Thursday, October 31, 2013

The revolution will be along next year...(apparently)

Danny Dorling is on great form in this week's New Statesman, spelling out the extent of the transfer of wealth from the younger to the older generation in today's world. It makes for sobering reading. One sentence in particular leapt out at me: 'for the first time ever, a grand mother in her eighties can expect to enjoy higher living standards than someone in their twenties who is in work.'

This is not the finding of some far left think tank, but of the government's own social mobility and child poverty commission report published a few weeks ago.

The strange thing, of course, is that lots of older people feel left behind in the struggle to make ends meet and tend to think that the young are powering ahead. Sadly, the two groups (this is a broad generalisation, I know) don't mix, don't share their experiences and thus have little sense of solidarity.

Perhaps if they did, there would be a revolution of the kind Paul Mason talks abut in the same issue of the magazine. He quotes research by IT consultancy Gartner suggesting that 'a larger scale version of an occupy wall street-type movement will begin by the end of 2014, indicating that social unrest will start to foster political debate.'

Can't come soon enough, can it?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Is it possible to make society cool again?

In Tracey Thorn's hugely enjoyable and enlightening autobiography, Bed Sit Disco Queen, she suggests that people formed in the 1970s tend to be collectivist about things because that was the spirit of the decade. I think she probably overstates the case but is undoubtedly right.

For me, becoming a Christian in that decade of a kind shaped by a labour councillor curate and fervent evangelicals, moulded by northern working class evangelicals at university in Manchester and still clinging to the ideals of the counter culture embodied in Chicago's first five albums, CSNY and a host of others, collectivism was a no-brainer. 

Like Thorn I stuck to my guns in the individualist eighties, supporting the miners, opposing privatisation in all its forms, believing that we do some things better as a community and that financial capitalism might just lead us all to hell in a handcart (five years on from the collapse I see no reason to change my view on that one). In short, I believe that there is such a thing as society!

I was reminded of this yesterday when I attended an excellent seminar on the future shape of housing policy organised by the Strategic Society Centre. Four speakers - Ruth Davison from the National Housing Federation, Josh Miller, the senior economist at RICS, Toby Lloyd of Shelter and Matt Griffith of Priced Out - each reflected on the current state of the housing market and suggested ways it might be made to work in the interests of everyone and not just the wealthy few. It was a hugely stimulating two hours.
In the course of conversation afterwards, Ruth drew my attention to the fact research suggests that the younger generations (Y and those rising behind them) tend to be more individualistic and so tend to be less sympathetic to those who need a social safety net. Since these are overwhelmingly the age group that the housing market, left entirely to 'market forces' is failing, this is somewhat ironic. 

I guess part of the reason for this is that the press for thirty years has lauded individualism and trashed people who can't support themselves for whatever reason. The latest manifestation of this is the rhetoric of skivers and strivers that George Osborne used but seems to have dropped; and the more neutral sounding 'hard working families' that all political parties seem to want to speak for. This suggests that anyone in need of support of any kind is feckless.

I wonder how we go about rekindling a sense of collective responsibility among the young? Perhaps we could find ways of showing that being 'society' means that we really are all in this together and that those who need assistance - to pay their bills, find work, get training, find a home - are the shared responsibility of everyone, you and me. Further, perhaps we could rekindle the idea that we each prosper when everyone prospers. 

I think that's the idea behind Jeremiah's instruction to the exiles to seek the welfare of the city where they have been sent because if the city prospers, so will they; but if it doesn't, then neither will they. It's the vision Jesus holds before us, the idea of a kingdom where everyone is welcome, everyone has a role, and everyone shares bounty.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Give us this day our daily bread … How, exactly?

We're part way through a series exploring God's Kingdom under the title a brighter day (taken from a Gungor track), We're using Donald Kraybill's classic book The Upside Kingdom as a our launch pad, so the first three sermons were based on the three temptations of Jesus. So here's my piece from this month's magazine reflecting on the Devil's suggestion that Jesus turn stones to bread.

Nothing reveals the upside-down nature of God’s Kingdom quite as much as Jesus’ response to the devil’s temptations. Satan offered Jesus a range of right-side-up options, straight out of the world’s political and religious lexicon. And Jesus passed on them all. In doing so, he left us a model to follow as we seek to be good citizens of his upside-down kingdom.

Jesus was offered political power, provided that he exercised it in the way every other tin-pot dictator did. He was offered religious power, the chance to run an elaborate temple empire that kept people in thrall to a cycle of guilt and laws. And he was offered the opportunity to be a welfare messiah. Turn stones to bread, said the devil; what could be better than meeting the needs of the world’s poor by working a miracle of provision? Jesus declined then all, opting for a rougher, harder, more costly way that involved subverting the empires of the world from below.

Nowhere is this more needed in the economic realm. I have been and continue to be a big supporter of our foodbank. I think it is a simple, practical way for us to stand with people who are struggling to make ends meet. I am also furious that we have to be involved in it. I do not think that hunger should be a matter for charity.

And this is the heart of this temptation to Jesus that he be a welfare messiah, doling out charity bread to the poor but leaving the system that makes and keeps them poor unchallenged. So, I’ve been reflecting a little on this with the help of a book called The Stop: how the fight for good food transformed a community and inspired a movement by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis. It tells the story of a Canadian project that started as a foodbank but grew like Topsy.

The temptation to turn stones into bread is about the daily provision that we trust God to provide. Jesus told us to pray, ‘give us today our daily bread’. His 40-day fast echoed the 40 years that Israel spent in the wilderness during which time God provided bread every day. Jesus lived in hungry times and the devil’s question suggested he take the struggle out of the provision of bread, so being hailed as messiah.

We too live in hungry times. Some 500,000 people in the UK depend on foodbanks to provide some meals each month; that’s more than the population of the borough of Bromley. This is a political issue and not just an invitation to be charitable to people in need. The society that Jesus lived in was hideously unequal with a few fabulously wealthy people living in the lap of luxury while the overwhelming majority of the population struggled to make ends meet. And the devil wanted it to stay that way, hence suggesting that Jesus conjures bread for the poor but does nothing to change the order of things – rulers remain in place, the rich hang on to bank balances.

Jesus refuses to play this game because he’s listening to God. That’s what his answer means. What does quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 have to do with this temptation? Simply that there are words aplenty in scripture that relate to how society should be ordered so that there are no poor who need us to dump charity on them. Deuteronomy 15:7-11 is a good place to start; the laws on gleaning, the Sabbath laws and the jubilee – all point to a society where people do not become helplessly poor. That’s what Jesus meant by people living by the word of God. He took up these ideas in his teaching on the Kingdom; in Luke 12:12-13, for example. And the early church took what he said seriously as we see in Acts 2:42-48 and 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 (especially verses 13-15 which speak about equality).

This temptation begins to look like something that has implications for us. All too often our stock response to things going wrong in the world is ‘someone should do something’. Jesus’ response suggests that I have it in my power to do something that will make a difference. The citizens of his Kingdom are people who live by different rules.
It’s interesting that when Paul quotes Exodus 16:18 in 2 Corinthians 8, a text that was used to show how God deals equitably with everyone, he applies it to us, saying that we should use our resources (all that God has given us) to bring about equality. It is a deeply worrying suggestion but one that we need to take seriously if we are going to be a people who live by every word that comes from the mouth of God (including this one).

So what does being a citizen of this upside-down kingdom entail? In relation to the inequitable distribution of bread, it means that first, we support our foodbank, giving generously so that those in need can receive the help they desperately need. But we do this, secondly, not as an act of charity but as a pointer to the equality that we want to see in the world around us. So, thirdly, we kick up a stink that so many people depend on handouts of food in our society in 2013. And finally, we begin to dream, like the good folk at the Stop in Canada began to dream: What else could we do? How could we use the resources we have to create more imaginative and long-lasting solutions that enable people to provide for themselves and others rather than depend on charity?

In that way we will show ourselves to be caught up in the upside-kingdom, pointing to God’s brighter day. The great thing about this series so far is that people are having conversations along these lines. Long may it continue ...

Friday, October 11, 2013

Truth, freedom and mission

It was Simon Heffer who started it. In a recent lecture on City ethics he asserted ‘It should once more become unthinkable to tell a lie in business’. Well, duh, when did it become thinkable?
It was Psalm 62 that continued it, the poet bemoaning assault by liars, attack by those speaking untruthfully about him. 

And it was a member of my congregation who sealed it: ‘as a result of your sermon, I went into the office and told people who’d been telling tales and being economical with the truth that it had to stop, we had to honestly sort out our differences and move on.’  

At the heart of this is the fact that all truth is God’s truth (as Christian philosopher, Arthur Holmes once said) and we’re called to be witnesses to the truth, pure and simple. It means honest speech in our hearts and on our lips. But it also means calling untruth what it is, however unpopular. We cannot know the truth unless we recognise its opposites. 

Mission is defending the truth that the stranger should be welcomed, the weak should be supported, the poor should be defended. These no-brainer, biblical statements are not self-evident to so many of our neighbours. 

And witness to the truth must lead to actions. We set up foodbanks to meet an emergency lack of food faced by half a million of our immediate neighbours. But we also ask why a system allows it to happen and what a better one would look like. And then we put our resources to work making that system a little bit more of a reality than it is, creating opportunity for the poor to feed themselves, the workless to find employment, and the struggling to find strength in helping others face their problems. 

If the mind is to be engaged in mission, it must start with our minds. We must be single-eyed in our search for the truth about life, the economy, politics, philosophy, violence, justice and equality. For that will lead us to the one who embodies the truth, namely Jesus.
And as we find it, we need to live it in our churches and draw others into its orbit so that with open eyes they too find the truth sets them free
So like Simon Heffer, we need to be stating the biblically, blindingly obvious because our neighbours need to be set free.

‘Mission of the Mind’ is the theme of Catalyst Live, a day of engaging speakers from the worlds of apologetics, theology, science and culture, organised by BMS World Mission. To book tickets for Manchester (27 November) or Reading (28 November) go to

My fellow bloggers, Simon Woodman, Richard Littledale, David Bunce and Catriona Gordon have also blogged on this theme this week. their contributions are on the Catalyst Live web site (here). Enjoy and join the discussion...

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

A lush autumn treat

I'm listening to the new Prefab Sprout album, Crimson/Red, which joins the short list of blindingly good records released this year. Lush orchestration, Paddy McAloon's voice sounding as rich and velvety as ever, tunes to die for and wry and witty lyrics add up to possibly the best album in the band's impressive cannon.

Apparently, however, there isn't a band involved; it's all McAloon. And there is huge irony when he sings "The old magician takes the stage/ His act has not improved with age/ Observe the shabby hat and gloves/ The tired act that no one loves."Because the old magician has lost none of his ability to thrill.

Waiting for Arcade Fire at the end of the month now; 2013 is shaping up to be a good year for music.