Poverty and Justice


I’m proud today to have had a part in the letter from many leaders of many faiths, encouraging the government to adopt a more generous and inclusive policy towards those who seek asylum in this country. You can find the letter here, and coverage of it here and here – and these are my reflections:

Our government is committed to offering asylum to those who come to this country and who have a genuine claim. It is even more committed to preventing them from doing so. Successive governments have made it more and difficult for anyone to get here in order to make a claim: the ‘wall of Calais’ is just the latest attempt. We levy heavy fines on those who transport people to this country without passports and visas – and those genuinely in need of asylum are exactly the ones who can’t get documents to allow them to travel. We take advantage of the fact that few asylum seekers can get here direct, to insist they should have made their claim somewhere else.

The result? We drive asylum seekers into the hands of people traffickers. Those who only have to spend all their resources are the lucky ones – they didn’t die along the way. We increase the profits from organised crime. I hope that very few people, as individuals, would treat another human being that way. And it’s still wrong when it’s done by the government on our behalf.

There are simple things the government could do which would have a huge impact. To issue humanitarian visas so that people could come here to have their claim assessed, so that refugees don’t have to risk their lives to reach their families. To reduce the many restrictive rules that prevent families from being re-united, by preventing lone refugee children from bringing their parents to the UK, and making it extremely difficult even for adult British citizens to do so.

These changes would be neither expensive nor impossibly complex. In Italy, the government is working in alliance with churches and charities to issue visas in the Middle East and North Africa which allow those seeking asylum to avoid the traffickers. On arrival, the sponsoring churches look after the new arrivals, teaching them the language and helping them become integrated into the community. In this country likewise, there are thousands who have family members still in areas of conflict, there are hundreds of churches, mosques and charities who would be glad to offer sponsorship or support. But the UK government isn’t interested.

These moves should not be controversial. The wonder to me is that we have ever put in place measures which divide families in this way. The leaders of many faiths who have written today to the Prime Minister have done so in the conviction that the proposals we make are in the best interests of our country as well as those we should be reaching out to help. All our faiths compel us to affirm the dignity of all human beings, and to offer help to anyone in need. We rejoice in the mosaic of different faiths and British communities that we now represent. Some of us came to this country from other countries of birth; others, like myself, have been British for many generations. But we all recognize that the best of this country is represented by the generosity, kindness, solidarity and decency that Britain has at many times shown those fleeing persecution, even at times of far greater deprivation and difficulty than the present day. The U.K. should be proud to take its fair share of refugees, as we have done in the past, to exhibit to those in most need the very best of Britain.

 

Last night I presented the findings of Croydon’s Opportunity and Fairness Commission to the Borough’s Cabinet. It has been a privilege to chair the commission. I logoam immensely proud of the work put in by Commissioners, Young Commissioners, the support team from the Campaign Company – and happy that the process seems already to have led to some specific initiatives which will make a difference in Croydon, especially to the poorest. It’s been very nice to be thanked and congratulated. But no-one’s asked me why I’m doing it – why did I say yes to what turned out to be another part-time job for a year, when I am pretty fully occupied anyway.

So I thought I’d ask myself, and share the answer here. It’s all because of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Behind my desire to make things better for people in Croydon; behind the pressing need to bring together parts of a fractured and sometimes mistrustful community; behind the desire to help Croydon tell a story of itself which will make its inhabitants proud to live here. All of those things spring for me from the incarnational mission of God in Christ.

God does not engage in a helicopter rescue for human salvation: he doesn’t lift out the lucky / righteous from the world while leaving the rest to burn: that doesn’t seem to me to be true to the biblical story. God comes among us, lives with us, lives as us, so that the whole world may be saved. God’s ambition is not so small as to want to save just a few: God wants to save the whole world. The whole world, not just the human beings – the whole of creation is in God’s sights for his renewing and saving love.

That is the gospel of incarnation as I understand it, and it is that that makes me passionate about working in the world for the good of the world. Why did I do it? Because I hope that in a small way, with all my imperfections and mistakes, I was joining in with God’s mission of love to the world.

Yesterday, December 8th, was the beginning of the Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis. It was also a day of prayer and vigil for refugees, organised by the Churches’ Refugee Network and generously hosted by St Margaret’s Westminster. The Vigil was entitled 20,000 Welcomes – alluding both to the traditional Irish greeting, and to the 20,000 Syrian refugees that the UK government has decided to allow to resettle here. During the vigil, the following reading was read, and I offered the meditation that follows

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus comes to judge the world, and he doesn’t ask people how religious they were – at least not in the sense of going to church a lot, reading their Bible, even praying. Those whom Jesus praises are those who lived lives given to serving others – particularly those who were despised or ignored by everybody else. They visited prisoners, cared for the sick, looked after the people who were at the bottom of the heap. In fact, they did exactly the sort of things that Jesus did. I can’t imagine that any of them managed to do all that without having lives that were radically dependent on God: but the proof of all that was in lives which were lived in love for the world. They receive their reward through being the sort of people who didn’t look for it. They weren’t aware that they were serving Jesus when they helped people in trouble; they weren’t doing it in order to tot up spiritual points. They just did what needed doing.

These, along with providing burial for the dead, are six of the seven corporal (bodily and physical) acts of mercy, and they all flow from this parable:

To feed the hungry

To give drink to the thirsty

To clothe the naked

To shelter the homeless

To visit the sick

To visit the imprisoned

Today has begun the Roman Catholic Church’s Year of Mercy – a year of receiving, and also giving and living, the boundless mercy of God. As Pope Francis put it in his letter setting out his vision for the year

I have asked the Church in this Jubilee Year to rediscover the richness encompassed by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The experience of mercy, indeed, becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs as Jesus himself taught us. Each time that one of the faithful personally performs one or more of these actions, he or she shall surely obtain the Jubilee Indulgence

Whether or not we are Roman Catholic, the Pope’s call should have resonance for us. We will connect most readily, many of us, with that encouragement to continue in the practice of mercy, and to encourage others to join with us in offering 20,000 welcomes. But we should also hear that other side of the Pope’s call – that we should be ready to receive the mercy of God in our own lives as well.

That action will take different forms for us according to our own traditions and spiritualities. For some the Pope’s call to renew the sacrament of confession will be a gateway to God’s grace and freedom; for others there will be other ways – the grace of God is confined only by our willingness or not to receive it. But receive it we must, if we are to have grace and mercy to share. The commitment to continue in the acts of mercy is demanding and sometimes draining. We have all met, and probably all sometimes been, those people who are still giving when they have nothing left to give – and we know that that is not sustainable, or healthy, or good.

We need to allow ourselves to receive acts of mercy as well as to give them, if we are to live out the spirit of the gospel reading. It is not for nothing that the corporal acts of mercy are linked with the spiritual acts – traditionally they are

To instruct the ignorant.

To counsel the doubtful.

To admonish sinners.

To bear wrongs patiently.

To forgive offences willingly.

To comfort the afflicted.

To pray for the living and the dead

The spiritual and the bodily do not live in separate compartments – they are dimensions of the whole human beings that we all are. In the giving and receiving which is the breathing in and out of the grace of God, may we be open doors of mercy in ourselves – doors that open in gratitude and thankfulness who come bringing gifts to us, and doors that open in hospitality and generosity to those who need our shelter, so that we are indeed able to offer 20,000, 50,000, any number of welcomes.

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A fairly average photo of where people live in the Jungle – which is actually a piece of ex-industrial waste ground off an industrial estate

Last Saturday I was in Calais visiting the Jungle Camp. I’m still not sure what to make of the experience. The conditions were atrocious, especially on a dismal, chilly November day of perpetual rain. If you will forgive the seeming inappropriate analogy, I was reminded of attending music festivals in the 1980s – disgusting toilets, occasional standpipes for cold water, rubbish everywhere. And this is how people are living not for a weekend, but day by day, week by week, month by month. There had been a fire the previous night, and some of the refugees staying there had been burnt out even of what little they had. But no wonder, when there is no alternative but to cook on an open fire inside your tent.

A cooking fire in a tent in the family area of the camp

A cooking fire in a tent in the family area of the camp

And in these atrocious conditions we met some remarkable people. We met Solomon, who led the building and now is the guardian of one of the two churches in the Jungle. Dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, it reflects the Orthodox tradition of Eritrea and Ethiopia, where most of the Christian refugees come from.

Inside St Michael in the Jungle

Inside St Michael in the Jungle

And we were made welcome, given tea and cake and biscuits, and shown around the camp, by a most remarkable Sudanese man who ran one of the little shops and cafes which have emerged to serve the needs of the camp residents. He also kept a store of tents and sleeping bags to give to new arrivals, who might turn up at any time of day or night; in an environment that might drive others to despair, he was a sign of hope.

And that was the strangest thing for me – that I was not driven to despair by visiting the Jungle. I felt I should be – but I wasn’t. In the Jungle I found signs of the antidote and opposite to despair, which is hope. Not foolish optimism – there’s no space for that. The situation of the people in the camp is by objective standards unbearable, and will only get worse as winter comes on. The political situation is stuck, with doors across Europe closing ever more firmly against refugees. But hope is about something else, and in these two characters, one Muslim and one Christian, I saw hope at work.

Christian hope is not unrealistic about the world – in fact, Christians have often got distracted from the hoped for kingdom by concentrating on the travails that come before its arrival. But that’s not meant to be our focus. The end of the world may look like it’s coming, but God’s salvation does not come to an end. Hope is not a fleeting emotion, like happiness after seeing a good film, or contentment after a good meal. As Vaclav Havel said, “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” That is the call of the kingdom, too, to work for something that is good, regardless of the chances of its coming to be.

As Jesus told his disciples, we do not know when the Kingdom of God will arrive, neither the day nor the hour. But as the church year winds down, as we move into the darkest time of the year, we also turn once again to the anticipation of the season of Advent and all it foretells. We turn once again to hope in the Light of the World, the hope of our redemption, and the promise of God’s kingdom.

In case you’re wondering, that’s the difference between the real Living Wage, and the government’s rebranding of the minimum wage as the ‘National Living Wage’. The
genuine article is calculated to provide a basic income which will enable a family to live without needing to get extra jobs – which will enableparents to spend time with their children, and have some of the rest and recreation time we all need. It doesn’t give anyone a luxurious life, but it should enable people to live with dignity.

That’s why I don’t believe wages should be set purely according to what the market will pay. The market will always pay the least it can get away with and still obtain a decent product. That’s what markets do. To treat wages as purely an affair for market forces means thinking of people as no more than the work they do. I can’t think about people like that, and I don’t think any Christian can either.

Markets are powerful and effective at many things, but they should not dictate our beliefs about human beings or our decisions about how we live together in society. This morning’s reading from the prophet Isaiah at morning prayer reminds us what a society is like that forgets its purpose, and what is the remedy:

Cease to do evil, learn to do good;

seek justice, rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

I believe that the Living Wage is one of the ways we can do in contemporary society what Isaiah was telling the people of Judah God wanted of them. As simple as that.

It’s very encouraging to see that a good number of dioceses and other church bodies have taken the step of becoming Living Wage employers, and some big employers have signed up, which is great news for many many people. I’m very glad that the London Borough of Croydon has now become an accredited Living Wage employer. But there are still many many others who haven’t taken that step.

Many parishes and churches are also employers (have a look here for one story), even if only of very few people in many cases. And many may be paying the Living Wage anyway. But it would be a great witness to society at large, and to the many employers who are members of church congregations, if each church which can was to sign up, and display its commitment to a society which exists for a higher purpose than the market: which exists to ensure to all its members the dignity of a decent human life.

It feels odd to be back in Croydon. I’ve just spent a couple of weeks with others from the church in this area, visiting the Anglican churches in Central Zimbabwe. It’s a link we’ve had for a long time, supporting each other in many different ways. While we were there we dedicated a hospital the church is building (at present the whole area has none at all), and attended an anniversary celebration. If any of you find church services a bit long, in Zimbabwe they can be into five hours on special occasions like that.

What’s really amazing to me is what the people in Zimbawe achieve in a country whose economy is at rock bottom. Unemployment is 80% (that is not a misprint). The currency collapsed years ago so everyone uses US dollars, and it seems to me, they have to pay US prices. But they haven’t given up, or just sat there waiting for someone else to sort out their problems. Despite the country being in deep trouble, local people – especially in the churches – are doing extraordinary things for themselves and one another: building their own schools and hospitals, setting up projects to grow food and develop jobs. While I was away Croydon’s Opportunity & Fairness Commission, which I’m chairing, published its interim report. I was sorry not to be in the country for that, but I’ve come back all the more convinced that despite national and other forces we in developed countries have many of the solutions for our local needs in our own hands. If the people of Zimbabwe are able to do so much with so little, why is it we feel so powerless?

I’m beginning to think that one of the most profound difficulties facing us in the developed world is that we’ve developed such a strong sense of our own impotence that we’re scared even to try. And of course there are far more rules and regulations.

I’m not suggesting we all just ignore the rules of our society. I am suggesting that maybe we have, collectively, internalised a sense that someone else will always stop us if we do anything that pushes the boundaries, that’s really new or radical. Maybe we’re living a myth of powerlessness, while all the time having power we just don’t use. I think it could be worth finding out.

An intriguing name for a day lobbying parliament about the dangers of climate change.

For the love of – the world? humanity? God? … well, it depends what you really love, doesn’t it? other options suggested on the website include, chocolate, heron, farming in Ethiopia, coral reefs, cheese and – picture of a young father with a baby  -‘my son’ (and there are lots more).

Human beings, very naturally, tend to love what’s close, what’s immediate. We love (most of us) our families and friends; we love places – if we’re lucky, the places where we live; we sometimes love our jobs. We don’t really love people we’ve never met, or places we’ve never been to. And not all of us connect the future lives of our children or grand-children with the sort of car we drive or how we heat our houses

So how can we love the world of the future, and the people of the future, enough to do something now which is difficult, costly and extremely inconvenient: like stopping burning carbon-based fuels? What can possibly give us the energy to make such a change? At the moment, the answer would appear to be, nothing very much. Politicians reckon, probably rightly, that if they were to implement the sorts of measures which would actually demonstrate that love for the distant future, they would lose their own jobs in the immediate future.

the for the love of … website tries to make the connections for almost anyone to something they really love – something worth doing something about. But it’s really like trying to get water to run uphill. Let me share with you the one response we got on twitter when the Diocese of Southwark shared this photo:

CHsdaHnWEAAEr9_.jpg-large

It went: ‘the good Lord stuck the Sun up there to keep us warm by another 2 degs get over it’. Not so easy for those who will lose their land, or their livelihood, or their life.

What can we do? Well, those of us who preach can preach – unashamedly. We can sign up to the Lambeth Declaration, launched today, and use it to provoke our churches into discussion and action. And we can encourage our MPs that they’re more likely to get our vote, not less, if they support meaningful action, soon.

I’m very much looking forward to reading the authorised version of Pope Francis’ encyclical. (Incidentally, has no one told those Republican Catholics that they’re meant to be obeying the Pope, not the other way round? Yes, even when he talks about things they don’t like.) I hope he brings this whole issue back to love: the love of God. In both directions: the love God shows in creating a world of such beauty and richness; and our love which should be shown in taking up the gift given to Adam and Eve – of being stewards of such a great gift. It’s not a job we’ve done very well up to now, but for the love of God …

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