Poverty – The New Violence

In recent years levels of poverty not seen since the Great Depression have returned to the UK. Poverty has increasingly become a new defining issue in urban political theologies. Are faith groups called to be pragmatic conduits of the common good – sites of social capital capable of fostering well being in the big society without raising too many awakward questions of government? Alternatively, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it are people of faith called to ram a ‘spoke in the wheel of injustice’? In my recent article for ‘Public Spirit’ I argue that consensual community engagement is not enough in an inherently unequal and unjust society – If God is ‘biased to the oppressed’ then theology becomes a motor for progressive social change and theologians public/political intellectuals.

The African-American activist philsopher Cornel West exemplifies this perspective better than most as the video below reveals. What challenges does West lay at the feet of academics, theologians, people of faith in the UK?


When the Edge becomes the Centre

Young men on the Bromford estate in east Birmingham are smart. They know that people describe their neighbourhood as ‘the slum’. They know that they live on the ‘edge’ in a ‘forgotten’ community even though the estate is only 4 miles from Birmingham’s gleaming city centre. They know that as the so-called ‘NEETs’ of populist political discourse they are seen as exemplars of what British Prime Minister David Cameron has called ‘broken Britain’. They know that they are viewed as ‘insignificant’ and yet…..And yet they rise above de-contextualised judgements, dismissals and stigmatising as the radical and articulate message they have sprayed onto the Bromford Dreams graffiti cube demonstrates. Their experience and my walk with them over the last 18 months raises questions for people of faith – questions about power, about priorities, about faith, about incarnation, about discipleship.

Bromford Dreams O

Within the Christian Gospels Jesus sides with the young men from Bromford and with all who are seen as ‘insignificant’. He ‘prioritises insignificance’ as he makes friends with those whom devout people of faith ignore or judge – the widow, the child, the prostitute, the leper, the Samaritan, the woman at the well in Sychar. Those considered ‘insignificant’ become exemplars of the God’s Kingdom, symbols of truth, faith, love and liberated living. In his Beatitudes in Matthew 5 Jesus flips our priorities upside down [or perhaps the right way up!]. In a series of ‘liberative reversals’ he makes it plain that it is the poor, the hungry, the humble, the persecuted, those who live on the edge working for peace and righteousness who are ‘blessed’ by God rather than the rich, the powerful and the included. Within the Christian community much is often made of Gods ‘bias to the poor’. We talk and talk but rarely do we walk the walk.

The ‘bias to the poor’ which Jesus embodies demands a decision on the part of those who try and follow him. They are challenged to take on a ‘preferential option for the poor’. However that’s not enough. It can be too distant, too easy to equate to campaigning to end unpayable global debt or to persuade politicians to introduce a living wage. Both are vital but both can objectify the people I have got to know in Bromford. Both perspectives narrow down exclusion to economic poverty or political powerlessness. We need to move further and recognise with Iris Marion Young that oppression has many faces. People are dismissed and oppressed because they are considered to be of no worth, to be insignificant. The Bromford Dreams graffiti cube reminds us that when the edge meets the centre amazing things can happen that lead to the liberation of both the powerless and the powerful. What then might it mean where you live to ‘prioritise insignificance’? Try it and see what happens…..


The Fear of Difference

The last ten days in the UK have been characterised by fear, pain, violence and unlikely snatches of hope following the brutal murder of the soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in south east London.

The tragic events have reminded us again in the most violent manner possible that not everybody is signed up to the liberal (and sometimes disengaged and distant) affirmation of multiculturalism. The super-diverse city can look very different, full of vibrant energy and creativity form the vantage point of relatively affluent city suburbs than it does in majority Muslim inner city communities scarred by unemployment and the fear of the far-right or on majority white and socially excluded estates where racists like the far-right British National Party and the English Defence League stalk the streets looking for people who might swallow the lie that ‘It’s all the fault of those Muslims.’ When life is hard many of us look for someone to blame, for a scapegoat onto whom we can pile our pain. For a small number alienated young British-Muslims [mostly men] the blame is piled on U.S and U.K foreign policy or on the excesses of a liberal materialist culture. For a small number of equally alienated young white men [again mostly men] groups like the BNP and more recently the EDL provide a convenient scapegoat – the British-Muslim community.

Mainstream political parties often don’t help matters. Knee jerk populist crack downs on free speech or on immigration or on Muslim community groups play to our basest instincts and to the stock readership of certain right wing national newspapers. Multiculturalism, the current UK Prime Minister David Cameron tells us ‘has failed because Muslim communities have not fully integrated into the UK.’ I wonder how much hands on experience of everyday diversity Mr Cameron got at Eton, or in his rural Oxfordshire constituency or how often he gets out of 10 Downing Street!

The urban studies writer Leonie Sandercock tells us that the ‘terrain of difference’ has become normative in the cities of Europe and the USA. She is right and as the theologian Andrew Davey reminds us such diversity is no longer confined to cosmopolitan cities like Birmingham, London, New York or Los Angeles.

Against such a backdrop how might people of faith respond? Given a faith that God created all people in the divine image – equal, one race, valuable one and all – a fundamental conviction of all of the world’s faiths is that racism is a sin. No messing, no weak excuses – a sin.

One possible response is found in food and flowers. Selfless giving like the Muslim communities who collected money to donate flowers to the bereaved family of Lee Rigby. Or hospitality like that shown by young Muslims in York who took tea and biscuits out to and EDL mob demonstrating outside their Mosque and ended up inviting the EDL into the Mosque grounds for a game of football!

The Bible tells us again and again to ‘love the stranger’, that when we welcome the stranger we may be ‘entertaining angels unawares’.

We cannot and must not run away from or spiritualise the fear of difference because it’s real. However might it be possible that when we struggle together over low pay or to improve our childrens’ playground (or when we give each other flowers or tea and football!) that our difference can begin to become a source of liberation.

Liberative difference does not meet the pain of Lee Rigby’s grieving family, or the anguish of Muslims in the UK who have been threatened or attacked since his murder in Woolwich but it just might offer us a way forward…..Not trendy pain-free suburban multiculturalism but hard edged liberative difference that build social justice for all and embodies God’s bias to the oppressed – wherever and whoever they may be.

Here’s hoping and praying!