South India suggests that the poorest communities in the world seem to understand this inter-dependent relationship much better than we do, not surprisingly as the poor “mostly live in close proximity to the ebb and flow of the natural world” (p14). Have we become ‘environmentally illiterate’? Do we ‘understand the importance of nature as God’s gift for all living beings’? (p14) Even more challenging, the report suggests that “One reason why the powerful do not hear is that the very economic systems that keep some in the world rich while others are poor are implicated in causing climate change” (p15).

But all is not lost, because our faith is one of hope. We have a vision of a future where God’s justice prevails. Climate change is a spiritual crisis, bound up with our consumerism, our failure to act for justice, and we need to repent. But as we heard in our second reading (John 1:1-14), it is significant that the word of God became flesh and lived among us. “We are not being lifted out into a spiritual realm to escape the earthiness of creation, but being remade for a renewed earth.” (p20)

Summary

  1. Climate change is a justice issue
  2. The global poor who are experiencing climate change also have perspective on our relationship to the earth that we should learn from
  3. We are not without hope as the incarnate God will renew the earth

Work with partners

So, in the spirit of learning let me tell you about one of Christian Aid’s partners.

Christian Aid’s work to deal with the impact of climate change has many facets – disaster relief in the face of extreme weather, adapting to changing weather patterns and building resilience and self-sufficiency for poor communities, and helping communities speak out for their rights and support to their own governments.

I want to tell you about a project in Mali. Christian Aid partner Mali Folkecenter is helping the community to develop their own solar power. This part of Mali is not connected to any national grid, and to do so would be prohibitively expensive. But they have plenty energy freely available from the sun, they just need to be able to harness it. Mali Folkecenter helps the community to install solar panels and a local grid, and trains the community to be able to maintain it. Electricity means that children are able to do their homework in the evening once it is dark, which means they can keep up with their school work and stay at school, leading to long-term benefits for the individuals, families and the whole community. It also means local businesses can be more productive, and enables new business, benefitting not just from light but from refrigeration too. (you can watch this video which the people in church couldn’t see!)

This is one way that Christian Aid is helping a community to develop without adding to carbon emissions. This solar project means they can leapfrog fossil fuels altogether, just like mobile phone technology has enable communities to get connected but bypassing expensive cable laying for landline telephones.

I really like this project because it encapsulates another key facet of Christian Aid. Christian Aid works through partnerships for change. It doesn’t send so-called experts from the UK to do development to poor people. It works with grass-roots organisations already at work in the local area, who build and deliver projects which best serve the needs of the local community. And partnerships are not a one-way relationship. Dependence, learning and support should go both ways. So we have lessons to learn from the community in Mali. Think about our own energy provision and consumption in this country. In theory we have a free market, with competition to make prices cheaper and give better service to the consumer. But we all recognise that this isn’t really the case, and the big six energy companies have an effective monopoly (or oligopoly, technically). What If our energy was decentralised and produced closer to where it is needed through solar panels on homes and other local projects? Power would genuinely be in the hands of the people, the inefficiencies and lost energy when power goes through the grid would be diminished, the grip of the energy companies would be broken, and we could move on from dirty fossil fuels pumping carbon into the atmosphere. So let’s learn from this community which is breaking free from fossil fuels!

Campaigning

And breaking free from fossil fuels is the final thing I want to talk to you about this morning. I’ve talked about why we care about climate change, and some of the things Christian Aid is doing. So I’m going to finish by sharing something you can do about climate change, in partnership with Christian Aid.

As well as working with poor communities round the world, Christian Aid also campaigns with its supporters in the UK to challenge and change the structures that keep people poor. These are very often the economic structures we live within here in the UK, as I mentioned before. If we are serious about cutting carbon emissions and stopping global temperatures rise by more than 20C then we need to break free from fossil fuels – to make the Big Shift to renewables. I think I’m preaching to the converted here, but I hope that this campaign will give you the tools to talk to other people who are not so sure.

Does anyone here still use floppy discs, or video tapes, or dial-up internet? I still say I’m taping something off the telly, even though there’s no tape involved and it’s all digital. These things are still hanging around, but they are old-fashioned, out of date, and it would be ridiculous1 to invest in them. This is how we should feel about fossil fuels. In fact, this is how business is beginning to think about fossil fuels, and so Christian Aid wants to take this further and build up a momentum for taking finance out of fossil fuels. We are starting with coal, because this is the dirtiest, most polluting fossil fuel. We need coal to go the way of floppy discs. We believe that here in the UK we should stop burning coal to make electricity by 2023. We should stop funding businesses to look for and mine coal in other countries. And we should take our money out of coal and shift it to investment in renewable energy (including in helping those whose work currently depends on coal to be trained to find alternative employment).

There are lots of ways you can get involved in this campaign through social media, by talking to your friends about it, by writing to your MP. Please ask me about it afterwards. But today, I’m just going to ask you to sign the petition I’ve brought, with those three asks – 1. a concrete plan to stop burning coal, 2. stop supporting coal extraction abroad, and 3. shift the money out of coal and into renewables, green jobs and a low-carbon economy.

Now is the time, especially as world leaders are meeting in Paris at the end of November to talk about climate change. Don’t let the enormity of the problem put you off. Climate change is a justice issue, at the heart of our faith. But our God is a God of justice who is committed to renewing the earth and his people. His people are at work in places like Mali, making a difference to the lives of the vulnerable – the alien, the orphan and the widow. His people are at work in the UK, campaigning for the environment. St Andrews is making a difference here with its plans to install solar panels. So please keep on making a difference. Come and sign the Christian Aid petition after the service, and join in the event in Sheffield to mark the Paris talks on Saturday afternoon, November 28th.

Make It Fair – time to tackle Tax Dodging

make tax fairWell, we’ve come a long way. Tax is making great progress along its pathway of rehabilitation back into society. To be sure, austerity has focused our minds. Now we’re really missing all those lovely things our taxes used to pay for (teachers, nurses, gritters, libraries, Sure Start centres) we’re severely unimpressed when some people and businesses don’t pay their fair share.

Conservative estimates (with a small c despite it being at the beginning of a sentence) reckon that the UK loses £35bn a year due to tax dodging. That should be enough to fix all the potholes in Sheffield’s roads and still have a bit left over for a few extra teachers and nurses. But it’s not just the UK. A few weeks ago, I was listening to Suzanne Matale from Zambia talking about the massive flow of money out of her country from tax dodging multi-national businesses. More than three times as much money leaves Africa for the rich west as is received in via international aid. Just think how many teachers, nurses and roads that would cover.

While we’re thinking, let’s reflect on why it has taken us so long to keep our promise to give 0.7% of our country’s income in overseas aid. It’s a great landmark to have reached, but why do we begrudge giving such a tiny proportion when so much more money is moving the other way? It seems so simple – if we could crack down on tax avoiders, in the long run, countries like Zambia would have plenty money to fund education, healthcare and road building, and eventually international support would no longer be needed.

But tax isn’t simple, as anyone who has wrestled with self-assessment, or even a tax credit application form will know. A lot of the time, businesses aren’t technically breaking the law. Some would say businesses have a duty to their shareholders to carry out effective “tax planning” (nice euphemism). We’ve even heard a member of the House of Lords declare that “everyone is doing it”.

So we need to take a different view. Our personal taxes are part of our contribution as citizens and solidarity with each other to build up the common good. It’s the same for businesses. It’s no longer enough to say that a business is beholden to its shareholders. It also must take care of its workers and other members of the community where it chooses to operate. It’s not acceptable for a corporation to extract all the copper from Zambia’s soil without paying its fair share of taxes to the benefit of the Zambian people. After all, where would business be without healthy, educated workers able to rely on the physical infrastructure of a country kept safe by a well functioning democracy and rule of law?

That’s the moral argument for paying tax. But it’s pretty hard challenging practice that isn’t illegal. This is where the Tax Dodging Bill comes in. A coalition of charities, including Christian Aid, Action Aid, Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, is calling for a new bill to close some of these scandalous tax loopholes and for the additional revenue generated to be spent on tackling poverty. Most of this kind of tax dodging is possible because companies operate in a number of countries with different tax rates and laws. So vast companies like Google, Starbucks and Amazon (and even lovely homegrown Boots) can get away with paying next to nothing in tax in the UK, while smaller companies only based here pay the full amount. This is hardly fair for businesses trying to compete, nor is it fair for the rest of us missing out on essential services which lost revenue can’t pay for.

Campaigners against tax dodging are calling for the newly elected government to introduce a bill within 100 days of coming to power, which would help tackle poverty in developing countries and to use the funds raised here to tackle poverty in our society. The Tax Dodging Bill addresses foreign multinational businesses trading in the UK. It would make it harder for these companies to dodge UK taxes by ensuring they can’t use tax havens to hide profits. The bill also calls for a rigorous review of tax breaks to ensure that any which remain are truly beneficial to the UK economy, society or environment. UK tax rules should not encourage UK companies operating overseas to avoid tax in developing countries, so the bill calls for the rules to be reviewed in this light. Campaigners also want to the bill to call for more transparency in the UK tax regime, including country-by-country reporting of tax and profit data, and tougher sanctions on tax avoiders and those who provide tax avoiding advice. Finally, the campaign is calling for political parties to commit to using the funds raised in the UK to tackle poverty here.

With the election just weeks away, and no-one ahead in the polls, all parties are still creating their final messages to appeal to voters. Right now, we the people have power and influence! If you’re fed up of seeing the big boys getting away with it, join the campaign. You can email all your local parliamentary candidates about tax and sign the Tax Dodging Bill petition.

Enough is enough. Tax dodging lines the pockets of the already wealthy while robbing the poor by diverting funds away from government services. Not everyone is doing it. The richer you are, the easier it is to pay less. That’s why we need a Tax Dodging Bill now. Let’s hear it for tax collectors – we’ve come a long way from Zacchaeus and the Beatles!

On being counter-cultural

It’s often said that following Christ is ‘counter-cultural’. But mostly it doesn’t feel like it. My life feels much the same as everyone else’s – shopping, cooking, watching TV, wasting time on Facebook, worrying about which school the kids will go to. I try to make some ethical choices, like recycling or buying Fair Trade. I guess praying and spending Sunday morning in church mark me out a bit, but generally I don’t feel much different to the people around me. Then I come up against someone who really doesn’t get the choices I’ve made. Why did I leave a perfectly good career? Now I’m tentatively looking for a job, why would I choose to look for a job with a charity in a city 35 miles away when there must be plenty other jobs in the city where I live? And then I see that it is my motivation that is counter-cultural. Perhaps not explicitly Christian, but not the wisdom of the world to reject ambition, money and status and instead be seeking a better society based on social justice, equality and peace.

Which brings me back to the other question that spins round my mind, on the match up between Christian values and ‘Universalism’ values as discussed by Common Cause.

Actually, there’s been a lot of discussion in the last few weeks about values, especially British values. And whenever someone comes up with a set of values, someone else is guaranteed to say that the values are not British because they are important to other people too. So, let’s approach this from the opposite direction. I’m not looking for values which are exclusively Christian – I’m not sure there are any. But I do want to consider the values that Christianity espouses and those it rejects, and to see where they fall on Schwarz’s values circumplex (sorry it’s hard to read).

values circle
Schwarz values circumplex, from The Common Cause Handbook 2011

And what brought all these thoughts together was the service at church last week on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). Here, surely, we have it laid out before us the full extent of Christianity’s counter-cultural-ness. And as good a place as any to see the values considered important to Christians and compare them to Schwarz’s universal human values.

The Beatitudes

Jesus said:

3  ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4  Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.

5  Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.

6  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.

7  Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.

8  Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.

9  Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.

10  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

[NIV]

I’ve never studied theology, and make no claim to be a theologian, though I will tell you I’m a linguist. So, I can only offer you a discourse analysis and not a theological point of view. The first problem is pinning down the meaning of the word ‘blessed’, so I’m not going to do that. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this analysis, if something is blessed, we can assume that it is considered valuable, and therefore these qualities are the ones that are important – to Jesus at least!

The second problem is working out what is meant by ‘poor in spirit’. Most people I know will work with a paraphrase ‘spiritually poor’, meaning their life of faith and relationship with God could do with some work. But I have read commentaries from others who suggest a meaning more akin to identifying with the poor – being with them in spirit if not in reality. Interestingly, there is another version of these words in Luke, which has Jesus saying “Blessed are you who are poor” and later “Blessed are you who hunger now”, making the whole thing much more about a physical status than a spiritual one.

Leaving these questions unresolved to one side, it is still possible to consider the things which are described as blessed in order to see which values are given value by Jesus, and which are not, and to map these if possible to universal human values as described by psychologists.

It’s not straightforward though! Let’s start from the bottom up! Verses 10 to 12 describe us as blessed when we are persecuted, insulted and lied about. This doesn’t look like a value in itself, but it is clearly opposite to values like ‘preserving my public image’ and ‘social recognition’. The verses say that being persecuted is a sign of blessing because it aligns us with the ancient Hebrew prophets, who said uncomfortable things to the rulers of their day. The prophets spoke about how people and rulers had turned away from God, and time and time again, this was a call to social justice – this brilliant report from Christian Aid explores this in more detail. So I suggest that ‘social justice’ is being lifted up here, but this might be stretching this passage a little.

Next to be considered blessed are the peacemakers – this can be fairly easily translated to the value ‘a world at peace’. Then we have the pure in heart, not so straightforward. One of the features of Jesus’s teaching was the idea that is not just what we do that matters, but what we think as well (see later on in Matthew chapter 5 talking about murder and adultery). Motivation matters – the inward motivation should match the outward expression, should be ‘pure’ rather than ‘mixed’. I think the value ‘inner harmony’ comes closest to expressing this kind of idea, being at peace with ourselves in that what we do does not come into conflict with what we believe about the world.

Being merciful is considered important next, which looks like a match for ‘forgiving’ in the ‘Benevolence’ sector. Hunger and thirst for righteousness could be two things, depending in how ‘righteousness’ is understood. At face value it looks like a straightforward match for ‘social justice’ – wanting to see the right thing done. But this is a human/social understanding of righteousness. If righteousness is understood to mean being right before God, then it could be a better match for ‘inner harmony’, or ‘a spiritual life’ in ‘Benevolence’. Going back to the things that made the Hebrew prophets hot under the collar (eg social structural inequality), then I think a case can be made that to seek righteousness before God also includes seeking righteousness in society. Therefore, placing importance on having ‘a spiritual life’ and a right relationship with God includes placing importance on ‘social justice’. There is also a sense here of a desire to know what is right, possibly a seeking after ‘wisdom’.

Understanding the value of the meek seems easier to follow as a negative – it is clearly opposite to ‘social power’ and ‘authority’. I did wonder whether the value ‘accepting my portion in life’ was appropriate here, but this doesn’t fit with the second part of the verse; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. While they may not be seeking after power, being meek is not the same as just accepting what comes along, because, in the fullness of time, much more will be due.

It is hard to know why anyone who is mourning should be considered blessed. Even being comforted in the long run doesn’t necessarily make the mourning easier to bear. But perhaps what is being valued here is the capacity to recognise loss. If loss doesn’t make us mourn, then perhaps we are hard-hearted and selfish. And this could be extended beyond personal grief to recognising the loss and pain in a world where there is suffering. Grieving for our world seems like a good quality to me, though I can’t locate it in Schwarz’s circumplex. But if the motivation for exploring these ideas and lifting up intrinsic values is to change human behaviour in order to tackle climate change and global poverty, then a sense grief for what we have lost seems a good place to start.

Finally, the confusing value of the poor in spirit. A more material understanding, as in Luke, suggests this is opposing the value of ‘wealth’. A more spiritual understanding, suggesting that what is needed is a recognition of our own lack of faith and dependence on God is closer to the values ‘humble’ and ‘ a spiritual life’. My preference is to say that we can understand both meanings, especially as I think our spiritual and physical lives can’t be divided up that neatly. How is it realistic to say we are pursuing a life of righteousness when others around us are hungry (James 2:14-17).

I realise there is much more to say about these verses, as I have barely touched on the second half of each “blessing”. But in summary, let’s look at the values which are promoted and the values which are the opposite of what is blessed. It is important to remember that these are universal human values, which we all consider important at different times and in different circumstances. But the things given value by these verses are not compatible with the values in the ‘Power’ segment of the circle – ‘preserving my public image’, ‘social recognition’, ‘social power’, ‘authority’, ‘wealth’. These extrinsic values are least associated with pro-social behaviour.

Most associated with pro-social behaviour are the intrinsic values in the ‘Universalism’ segment. Some of these values are found in the Beatitudes – ‘social justice’ (twice), ‘a world at peace’, ‘inner harmony’ (twice) and ‘wisdom’. There are also values from ‘Benevolence’ – ‘forgiving’ and ‘a spiritual life’ (twice) – and ‘Tradition’ -‘humble’.

Without analysis, I’ve always felt that ‘Benevolence’ values easily fell within Christian values, but that ‘Universalism’ values, while not incompatible, were not obviously Christian. But the Beatitudes fit best within the ‘Universalism’ sector. 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. And I don’t think the Beatitudes are an exhaustive account of Christian values, just a representative one. But most stark of all is the comprehensive rejection in the Beatitudes of the ‘Power’ values. It is in the not seeking after power, wealth and status that Christianity finds itself most counter-cultural. The question is, is that what Christianity really looks like?

Is Climate Change Campaigning the job of a Development Agency?

Bearing Witness

I was in a discussion the other day about whether it was right for Christian Aid to get involved with campaigning about climate change. Between us, there was a consensus that climate change was a serious and significant issue needing to be addressed in the world today. We also recognised that the effects of climate change have a bigger and more devastating impact on people in poor countries than they do in richer countries. The question that divided us was whether Christian Aid should be one of the organisations to take this campaign on.

Christian Aid’s mandate is as a development and relief organisation. It is a mistake to think of it as a benevolent dispenser of charity, giving aid to the poor*. At times, in emergencies, giving stuff is the right thing to do. But most of the time, Christian Aid is involved with long-term development, helping people out of poverty for good. It works in partnerships all round the world, giving people the tools they need (physical and otherwise) to build their own futures.

One of the key roles Christian Aid plays is to empower people. One of the effects of poverty is that it takes away power, so poor people do not have a voice in their societies. They cannot change things if no-one listens. Christian Aid works hard to make sure people in poor communities do have a voice, a voice which they know how to use, so they can get a hearing about the things which affect them most. It seems to me that the issue of climate change cannot be ignored in this case. The lack of action to stop climate change suggests that most people are not listening to people who are suffering its effects. That’s why Christian Aid should speak out about climate change, giving the poor a voice to change things that are devastating their livelihoods and communities.

People and churches in the UK which support Christian Aid are also involved in these partnerships. Realising our mutual dependence on one another, making sure learning is a two-way process is another strength of the work that Christian Aid does. It is not just people in poor countries who find themselves being ignored when it comes to calling for action on climate change. Maybe the stories being told by those most affected will help the voices of those calling for action in the UK.

Christian Aid does not only help people to advocate for themselves in their own communities. It also advocates on their behalf when it comes to challenging global structures that perpetuate poverty. Recent campaigns on tax avoidance are a good example of this. Key to the tax campaign are calls for transparency, to shine a light on corrupt and unjust practices that allow the rich to get richer by finding ways to withhold taxes due to governments, rich and poor alike, though having a greater impact on those with less to start with.

But what does campaigning on climate change involve if not to shine a light on corrupt and unjust practices. Why is it that, despite scientific evidence which shows beyond reasonable doubt, that increases in carbon in the atmosphere are caused by humanity’s actions, many of those in positions of power are able to deny this and still get a hearing?

Once again, we are back to issues of power. Money buys power. The fossil fuel industry is able to pour millions of dollars (or pounds!) into lobbying governments, funding climate change denying “science” and ensuring it is allowed to go about its business unhindered. Even as I type, the EU is debating a deal which will allow multinational corporations to fine national governments if said government brings about legislation which has a negative impact on its profits (known as TTIP). Most of these debates are in secret, unreported and unknown.

To be able to unpack and dismantle the power structures and influences of the fossil fuel and energy industry would bring a transparency and accountability that would transform so many other industries and governments. Imagine a world unbeholden to Russia or the Middle East for oil. To be able to make economic decisions without bowing to pressure from the energy industry. Unfurling the grip that fossil fuel has on governments, politics and economic structures goes far beyond climate change. Think tar sands oil and Arctic drilling. Who would sanction this kind of activity unless they were terrified of losing the good will and economic power of the fossil fuel industry? Think about the destructive power of extractive industries (mining) in Africa – especially Nigeria – and then tell me that campaigning on climate change is not an issue of justice. Christian Aid has to be there.

 

*As an aside, I liked this article exploring the relationships and nature involved in “charity”.

Radical Mutuality

Palace of Westminster

I was surprised and delighted to be invited by Christian Aid to attend their dinner reception for Christian Aid week (at the House of Lords!). And it was a privilege to sit and listen to Dr Rowan William’s lecture after dinner. It was full of wisdom, rather too much to take in from one listen! It has, however, taken me a while to go back to the lecture to read and digest it further. The full text is on the Christian Aid website, and is well worth a read. In the meantime, these are my edited highlights.

In keeping with the Christian Aid Week theme, the title of the lecture was “Tackling Violence, Building Peace”. Bringing together global poverty and global conflict makes for a vast and complex subject. In the face of a title like this, it’s tempting to switch off and feel there’s nothing an individual can do. But Dr Williams addressed the subject in ways that were inspiring and relevant to individuals as well as to organisations.

The basic premise of the lecture was that our security is bound up in the security of those around us. Dr Williams explained that to feel secure, people need to “feel an adequate level of confidence that they are not at the mercy of unknown others or unseen events to the extent that they must give their best energies to self-protection and forestalling every imagined threat”. Where resources are scarce, or people feel it is difficult or impossible to have an impact on their situation, then they may feel they have nothing to lose by resorting to violence. If my neighbour is not secure, then my own security is compromised by the risks they may take in trying to improve their own situation.

All this means there needs to be a relationship of trust, trust between people, and trust in the systems in place to keep people safe. As Dr Williams put it:

“To be secure, I need to know that my neighbour shares with me both problems and solutions and that it is possible for us to identify these together; that there are dependable procedures for managing conflict or rivalry; that justice will be done to those who have violated the safety and well-being of others; that there is redress for injury and unfairness.  If none of these can be taken for granted, I will be more likely to be tempted to pre-emptive attacks on those I see as rivals, unofficial action to punish aggressors and so on; and the spiral of destruction continues to wind itself around our necks.”

None of this, however, is possible without a serious shift in the distribution of power. People feel helpless and hopeless about their circumstances if they do not have the capacity to make a difference because they have no voice or power. As Dr Williams stated, “Inequalities of power, in the form of radically unequal levels of access to decision-making, process of law, education and civic freedoms, are often described as forms of ‘structural’ violence.” To change this will involve “a shift towards a refusal to discuss and decide in the absence of the poor, a refusal to hold on to unexamined habits of patronage, keeping others dependent – ‘knowing better’.”

So while there is much here that concerns governments and other organisations, our security is still built on trust between people, between individuals, families and communities. Dr Williams suggested that the church as the body of Christ should be a model of what this community should look like. He used an amazing phrase which has stuck with me ever since, that the community of the church should be based on “radical mutuality”:

“this community is based on a complete and radical mutuality; there is no one who has nothing to give, no one who has nothing to receive, no one flourishes without all others flourishing, all are damaged when one is, all are equipped by the Spirit to be able to make some transforming gift to the life of the whole.”

I love this! What a description of who we should be! That the church could be a model of this, and radical mutuality be the way the whole of humanity relates to one another.