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.



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