Saturday’s march and demo has the power to unite us, but only if we reach out as never before to those outside left-wing circles. Preaching to the converted is not an option, believes Rev Mike Walsh.
THEY say religion and politics don’t mix — “they” usually being those whose comfortable political status quo is being challenged by the “simplistic moralising” of the religious.
It’s often said that the first duty of any government is to protect its people, but just as often this is narrowly interpreted to justify an expanding defence budget or further encroachments on civil liberties in the name of counterterrorism.
Yet why should a government’s responsibility to protect its people be expressed mainly in those two ways? Doesn’t our government also have a duty to protect citizens from the indiscriminate but much more widespread occurrence of illness?
Does it not have responsibility to protect its people from the ravages of unregulated capitalism? Is our government not mandated to help negate the effects of poverty? Is not the greatest security any citizen needs a decent income and a stable home? If this is not the case, then what is it exactly that we elect them for? A government’s responsibility is to the people — all the people — no matter who you voted for.
David Cameron has spoken several times since the general election of being “one nation” — that is, leading a government for all the people. So he has much to do to protect the millions of people facing the choice between heating or eating this winter.
A major shift on the severity and manifest injustice of benefit sanctions is required if the numbers of people using foodbanks are to fall. The bedroom tax should be modified, if not cancelled altogether, if homelessness is not to increase further.
In the community where I work, the number of people sleeping rough on our streets has increased noticeably in recent months, a foodbank has opened its doors and several local businesses have closed. The government may claim to be paying off the deficit and “rebalancing” the economy, but they don’t understand the human and social cost of the speed at which they are trying to achieve this, if austerity is even necessary at all.
As a minister of the church, I believe part of my role is to represent my community and to confront local and national leaders in defence of the common good, with particular bias towards the most marginalised, but to do so in a way that is both gracious and generous. Even those with whom we vehemently disagree may be good people, as sure of their principles as we are of ours. Yet this isn’t always easy when seemingly remote politicians set policies that make real people’s lives more difficult and cause severe damage to communities.
The Bible famously challenges people to love their enemy, but I don’t believe that means not getting angry, or simply accepting the status quo. There are many passages about helping those living in poverty, but many more about addressing the causes of poverty, and passages about respecting those in authority sit within a wider narrative of holding those in power to account for the good of the whole of society.
Our welfare state is built on the fine principle that no-one should ever live in fear of becoming ill, redundant or penniless, because if that should happen to you the rest of us will help, if only because one day it might be us.
We are only truly “all in it together” if this principle remains at the heart of our welfare systems. Yet many people feel helpless and harshly treated by a system which seems to me to have forgotten its primary purpose — to care for our citizens in times of need.
Last month I attended a People’s Assembly protest in Manchester. Trade unionists, political campaigners, the low-paid and unemployed, the homeless and a whole host of the vulnerable victims of this government’s policies gathered in a spirit of solidarity and anger at injustice. It was a stirring event.
But what worries me is who wasn’t there, because most of those gathered were the people this government have no thought to engage with, no problem at all in dismissing and ignoring. If the only voices at these protests are the voices of people who (understandably) jeer at the government rather than engage with it, will we achieve anything?
So I hope these protests continue to bring together all those with the most to lose, those whose lives are directly affected. But more, we need every decent, compassionate person who cares about their neighbour, our society and the common good to attend these protests too. Only then will this government show any sign of listening.
So if you’re inclined to think this kind of protest isn’t your thing, and that you’d rather write a polite letter than go on a march, please, please think again.
I hope to see you at the People’s Assembly protest on June 20.
Mike Walsh is a reverend of the United Reformed Church.
From the Morning Star.
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