A Spoke in the Wheel of Injustice

BURDENS

The relationship between civil society politics and religion is an ambivalent one. On the one hand politicians can warn faith leaders to ‘stick to saving souls’ or to confine themselves to statements about personal morality, particularly when they are critical of government social policy. We saw an example of this in 2013 and 2014 when Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke passionately about the vicious return of poverty in the UK since the 2008-9 financial crash. Welby criticised the UK government’s social policy in strong and clear terms. On the other hand successive UK Prime Ministers from Tony Blair onwards have recognised the enduring social capital possed by faith groups, especially in socially excluded communities, and sought to draw on this in relation to social cohesion and social inclusion policy agendas.

Last May I wrote an article entitled ‘A Spoke in the Wheel of Injustice’ for the online journal and forum ‘Public Spirit’ in which I ask what role faith groups should play in the face of institutional injustice and endemic inequality. What happens when ‘the common good’ is jusy not good enough? Given the result of the May 2015 UK General Election these issues are beginning to raise their head again. With this in mind I thought the article might offer some resources for reflection in this new political era. Have a read of the article by clicking on the link and see what you think….

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Language Matters

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Sometimes we can become overly obsessed with the language we use, seeing implications where none may exist. However the words we use often matter because they, albeit unconsciously, reflect the way we think. The word ‘untouchable’ favoured by Mahatmas Gandhi [ a high caste Indian] has rightly been displaced by the word ‘dalit’. The awful phrase ‘half-caste’ by ‘mixed race’ and finally [thank goodness] ‘dual heritage’ to speak of people who have one black and one white parent. Words can empower but they can also rob people of their agency – turning them into objects rather than subjects. The phrase ‘the poor’ is a case in point. 

In this blog post by Karin Kamp from the USA the minefield of the language we use when dicussing poverty is explored…..

‘This week, the Center for Community Change (CCC) released new research that details the way low-income Americans think and talk about living on the edge. It found that the language being used by policymakers and others to describe them is turning off the very people it is supposed to help…….’

Carry on reading….

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?

Poverty – The Defining Issue of our Age

For longer than I can remember I have argued that the touchstone of liberation theology needs to be re-framed in the global ‘North’ because we just can’t credibly compare the relative poverty of people in a country like the UK to the absolute poverty of many countries in the global ‘South’. And so I have argued that the conviction that the God of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures has a ‘preferential option for the poor’ [let’s be honest we mean ‘bias to the poor’] should be reimagined in countries like the UK and the US as a ‘preferential option for the oppressed’. What I refer to in a less nuanced way as a ‘bias to the oppressed’. Such a re-framing allows us to site God on the side of groups of people who are oppressed on the basis of ethnicity, religion, sexuality and gender.

However over the last 12 months I’ve been having a re-think in light of the inexorable and dramatic return of deep rooted and death-dealing poverty at the gates of economic power in countries as wealthy at the UK. On the back of the financial crisis of 2010 the UK government has trumpeted its ‘austerity’ programme as the ‘only answer’, suggesting that ‘we are all in it together’, forgetting that a majority of the UK Government Cabinet are millionaires! Over the last three years we have witnessed the vicious return of levels of poverty not seen in the UK for half a century. The situation is arguably deeper and more desperate in the USA as a recent research project ‘Wealth inequality in America’ reveals.

The journalist Andreas Whitam Smith suggested in early December 2013 that ‘The defining problem of our age is going to be poverty.’ He’s right – Since 2010 the number of people being treated in UK hospitals for rickets (the disease of the poor) has doubled, 13 million people in the UK now have to survive on just over 50% of the average income, anywhere between 350,000 and 500,000 people in the UK now rely on food-banks to feed their families (up threefold between 2012-2013), more than 4.5 million people in the UK now struggle to survive on less than the recommended ‘Living Wage’ of £7.45 p/hour and almost half those caught in the ‘poverty trap’ are in paid work [paid so little they can barely get by]….The list could go on and on but I think the point is probably painfully clear….

On top of that we continue to be bombarded with stereotype and moralising – people are poor because they are ‘lazy’, ‘spend all their money on booze and fags’ , ‘cheat on the benefits’ and spend their days watching day-time TV…..The recent Ecumenical ‘Joint Public Issues Team’ report ‘Truth and Lies about Poverty’ gives the lie to such stereotypes. Poverty is created as a result on unjust social, economic and political policy and practice. It is not ‘natural’ or an ‘accident’.

In Luke 4 Jesus makes it plain that his mission is to ‘preach good news to the poor’. A blog is not the best forum for developing a detailed re-framing of Latin American Liberation Theology in a UK context but it has become increasingly obvious that such an endeavour is desperately needed. That means continuing to use the social capital that faith groups in marginalised communities still have – the job clubs, the lunch clubs, the advice centres, the youth projects, the credit unions, the involvement in ‘Living Wage’ campaigns, the engagement in community organising, the befriending, the campaigning……all are vital signs of the Kingdom of justice that Jesus embodies in the Gospels. But more is needed – A ‘conversion to the poor’ as Gustavo Gutierrez [the great pioneer of liberation theology] put it – a reinvention of Church as radical, agitating social movement and a rediscovery of the prophetic role of the preacher, the teacher, the pastor, the priest.

I work as a Lecturer in Theology in a University context. The job is rewarding, challenging and exciting but so often it feels disengaged from the struggle to build a just and equal society and more concerned about targets, research grants and seemingly disengaged academic debate. It is not only the Church that needs to be converted but the academy too for as the British urban theologian Kenneth Leech puts it – theology is not neutral – it  ‘either oppresses people or it helps to liberate them.’ In our increasingly poverty stricken cities and towns and desperately unequal society I know what I’m voting for! How about you?

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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.

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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…..

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Academics Stand Against Poverty

More than a billion people exist on less than US$2.00 a day. My own society, the UK, is more unequal than at any time since World War II. We live in an ‘age of austerity’ but some feel the pinch more than others. In my own work I strive to explore and embody a 21st century interpretation of the divine bias to the oppressed articulated by Gustavo Gutierrez in his seminal book A Theology of Liberation and the foundation of liberation theology. And yet life within the academy in the UK is dominated by an obsession with big money research grants and so-called ‘world class’ publications with certain ‘elite’ publishers. Where is the philosophy of Paulo Freire when we need it – education is the process of awakening to oppression and agitating for liberation?

One recently formed organisation within the academy that seeks to buck the trend is ‘Academics Stand Against Poverty’ – Check them out – research with real impact and for real purpose….