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.


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