Posted in politics, power

What are governments for?

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.

Posted in Books, Poverty and Justice

What would you give in exchange for your soul?

The most depressing thing about Michael Sandel’s book, What money can’t Buy is that the list is so short. You name it, there’s a market for it. What’s even more depressing – there are respectable and authoritative figures ready to argue that the market is the right and proper place for discerning the value of unborn children, or for trading on the probability of a terrorist attack.

The connection that Sandel made for me, more clearly than I’d seen it before, is the one between the economically orthodox view of human beings, and the ethical degradation it drags in its wake. Through many examples, he shows how a view of human beings as ‘rational actors always looking to maximise their utility’ (sorry, I didn’t come up with the definition) carries with is an unacknowledged ethic of individualist satisfaction at the expense of any public good or commonly held ethical standards.

I heard about this book through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s article about it in Prospect: he sums up the ethical problem thus:

A world in which every object is instantly capable of being rendered in terms of what it can be exchanged for is one in which there is nothing worth looking at for itself, a world systematically ‘de-realised’.

How do we make the world real again: how to extract the market from those parts of our society into which it has wormed its way? Maybe the other book the Archbishop was reviewing will help with some answers. But I am also reminded of a meeting a few days ago in my area, at which we were discussing educational achievement for excluded young people. When we began to discuss the importance of a wider and deeper sense of purpose in life, as a crucial factor in young people’s lives, there was no dissent – I’m sure a few years ago it would have been written off. Maybe a tide is turning? In which case, will the churches be brave enough to articulate what Christian faith has to offer, not as a private lifestyle option but as a gift to the whole of society?

Posted in Church of England

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble?

This has been a terrifying week for many of us, and for many others even more directly caught up in the violence that has emerged onto our streets. It serves as a reminder – one that we could all do without – that our civilisation is not as rock steady as we might like it to be. We have been aware (some of us more intimately than others) of the turmoil that has rocked the financial world over the last few years. More of us are aware of the cuts being made to public services – either through seeing our own jobs disappear, or the services we’ve become used to being cut back. But all of us walk these streets; this is our space. Stoke Newington itself has been spared – perhaps particularly because of the vibrant community spirit of the Turkish shopkeepers and their baseball bats, perhaps because of the police station. But that is small consolation to us, and none to the neighbouring communities who have seen disorder out of control on their doorsteps.

Is God really our refuge and strength? It’s when there is real danger that we find ourselves tested as to whether we really believe those words. It’s easy to believe all sorts of great things about God if actually the police will do the job anyway. But when it’s not so clear that anyone else can keep us safe – what do we believe about God then? What might the psalmist have believed, whoever it was that wrote those words?

The psalms contain within them the hugest variation of experiences of God and responses to God. One of the most extreme s Psalm 89, the first half of which is a song of praise to God for establishing David’s kingly line for ever and ever with an iron cast guarantee. The second half begins ’But now you have rejected and spurned him; you are full of wrath against your anointed – and continues in that vein – one of the biggest turnarounds you can imagine. An expression of absolute faith by the psalmist can’t necessarily be taken at full value as a statement of historical fact. There are all sorts of things that happen, some of which encourage faith and some which seem to deny it – the psalmist has the lot.

But even with that warning, this psalm, Psalm 46, does express a deep faith that God will look after the chosen people – that he will take away all the world’s violence – as the BCP Psalter puts it, ‘He maketh wars to cease in all the world; he breaketh the bow, and knappeth the spear in sunder’.  Now we know what that doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean what it says. God did not then, and has not since, intervened to prevent wars from happening. The people of Israel fought plenty of wars and went into exile when they finally lost one too many.

It’s only in the light of Jesus that we can make sense of either the Bible, or our own experience. Jesus transforms what it means to overcome violence, what it means to bring peace. He overcomes not through more and better violence but by ending the cycle, by changing the game. That’s why a Christian attitude towards the events of the last week must stand against the insanity of mob violence – and the calculated, orchestrated violence of looters. But we must also point to the fact that the re-assertion of state power – which is a better sort of violence, violence controlled by law – isn’t the same as restoring peace. Peace is what we hope for which lies beyond the realm of all violence: it’s the life of the kingdom of heaven which the resurrection reveals to us. Our attitude to what has happened shouldn’t be shaped by our instant and emotional responses, natural as they are. The Spirit in us enables us to see all violence in the light of this hope and conviction – that violence itself will end

So as Christian people we don’t just take sides. We know that we still need state-sanctioned and controlled violence – that’s why police forces should still be called that. They are society’s recognition that the use of force is necessary to preserve society in being. But we are also aware that violence begets violence – it was police violence – possibly completely justified, we can’t judge that now – which lit the fuse. Let me be clear: the police are in no way responsible for the explosion that followed; it’s part of the dynamic of violence itself.

So even while looking to see order restored, we’re looking beyond that for something even better. Because of that greater promise which goes beyond this world we’re able to engage with this one. God is our refuge and strength – a refuge which is in the promised future of the resurrection. In that strength, we are able to be God’s hands and heart in our situation.

One of the articles commenting on the events of the last week reflected on the Turkish shopkeepers taking action – and quoted an ironic tweet, ‘”Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, defending our boroughs & communities.” – while the article’s writer admitted she was sitting at home trying to distinguish the sound of helicopters on the TV from the ones overhead, dealing with riots just around the corner.

I’m very glad there were people who were brave enough; our calling is to be just as brave, to get out there and to be part of our wider community, to defend, nurture and build it, and not only at times of crisis. A time of crisis is a time of judgement – that’s what the Greek word means. Times of crisis demonstrate whether we have the faith that makes us strong enough to strengthen others, to help rebuild shattered lives. One of the saddest things I saw on the TV was the shopkeeper who refused help from people clearing up – they might just steal more. Rebuilding faith, hope and love is our job now.

Posted in politics

‘The wages of sin is death’ – finding a life-work balance

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.

Posted in Books, politics

Ill fares the Land, indeed

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?

Posted in politics

On the value of useless protest

It was a long, noisy, good-natured parade of protest that wound its way through London yesterday. The unions had handed out sort of vuvuzelas (remember the football World Cup?). The noise was pretty awful, but much better than the Socialist Workers trying to rally the crowd with the same slogan they’ve been using for the whole of my life (What do we want? A general strike! etc.). And there were a lot of people. I got to Trafalgar Square at about noon, and the head of the parade arrived soon afterwards. We finally joined in about 12:45, and there was no sign of it abating. When we finally got to Hyde Park (about 1:30 or so), apparently there were still thousands of people back on the Embankment who hadn’t even started to move. As many of the speakers pointed out, the Big Society was here in force: a huge number of people saying ‘no’ to the present government’s decimation of public services.

A note on decimation: it was originally the Roman punishment for a unit which failed in battle: 10% of the troops were selected for execution. Compare: “the 25 most disadvantaged councils according to the 2007 Index of Multiple Deprivation will see their budgets reduced by an average of 9.4 per cent in 2011/12”, while “the 25 least disadvantaged councils will have their budgets reduced by an average of 4.6 per cent”.

No, our march won’t stop the government from doing what they’ve planned. In a precise functional sense it was useless. But still more useless not to make your protest. We were marching for an alternative which won’t immediately happen, in political terms, but which needs to be made visible against the language of ‘there is no alternative’. Margaret Thatcher used to say that, I recall. She was wrong then, and David Cameron is wrong now. There are always alternatives, and the art of politics is in choosing them. Each has its dangers as well as its opportunities.

The decision to cut now, and cut deeply, was a choice not an inevitability. And 250,000 people were there to say it was a bad choice. UK government policy is demonstrating in practice exactly the same ideological commitment to the ‘small state’ that neo-liberals have held since the 1970s. Oh, was it those neo-liberals who also thought the market should be free to play with numbers however it felt fit? My goodness, so it was – and those numbers turned out to be minuses on all our bank accounts.

So if the ‘march for the alternative’ reminds us all for a little while that things could be different, maybe it prepares the ground for things to actually become different. That’s what I’m hoping.

Posted in Church of England, politics

Nearer my Neighbour to thee

I went to a briefing the other day for the Near Neighbours programme: that very rare bird, a funding programme being introduced, not cut. The details are interesting, especially for those of us in the areas covered – but the other thing that really stood out for me was that this shows in practice what the government’s ‘Big Society’ idea is meant to look like.

The programme uses a local network of providers (in this case Church of England parishes) and is designed to facilitate fairly low-key locally based projects which aim to

  1. develop positive relationships in multi-faith areas i.e. to help people from different faiths get to know and understand each other better.
  2. encourage people of different faiths, or no faith, to come together for initiatives that improve their local neighbourhood.

One of the things I’ve been wondering about is what the ‘Big Society’ agenda would look like if you were able to abstract it from the current (excessive, draconian) cuts in public expenditure. Near Neighbours I think is one answer, and quite an encouraging one. Compared to my experience of other, much much bigger, government funded projects, it seems genuinely to have got away from the dead hand of bureaucracy.

My previous experience was that governmental bodies wanted the third sector to be involved, but only on the condition that we started behaving like governmental bodies, with all the risk-aversion, caution and form-filling that involved. So the very qualities the government wanted from us – mobility, flexibility, responsiveness to local conditions – were the ones we were no longer allowed to show.

If this is different, it’s a very good thing. If it sets the tone for a different way of engaging with third sector partners, it’s a very good thing indeed. There’s no reason why a similar principle might not be used by a rather less parsimonious government on a much wider scale and for a much wider range of purposes. But of course there’s a risk: the less control you exercise, the less you can ensure that everything goes according to plan. Actually, I didn’t feel that really was the main concern; the key issue was to make sure nothing got in the papers. If the price to pay was a mediocre project with most of the money going on administration, monitoring and consultancy costs – well, so be it. Are the government really going to take that risk with anything more than small change? Maybe not – but even governmental small change makes quite a difference on the ground.