Thursday, February 20, 2014

Listening to the unheard in the 'welfare' debate

The voices that often get drowned out in the debate about the morality of welfare - currently running in the lively exchanges between the Government and various church leaders - are the voices of the poor, those reduced to 'welfare' such as it is.

Well, this morning I heard that voice loud and clear in a scene that played out over breakfast in our night shelter. One guy, who lacks the deposit to get back to the west country where he has a shout at a property where he could live with his partner and children, looked at another, about to go to a drug and alcohol service to see if he can get a referral to residential rehab and said 'you can't go like that.'

He proceeded to produce from his bag a set of hair clippers and having secured my permission to do so, gave his new-found friend a number 2 and a shave, leaving him looking, from the neck up, like any other man in his miod-40s wondering the streets of Bromley this morning.

Having completed his task, our barber turned to the room and said 'that's better; we can't have our mate looking like a down and out.'

This almost silent action spoke more about the morality of the 'welfare' debate than the column inches and indignant responses that have filled the airwaves of late. Here was the articulation of simple humanity, the fact that everyone has a dignity from being made in God's image, and that dignity will force its way to the surface even when a system tries to rub it out.

The indignity of the current 'welfare' system is seen in grindingly slow actions by statutory authorities that leaves people trapped in a money-less and home-less limbo where the will to make a life for oneself is slowly sapped and sucked dry. Reforms driven by any recognisable morality would have at their heart the intention of restoring people's dignity by giving them choice, time and the means to help themselves out of the situation in which they find themselves.

I think it's for this reason that we used to call this system 'social security' because it was premised on a morality that suggested everyone in our society had a right to a minimum level of security and that we who are stronger, richer, more together will assist those who are weaker, poorer, struggling, because we know that there might be a season when we are in their place and need similar support.

It seems to me that this is a system based on a morality of mutualism and human dignity that I find at the heart of the Bible that I read.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Putting rage to good use

Someone unexpected pointed out to me this lunchtime that I hadn't blogged for a month! I made some lame excuse about being busy and having jotted down many blog ideas but not had time to work them up into a blog. I know that misses the point of blogs which are meant to be slightly under-formed musings on life, but hey-ho! Anyway, it spurred me to action, or at least thought...

My silence has been because life in our winter shelter has been more demanding this year than last. I have been serving breakfast most mornings and as a result of that picking up a range of issues to follow-up. And the busy-ness of the shelter has left me fuming about a system that consigns poor, often very vulnerable people to an existence that is precarious at best without a second thought.

And it's not that the people running various  parts of that system aren't hard-working, caring, diligent people who want to provide the best service they can to the people in their care. It's because the system often won't let them.

Things came into focus last Friday when a group of our guests were sitting with a manager from the housing department talking through their options. They were getting very frustrated because their options were very few. Suddenly one of them said that he was going to get petition up on the Downing street website to force a debate on homelessness in the house (touching how people continue to hold faith with our legislative machinery!). And everyone in the room said they'd sign it - the baptist minister, the housing department manager, all the other guests - much to his surprise. I said that I'd get the church to sign and my colleague from housing said he'd encourage his colleagues in the department to sign as well.

Our guest was a bit deflated. I think at that moment he realised that he wasn't fighting our local housing department, that maybe they were doing the best job they can under the circumstances. His battle was with something unseen and amorphous, a set of rules that conspired to keep him in housing limbo. And he boiled with an impotent rage. I must say that as I walked home to reflect on scripture ahead of Sunday's sermon, I too boiled with anger.

I was incandescent at a system that allowed a chronic shortage of housing to keep people homeless. Now, this might be a market failure or a lack of concern and commitment on the part of government; it's probably both. But at root, this is a failure of society to ensure that everyone is properly looked after, our failure to press for, support and pay for a system that ensures everyone gets decent accommodation.

And the system generates rage of another kind too, an unpleasant anger at those who are seen to be ahead of our guests in the queue to be provided for. As one of guests - a young father, separated from his partner, who wants access to his kids but is only eligible for a single room in a shared house, which prevents him from having his children staying with him - exploded 'you have to have tits or be foreign to get a place' (after which he stormed out of the room and disappeared).

Such thinking (I use the word loosely), fed by ludicrous stories in the tabloids, pit one section of the poor against another, so that those with power and wealth do not have to do anything to change the system that keeps the poor in their place and the wealth flowing upwards to those who already have it.

When I got home I read 1 Corinthians 4:8-17 with a view to preparing an erudite thought or two on the contrast between the wisdom of the world and God's wisdom embodied in the crucified Jesus. What I read was Paul telling his wayward hearers that he's sending Timothy to remind them of his way of living. And I began to ponder where people will get a model of community other the dog-eat-dog one on offer from the system we have all participated in creating. Paul's answer, of course, that it will come from the followers of Jesus, the communities who live by the wisdom revealed in Christ crucified, who have learned service and sacrifice at the feet of their master and embody that in their relationships.

It reminded me of the anabaptist vision of the church as a counter-cultural presence on the margins of society embodying the life of Jesus in its discipleship and calling others to join them in a community of love and mutual service gathering around the crucified and risen Jesus. And I began to feel hope rising through my anger, the hope that there is a different, better way of being community. The challenge, of course, is living it in the faith community of which I am a part so that we can bring a little hope to those on the verge of giving up.