Posted in politics, Poverty and Justice

Who will save the UK from its government?

“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?

Posted in Croydon, Poverty and Justice, racial justice, refugees

Still seeking. A farewell sermon

‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
   and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
   with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6: 6-8

It’s all quite simple, really. What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? This evening I want to begin by celebrating some of the many encouragements of my time in Croydon – and particularly some of the ways in which I have seen the words of the propet Micah worked out in practice, in our communities.

There are so many that I will inevitably miss some out, so apologies in advance. But to call some to mind, recent and longer ago: it was a privilege to be with many of the community in Sutton as new arrivals from Hong Kong were made welcome; to be at the Mayor of Croydon’s dinner, bringing together people from all the diverse communities of this borough; to be speaking at the Reigate Social Justice Focus, learning together how to protect victiims of trafficking and identify those at risk of county lines involvement; to serve as a vice-president of the Reedham Children’s Trust and of Surrey Community Action, in their different ways resourcing the voluntary sector in helping those most in need; to be invited to the amazing Friday meeting of community, police and borough at Croydon Voluntary Action; and so many more.

From these, and so many others, I’d like to celebrate three qualities which – as it happens – I talked about at my welcome service in 2012. On that occasion I said this – ‘the church can live in hope because, and insofar as it is durable, it is rooted, it is hospitable. If we can be those things, we need have no fear.’ And I would add, ten years on, that these are qualities of healthy community, whether or not God is named as the source.

Healthy communities are places of hospitality. I have heard so many who offer their help to those in need repeating the words of St Francis, whether they knew it or not – it is in giving that we receive. Taking the risk of hospitality, especially to those who are different from us, especially to those who receive little or no welcome in society as a whole, rewards us as individuals, and enriches the communities of which we are part. I’ve been honoured to witness the extraordinary work done by the Croydon Refugee Day Centre and by the Refugee and Migrant Network in Sutton. Equally, to see foodbanks at work in Redhill, in Purley, and across the episcopal area. That is hospitality in action. I’d like to share one example of a time when I received hospitality. After the murder of George Floyd, I went with many other to Croydon Town Hall to mourn, and to state publicly our opposition to racism in all its forms. It was deeply moving, as a while privileged man, to be invited to share in the leadership of that gathering as we knelt together.

Healthy communities are deeply rooted. Some people think this is the opposite of what I’ve just said, that hospitality and openness must diminish identity. I think it’s the opposite: that a really rooted sense of self and community identity is only strengthened by welcoming others, by enabling them to put down roots, to feel at home. I realized quite soon after I arrived that comparatively few people, in their minds, live in Croydon, or Sutton, or Surrey. Yes, that might be on their postal address, but most people attach to something much more local – South Norwood, or Coulsdon, or Cheam, or Horley, or Oxted. And there’s actually no contradiction between caring passionately about the place you identify with, caring about your own culture, faith and background, and caring equally passionately for others.

Healthy communities are strong, and resilient. Communities which are both properly proud of who they are, and generously open to others, are communities which can flourish and grow. Both are needed: a place with no sense of root or identity will probably become a place which no-one claims, a place for which no-one feels responsibility; at best a dormitory for people whose lives are elsewhere, at worst a place from which everyone is trying to escape. A place which does not welcome new people, new ideas, new cultures will become rigid, and brittle – and when the pressure becomes great enough it will splinter into a thousand fragments. It is by welcoming the new into the old that resilience is built, the capacity to look forward, to adapt, to face the future with hope.

I have seen a lot of those qualities – and if only that was how the whole world was, all the time. But there is another reality, too.  When I came to Croydon in 2012, the town was still coming to terms with the damage inflicted during the previous year’s riots. That rift in community was the most extreme, but it is not an isolated event. It is not exactly new news that we live in a time and place in which the bonds of community are continually eroded by many of the ways in which we live. Some of that erosion is through things which are also good – like the freedom many of us have to move to different places, different countries. I’m not sure how we would have kept going without digital meeting – and digital shopping – over the last couple of years. The downside though is that all these conveniences also diminish the long term relationships and the daily local interactions which build community. In many places you don’t really know your neighbours, because your lives and theirs are in completely different networks. That is the way I see the tide flowing everywhere, one of the relatively few things in common between Thornton Heath and Blindley Heath. Community needs continually and consciously to be built up, to counter the erosion that contemporary society is continually inflicting on it.

So to the three qualities I’ve mentioned I’d like to add a fourth, and to leave it with you as my encouragement and challenge for the future. The one feature which I think is common to all the amazing projects and networks I’ve encountered is that they were sustained by people who believed that they could make a difference. I could come in as a bishop and praise, and encourage. Sometimes I could make connections or open doors. Sometimes I could help organisations see a wider vision, look further into the future. But all of that was to help, sustain and resource people who didn’t think of themselves as “powerful” – but who were making amazing things happen. And if that isn’t power I don’t know what is.

So to those of you who know you have power here today – whether it’s in the church, or in statutory or voluntary sector – I want to remind you that power is given to you in order to give it away. The only good use of power is to empower others, in a virtuous circle of giving. It’s certainly not given to enable you to dominate or humiliate; it’s not given to build up your institution against the other lot; it’s not given either in order to do things to others, however well-intentioned. It’s given to be shared, to create the conditions and to encourage the situations in which people can make their own choices in freedom and equity – to enable everyone to own their own power for good.

And to any of you here who believe yourselves to be powerless – know that you are not. In your life, in your community, in your networks, you have power. Communities are built, rebuilt and sustained from the ground up, by people who decide to use the power they have. No amount of well-intentioned top-down activity can make a difference, unless it meets with the desire to build community at the place where community happens – in ordinary lives, in everyday life. To return to Micah’s prophecy – that is what the Lord God requires of us all: in our own lives, and in our communities, to do justice and to love kindness. What it looks like to put that into practice is what I’ve wanted to highlight and celebrate tonight.

People will have will have their chance to speak in a moment. To get my retaliation in first: whatever I have been able to give, I have myself received; whatever you have received from me, I have received so much more from you. I can ask no greater memorial than this: that in your own way, in your own place, you commit yourself to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. That is what the Lord God requires of us all. Let it be so. Amen.

Posted in Poverty and Justice, refugees

World Refugee Day

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2021/jun/14/no-human-survives-alone-misan-harrimans-portraits-for-refugee-week-in-pictures

A great privilege to be included, but the article left out an important part of what I wanted to say – this was my contribution in full:

All human beings are of equal and infinite worth, regardless of their wealth, ethnicity, or anything else that can be used to mark people off one from another. It is that belief which is at the heart of my Christian faith, and which inspires me to recognise the dignity of those who are forced to seek sanctuary far from home. Among refugees I have seen countless examples of extraordinary courage, tenacity, patience and kindness. It is an honour to me to be able to offer what support I can, to walk alongside on part of the long journey towards sanctuary.

Posted in coronavirus, Poverty and Justice, racial justice

A pandemic for the poor?

The BBC has a page with all the info. you probably don’t want to know about the coronavirus vaccination programme in the UK. Until very recently (not sure why they’ve stopped) they included maps of your local authority and its region, helpfully colour coded to show where vaccination rates were lowest and highest. The Guardian has something similar if you want to take a look.

In each case, areas with fewer vaccinations are in a lighter colour. And wherever you look, it’s area of (primarily urban) deprivation which have the lowest vaccination rates. The UK Government makes much of the overall rates of vaccination, which are impressive – 75.8% of adults have received their first dose up to June 4th. But in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets it’s 41%. In Nottingham it’s 43%. In Southampton it’s 51%. And the same story goes across urban areas all over the country.

And what goes for this country goes even more for the world. Across Africa virtually all countries are in single digit percentages, and many are less than 1% vaccinated.

So now we come to the crunch time, the really difficult decision: will the rich and powerful continue to think the coronavirus is really important when it’s no longer an issue for them personally? In the UK, will decisions about further loosening of restrictions be made on the basis of those who will be most affected? Or will they be ignored in the rush back to entertainment? In the world as a whole, will the governments of prosperous and vaccinated countries put real energy into making us all safe? Or will they spend that money on building barriers to keep out the infected hordes?

Up to now, it’s been in the interests of the powerful to protect everyone. Now that that isn’t so much the case, what will we see? It’s clear to me what’s right. In the UK, we should measure our actions by the effect it will have in the least vaccinated places, not the most. Tower Hamlets should be our guide, not East Suffolk. Across the world, we must keep on investing until we are all protected.

Posted in Church of England, coronavirus, Poverty and Justice

Radical Christian Equality

If you’d rather listen than read, you can hear this as  a sermon at buff.ly/2UizTaT (Apple) or buff.ly/2y75QdD  (Spotify) – with thanks to St Mark’s South Norwood.

I was struck this week by St Paul’s comment recorded in the Book of Acts – in passing, stating an obvious, incontrovertible starting point – when addressing the sceptics in Athens about this new religion he was preaching. “From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence”. Paul rightly takes as his starting point the fundamental equality and common identity of all human beings, all created by the one God, all equally God’s offspring, as he  goes on to say. I’ve read that phrase many times without really noticing it, but this week, as the divisions within our society have been cruelly exposed by the different death tolls from COVID19, I had to stop and think again.

Although it may be a self-evident truth – to Paul, and to anyone not infected by that really powerful virus, racial prejudice – it’s also so very obviously not the way the world is. As a white middle class man in a professional role, my chances of dying from COVID19 are much lower than most. COVID19 disproportionately affects the old, the ill, the poor, and members of Black and Minority Ethnic communities. Among the conspiracy theories going around are ideas that all of that is deliberate – that the virus was designed to kill off people in precisely those groups, and especially people of colour. It’s not true; a virus which originally emerged in central China doesn’t know the skin colour of the people it’s infecting – as far as the virus is concerned, all humans are equally good targets.

What the coronavirus shows us – in shocking detail – is the inequality that already exists in our society. The virus isn’t targeted at anyone, but it finds it easiest to attack those whom our society values least – the old and the ill, those whose housing isn’t good, those in low-paid jobs, those who are regarded by society as less significant, less worth looking after, the ones at the back of the queue for PPE regardless of how much risk they may be exposed to. And in most of those groups people of colour are vastly over-represented: doing those jobs without which society would collapse, but which society doesn’t want to pay much to have done, suffering higher levels of poor health, living in substandard housing. Racial prejudice feeds into that spiral of inequality: BAME people are filling many less well-regarded jobs, and those jobs in turn are regarded as less important because of the BAME people doing them.

The coronavirus has shone a light on the structural inequalities in our society, had made us see the realities we mostly know are there, but invest a lot of time and energy in ignoring. We know that there is huge inequality in our country, justified sometimes by the language of austerity, but even better just kept out of sight and therefore out of mind. And now we do have to notice those doing the suddenly dangerous jobs, we applaud: which is good, and appropriate. But there should also be a reward for those who are due applause, an appropriate recognition of the service they have done for us. But that is a problem of course for our society: the debt we owe is not one that can be appropriately recognised merely by doling out applause for all, and medals to a few. The injustice that has been exposed is deeper than that – and far more expensive to put right.

We have discovered that the people whom society has treated as being expendable are really essential. Carers, cleaners, bus drivers, posties, refuse collectors – the list goes on and on – they can’t work from home, and society as a whole depends on them. The question is what we do with that knowledge.

And that’s where I return to Paul. As he introduced his preaching of the gospel to a crowd of Gentiles, he began by establishing the common humanity that he and they shared. Paul’s ministry was founded on breaking down the barriers that the Roman Empire took for granted – in Christ he says there are neither slave nor free, male nor female, Greek or Jew – he systematically disassembles all the ways in which society was kept neatly ordered. Along with ethnic and gender differences, he challenged power differentials by establishing communities of believers in which the rich did not have the authority by virtue of their money. Paul didn’t encourage Christians to rise up and fight the secular authorities – but he did teach a way of living which radically undercut the norms of the Empire.

That is what the Church should have been doing ever since. But instead for too many centuries the Church has found ways to baptise structures of injustice and oppression. The Church of England has the disadvantage of having been around a long time – there’s plenty of history of which our Church needs to repent. This time of coronavirus should help us I think understand what repentance means. It’s not just about feeling sorry – it’s about doing things differently. When confronted again by the inequalities of our society, we must look at ourselves and the ways in which we continue to reflect those inequalities in ourselves – and as Paul taught us, live differently.

The Church will come out of the coronavirus crisis poorer than we were. Will we also come out of it wiser, more aware of our calling? At every level, parish and deanery, diocese and nation (and in every nation), will we do the hard work of returning to that basic assumption that underlay Paul’s preaching and church-building – that all people equally are created, loved and called by God? And in our very different culture and time, will we use the resources we have to demonstrate that repentant return to the roots of our faith? It will be difficult – at a time of constraint, people naturally retreat to what they have known, defend what they have. But the light has shone onto the inequalities we have lived with too happily and too long.

If and insofar as we can change ourselves, we in the Church of England will also have something to say to our nation of which we are the church: and all Christians will equally have something to say to the societies in which they live. A truly radical sense of the equal dignity and worth of each individual is a political statement, because it has implications for the society in which we live. Human beings are indivisible wholes: bodies deserve to be treated with equal dignity just as much as souls do. It should be the desire and task of any society to enable all of its members to live healthy, purposeful lives, and a scandal and a sorrow when it is impossible to achieve that aim (and alongside that, to desire the same for all people worldwide). Through whatever political policies they may believe will achieve it, it is this end that we should ask and challenge our leaders to seek.

Whoever you are, whatever your background, age, ethnicity, wealth, (dis)ability, gender, sexuality – you are included in that universal love of God. You are God’s offspring. In a world and society which acts as if some people were more in God’s image than others, have the confidence to believe that God looks and sees in you God’s own image. And likewise God sees God’s image in everyone you meet, whether you can discern it or not. St Paul went into the marketplace in Athens and told those whom he met that they were made and loved by God. If you know it for yourself, will you also say the same to others? Then the good news of the love of God will truly be a power in our world, nations, our neighbourhoods, our communities.

Posted in Church of England, Croydon, Poverty and Justice

Suffering – the little children

It’s been nearly a year, but this has provoked me to return to the keyboard …

In the last few weeks, OFSTED judged children’s services in the London Borough of Croydon to be inadequate – the lowest rating. Last year, the same thing happened in Wandsworth and the year before in Lambeth – and that’s just in the diocese of Southwark. Across the country, the services that local authorities offer to the most vulnerable children are buckling under the pressure of (rightly) increasing expectations coupled with decreasing resources.

The normal range of reactions have followed. Those who are sufficiently distant look on in alarm and anger; those who are more nearly involved, or who think they might be able to make something of it, begin to look for ways to cast or shed the blame. Among the many failings identified in the OFSTED report are suggestions that some people may have focused more on making the systems look better, rather than responding to the practices which were putting children at risk. When things go wrong it’s a natural though not a noble human reaction to try to cover your own back.

It’s a normal human reaction – and maybe one that we all share, particularly when we look on, and don’t think about how we might also be in some way responsible, or what we might do in response. There is more to it than being involved in the work of children’s services, in Croydon or anywhere else. We are all connected to one another in our society, so it doesn’t feel at all right to be angry at the conduct of others without asking the question ourselves about how we might need to answer for this state of affairs.

When something goes wrong so often, and so drastically, it asks a question of all of us, not just those of us in Croydon (or in Wandsworth, or Lambeth, or …). What is happening in children’s services is an effect of a wider phenomenon for which we are all responsible. As many commentators have said, UK voters demand Scandinavian standard services while only being willing to pay USA level taxes. That contradiction is now paying out in the lives of the poorest and most marginalised. At that national and political level, it is all our responsibility.

But in our local church communities as well, in our schools and chaplaincies, it is our responsibility actively to work for the wellbeing of our communities. It is at the heart of our mission as God’s people. Of the five marks of mission identified by the Anglican Communion, the third is ‘To respond to human need by loving service’; and the fourth
To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation’.

At a time when statutory authorities are struggling more and more, will we just criticise? Or will we take our part in mending a broken world?

Posted in Poverty and Justice, refugees

When they needed a neighbour

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.

 

Posted in Croydon, Poverty and Justice

So why are you doing this, bishop?

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.

Posted in Poverty and Justice, refugees, Roman Catholic Church, spirituality

Year of Mercy – Year of Welcome?

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.

Posted in Asylum, Poverty and Justice

In the Jungle

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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.