Sunday, 9 March 2014

No Society, Big Society or Fairer Society

In 1942 when the world was tearing itself apart during the worst conflict in history a report was published. This was the report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services. Chaired by William Beveridge it went down in history carrying his name. The Beveridge Report became the foundation stone of the welfare state. It identified five social evils – Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Disease and Idleness. I think we need to update their meaning! Poor Housing, Poor Education, Material Poverty, Poor Health and Unemployment. These issues became the responsibility of the nation. All of us were, collectively, responsible for caring for the poor, the sick and the elderly. The greatest legacy was the NHS.

By the time I arrived on the scene in the mid 50s the welfare state was taken as read. When I was sick I was taken to the local doctors. I might have to wait a couple of hours but I would see the doctor that day. I was educated at a state primary school and a grammar school. I studied Law at University with the benefit of a student grant and left without owing anyone a penny for the privilege. When I became a Solicitor I could advise and assist anyone who came to see me regardless of their wealth because of the Legal Aid Scheme.

How different things are today. Benefits are cut and cut and cut. Claimants are labelled ‘scroungers’ by politicians and the media. Students graduate with eye-watering levels of debt and little prospect of work. The NHS seems to lurch from crisis to crisis. Legal Aid has been wiped out for some areas of work. In others the rates payable to lawyers are so low that no young lawyer could afford to make that career choice.

In the meantime the Beveridge ‘evils’ have not gone away. In fact we can add racism, sexism and homophobia to the mix, plus a bit of xenophobia!

So what are Christians to do? Some say nothing. There are those who argue that politics is not our job. We are called to win converts; to get people into heaven at some point in a vague future. When I was young we sang a chorus – ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through, my home is way out there, somewhere beyond the blue.’ So for them it is some thing for another day in another place. I recently gave a talk on this topic and was heckled with this very argument.

But we cannot simply ignore the poor. In fact there is an overwhelming mandate. Jesus’ first public utterance was –

‘The Sprit of the sovereign Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,’ (Luke 4 v18)

Remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 – ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 

I remember in the 1980s hearing the American writer and activist Jim Wallis. He said that he and some friends had once torn from their bibles all pages referring to the poor. By the time they finished there was hardly anything left. Jesus himself said that we should pray – ‘Your will be done on earth….’
This is not a responsibility that we can put off to another day. People are starving to death now –

We are seeing a staggering growth in the demand for food banks. According to the Prime Minister we should be meeting this need as ‘enthusiastic volunteers’

According to Steve Chalke of Oasis Trust, this is exactly what we should be doing. Speaking at the Greenbelt Festival in 2013 he said that we were now in a Post-Welfare State. That the responsibility for the poor had shifted from the state to the church. Indeed, he said, the church always did have this task but it was taken away by the welfare state. So he is actively involved in education, housing and also health initiatives. In fact, he was saying these things to the Guardian back in 2007 –

But, for me, this creates a dilemma. Why should it be the duty of the church to do the state’s job? So if, for example, I establish a free legal advice service staffed by volunteers aren't I doing the government’s job for them? Aren't I inviting them to say – ‘job well done, let’s go and spend a few more billion on nuclear missiles?’

So shouldn't the church be spending its time lobbying for change – something which our bishops recently did with great impact? But in the meantime the need is not going away. So maybe we should accept that the welfare state is indeed a thing of the past and just do what we can.

But I’m afraid that is not a viable option. For one thing, the most willing volunteers in the world can only do so much. They lack the resources, both material and structural to do all that is needed. And there is also a risk, increasingly demonstrated by the big-tent fund raising events like Children in Need that people believe that their job is done once they make a phone call whilst being entertained.

I am coming increasingly to the view that we have no choice but to embrace two options Big Society and Fairer Society. We cannot allow other Mark Woods to starve while we argue that policies should change. We should do all that we can and, to that extent, Steve Chalke is right. Someone has to do it and we cannot do nothing.

It is one thing to work alongside those in need. But there is a second issue which is to confront the unjust structures in our society. So we should also tirelessly campaign for change. Indeed it is those who put themselves on the front line that earn the right to be heard. One criticism of Christian intervention is that it is none of our business. But those who are managing and working in food banks have the authority to speak from that position.

I do not think that we are in a post welfare state - yet. No Political Party would promise the abolition of the NHS, although they can wear it down bit by bit. But I do believe that there has been a shift away from confronting the appropriately named ‘evils’ in society and that there is a duty on Christians work to avoid this.

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