Last Sunday I gave the ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire. I spoke about poverty and faith-based activism. If you ‘d like to listen here’s the link to the broadcast [go to 53.00 in the broadcast]. The reflection is written out below – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p034spyq
These are confusing and challenging times and it could be tempting for those of us who are committed to building a just and equal society to become depressed. Over the last five years the number of people relying on foodbanks to feed their families has mushroomed from 50,000 to more than 1,000,000; the number of cases of people with malnutrition being admitted to hospitals in England and Wales has doubled; we have seen hate crimes rise by 20%, the rise of far-right groups like the English Defence League and an increasingly poisonous debate about multiculturalism and migration. It’s easy to cover our eyes and our ears and pretend it’s not happening or to bury ourselves in Netflix and pretend that it’s not our problem. And yet in a letter to an early Christian community in Corinth the apostle Paul reminds us that we belong together and that when one person hurts we all bleed.
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells the story of a man who gets mugged on his way to Jericho. It’s a story we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan and it’s so well known that perhaps we’ve become immune to its radical message. Powerful religious people ignore the bleeding man, afraid to get involved but then a hated Samaritan stops and cares for him. He refuses to pass by on the other side of the road. We live at a moment of decision, what theologians sometimes call a ‘Kairos’ moment: a time of judgement and opportunity. How do we respond in the face of growing poverty and the rise of hate crime?
So far what I’ve shared probably sounds a bit depressing for a Sunday morning. However I believe that there are reasons to be bold and cause to be confident. Not long before he was murdered by the Nazis in 1945 the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” We are called to work to dismantle the structures of injustice in order build a more just society where people do not need to go to the foodbanks because their part-time job doesn’t pay a living wage.
Faith groups have been involved in civil society politics for centuries. However over the last five years we have seen the increasingly regular, confident and articulate involvement of faith communities on issues of social justice. Just before Easter 2014 more than 600 senior faith leaders wrote an open letter criticising the UK government about the dramatic rise in food poverty, declaring it a ‘national crisis’. Only this week Anglican Bishops have challenged the Prime Minister over what they suggest is his inadequate response to the desperate need of the unprecedented numbers of refugees fleeing poverty, violence and persecution. The Bishops urged the government to admit 10,000 refugees each year [not 20,000 over five years as has already been agreed]. Coventry is a City of Sanctuary and has responded in a largely welcoming way to Syrian refugees. What can you do where you live – in your street, your block of flats, your town or your village?
I work as a Research Fellow in Faith and Peaceful Relations at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University. There is an often repeated claim that academics are completely objective. We analyse and explain but are neutral in the face of injustice. I don’t buy and never have. Working as an academic is an incredible privilege and gives myself and my colleagues at the Centre with a real opportunity to develop research that really does help to build a more just, peaceful and equal world. The US philosopher and activist Cornel West put it best – ‘The role of the intellectual is to shine a light on the social misery that dominant forces within society attempt to keep hidden.’ It’s this vision that shapes my own work and the research of the Centre – Research that empowers people and fosters progressive social change.
Now all of that might sound a bit distant, about other people and not us. And yet I firmly believe we can all make a difference where we are. Each kind word, welcome to a stranger, stint at the foodbank, support for a destitute asylum seeker, support for our local credit union changes the world just a little. The social theorist Leonie Sandercock spoke about ‘a thousand tiny empowerments’ that can transform the world. It seems to me that a Sunday morning is a good time to make a start…..