Sunday, June 09, 2024

Faith, health, welfare and pensions


Here in the UK there will be a General Election on 04 July. Over the five Sundays in June, I intend to look at several key issues relating to how we vote, continuing, today, with health, welfare and pensions. My intention is not to tell you who you should or shouldn’t vote for—though I will touch on policies—but to ask how does Christian faith inform how we cast our vote?

Our first reading today, Genesis 3.8-15, is part of the mythic story with which the Bible opens. By myth, I mean a story that transcends the context in which it was first told, and that takes on new layers of meaning in subsequent contexts. We have such myths in our national history—stories of King Arthur, or Robin Hood, for example, retold, reimagined, and repurposed to speak to distant descendants facing crises of their own.

In this myth, God creates the human being—male and female—in God’s image. The world of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, was a world of expanding empires. When an army besieged and defeated a city at distance from their own capital, they would erect a statue, an image of their king, to say though this king is not here in person, they are king here now. These representations expressed the ideal image of the time, to which others aspired. Look at statues of Roman emperors (a timeline that stretches beyond the New Testament) and you will see that the first thirteen, from Augustus to Trajan, are all clean-shaven. This changes in 117 CE with Hadrian: the next eight emperors all follow hirsute suit, sporting magnificently sculpted beards. But the Genesis myth presents us with something different: it is not a statue that represents the king in his absence, but living creatures, sculpted from clay, yes, but breathed into life.

God places the humans in a garden paradise, from which they are to go forth and multiply and fill the earth. But for now, there are boundaries: the limit of the garden walls, and a restriction on what they can eat—the fruit of any tree, except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The purpose is not to keep them contained or ignorant, but in fact the very opposite: as we experience adolescence, as we navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood, we need space to explore, to take risks, to make mistakes and together with peers learn from them and decide on a way forward, to learn how to mend small ruptures in relationships, to take on progressively more responsibility, to spend longer periods away from our parents while having a secure base to return to and go out from.

In the garden, the serpent engages the woman in conversation. The humans, remember, are still learning, are facing the challenges that will help them grow. As the woman—with childlike impulse—attempts to help a fellow child grow in understanding, we discover that, whereas God has told them not to eat of the fruit of one tree, they are not yet brave enough even to touch that tree. But the serpent—whose motive is not childlike—claims that to eat its fruit will be good for them, making them like God. Children are predisposed to want to be like their parent—copying them, before we learn to obey, or disobey—and, together, the woman and the man eat. And in this moment, something changes. They see themselves with a heightened self-consciousness. And then, they hear the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hide.

When God calls to them, ‘Where are you?’ the man replies, I heard you, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid. Fear is a double-edged (s)word: it refers both to an elevated reverence for someone else, and to an elevated sense of threat to oneself. One biblical tradition asserts that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge or wisdom (Psalm 111.10, Proverbs 1.7 and 9.10). This, then, is the birthplace of wisdom, of learning how to approach God and of learning how to bear God’s likeness. [This reminds me of the conversation in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Susan asks whether the lion Aslan is “quite safe” and Mr Beaver replies, “Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”] But here we also see the birth of comparison: the humans compare their naked selves against the Lord God and feel threatened. They also see one another as a threat, to be pre-empted.

What has this to do with health, welfare and pensions? I would suggest, a great deal.

First, across the English-speaking Western world in particular, we have witnessed a spectacular breakdown in the mental health of our young adults. In his book The Anxious Generation, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the impact of the virtual world on girls and boys. As backstory, Haidt notes the loss of play-based childhood from the 1990s onward, as adults became overly protective of children within physical space, denying them the freedom to explore. Drawing on many research studies, he charts the impact of the growth of the internet, and the advent of the smart phone from around 2010. This trend has been bad for boys and disastrous for girls. We all experience motivation to agency—to growing competence and assertiveness—and motivation to communion with others—to cooperation and empathy. But in general terms, boys are encouraged more towards agency, and girls more towards communion. Business understands this, and so, in the virtual world, boys have been targeted by video games (increasingly massive multiplayer platforms) and pornography (increasingly hardcore) and girls have been targeted by social media platforms. Boys have withdrawn more and more from the physical world, losing confidence and competence there, while girls have experienced the devastating impact of manipulated visual social comparison, relational aggression, and wanting to fit in by copying influencers. Girls have elevated impossible and unreal expectations of beauty and, unable to live up to them, have hidden themselves deeper into the forest of anxiety. Boys are being taught to blame women for their woes, exacerbated by a shift from male-heavy industrial communities to service-based economies where women are better-equipped to excel.

All of this is almost entirely unchecked by society, which still tends to overfocus on physical safety. But the physical safety of our children has increased for several generations (in part, perhaps, due to a withdrawal from the physical world). In the UK we have seen a significant rise in knife-enabled crime over the past decade, though injuries and homicides have fallen. Where children are carrying knives, mostly for defence, it is because they perceive the world outside to be more dangerous than it actually is, arguably because it has become a more alien environment to them. Addressing this may involve putting more police officers on the ground (Con 20,000; Lab 13,000), adult-organised youth hubs with mental health provision (Lab), or a dedicated mental health professional in every school (LibDem); but we also need to address the loss of public space where children can play unsupervised (including hostile attitudes towards groups of young people) as well as holding online platform developers to a far greater level of accountability. Where parties want to extend fast broadband, so no community is left behind (Green, LibDem), what measures do they propose to protect our children online? We should pay close attention to the proposals of the different parties in addressing this mental health crisis—a crisis of adult making, but falling on children, who are not a problem to be solved. They are certainly not to be demonised. Which brings us nicely to Jesus’ observation, in the context of being misunderstood and demonised, that ‘if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand’ (Mark 3.20-35).

Health, welfare and pensions are major issues in the forthcoming General Election. They are issues that have an impact on all our lives, and they are issues that play deeply to any insecurity in our sense of identity, and to the sense of fear that springs from comparing ourselves to others—or, for those whose circumstances change, comparing ourselves as we see ourselves today against how we saw ourselves in the past.

Taken as a whole, the income and wealth of pensioners has increased over the past 30 years but is subject to widening inequality. 33% of Asian older people and 30% of Black older people live below the poverty line, compared to 16% of White older people; while17% of pensioners are in the top fifth of all household income. This has significant impact on health, on life-expectancy and quality of life. It has a bearing on hospital-based care, and on social care to support independent living; on how we fund the NHS and how that funding is shared. The Green Party’s proposal for modest tax rises for the wealthiest, and Reform UK’s proposal to remove the ‘free at the point of use’ principle for those who can afford to pay are two very different approaches on offer.

And how do we go about addressing the overwhelming levels of need, including waiting lists, in ways that honour those who work in health and social care, who, despite our claiming that the NHS is a national treasure, are often treated—badly—as our household servants? In Genesis 3, the Lord God moves to remove shame and restore dignity. In Mark 3, Jesus redefines our understanding of family, beyond self-interest, and aligned with God’s desire for a caring society. No one party has a monopoly on the best way forward; these issues deserve cross-party collaboration, not the trading of apportioning blame and deflecting responsibility we have seen so far in this Election campaign.

It is easy to write-off politicians for such human behaviour—as if we are any different. But while there are things best delivered nationally, or regionally, repairing a caring society cannot be left to government alone or to market forces. It requires of us all that we act as those who bear the image of God, and that we recognise our neighbour as bearing that same image. Weigh the party manifestos and exercise your vote. But also ask, how might we as a local community address some of these issues, whether by creating space for young people or through the Parish Nursing movement, by identifying need and working with others to meet it in sustainable ways.


Sunday, June 02, 2024

Faith, work and the economy


It won’t have escaped your notice that here in the UK there will be a General Election on 04 July. Over the five Sundays in June, I intend to look at several key issues relating to how we vote, beginning, today, with work and the economy. My intention is not to tell you who you should or shouldn’t vote for—though I will touch on policies—but to ask how does Christian faith inform how we cast our vote?

Work impacts all our lives, including the lives of children and pensioners. And work is a good thing, where it enables us to express something of ourselves, in ways that make a meaningful contribution to society, and in exchange to receive back what we need to meet our needs. It is also a sphere of life where humans exploit other humans, and people experience injustice. The UK has a very high level of income inequality [pay, bonuses, shares, pensions] compared to other developed nations, and an even higher level of wealth inequality [land and property ownership].

One of the foundational events in the Bible is the exodus of the descendants of Jacob from Egypt, where they had initially been welcomed as economic refugees but were later heavily exploited amid rising fear that their population had grown too large to live peaceably alongside their hosts. Soon after Moses leads their escape, God presents them with Ten Words—we know them as the Ten Commandments. These were fundamental for society to flourish but needed fleshing-out in practical case law. One of the Words concerned work, and, specifically, the key importance of regular rest from labour or exertion, grounded in the rhythms of nature itself. When, forty years later, Moses restated the Ten Words to the generation who had left Egypt as children, or who had been born after that experience, he reframed the Word explicitly as protection against exploitation:

‘Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.’ (Deuteronomy 5.12-15)

Sabbath means to cease exertion, to rest. And the Word concerning work flows out rest. That is to say, it places restriction on work. In a sense, it seeks to save work from itself. By putting a limit on work, it prevents a good thing from becoming an idol, an all-consuming thing that exploits us. It provides clear margins around work for rest, for celebration, for other expressions of community. And of course, this pattern presupposes that the labour of six days provides for seven. You cannot rest if you are worrying about how you are expected to choose between eating and keeping warm. So, we might want to ask, of each party’s manifesto, what is your understanding of work? And do you value people as more than economic units?

This Word is expansive: it starts with you and extends to others. The primary focus is on those with the most means. The Word places a limit on the pursuit of profit and insists on a duty of care towards others. These are not others who are ‘less fortunate than ourselves’—a phrase I dislike intensely, a phrase that shields the rich from addressing systemic unfairness. No, this Word is concerned with justice for all. The Labour Party’s policy of making the minimum wage a real living wage, and the Green Party’s policy of introducing a Universal Basic Income, giving everyone the agency to take time away from work to care for family, learn new skills, volunteer, or pursue other interests, would be ways of fleshing this out.

The Word turns to addressing young adults. What does liveable work and rest mean for them? Zero-hour contracts might sound attractive when the worker can easily step outside work commitments for a time and take up other employment fairly easily; but where a diversity of opportunity is missing, such terms are exploitative. I don’t know what you think of the Conservative policy that every 18-year-old should do National Service? Perhaps you think it is just what they need. Perhaps you think that many young people are already volunteering in the community, and perhaps it should be compulsory for all ages. Perhaps you think it isn’t a bad idea, but it needs more thought: who is going to supervise these young people, and monitor the value of the experience? But ‘[requiring] another person to perform forced or compulsory labour’ is an offence under the Modern Slavery Act 2015; and perhaps we should rather ask how do we protect the margin of free time around young adults? Related to this, we might ask, why is the minimum wage for those under 21 less than that for those who are 21 and over? Someone might respond that young people have fewer commitments; but that isn’t the basis on which we pay for labour. Why should they not have the opportunity to build up savings, rather than the idea that, in the long run, it is good for people to experience getting into debt? [It isn’t.]

Next, gender is addressed. Do not discriminate. In this country, it is illegal to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same work. But it happens all the time. It happens in hidden ways, such as men being given larger bonuses, and also because women have too often assumed that the law is being observed. Women face discrimination, for example because maternity leave costs an employer in ways that have no immediate benefit to the employer: if profit is your bottom line, rather than a duty of care, women make poor employees, and all employees—regardless of gender—are disposable. What do the various party manifestos have to say about workers’ rights, and about the balance of care between the employer, the state, and the individual?

The Word addresses beasts of burden, which, in our context, might be expanded to include machinery and tools. There is something here about technology, about obsolescence, about the relentless exploitation of the natural world; and about commitment to a greater contentment and appreciation of what we have. Again, there is something here that resists reducing everything to short-term profit, and that asks whether we might reimagine what has been termed a ‘greening’ of the economy.

And the Word addresses our attitude towards the resident alien in our towns. This is, of course, highly contentious in our society: but it is not an issue that will be addressed by ignoring it. Since the lifting of Covid restrictions, and the ending of the EU transitional arrangements, we have seen a very marked rise in long term immigration among non-EU nationals, with those on ‘skilled worker – health and care’ visas having overtaken those on study visas, and dependents of those with ‘skilled worker – health and care’ visas having overtaken primary applicants. We have experienced the impact of this on our own congregation, with healthcare workers from Nigeria and Ghana and India and their families worshipping with us. So, we might ask, if we are content for immigrants to perform care work, for which they are often both overqualified and poorly paid, what might we owe them, as a society? And if we do want to reduce immigration, how might we go about that well? Reform UK propose a higher rate of National Insurance to be paid by businesses that employ non-British nationals, though, tellingly, their proposal would exempt the health and care sector.

Moses ends with a reminder that we do this in part because of an appreciation of our own history of exploitation experienced by previous generations. That we are not to lightly throw away rights won. In this nation, this would include the right to vote, the right to Union representation, rights in the workplace, maternity provision, protection in times of sickness, benefits of the welfare state. Rights that are constantly resisted and pushed back on by vested interests who would exploit others for personal gain. There are many stories of resistance and demand for change in our shared history. Some have been championed by the Church, some ignored, some actively resisted. But stories, and how we tell them, matter.

Let’s turn to our Gospel passage, Mark 2.23-3.6. I’m not going to read it out, you can look it up for yourself later. Here, I simply want to offer some thoughts on how we should conduct ourselves over the coming weeks. The Gospel passage records two clashes between Jesus and a group who saw him as a threat to their vested interests, to their privileged position in society. Who saw Jesus as their enemy, to be destroyed. First, they use a very harsh interpretation of the law to discredit Jesus’ disciples; then they pretend that engaging with Jesus’ questions is beneath their dignity.

In contrast, Jesus reminds them of a story from their history that they have chosen to bury, a story that raises compassion above control. Every party, every candidate standing in this General Election will remind us of certain stories about our shared history, that emphasise particular characteristics. The point is not to seek balance, but to ask ourselves, are the stories told—the characteristics highlighted—ones we would choose to celebrate, or lament in penitence? And how do we respond to the stories we would distance ourselves from? Do we accuse the storyteller of being unpatriotic, or the enemy within; or do we recognise that our shared story is not reductive to the Right or the Left?

And, finally, Jesus ‘was grieved at their hardness of heart.’ He moves to restore a withered hand—to restore the man’s opportunity to contribute to society—while his opponents move to destroy him above all else. May we resist the hardening of our hearts against those with whom we disagree. May we love, and pray for, those we count as enemies.