by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s
On 18th March Iain Duncan-Smith resigned from his UK government Cabinet post as Work and Pensions Secretary. His resignation letter said, ‘The latest changes to benefits to the disabled and the context in which they’ve been made are a compromise too far. While they are defensible in narrow terms, given the continuing deficit, they are not defensible in the way they were placed within a Budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers… I hope as the government goes forward you can look again… at the balance of the cuts you have insisted upon and wonder if enough has been done to ensure “we are all in this together.”’
That final phrase is a quote from the 2010 general election campaign, much used before then and since by Conservative (and other) politicians. David Cameron’s first Conservative Party Conference speech as Prime Minister used the word ‘together’ twenty times as a rallying call for a united country where ‘fairness includes asking those on higher incomes to shoulder more of the burden than those on lower incomes…. It’s fair that those with broader shoulders should bear a greater load. And I think it’s time for a new conversation about what fairness really means… fairness means giving money to help the poorest in society. People who are sick, who are vulnerable, the elderly – I want you to know we will always look after you.’ And whether or not that’s still true is what Mr Duncan-Smith’s letter is wondering about.
The subsequent few days have produced a torrent of comment and analysis, briefing, counter-briefing and spin. But there are two questions which Mr Duncan-Smith has highlighted and which are in danger of getting forgotten – indeed, which some might want to see well buried. Is the principle that ‘we are all in this together’ – which the Conservative Party freely adopted as its rallying call – being put into practice? And who is ‘we’?
The politics of power in human institutions, whether a government, a country, a church, a hospital or a family, often revolve around questions of justice and belonging. Politics as a profession is about the exercise of government; but all of us are involved in politics, just as everyone is involved in religion even though only some are ministers of religion or theologians. And, as with Mr Duncan-Smith, we do need to wonder about how just and fair our institutions are; and whether, when we say ‘we’re all in this together’, we really do mean all, or whether we actually mean ‘we who have power and those who we think are on our side’. Who gets left out of the ‘we all’ that includes ‘hard working people’ and hopefully ‘the sick, vulnerable and elderly’? What of asylum seekers, disabled people, LGBTI people, ‘foreigners’, black people, young people, Muslims, unemployed people, ‘shirkers’, prisoners… the list can be a long one.
Giving voice to wondering about justice was the job of the prophets in ancient Israel, as in God’s name they called rulers and powerful people to account for their partiality. Who are the prophets now? Pundits, bloggers, committees and commissions, pressure groups and tweeters all do some of it, and yet all have their own axe to grind as well. As Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount, we’re very good at pointing our finger at the shortcomings of others and very good too at ignoring where we ourselves fall short.
If we’re to avoid the fruitless conflict of mutual accusations of self-interest and unfairness, then we need two things. The first is an absolute commitment to the equal importance of every human being: the commitment to define ‘we’ as everyone with no exclusions. Otherwise, justice becomes partial. The Bible that inspires the preferential option for the poor, the weak and downtrodden by calling on the powerful to act with justice also contains the injunction not to be partial to the poor either (see Exodus 23), because justice is equal for all. Underlying this impartiality is God’s love for each of us, and God’s judgement for each of us: we are all equal before God in love and in falling short of the glory of God… It’s not comfortable, but then God’s love seen in Jesus isn’t comfortable: it requires us to love the stranger and the enemy. For politicians it means caring for those who might vote for someone else; for religious people it means that God loves those who we think have got it wrong – or at least, wronger than we have.
And the second thing we need is the commitment to love our neighbour at least as much as ourselves, to put the interests of others alongside or over our own. Modern prophets may challenge the government about how it allocates resources fairly; but they might also call on each one of us who gains from income tax cuts to increase our giving to charities for the disabled by at least the amount we get from the Budget (and Gift Aid it) – and while we’re at it, hand over to charity also the money we might have paid in extra duty on beer, spirits and cider. One thing that Jesus and the Hebrew prophets teach us is the need to be the message we proclaim: that holding those with power to account is only a just activity if we ourselves speak and act with justice and compassion in our own lives.
From a Christian perspective, the furore about benefit cuts highlights the challenge to the Church to be the justice and compassion it proclaims. Of course we accept the principle of loving our neighbour as ourselves, and that in the Church ‘we’re all in this together’: and yet we may then define certain groups as being outside the bounds of the Body of Christ, so that our togetherness is partial and our love is compromised. Whether it’s the scandal of ecumenical division (which we hardly notice because it’s been going on so long), institutional racism and sexism, failure to care for victims of abuse, the silencing of LGBTI people; whether it’s in our local church or denomination or international structures of belonging – we need the voices of prophetic lives to re-call us to God’s love and justice for those we overlook, in church as well as society, and to learn to become those prophets ourselves.
‘I wonder if enough has been done to ensure “we are all in this together.”’