Monday, 29 November 2010

Why I signed up to ‘Common Wealth’…

OK. This might sound like a bit of self-justification. In truth, it probably is, partly at least. But as I have very little idea who’s reading this blog (I still haven’t quite got my head around that, but live in hope that conversations might begin here, or even spark real conversations out in the real world beyond…), it’s as much an attempt at a bit of self-understanding.

There have been plenty of public responses by now, to both ‘Big Society’ and to the cuts in welfare and public services. Many of these responses have been by Christians, some from Christian leaders. Some responses have been in the form of media soundbites, others have been much more ‘activist’. Others still have just got on quietly with the practical work of engaging, not so much with government policy, but with its effects on the ground.

I feel very much a ‘newbie’ at all of this. I’ve been doing the grass-roots engagement stuff, for a good 14 years now in one form or another, and been doing ‘on the hoof’ theology to try and make sense of the grass-roots realities as we’ve gone along. But actively responding to national politics feels fairly new territory for me – New Labour’s war-mongering being a notable exception. Signing up to ‘Common Wealth’ was partly, then, a ‘me too’ – a grabbing onto the coat-tails of others who I sensed were ‘thinking ahead of me’, to see where that journey would take us.

But more than that.

1. My sense of British politics, at least since New Labour, is that rhetoric – and rhetoric ‘spun out’ through the media – is at least as significant, on the lives and outlooks of ordinary people, as actual policy. To state the obvious: how we think and talk about life, and politics, and each other, profoundly shapes how we act and relate, and ‘sound-bite politics’ trickles down in powerful ways into everyday conversations. So when ‘new’ rhetoric comes along (and Big Society and all the talk around the cuts are two, inevitably intertwined, examples of ‘new’ rhetoric, I think) it’s helpful, vital, even, to interrogate it and de-construct it. CW does that – with the rhetoric of ‘sacrifice’ among other things.

2. CW also begins to imagine alternative possibilities – it offers the beginning of a theological imagining of a different way of doing ‘economy’. Imagining differently is the first step towards doing things differently. Can we imagine ways of ‘opting out’ of the economy, to produce all our fruit and veg through local co-operatives, for example? We should heed Jim Wallis’ warning that ‘alternative lifestyles’ can too easily function merely as ‘pressure valves’ to enable the system – it’s when ‘alternatives’ become ‘movements’ that they start to make a difference. But CW is an invitation to build a movement – just as Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne and others continue to do in the States. There is much more re-imagining and movement-building to do – but CW offers a place to start.

3. Closely connected, I think, CW puts down a marker in the mapping out of new political terrain. It helps ‘stretch out’ that terrain, by voicing a position that has not, as yet, seen much expression. It gives us more space in which to locate our own ‘position’. And for people like me, a morally-compromised mix of idealism and pragmatism, CW stretches out a space that helps me make decisions on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think the Con-Dem government are wholly ‘bad’ (as if New Labour were somehow wholly ‘good’!), and my natural inclination is to trust that the Big Society ideas originated in a mix of Machiavellian and much more worthy motives. There are sweeping areas of government policy that I need to say ‘No’ to – but other elements that I want to affirm, in however qualified a way. So I sign the ‘Common Wealth’ statement, I write an application for NESTA funding for local community organising – one of the ‘Big Society’ ‘big ideas’ – and I trust that such community organising, as it gets off the ground, will be clear-sighted about the political targets it needs to keep in its sights. Hypocritical? Maybe. I feel the inevitability of living with a complex conscience.

4. Lastly though, something more about guts than head. The need to lament, to cry and shout ‘No’, as something prior – chronologically, emotionally, theologically, politically – to any kind of constructive engagement. I cannot rush headlong into embracing the positives of ‘Big Society’ without first lamenting the effects – and many of the justifications – of the cuts. In these next few Advent weeks, Christians will be thinking a lot about hope – but Christian hope only makes sense not simply as a brightly-lit vision of ‘everything bigger and better’, but as a light shining in the darkness, when we have first stared the darkness hard in the face. Or, as Walter Brueggemann puts it rather better than I “loss grieved permits newness. And by contrast, loss denied creates social dysfunction and eventually produces violence… Without the hard, painful, preparatory work of loss and grief... the offer of hope is too easy and too much without context to have transformative power, much like having a Sunday victory without the loss of Friday.”

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Are we “all in this together”?

“We’re all in this together”. To hear those words from both David Cameron (as he heralded the ‘age of austerity’) and Jim Wallis (in Birmingham yesterday – more of him in a day or two) suggests that those same words can mean very different things…

For Cameron, it would be convenient if we all believed that the decisions he and his government have made recently are the only possible decisions, tough but, well, ‘tough’ – but that we, if we were in his position, would do likewise. But “we’re all in this together”, he tells us – we share the responsibility for these decisions. To use an old-fashioned phrase, we share the burden of guilt for them.

But as our school children get out onto the streets in protest, words from the Iraq war echo around again: “Not in my name”. This is not just adolescent shirking of responsibility – it is saying that there are other possible choices than these, and we will not be co-opted into the rhetoric of inevitability that the cuts must be this big, and this soon, and fall on these areas.

Because here’s the second use of that phrase that needs challenging: we are not, it seems, “all in it together” in shouldering the burden the cuts. The ‘age of austerity’ seems to mean destitution for the already-poor, and a minor inconvenience for the rich. Not only do the percentages of income reduction seem to be weighted against the poor, but the poorest are also the biggest victims of cuts to public services. Let’s be clear: the much vaunted rhetoric of ‘fairness’ is not remotely the same as the over-arching Christian priority of care for the most vulnerable – let alone the Magnificat vision of ‘turning the world upside-down’ so that the poor are exalted and the rich sent away empty. “We’re all in this together” is simply not true, when spoken by millionaires whose belts barely need tightening.

But there are other senses of the phrase that need to be spoken. One is to consciously undercut any self-righteousness we might be feeling as I write, and as you read, those last few paragraphs. There is no morally pure ground to stand on in this conversation, or argument, or battle. I write this as someone whose job and house are as secure as any in the current climate. I am, therefore, one of ‘the rich’. I am also inextricably tied up in the unjust system that I claim to want to resist. I put my money in high street banks, I spend my money with global corporations, I’ve bought a house as an investment in the hope that house prices will rise in the next few years… Christians use another old-fashioned word for the realisation that “we’re all in this together” and moral purity is unattainable – we call it ‘sin’. Whatever judgments we make about this current crisis of economic and social values, we do it from a position that is enmeshed in the sinfulness of it all, and there is a painstaking unpicking of our own mixed motives and dubious commitments that is just as necessary – if not more so – than shouting at George Osborne.

There is yet one more thing to be said. Jim Wallis, an American Christian with a passion for justice and the ear of the last few US Presidents, reminded those who heard him on Thursday that many of our political leaders have simply not met many poor people, let alone understand how they live, what the struggles feel like, what a difference a cut in benefit, or in local services makes, what the negative, stigmatizing rhetoric feels like when ‘people like you’ are the target. “We’re all in this together” is a call to solidarity. To looking people in the eye, valuing them as fellow human beings, listening to their concerns, and finding bold, humble, and compassionate ways to offer shoulders to share their burdens when it gets tough.

It is easy, and rhetorically necessary, for those in government and their supporters to demonise those in our society who are growing increasingly angry and fearful at the ‘age of austerity’, re-defining them as beyond the boundaries of ‘decent’ and ‘civilised’ citizenship. But it is too convenient to exclude them from the “we” and write off their claims to dissent and critique. If “we” haven’t yet summoned up the guts to get out there and voice our own protests at some of the decisions and rhetoric of our current government – then let us at least start ‘gossiping’ our solidarity with them. As reports filter through of the police in Westminster ‘kettling’ 16-year-olds for hours in the November cold, let’s dare to say, with conviction: “we’re all in this together…”

Monday, 8 November 2010

Do the poor have a right to live in expensive areas?

Yes. That’s the catchy headline of a discussion piece on the BBC News website ( that caught my eye yesterday. “The row over housing benefit has led to warnings of ‘social cleansing’,” it begins. “But can those on low incomes really have an entitlement to stay in expensive localities?”

Enter Shaun Bailey – a youth worker (curiously), and the unsuccessful Conservative parliamentary candidate for Hammersmith: "You can talk about your right to live in the community where you grew up, but where do you get the right to spend other people's money? I'd love to live in Buckingham Palace but I can't afford it," he adds. "The flipside of having a right to stay somewhere is that people aren't prepared to move around. The middle class have always been prepared to go all over the country to find work."

And then there’s Lynsey Hanley, author of ‘Estates: An Intimate History’, which ain’t half bad as books go, chronicling, as the article puts it, “the ghettoisation, social breakdown and increased pressure on services that resulted from moving the working class to peripheral housing schemes… Gentrification,” she argues, “has caused many low-income households to suffer pricing them out of communities that they once called their own.”

But look closely at her contra-argument to Bailey’s… “[Hanley] argues the poor have every right to live in wealthy areas - because the wealthy rely on them more than they admit: ‘We need these people to do many of the minimum-wage jobs on which we depend - cleaning, catering, retail and so on… If you take away housing benefit and shift them out, this country's high transport costs mean they'll have no incentive to come into our cities to work. What I'd say to David Cameron is: come back to me when the minimum wage is £12 an hour.’"

My first reaction was to cheer Hanley’s last sentence. And then the cheer got stuck in my throat. It was the “we need these people” that did it. But let’s first wind back a bit, to the premise of the article in Bailey’s comments…

1. ‘Rights’ and the housing market

‘Do the poor have a right to live in expensive areas?’ the article asks. But why should ‘place’, let alone ‘home’, be defined first and foremost by the capricious and pernicious whims of the housing market? Why should the fact that ‘the market’ has sent house prices through the roof in a particular area mean that people who have called that place ‘home’ no longer have a right to do so?

When Article 17 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property”, did it imagine an exception clause to allow for ‘the housing market’? Or perhaps those who rent have no such rights?

2. Mobility vs. Stability

For Bailey, though, there is also a societal duty to remember: we should “[be] prepared to go all over the country to find work”, apparently. And work that can pay for, not the house you might want to call ‘home’, but simply the house you can afford, presumably (I don’t think the circular logic’s mine, here).

But more than that, it seems that being prepared to move to ‘find work’ (read: being a productive cog in the economic machine) trumps any value there might be in “staying somewhere” – like, rootedness in identity, stability in relationships, trust between neighbours, any kind of depth to a sense of community, commitment to a particular piece of earth, for example. All things that should be in the bloodstream of Christians, for whom the Benedictine vow of ‘stability’ – the commitment to finding God among these unlikely people in this unpromising place – sums up much of the incarnational gospel.

3. “We need these people”

But lastly, back to Lynsey Hanley’s throat-sticking phrase. “We” – the middle-classes, obviously. “These people” – that section of society whose purpose in life, apparently, is to do the minimum-wage jobs on which “we” depend. So we need them living close by, says Hanley, or they won’t bother coming to sell us sandwiches and suits and clean our offices.

I’m not going to labour (sic) here over the whole system of assumptions that assigns ridiculously different ‘wage values’ to different forms of work, although that surely needs questioning more than ever, in the world of sky-high salaries for footballers and (even failed) bankers.

What I want to pull apart here is the assumption that some people (“these people”) should be defined – in both their ‘purpose’ and their capacity to call some place ‘home’ – solely in terms of the ‘needs’ of some other people (Hanley’s “we”) – while the latter group apparently get away with defining their own ‘purpose’ and place called ‘home’.

I want to say to Lynsey Hanley: “these people” are not means to my middle-class ends, they are my next-door neighbours, they are my co-workers in our neighbourhood, they are among my friends. “Their” purpose, just as mine, is to grow into our identities as beloved children of God, who has chosen to move into our neighbourhood and call it ‘home’. And our homes (the places where we learn to ‘dwell in love’) and our neighbourhoods (our schools for loving others) must always trump the so-called ‘needs’ and whims of ‘the market’.

So I’ll concede this to Hanley: “we” middle-class professionals might “need these people” – but not as a definition of their identity, but of ours – “we” need “them”, because they are the neighbours that we need to learn to love. While they remain strangers, and not friends, we are failing to love. And while they remain at a distance, rather than next-door or around the corner, our opportunities to learn to love them are pretty slim.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (recently author of The Wisdom of Stability, among other things) suggests that Hanley’s “we”, the world’s rich, should get serious about “loving our enemies”, the poor. It’s shocking, at first listen. But let’s get real about this. What do you call people you do your best to avoid and distance yourself from? What do you call people you don’t look on as equals? What do you call people you implicitly blame for any misfortunes you perceive yourself to suffer? What do you call people you talk about ‘getting tough on’, or ‘cracking down on’? What do you call people you see as competition for scarce resources that you would rather have to yourself?

“Love your neighbour” is in danger of fitting in all-too-cosily with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ rhetoric – at least while the middle-classes sit comfortably with a narrow view of their neighbours as the nice family who live in the equally-nice house next-door.

“Love your enemy” is much more dangerous. It dares to highlight the relationships we would rather ignore, or define in distanced, economic terms – rather than in real, mutually vulnerable, face-to-face encounter. The relationships where power is seriously unequal, where mutual suspicion reigns. ‘Love’ here becomes anything but cosy and comfortable. It cries out for a courage that overcomes distance, a humility that re-balances power, a vulnerability that seeks to nurture reconciliation and mutual trust.

The good news of the gospel is that it is just possible for enemies to become friends. The one who made his home among the poorest invites us all into a kingdom – a common wealth – where, beyond anxiety, we discover there is more than enough for all, and where we can delight in making our homes together, enjoying the company of a glorious array of strange and wonderful, God-created neighbours. The invitation is also a challenge to us all: if we dare, we can choose to move in right now.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

‘Big Society’ and theology – a reflection from All Saints Day

Luke Bretherton in his article in the Guardian (‘Big society and the church’, helpfully identifies two competing anthropologies (understandings of what it means to be a human being) going on in government rhetoric: what he calls the ‘Big Citizen’ – a continuation of Thatcherite modernity’s individualist, choice-focused worldview – and the ‘Big Society’ understanding of the person enmeshed in social relationships and commitments (‘whether in families, unions, or congregations’) as ‘the condition of individual flourishing’.

But from a Christian theologically standpoint, and perhaps Bretherton felt he couldn’t say it in the Guardian, there is a third, and quite distinctively Christian, anthropology, that understands the person as most fundamentally ‘en Christo’ – receiving their identity ‘in Christ’, bound up in, as Rowan Williams puts it, ‘solidarities they do not choose’: in loving responsibility to all their neighbours (even enemies, and especially the poor and excluded) ‘in Christ’, but also detached from their worldly allegiances and demands to the extent that those relationships, institutions, allegiances and demands are not Christ-shaped (or ‘kingdom-shaped’, we might also say). This is one of the insights the church rediscovers and celebrates on All Saints Day, among other times.

Jesus’ talk about ‘family’ is a prime example of this, as in the gospel words with which we in Hodge Hill finished our All Saints celebration on Monday night: ‘Jesus asked, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."’ (Matthew 12:48-50) Interestingly, I imagine our Muslim sisters and brothers might say something very similar.

The challenge for the Church is to embody and demonstrate this Christological anthropology – to form authentically ‘ecclesial persons’, to resist within its own life the temptation to underwrite either of Bretherton’s two alternatives, and to live out this ‘Christian difference’ in their worldly, political lives.