Over the last week or so there have been some heated exchanges about the benefits changes which the Coalition Government have pushed through and which came into force during the last week. On the one hand, the government have argued that the changes are necessary to lower the deficit, while on the other hand opponents have argued strongly that the cuts adversely affect the weakest members of our society.
Four churches, working together in the Joint Public Issues Team (@publicissues), issues a really influential report which ended up being explored on a whole host of news outlets. The report can be found here along with some great infographics. The BBC’s coverage, including an unfortunate picture of a man (?) in a hoody presumably (wrongly!) representative of those on benefits, includes a video of Paul Morrison (Paul on Twitter) from the Methodist Church explaining the point the churches are trying to make. Of course, the Church is a broad body with different views on a whole host of topics. Personally, I’m pretty much on the left of politics and the current changes have brought out my socialist tendencies pretty strongly. Indeed, on Easter Tuesday, I spent a fair bit of time on Twitter exploring an conversation with two people on the right wing of politics about whether redistribution was a form of theft. What struck me in the aftermath of the conversation is that both sides (me and them) both rushed too quickly to the “your view isn’t Christian” argument. One of the people I was arguing with said that since the 8th Commandment is all about property (debate!), then property is sacrosanct within Christian ethics. Redistribution (taking property from the wealthy to give it to the poor) is therefore unChristian. On my side, I see redistribution as an normative outcome of Isaiah 58, the Magnificat, Luke 4…and a whole host of other places where we God calls us to care for the poor even where it costs us. There is normal social contract within most developed communities which means we tax people according to their earnings in order to ensure some redistribution of society’s wealth. For another speaking this view, see Andy Walton’s (@waltonandy) clear post and the various comment streams there.
But I went further and argued, as I believe deep down, that capitalism, and the particular form of capitalism we find in the Colonial West, is theft. This was part of the argument behind the #occupylsx protests outside of St Paul’s last year. We have pillaged the colonies – forcing them to destroy/downgrade/dismiss their own emerging industries in order to provide raw materials for our own (see £ JSTOR article on this – sadly a paysite £), raped them of their resources to feather our own nests and now we see this process ongoing through the siphoning of money form the public to the banks. So since 2010, when we gave the banks huge payouts to help the recapitalise, the disposable income of the average citizen has plummeted in relation to the cost of living and so on… Well done if you have got this far. What’s my point?
Firstly, the Bible can be used to argue any point. Someone in the conversation pointed out we could play Bible ping pong all day – batting around proof texts to prove our particular slant on the issue.
Secondly, we can play church theologians ping pong just as long – batting around proof texts from our favourite theologians and church fathers (and mothers) to prove our respective points. That’s all a bit childish though, isn’t it and fundamentally an abuse of the Bible. The Bible isn’t a weapon to hit other people. It’s a rich resource which is going to include lots of views and lots that none of us have even thought of yet – God is bigger than us!
But, thirdly, I do think that we need to have the argument. The Judaeo-Christian tradition is built on open and honest exchange of views. We can argue with one another. And I think it is OK to do this strongly and robustly – look at how the rabbis fought over the Bible! But secondly, we need to do this in love, not as a way of de-Christianising the other person. Robust political conversation needs to allow the space for the other to be real and meaningful.
Christian debate is not about destroying the other, although clearly to be meaningful it does revolve around a desire to convert/change the other person. But if we destroy the other, then perhaps we are in danger of destroying ourselves too. As Paul says in Galatians, we need to stop biting chunks out of one another – that way lies horrors.
A friend was at Spring Harvest and tweeted that Gerard Kelly said that Christians use blogs to say things about each other that they wouldn’t dream of if they were in the same room. At the same time, another friend joked about someone having the demon of socialism. At the same time, people were talking about how they had been chased off twitter and chased off blogging. Nick Baines pleaded with people not to give up because that was simply giving in.Sometimes choosing not to stop, choosing to keep blogging even when others scream at you or ignore you may be so hard. Doug Chaplin wrote about this yesterday as part of the conversation we were having together. But it is still hard.
Whilst some philosophers argue that we need to allow the other to be and not to consume them within ourselves, to let them standin their own presence, their own identity without being converted or transformed into us, our arguments seem to want more. How do we embrace those who disagree, indeed can we? I remember Miroslav Volf’s book on Exclusion and Embrace where he asks whether, following his own experiences in the Serbo-Croatian Wars, he could embrace a Serbian soldier. He thinks this would be beyond him. This week, the Dean of Durham explored whether he could accept the appointment of a self-confessed fascist as the manager of his football team.
We may all end up in such difficult places.
But those places define us, make us, show us the extent of love and grace which Jesus showed on Calvary. Our opponents are a glass through which we see our own faults and identities, however darkly.
A bit like this Banksy image which appeared in time for Easter but may well just be another forgery.
We can focus on the argument about the author and miss the whole point of the picture itself.
So let’s not hide from the issues. Let’s argue and seek to persuade. But let’s give one another space to be and to be Christian.
Picture Credits: Provided by P.M.Phillips