Some Christian people are lamenting, praying and fasting today in response to the result in the General Election. Other Christian people are seeing that as an unreasonable response, others asking for all the discussion of politics to stop now, accept the result and move on.
The difference between the two groups is that the former work in areas where the impact of austerity has taken its toll upon the most vulnerable, the disabled and those with serious mental health diagnoses, and at risk young people.
The group feeling undisturbed by the result are perhaps unaffected by it. Their homes, jobs, education, health are not impacted. They do not eat from Foodbanks. They may feel that they work hard and deserve the lives they have, and that others who do not have good qualifications, stable family lives, reasonable health, a bank account with something in it, are not in as good a situation simply because they have not worked as hard. As if the playing field was somehow level and we’ve all got what we deserved. This is very naïve and is often called entitlement.
It is also very un-Biblical. In the Old Testament, the distinguishing feature of God’s covenant with Israel compared to the other nations around them, was its concern for justice for the poor, widows, orphans and foreigners, who were to be given free access to land from the landowners in order to glean food that had been planted and harvested at someone else’s expense. Leviticus 19: 9-10 describes leaving a margin around the harvest for others to come and take it, and leaving all that was dropped by the harvester for them too. This came directly out of the profits of the landowner. In Leviticus 19:34, the ‘foreigner’ among them was to be “treated as your native born. Love them as yourself.”
In the New Testament, this theme continues in the Beatitudes, Matthew 5; the parable of the Good Samaritan Luke 10:25-37, and the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. Jesus does not address the deservedness of the recipient in any of these examples, he just expects his followers to feed the hungry, visit the prisoner and pick up the pieces when disaster has struck.
There are two main reasons I discern for this; the first is the value of humanity to God, and the fact that poverty, pain, shame, and sickness are disfiguring and denigrating to the human condition. We are made to be in community, to care for one another and recognise God in the image of each person, and therefore we are bound to one another, to respond to those things that mask and deface the beauty and dignity of humans.
The second is that we are all helpless and in receipt of grace. We are all undeserving, none of us has any entitlement to the gifts and blessings we have received, least of all salvation. Therefore that principle applies to the rest of our lives too. The Christian life calls us to love others in a way that is challenging and radical and cannot leave us in a place where we are happy for the advantages we have and uninterested in the state of the lives of others. It simply can’t happen.
None of this is to say there are not complex situations to be unravelled and discussions to be had about the best way of doing this, and the fact that work engenders a dignity and enables the creativity of the humans spirit to be expressed. But the reality is that disadvantage is structurally created and sustained and can be dismantled. For example the Teach First initiative aims to address inequality in educational attainment in poor areas by putting in some of the best graduates the country has, to offer a leg up to children who would be potentially likely to fail to achieve at school and become a part of a cycle of poverty that continues for their own children. The Streetspace youth charity trains and deploys detached youth workers to help vulnerable young people discover their true worth and gifts, supporting them to they engage in their communities running street fairs and raising money for skateparks.
The demands the Gospel makes upon us are hard. They are much more complex than just working hard and being a nice person and taking care of our own family. They cause us to see the world differently and to ask different questions, based on the priorities Jesus modelled in his own life. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls this “redescribing reality.” In a moment I will post one of his prayers. I did not expect to have to explain why today some people are lamenting, but it seemed necessary.