“The Chancellor announced the biggest package of tax cuts in 50 years without even a semblance of an effort to make the public finance numbers add up.” (IFS)
“The tax cuts confirmed in the fiscal statement are strongly focused on higher-income households … Next year they will see someone earning £200,000 gain £5,220 a year, rising to £55,220 for a £1 million earner. Those on £20,000 will gain just £157.” (Resolution Foundation)
“I joined Treasury in 1979 and have never seen a fiscal stimulus this large. With Bank of England raising interest rates, economy is being driven with brake and accelerator hard down. Not ideal.” (Lord Gus O’Donnell, Twitter)
Thanks to the votes of Tory MPs, and then the 160,000 or so members of the Conservative Party, we now have a government who want to be the UK version of the Republican Party in the USA. Cut taxes for the rich; cut benefits for the poor; tear up regulations which stop companies doing whatever they want – and all will be well in the best of all possible worlds. Even most Conservatives don’t believe that.
There is a useful set of ‘translations’ of common English phrases, for the benefit of those who might make the mistake of believing that people in the UK actually mean what they’re saying. One of the phrases is “that is a very brave proposal” – which as all British people know, actually means “you are insane”. I have heard more than one commentator and economist describe last week’s ‘non-Budget’ in pretty much those terms.
One must suppose that the government sincerely believe that giving money to the rich will make society as a whole richer. But the evidence is against them; one of the things rich people are very good at indeed, is keeping hold of their money. Once upon a time, when you generated new money by investing in factories and businesses, there might have been some justification for the belief they still hold. But we’re not in the nineteenth century any more, nor even the twentieth. Money seems to be quite good at procreating without needing any other partner. You don’t have to be an expert in economics to wonder how on earth this gamble will pay off.
I do consider myself a bit of an expert on ethics, and from my perspective the government’s proposals are clearly unjust, whatever their strictly economic merits might be. The poor who are already suffering the most will suffer even more. Restricting gas bills to double what they were is only helpful if it makes them affordable. For most people who are struggling, being unable to pay the bills feels just the same regardless of how much it is you can’t pay. Yes more threats to remove benefits from people who aren’t working enough, regardless of their family or personal circumstances, are just cruel.
And have a look at the graph in this article – follow the red line. No-one much has mentioned the freezing of tax allowances for four years. But as this graph shows, over time that more than wipes out the tax cuts – except for those earning over £155,000. Is that you? No, nor me. So, except for the really rich, this right-wing, small government, low tax government is putting up taxes on most of us. Do I remember someone talking about ‘stealth taxes’, once upon a time?
I’ve been trying to avoid the contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party as much as I can. But even on a remote island it creeps through. So as a second line of defence against the posturing and point scoring, I’ve tried asking a different question, which I think underlies quite a lot of what I haven’t been able to avoid seeing and hearing. From a Christian point of view, what are governments for? Why do we have them at all?
Despite having been in government for twelve years, quite a few of the candidates are trying to present themselves as new – promising a different government, a fresh start. It’s quite a stretch after all this time, though it did seem to work for the present Prime Minister in 2019. I doubt if (consciously at least) the candidates are adopting that approach because they think the last twelve years have been a failure. What they are doing is recognising the deep-seated, and I think entirely reasonable, distrust in which all governments should be held by those whom they notionally serve.
This is of course a thoroughly biblical position – or at least, so I would like to argue. When the people of Israel demand a king, the prophet Samuel lists the consequences, each sentence beginning “he will take … your sons, your daughters, your fields, your produce, your resources …”, and ending “and you will be his slaves” (1 Samuel 8). But the people don’t listen: they want to be like the other nations. They want a king: what we might now think of as a government. But national government as a concept doesn’t seem to be getting much divine approval.
In contrast, some might point to the various injunctions to pray for and respect “authorities” in the New Testament. Paul in Romans 13 says “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” but I don’t think that disproves the point. If Paul was talking about the Roman empire, the stories of his experiences recorded in the book of Acts directly contradict his statement that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad”. Given the context of the passage in that part of the letter to the Romans, it’s far more likely that he’s trying to work through the contested relationship of Christian believers to the synagogue authorities – with an added working out in practice of Jesus’ command to pray for those who persecute you.
There’s far, far more to say, but for now I’m inviting you to go along with the idea that a certain suspicion of the notion of government might be a reasonable position to start from. The biblical deal was that God should occupy the space other peoples gave to their king. Any human government then is usurping what should properly be God’s space.
So what are governments for, then? Despite their origin in human disobedience, God’s response to the people’s demand for a king in 1 Samuel is that he gives them one (Saul), and then another (David). Within the context of the world as it is, governments of some sort seem inevitable. But how can they be better than ‘take,take,take’?
The story would suggest that if you’re going to have a government, it should be as small as possible, as lightweight as it can be, interfering as little as possible with people’s lives. If governments are in principle an improper usurpation of God’s desired relationship with God’s people, then at least they should occupy as little of the space as possible. But – and it is a huge but – that doesn’t necessarily mean what the modern day proponents of “small government” have in mind.
To caricature, arguments for small government tend to argue that government’s role is to keep the playing field fair and open so that people can get on with their lives. And as virtually all of them come from the political right, that tends to be interpreted in a particular way. Defence of the nation, defence of property rights, underwriting of contractual and legal obligations: those are the sort of things that governments have to do. You could argue that (in its 21st century version) that’s the sort of thing that the people of Israel were asking for – “we are determined to have a king … [to] go out before us and fight our battles”.
I would argue though that we’re still stuck here, still part of the unhealthy dynamic which led to the appointment of a king. The fighting of battles is the price the king pays for being able to take, take, take from the people. It’s a theory of governance rooted in a Hobbesian vision of a world in which all are at war with all. The reality of that world is tempered by a government which itself is tempted to use its power not to keep the peace but to dominate others. No-one can be trusted.
There is a better biblical vision of society than this, a vision of mutuality which recognises human weakness but isn’t imprisoned by fear of the other. It’s there in the laws for the ordering of society set out earlier in the Old Testament. The cycle of taking that Samuel promises will be the fruits of kingship are replacing a deeper pattern which is based on a cycle of giving, especially to the poorest and most marginalised. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not gather to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien” (Leviticus 23:22) – in a rural economy, this is a form of redistributive taxation, without the intervention of a state mechanism. The rules of jubilee (whether or not they were ever observed) set out a vision for maintaining mutuality within society, and a fundamental equality between all its members.
And this I think opens up a possible answer to the question. What are governments for? In a fallen and unjust world, of which they appear to be an inevitable consequence, governments are there to try to remedy the injustices that made them necessary. The ideal government would be one that worked itself out of existence. And yes, governments should be setting themselves to keep the playing field fair and open so that people can get on with their lives. But the vision of society we see in Leviticus requires a lot more than today’s ‘small government’ enthusiasts would want.
Government needs to be only as big as is needed in order to provide conditions of equity for all, and especially to ensure that those on the margins of society are not left at the mercy of the powerful. But in a global society in which the powerful are multi-national and massively rich, embodied in mega corporations and personally adept at hiding their wealth from any attempt to tax it – to stand up for the poor means being pretty big. For a government in the 21st century to espouse biblical principles of community life demands that it is involved in education, in health care, in protection of those who lack the necessities of life; and also that it is strong enough to demand of the rich that they make a proportionate contribution to the good of the whole.
There remains though always Samuel’s warning. Governments are always tempted to see themselves as entitled to take. Their only ethical purpose is to give.
Today – you may not know this – is the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, and the beginning of the season in the church when we are asked to give special attention to the Creation of which we are part, and which we have as a species failed so spectacularly to look after. It is perhaps symptomatic of our continuing ignorance that I didn’t know until I started to write this post that the World Day of Prayer for Creation even existed, let alone when it was. Like so many other worthy things that people ask the church to remember, the idea that there was a season of creation around now was there in the back of my mind, but never centre stage.
This year, that needs to end. Caring for our common home has to move to the front of our list of concerns, because if it doesn’t we may not have one. We are now at crisis point: in the very literal sense of the word crisis. Krisis in New Testament Greek does not mean ‘impending disaster’ – it means ‘judgement’. We are now at the time of judgement in relation to our planet and its future. The time for lengthy discussion and moderate action was a generation ago, and collectively we did nothing – or so very little that it has left us still looking at disastrous changes to our planet. The need for action is as urgent and as great as it was when the coronavirus epidemic began to spread. Over the last few years the strategy originally developed by tobacco companies has been used very effectively: the 3 D’s of deny, delay and deflect. Climate change is now becoming undeniable, but the dragging of corporate and government feet, and the reluctance of us as citizens and consumers to actually change our lives, continues to delay real change. And if all else fails there’s always the final tactic, of trying to get us to think about something more palatable or entertaining.
For the churches and for us as Christians, this is not some side issue: this is about God’s judgement on us as disciples. The excuses are gone, the argument is over: if we are to take seriously the mandate of creation, to be stewards of God’s creation, we have to act, and we have to act now. It will be costly, and complicated, and messy – but we have no alternative. The church’s purpose in existence is to live out and call others into the life of conversion: to join in with God’s purposes of love for the world. At this present time, that joining in with the mission of God calls us to be converted from our destruction of creation in order to restore and care for it.
It may feel to you – it certainly feels to me – as if this is yet another emergency when we’ve had quite enough. Sadly emergencies don’t form an orderly queue or wait until you’re feeling strong enough to deal with them. By definition, they have to be responded to right now. But for us as Christians there is always also hope, and even joy, to be had when we are doing the thing which is God’s will for us. Caring for creation is also caring for ourselves: we are a part of that whole ecology of which we are stewards. In focusing again on this calling, we are also focusing on our own wellbeing. One of the paradoxes of the ongoing process of conversion is that when we allow God’s Spirit to be at work in us, painful as it may be, the new life that opens up for us is more joyful, more fulfilling, and most of the time just happier than the life we were living. Even neuroscientists are catching up with the fact that acting with kindness makes people feel better – well, who knew? Caring for our world is not a chore or a penance, but an invitation to joy, an invitation to be part of the original purpose of our creation. Remember, the command to be stewards of creation came before Adam and Eve ate the unfortunate apple. It was what they were to do in Eden, in the world as God wanted it to be. It’s rooted in our humanity, deeper than our DNA.
Caring for creation is mission; it is witness to the difference that Christian faith makes; it is conversion to the way of Jesus Christ. As we begin, however slowly and tentatively, and still carrying levels of exhaustion, to emerge from the pandemic, now is the moment to think about how the church will look in the years to come. The strapline for the Church of England’s national initiative is that we should be ‘simpler, humbler and bolder’. I think those are the right words – as long as they are held in combination, each qualifying the others. And a key part of being bolder, I believe, will be having the courage to recognise where we must speak and act. The Church of England has an honourable history of not wanting to exclude any who disagree, the downside of which can be a paralysing inability to take a position on anything except the most anodyne of issues. We need to move that balance, and recognise that in some things moderation is not a virtue – in fact it is a sin.
The future of the church, if it is to have one, is in the renewal of parishes as communities of action, as the conscience of their locality, as leaders in witnessing for a changed society. I have focused here on climate change: if only that were the only issue that requires our attention. Don’t let it be thought that I’m ignoring the needs of the world’s poor, of refugees and asylum seekers like those we have seen desperate to escape from the Taliban in Afghanistan, or victims of racial or other discrimination. And I am only too aware that coronavirus hasn’t gone away, and that there is much pastoral care to give as we continue to deal with that threat. It is only by God’s strength that we can be sufficient to these things.
The situation we face around us must drive us to prayer. One of the most appropriate prayers for our present time comes from that ancient observance of Rogationtide – days of prayer for the fruitfulness of the earth and human labour.
God our Father, you never cease the work you have begun and prosper with your blessing all human labour: make us wise and faithful stewards of your gifts that we may serve the common good, maintain the fabric of our world and seek that justice where all may share the good things you pour upon us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Today’s gospel reading had a paragraph which you probably ignored unless you had to read it aloud. It’s the one when Luke lists all the rulers at the time when Jesus began his ministry: Tiberius the emperor, Pilate the governor and then the rulers of the neighbouring territories, and the religious leaders, working down the ladder of importance and influence.
Right here, right now in the UK there’s plenty to worry about in the politics of our country, with political leaders themselves completely uncertain what will happen next, and, many of them, playing games of party political power while the future of this country is in the balance. The simmering division between those who want to get out of the EU, and those who want to stay, could easily come to the surface again. There are no safe bets.
And then there’s the next sentence of the gospel – ‘the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness’. God is very obviously not communicating through the great and powerful, even the religiously influential. Instead his word comes to an unknown son of a minor priest, already in the wilderness, away from all the centres of learning and prayer and power. Something very different is going on. The world of time and politics is being invaded by God’s time, God’s politics.
So where are we going to live, in God’s time or the world’s time? Human time is the time of kings and rulers, the time that rolls on and on, the time of history. It’s the day to day passing of life which can keep us so busy with everyday necessities that we never ask what they are necessary for. It’s the world of politics and right now of anxiety, uncertainty, fear and anger.
Against the time of history, the ever-flowing stream, John the Baptist comes like a rock thrown into the water and damming its flow. God’s time is always now, it is about the decision we make now as to how we are to live. John invites us to step out of the flow of earthly time and power into the kingdom of heaven.
Living in that kingdom sets us free from being prisoners to the anxiety and fear pervading our political life. Whatever we might desire ourselves in this world is secondary, for as Christians we have another country, a different and deeper allegiance. As citizens of that country, we can come back into the everyday world as messengers of a deeper hope and a more profound security. Over this next couple of days, and in whatever happens after, our society may need a lot of that.
I was talking recently with some Norwegian friends – fluent in English, of course, but not native speakers. So when I said ‘that would be interesting’ I was asked ‘So, which of the seventeen meanings of ‘interesting’ would that be?’ A good question in that context, and for today. ‘Interesting times’ are times of uncertainty, maybe of danger; times of change, maybe of chaos; times of new possibilities, but also unexpected fears. We are in the UK now living in interesting times.
My father was a meteorologist, which explains perhaps why I am even more interested in the weather than the average Brit (I wonder, how long will that term have its present meaning?). The weather is inherently unpredictable, but there are times when it is more difficult even than usual. The Met Office run their simulations of what might happen, and sometimes a whole range of radically different outcomes are equally possible. That’s what it feels like now to me. No-one can predict what’s going to happen – we just don’t know.
So how do we live in these ‘interesting’ times? We start from a difficult place, in a nation deeply divided after an aggressive referendum campaign marked by negativity on each side. Counting up the votes in the boroughs and districts which (more or less) reflect my own episcopal area, there were 206664 for remain, and 203611 for leave – that’s a remain majority of 50.3%. Round here we are as finely balanced as anywhere in the country.
Living with uncertainty is never easy. All the more difficult when half of us are confronted with a future we voted against, and many of those who voted to leave seem to be in a state of shock at their victory. It’s a time when Paul’s words are particularly relevant, and a little frightening. As I write, it seems as if both our main political parties are descending into the sort of civil war that Paul warns against in Galatians. The break up of the UK is again on the cards, and no-one knows what the future holds for the political settlement in Northern Ireland. There are widespread reports of racist abuse of those who look ‘foreign’. A hospital chaplain reports that staff in his hospital, from many countries in the EU and beyond, are feeling as if all their work and dedication had been rejected.
Paul’s answer is that we should instead love our neighbours as ourselves. That may be almost equally difficult for everyone. Those who voted to remain in the EU are asked to love those who voted to leave, despite everything – and vice versa. Not to agree, but to love. It’s only by doing that that we can demonstrate that we are still neighbours.
The sort of love which holds a community together is not romantic. It’s the practical act of recognising that we are responsible for one another’s well being, that my good is bound up with what is good for you. It’s part of the trust which enables us think of other people as sharing the same sorts of values as us, even if they express them differently. Both of those sorts of communal love are under threat. The referendum debate has led many people to suspect that half of their neighbours don’t share the same basic values that they have. It has left many wondering whether they have any place at all.
Neighbourliness needs rebuilding right now, from the ground up. Those who feel that they have been rejected need to know that they are still part of our community. Those who voted to leave and those who voted to remain need to reassure each other that they are still neighbours. The future is unclear, and looks likely to be a bumpy ride. The opportunities for division, recrimination and resentment are many. But we must heed Paul’s warning. Love is not an optional extra.
I should start with a disclaimer – this is personal, not the view of the Diocese of Southwark, still less the Church of England.
As the debate has unfolded, I have become more and more convinced that it is in our best interests to stay in the European Union. Behind the headlines, there are even more important questions here, which aren’t being addresses as far as I can see – what does it take to make a healthy community? how do human beings learn to live together in harmony? I spend my life helping build healthy communities, and dealing with situations when things go wrong in them, so I hope I have something to offer here.
If you’re going to have peace, you have to have relationship. Distance creates suspicion and distrust. Human beings have a natural tendency to assume the best of themselves and the worst of others – it’s one of those human traits Christians call ‘sin’. The best way to overcome it is to get to know ‘the others’ – so that they are no longer an anonymous and threatening enemy, but a group made up of individuals really quite like us. And this is important: peace between nations is not inevitable. Right up to 1914 there were people saying that war in Europe was unthinkable, inconceivable. I’d rather have us round the table arguing about farm subsidies than sitting sullenly apart and getting ever more anxious about what ‘they’ are plotting. Let’s stay together and continue to build a peaceful Europe.
I have also seen that communities that turn in on themselves do not thrive. It can feel so much safer and more secure to lock the doors and “keep out the foreigners”. But in the long term (even in the medium term) it doesn’t work. The flow of new ideas, new energy, new ambition that outsiders bring increases the liveliness and energy of society as a whole. Yes, it means that there is more competition, but we shouldn’t be afraid of that. We have the talent and the ability to rise to the challenge and thrive.
And finally, a community that is strong knows it has something to offer beyond its borders. The UK is a growing and prosperous country – except, often, in our own eyes. We have a huge amount to offer to the rest of the European Union. We do not have to regard ourselves as passive victims of “EU directives” – we have the capacity to make a real difference, to change things for the better. We should be talking about leading the EU, not leaving it.
The voting season is upon us – for those of us in London, voting for a Mayor and Assembly, thought that election is struggling to get much air time compared with UK referendum on membership of the EU. And for most people who intend to vote I suspect they’re still in the box marked ‘oh I must get round to thinking about that’. And for everyone else? ‘Please let it all be over’, perhaps?
Confession time: I think I’ve voted in every election I’ve ever been eligible for (and no, I’m not going to tell you who for). It was one of those things I absorbed when I was a child: voting wasn’t an option, it was an obligation. It was quite a surprise to me when I first met people who couldn’t see why they should vote.
Like most of us, most of my life I’ve lived in places where the result was pretty obvious before anyone even cast a vote. So I wasn’t voting because I thought my ‘X’ on the ballot paper would really make a difference to the result. It was more because I wanted my voice to be heard, even if it was in adding to the majority of someone who was going to elected comfortably – or alternatively, registering the existence of a minority who were never likely to win.
I suppose part of it is that I do believe elections make a difference. Please don’t say to me ‘oh, they’re all the same’ unless you want an argument. Different political parties stand for different things and what they stand for makes a real difference to ordinary peoples’ lives. Even if my vote ‘doesn’t make a difference’, I still want to express my support for the party which is closest to what I personally believe (no, I’m still not telling).
I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone how they should vote. But I will encourage you to use yours, to make your voice heard, even a little bit, in whatever elections may be coming up where you live. Who serves you in elected office does make a difference – and every vote does count for something.
It was a privilege to be there on Saturday – to be with several hundred others who were, or had been, or simply cared about the situation of asylum seekers in this country. Since I became involved with supporting and speaking for asylum seekers and refugees – and especially since taking on the chair of the Churches’ Refugee Network – I’ve got used to being made angry and depressed by the political struggle in this country by all the main parties to outflank each other in the hostility they show to those coming to the UK for help. Yes, there was still quite a bit of that. But there was also the inspiration of being together with many others who equally share a better vision of what the UK can be and can do – and a few who had come all the way from the Republic of Ireland as well. And maybe even more, there was the inspiration of those who had survived the system and come out the other side as resolute campaigners for the justice they did not experience.
I’m very glad to be a signatory to the declaration that came out of the day – you can see it here. Do go and see – and think about whether any of the group’s you are part of might sign it too. Not just campaign groups: I hope all sorts of organisations and groups could sign this. The five principles are these:
1. All asylum seekers, refugees and migrants should be treated with dignity and respect.
2. A fair and effective process to decide whether people need protection should be in place.
3. No one should be locked up indefinitely.
4. No one should be left sick or destitute in our society.
5. We should welcome the stranger and help them to integrate.
And in case you’re wondering, no – none of these are presently or fully in place for asylum seekers and refugees in this country. I think we can do better than this, because I believe as a country we are better than this. We need to let our politicians know that that’s what we want.
“We are united against Isis, against terrorism, against atrocity, against pain and suffering”. A great sentiment, but even more so when I put the missing word back in: “We are Muslims united against Isis …” That is a quote from the message produced by Muslim leaders in Britain of different groups, Sunni and Shia together. It was produced primarily for the Muslim community, and a few weeks ago now, but I think it’s just as important for all of us, now.
People of no faith may be tempted to blame religion for the violence presently being unleashed across Syria and Iraq by the so-called Islamic State. Christians, Hindus and others might even be tempted to think that Islam is an especially violent religion. Neither of those assertions holds water: there’s plenty of evidence of warfare among followers of all religions, and the 20th Century’s greatest murderers were the atheists Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot.
Violence isn’t about religion, whether it’s your own or anyone else’s. It’s something all human beings are capable of – every one of us. But we are also all capable of being peacemakers. At the heart of the world’s great religions is that desire for peace, a desire shared by many of no faith at all. The message from Britain’s Muslim leaders reminds us that we can’t blame some other group, religious or not.
There’s not a lot most of us can do about the conflict in the Middle East, except prayer (for those of us who pray). But we can all be peacemakers in our own lives, families and communities. It’s important that the word is peacemakers. It’s not just about living a quiet life; peacemaking is an active thing. It means reaching out to those we might otherwise not meet, understanding their lives and allowing them to understand ours, and finding the common ground of our shared humanity. Leaders of the different faith communities here in Croydon have recently started meeting together in order to get to know each other and to understand the lives of the different faith communities we represent. But when it comes to making peace, we can all be leaders.
And we can at least do one thing on the wider stage: the blogger known as Archbishop Cranmer has begun to gather support for the following statement:
Two answers come to mind, after this afternoon: ‘when you call it an Immigration Removal Centre instead ‘ or perhaps more importantly ‘when people are deprived of their freedom who haven’t committed a crime’. Today I’ve visited Brook House, an IRC built on the same pattern as a Category B prison. For all that the management are trying to make it feel a bit more relaxed, there’s only so much you can do with a building which has classic H block prison wings. The fact that the residents are locked into their rooms (cells) for twelve hours each night is a bit of a clue too. As one of the current detainees explained to me, passionately, one of the big differences between an IRC and a prison is this – in prison you know when you’re going to be released. Detention is indefinite, and sometimes very long – years, maybe. And, strangely, we’re all very happy about it – we meaning the freedom-loving British public. To repeat, these are not people who are being held for committing a crime. The way we treat the people who end up in IRCs is really only explicable (I think) as an example of scapegoating, in the way it’s explained by Rene Girard – a society unconsciously loads its own tensions onto a specific group, whose expulsion would restore peace and order. But because a rational analysis would soon demonstrate that this wasn’t actually true, the scapegoating has to remain unconscious. Its presence is revealed by the increasingly bizarre and unrealistic justifications which are urged for persecuting the selected group, which depart further and further from reality. Recognise that, anyone? Today I’ve been the guest of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. I was also privileged to meet several people still going through the asylum system, and to see the dignity with which they deal with the humiliations our system loads on them. The GDWG provide support, and give hope to many people who otherwise would have no-one to befriend them. I am hugely impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the people I met. The staff and volunteers of GDWG demonstrate that scapegoating is not inevitable. Girard argues that Jesus’ resurrection ends that cycle; whether or not they think of themselves in that way, I saw today, among the despair of Brook House, also the resurrection hope of a new way of living.