Sunday, June 16, 2024

Faith, housing, transport, immigration and education


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 housing, transport, immigration and education. 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?

In September 2023 the world-famous Sycamore Gap Tree was felled in an act of vandalism. The outpouring of grief made it very clear that many, many people across the northeast of England, and far beyond, felt a special connection with this one, iconic, tree, a deep bond that is hard to explain to someone who does not share it, but undeniable. There is a real sense of loss, but also hope, a desire that the tree might have a legacy: the stump, left in the ground, will hopefully sprout again; seedlings have been carefully gathered and stored to produce new trees, through grafting and other methods; and the felled trunk and branches have been preserved in hope that commissioned artists will create works to enhance a wide variety of contexts across the region.

Human connection to trees is nothing new. In the Bible, trees are often used as allegories for people, sometimes rulers and sometimes nations. Sometimes these trees are transplanted or cut down. For example, the prophet Ezekiel does this in chapter 17—from which our first reading this morning is an extract—and again in chapter 31. The cedar in chapter 17 is an allegory of the fortunes of Judah, while the cedar in chapter 31 is an allegory of the fortunes of Egypt.

Under king Saul, and then king David, a federation of tribes became a nation. The reign of David’s son, Solomon, was considered a Golden Age. Their neighbour to the immediate north was the island city of Tyre, jewel of the sea. Tyre controlled the great forests of Lebanon, that produced the finest cedars. They used this resource to build fine ships, becoming legendary merchants. But they had no land for growing cereal or farming animals. David and Solomon made alliances with king Hiram of Tyre, supplying food in exchange for cedarwood—and master craftsmen—to build David’s royal palace and Solomon’s temple: and so, the cedar became a symbol of the king in Jerusalem too.

But after Solomon’s death, the kingdom split in two, Israel in the north declaring independence from Judah in the south. The two nations coexisted for some time, until, in 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II of the Neo-Babylonian empire—known as the Great—besieged and captured Jerusalem, carrying king Jehoiachin, the royal court and king’s own regiments, into exile in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar put Jehoiachin’s uncle, Mattaniah, on the throne in his place; and Mattaniah take the name Zedekiah. But ten years later, in 587 BCE, Zedekiah rebelled against Babylonia, gambling on an alliance with Egypt. The gamble did not pay off: Jerusalem was besieged for a second time, its walls destroyed, Solomon’s temple burnt down, and the entirety of the remaining population carried off into exile in Babylon. There they would remain until Babylon in turn fell to the Persians under Cyrus the Great, when they would return, in three waves: led by Zerubbabel, who began rebuilding the temple; by Ezra, the reformer; and by Nehemiah, who oversaw the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.

This is what is alluded to in Ezekiel’s allegory of the tree: in the earlier part of the chapter, an allegory of Nebuchadnezzar establishing Zedekiah in Jerusalem, and Zedekiah turning to Egypt to support his rebellion; but towards the end of the chapter, the Lord God promises that he will replant his people in their own land and restore their fortunes. They will become a shelter for all nations (birds) and through them all nations (trees, again) will come to know that the Lord is God.

Trees can be considered an ecosystem in their own right. Our two native species of oak—the English Oak, national tree of England; and the Sessile oak, national tree of both Wales and Ireland—support 2,300 wildlife species, providing food and shelter for insects, birds and mammals, as well as lichens, mosses, and fungi. Likewise, the Scots Pine—our only native pine, and the national tree of Scotland—is a keystone species, supporting many other, including rare, species. Trees are a complex, living infrastructure, which make them a good analogy for infrastructure issues such as housing, transport, immigration, and education.

There is a need for a new vision for housing in the UK, including, crucially affordable housing. The average house value has risen by an average 10% every year for the past fifty years, leaving our housing stock beyond the reach of younger first-time buyers. The Conservative and Labour party manifestos share a commitment to build 1.6 & 1.5 million homes over the course of the next parliament. Labour and the Liberal Democrats both propose a new generation of new towns or garden cities, while the Greens favour smaller scale development. The left-of-centre parties want developers to provide supporting infrastructure, while the right-of-centre parties want to remove this constraint. Some focus more than others on upgrading existing housing to be more energy efficient. Regarding the relationship between landlords and tenants, those on the right want to strengthen the rights of landlords, while those on the left want to strengthen the rights of tenants. The imagery of a tree that supports a rich variety of life in different ways, including nests on branches or hollowed out of dead wood, and sets and burrows within the roots, speaks to a diversity of innovative solutions.

A reliable and fit-for-purpose transport infrastructure is essential if communities are to flourish. Our rail network is key, and all parties are calling for its reform. Labour, the LibDems, and the Green party all call for public ownership; while Reform UK proposes that 50% of our infrastructure be publicly owned and 50% held by a UK pensions fund. Buses are key to connecting local communities, raising questions about fit-for-purpose services are best planned, paid for. The LibDems vison extends to light rail and trams, moving to zero-emissions, shifting more freight from roads to rail, and—in common with the Greens—banning short domestic flights and a moratorium on new airports. Cycleways and footpaths should be integral to urban planning.

Immigration is a thorny issue. Claiming that asylum seekers are illegal migrants is a deflection. An illegal migrant is someone who came into the country on a travel, work or study visa and who remained in this country after their visa expired. Illegal migrants should be sent home. Safe routes to sanctuary must be reestablished for those fleeing persecution. There is both compassion and economic sense in processing claims quickly, allowing those who are granted asylum time to establish themselves (currently they are made homeless within two weeks; the LibDems propose a 60-day transition), and permitting people to work while their application is being processed (Greens). The bigger issue is addressing legal migration: and whether this is best done by a salary threshold (Conservative, currently £38,700 for a family visa) or a strategic workforce strategy identifying specific needs and how to address them through balancing the training of our own population and targeted immigration (Labour, LibDem).

Ezekiel’s vision of the tree included the promise that, in a renewed society, the surrounding nations would come to know that the Lord was God. This raises the question, what is the purpose of education? What is it that we want our children to know? For what are we shaping them? The world is changing, with new technologies advancing rapidly. A primary role of our education system has long been producing a workforce. The Conservative vision is built on rewarding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, fostering competition, replacing the exam structure (yet again) with the Advanced British Standard, with pupils spending more time in the classroom, studying more subjects, including English and Maths to 18 years old. They also promise 100,000 more apprenticeships. Labour look to fund investment in state schools through ending VAT exemption for private schools. They aim to recruit 6,500 new teachers with a focus on areas that present the greatest recruitment and retainment challenges; and address systemic challenges through breakfast clubs and placing dedicated mental health professionals in every school. The LibDems highlight professional development for teachers, a richer curriculum for pupils, and the need to understand and remove underlying barriers to attendance. The Greens would advocate for restoring university grants and abolishing tuition fees; while Reform UK focus on banning the teaching of ideologies they disapprove of in schools, while cutting funding to universities that undermine free speech.

Having an imagination shaped by the Hebrew Bible, as well as the land and its people, Jesus employed crops and trees in his parables, including today’s Gospel passage, Mark 4.26-34. He notes that while the sower scatters seed, the earth produces of itself, which the sower harvests. Infrastructure issues are like this: we invest in certain ways; what grows will grow; and later, we reap the fruit, the good and bad consequences. With a General Election, a government inherits the consequences of whatever someone else has sown. No party has a monopoly on the best ideas, nor control over the soil in which they are sown. No party can take too much credit for the success that follows their actions—the earth produces of itself. Whoever forms our next government, they will face significant challenges and address them as they see best, with mixed results. We must trust that God is at work, through us, and ask how we might both love and bless our neighbour, however small we may feel our agency to be, paying special attention to the most vulnerable. Rather than saying, ‘What difference can one person make?’, attend to the tiny mustard seed and the prolific tree that grows from it.


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