Christian Aid Week reminds me each year how poor my life is. I am of course phenomenally well of, by global standards. Pretty good for the UK too. But there’s always the danger of impoverishing my own life – not by becoming financially poor, but by turning inwards, remembering only my own needs and concerns or those of my immediate friends and family. I know I live more richly when I am conscious that I’m part of the whole human race, and that the joys and sorrows of the whole world are to some extent mine too.

But it can be too much to bear, especially when the world’s sorrows are so great. Then the temptation to withdraw into my safe, poor little world can feel very strong. For me, it’s only prayer that keeps me strong enough to be connected to all my brothers and sisters who are God’s children like me. In prayer the world’s sorrows become God’s sorrow – and are undergirded by the joy and hope which is at the heart of God.

 So it’s really important that Christian Aid are trying to remind us that Christian Aid Week is about more than envelopes. Prayer and giving go together, intimately. Prayer unlocks the heart – and therefore also the wallet. Try it, if you dare:

You and your church can be part of a ‘prayer moment’ for Christian Aid Week that everyone can see.

We’re asking individuals to stop, reflect and text the word or phrase that’s in their heart to 70788. Your words will then appear on this page – along with hundreds of others as we create a mass prayer moment this Sunday 13 May 2012.

Well, it's what we're good at making.

Socialism-on-Thames

Just watching Evan Davis’s Made in Britain. Davis visits some of Britain’s industrial and manufacturing successes; he tries to correct the self-flagellation we tend to adopt when talking about our economy. And, yes, I can see his point about the way industry moves on, and the way in which the British economy has kept on moving into the high value areas: design and selling both make loads more money than running the factories. And it is nice to see a programme which isn’t completely downbeat about Britain – but … living in Hackney, it’s all too obvious that the successes he pulls out share one key factor – they don’t need so many people. Again and again, manufacturers wander around their factories pointing out that a process which used to need a small army can now be handled by one person.

Here in Hackney, lots of people are making a good living out of the new economy. Lots more are making no living at all. Britain is making more money, but as today’s numbers tell us, right now average take-home pay is on its way down, not up. My last post suggested that a Christian view of economic life, whatever else it might contain, had to start from looking at how well or how badly the poorest in society are treated. Reading today the Richard Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics, I was glad to find I was in reputable company. In the introduction to the second edition he says: ‘If the Bible has an economic preoccupation, it is with the plight of the poorest people’. The globalised economy that Evan Davis describes might not have been a disaster for GB plc, but it has been bad news for many of its now-unnecessary inhabitants.

And I wondered – what next? Right now, service industries do what the factories used to: provide unsatisfying low-paid jobs for a vast number of people. But that won’t last for ever. It was once agriculture, then it was manufacturing, now it’s Starbucks and call centres. If the pattern continues, those jobs too will be replaced – probably not by factories in Shanghai, but through increasing automation. I’m an example myself. I scarcely ever talk to anyone at my bank: I can do it all more easily online.

The what does everyone do? The money will continue to be made, even more of it, but it will flow into even fewer hands. And given the globalised nature of finance and power, it’s unlikely to become easier for governments, even if they want to, to reclaim that income for the poor by taxation. So what next? The other book I’m reading is Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right. Many things I still don’t buy into, but Marx’s vision of human flourishing beyond capitalism is right on the button:

“production” in Marx’s work covers any self-fulfilling activity: playing the flute, savouring a peach, wrangling over Plato, dancing a reel, making a speech, engaging in politics, organising a birthday party for one’s children. It has no muscular, macho implications. When Marx speaks of production as the essence of humanity, he does not mean that the essence of humanity is packing sausages. Labour as we know it is an alienated form of what he calls “praxis”—an ancient Greek word meaning the kind of free, self-realising activity by which we transform the world.

Maybe we will be finally forced to look for something else, which isn’t about the continued increase of wealth – and start to think about what is the point of having it. Maybe we won’t have any choice but to question the ‘latest phase of the Enlightenment meta-narrative of progress’ (Bauckham’s description of globalisation as an ideology). But there are always choices. Dystopia or utopia? I think it’ll be one or the other – the middle way is disappearing ahead of us.

Sin doesn’t pay well, but that doesn’t stop us. Setting aside when it’s just our weakness or badness, I’m also becoming more and more aware of the ways we’re caught up in sinful structures. I was talking today to someone who works in government. By definition, as a civil servant she is dedicated to enabling the lawful government fulfil its programme. You can’t get much more blameless than that. But she was telling me that the work she’s doing feels more and more shabby; as if there was no more pretence at a moral dimension to politics except for the purposes of political rhetoric.

We need prophets – to help us find a new balance, a way of living that isn’t taking the wages of sin. We need a new language – a way of talking about society which isn’t caught in the trap of assuming that markets are automatically good, or at worst neutral. You;d have thought we’d have worked that out after 2008, but I don’t think we have. There is no alternative because we haven’t found another way of thinking about how our society should operate.

We need prophets to point out to us the things we would otherwise miss, the ways in which we are still enmeshed in sin. Of course, you then have to know how to tell the true prophet from the false.  Terry Eagleton suggests (in a book entitled, incidentally, Why Marx was Right):

The true soothsayers of our time are not hairy, howling outcasts luridly foretelling the death of capitalism, but the experts hired by the transnational corporations to peer into the entrails of the system and assure its rulers that their profits are safe for another ten years. The prophet, by contrast, … denounces the greed, corruption and power-mongering of the present, warning us that unless we change our ways we might well have no future at all.

The prophets of our time are many and various – so many voices clamouring for attention. While I’m not completely convinced by Terry Eagleton’s attempt to rehabilitate Marx, I have become increasingly convinced that Christians should be thinking more critically and creatively about the basic ethical principles which should underlie any society of which we’re happy to be part.

It’s time for us to challenge – to challenge what? In the nineteenth century it was pretty obvious who was making the money, and who was suffering. Now it’s much more international, much more difficult to tie down. Look at Greece: the country has borrowed beyond its means, and now the citizens are being told to pay it back: but as they are saying very loudly, the ordinary people of Greece don’t feel as if they were the ones to benefit from the debts run up in their name.

We don’t need to know all the answers in order to speak prophetically; it’s enough to know that a way of running society which makes the poorest into the victims, which glorifies riches and power, which says there is no alternative to pleasing the financial markets even at the cost of abandoning the poorest and most marginalised: that’s not a Christian way of running a country. There is sin, and there is righteousness, in economics and politics as well as everything else. Economics is too complicated, too boring, too difficult for us to pay attention to. Politics is entertaining, and makes sure it stays that way at a certain knockabout level, but rarely does political debate engage with the deep (= complicated = boring) issues facing us.

Will the Big Society provide a framework for thinking differently? I’m sure that it’s not intended to lead to revolutionary ferment, at least in David Cameron’s mind, but it may be possible to use it that way nevertheless.

I’m becoming a bit of a Tony Judt junkie. After The Memory Chalet and Postwar, my eye was inevitably drawn towards Ill fares the Land: and though Postwar was a great book, this is the really timely one. It’s that rare thing, a concentrated outburst of intelligent anger – a true polemic. Judt doesn’t waste emotional energy in trashing his enemies, but rather challenges his friends to get off our collective backsides and do something. No doubt the fact that he was writing after his terminal diagnosis has something to do with it; without ever making the point crassly explicit, he’s saying ‘I won’t be around to do this – but it has to be done’.

It does have to be done – from every direction the call seems to come for a new way of doing politics which creates a new set of possibilities, new disagreements. We’ve had our fling with neo-liberalism, but as yet we don’t know what else to do, how else to look to run our societies. Tony Judt reminds us that the last time people thought the globalisation of trade had carried us beyond nationalism, the First World War was only a few years away. We have real work to do if the latest re-configuration of world power is not to create war – real shooting war – and not just in nasty dusty places a long way away. When people feel threatened, they retreat to where they feel safe, and get violent when that security feels threatened.

The way forward isn’t exactly the way back. The alternative to free market capitalism isn’t state socialism. Remember communitarianism? Tony Blair was pretty keen on it for a while: maybe it was his version of David Cameron’s Big Society – a genuine political idea. Communitarianism soon disappeared under the pressures of day to day politics, and possibly the attractions of the cash cow that the City of London was during the Blair years. Or maybe it was the cynicism that always looks for a base motive in any apparently high ideal – as particularly exhibited by the British press. As with so many things, the media can bring about their own prophecies of doom, gradually wearing down anything which tries to shift the terms of debate away from their preferred territory of deceit and scandal.

We need to change, to find a way of bringing values back into political debate as areas for argument and aspiration. But how do you rebuild trust? Only a common basis of values which it is assumed that all the parties hold, even while disagreeing about much else. Now that would be a really interesting exercise – to get leaders together from all parties and walks of life to try to define genuinely commonly held values. I wonder how many there would be?

The UK government is reforming welfare benefits. If anyone still used metal type, it would be worth keeping that phrase permanently set up. Benefits systems designed for the few – the few who survived to retirement, the few who were unable to work – have become a source of income (not much, of course) for the huge number of us who live longer, and keep on living with our illnesses rather than dying of them.

The question no-one wants to ask is this ‘What is the obligation of society as a whole to the poor and the ill – when there are so many of them?’ Much easier to moan about scroungers, or talk up the possibilities of levering people back into work. Neither of those are unimportant of course – but the way all other things are tackled will depend on the fundamental viewpoint. Are the poor and marginalised ‘us’, or are they ‘them’?

I have a suspicion that the present UK government wants to find out – to make people sign up as one of ‘us’: eager to work (and ready to take anything that’s offered); preferably not a single parent; definitely not fecklessly producing extra children without the means to feed them; not insisting on trying to live in expensive areas of the country (however long their families may have been there). ‘Them’ are of course the opposite: the ones who will have their benefits taken away for refusing work (any work? – will Muslims lose benefit for refusing to work in a pork packing factory?); the ones who won’t (in the words of a previous Tory minister) ‘get on their bikes’ in search of work.

I live among people who live on the edge of, or well into poverty. If only it were as simple as that to work out who are the deserving poor, and who are the others. The complexity of people’s’ lives, and the degree of damage that so many carry with them, make me doubtful whether the government’s moral analysis by way of benefit payments is likely to make much progress.

It seems to me there’s no choice; we have to start from the position that we are all ‘us’. In politics, that means that a genuinely universal benefit system is the only way to benefit all of us universally. Much of the government’s rhetoric is very positive, but I suspect an underlying morality of coercion which can only undermine whatever positive things overlay it, and conceal it from too much public view.

To big up – to exaggerate, to ‘puff’, to praise or recommend something highly. Society is terribly popular; but what makes it big? My suspicion is that one of the reasons David Cameron welcomed the coalition so fulsomely was that it brought into government a group of people – the LibDems – who were far more interested in ‘the big society’ than the majority of his own party. There certainly seems to plenty in the Conservative Party who are only interested in Big Society if it provides useful cover for the Thatcherite (or more precisely ‘neo-liberal’) holy grail of small government.

But I don’t think that’s what it’s about. I’ve just finished reading Phillip Blond’s Red Tory, which includes one of the best denunciations of neo-liberalism I’ve come across. His prescriptions for a new (conservative) order involve a new valuing of local society and its strengths, against either the statism of the left or the marketism of the right.

I think I’m right there with that critique, if not necessarily with Phillip Blond’s remedies. Someone asked me a while ago if I would describe myself as a socialist, and i realised it was a difficult question to answer. I’m certainly not pro-capitalist, and definitely aspire to a society in which people are rewarded less for their place in society or ability to grasp the levers of power, and more for their intrinsic worth as human beings. But I’ve never been that impressed by the socialist tendency to believe that this vision could be realised through state action. Institutions by their nature are not the natural instruments to deliver a just society. I feel much more at home with Blond’s idea of co-operative ventures, small scale mutual enterprises and so on.

The Big Society Network says:

People have interpreted the ideas and vision in different ways, but we see the core of the big society as three principles:

  • Empowering individuals and communities: Decentralising and redistributing power not just from Whitehall to local government, but also directly to communities, neighbourhoods and individuals
  • Encouraging social responsibility: Encouraging organisations and individuals to get involved in social action, whether small neighbourly activities like hosting a Big Lunch to large collective actions like saving the local post office
  • Creating an enabling and accountable state: Transforming government action from top-down micromanagement and one-size-fits-all solutions to a flexible approach defined by transparency, payment by results, and support for social enterprise and cooperatives

What’s not to like? Well, apart from the suspicion that it might be used as a smokescreen for neo-liberalism, the question in my mind, is what about those who aren’t just waiting for the opportunity to be free of governmental interference? What about the genuinely weak? How does the Big Society enable a community into which the poorest have been pushed, out of sight and out of mind? Where there’s no community organiser waiting to get people together?

The questions are not rhetorical. Jon Cruddas MP spoke warmly of the ‘big society’ language at a gathering last week for churches to consider how they might respond. If a distinctly left wing member of the Labour Party is interested, then I am too, and I want to find out the answers to those questions. I know I share Phillip Blond’s dislike of bureaucratic solutions which rarely fit any given individual case; but I also want to know there’s something better on the horizon before I support the dissolution of the bureaucracy.

Another day, another book (I like Bank Holidays). I came across this book through the London event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Faith in the City. What’s really encouraging about it is the way it brings together writers from a variety of different church backgrounds, all eager to get beyond ecclesiastical in-fighting in order to serve people in urban areas. To pick out two, Jon Kuhrt’s two contributions and Mandy Ford’s reflection on ‘bring and share’ and the Eucharist both resonate with my own experience in Hackney. People working in areas of pressing social need are – in my personal experience here in London – more ready than most to look beyond the tribal boundaries and the theological shibboleths.

But that won’t be enough to resource urban mission. The unarticulated challenge of this book is to the rest of the Church. Taking up again the Archbishop’s comments on economic life that I alluded to in my previous post, the resources for urban mission and transformation can only come from the resource-rich areas of the Church. They only will come, though, if people across the whole Church become less suspicious of those who are different from themselves. Theological discrimination is rife within the Church of England, but if it is to be true (as the Bishop of London says among others) that ‘the poor are our teachers’, maybe this is what the rest of the Church has to learn from the churches in inner urban areas.

it would be encouraging if this book were to serve to reduce the mutual back-biting of different factions in the Church, as one of the forces behind its production was a response from evangelical members of General Synod to the 2006 report Faithful Cities. The report was criticised for its perceived failure to address issues of mission and proclamation in inner urban ministry. Crossover City certainly meets that criticism, in my view, but will there now be a more whole-hearted support across the whole church for ministry in areas of deprivation?