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Essays, Justice, Politics of Scripture

Occupying the Big Society – Part One

Amidst the fire and fear of Nazi Germany Dietrich Bonhoeffer articulated the calling of the Church – “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Seventy years later the place of faith in the public sphere of an arguably ‘post-religious’ and ‘post-ideological’ century has become a central political and theological question. In the context of the apparent triumph of neo-liberal capitalism on a global scale and the slightly vague but insistent reflections of the current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, on the ‘big society’ are faith groups to uncritically bandage the wounds of the broken in the interests of the ‘common good’ or ram a prophetic spoke into the wheels of contemporary injustice?

As people of faith it is true that we are the inheritors of the radicalism of Hebrew Prophets like Amos and Isaiah, of the communitarian early Christians of Jerusalem, of the ‘Diggers’ of the seventeenth century, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Christian Socialists of the nineteenth century and the Civil Rights activism of Martin Luther King. But we also find ourselves within a faith community that has given the stamp of approval to dictators, inequality, slavery and apartheid. Should we listen again to Martin Luther’s words about two incompatible ‘kingdoms’ or be content to look towards the ‘heavenly city’ of which Augustine spoke? Will the ‘real’ Church please stand up? In the 1960s we were confidently told that religion would probably be dead on its feet within a couple of generations. In spite of such predictions and the ongoing reductionist secularism of figures like Richard Dawkins religion has not died a death but has become a key player in the political life of countries like the UK. On what some like Jurgen Habermas (2008) and Chris Baker and Justin Beaumont (2011) suggest is an emerging ‘post-secular’ landscape what role for faith? In the late 1990s under the ‘New’ Labour government led by Tony Blair faith groups were increasingly seen (especially after the horrors of 9/11 and 7/7) as the organisations best placed to forge social inclusion and build community cohesion. Since 2010 under the Conservative led coalition government faith groups have arguably become welfare delivery agencies in the ‘big society’. As a result of what Hannah Skinner and Chris Baker (2005) called their ‘religious capital’ faith groups are often the most visible, most engaged, most inclusive, most active organisations in often hard hit neighbourhoods. But is that it….easing the burden but not standing and speaking against injustice?

The ‘Occupy Movement’ arose just six months ago from the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests. Now it is important not to be uncritical of ‘Occupy’ in the way perhaps that some political theologians in the UK were of Latin American liberation theology in the 1970s and 1980s as they sought to transplant a radical contextual theology that emerged from the soil of Latin America to a very different Europe. Nevertheless in 2012 ‘Occupy’ has presented communities of faith with a provocative opportunity and a powerful challenge. Arising from the global financial meltdown of 2009-2010 and the ongoing culture of stratospheric bankers bonuses in the face of the kind of hardship and inequality not seen since the Great Depression ‘Occupy’ has fashioned a diverse, fluid and disparate social movement around an imperfect but searing critique of global capitalism. As people of faith in the UK watch the TV or catch the bus to work passed St Pauls Cathedral the tents and placards of ‘Occupy LSX’ (that may soon be removed as a result of legal action from the City of London) challenge us: Are we content to bind up the wounds of the broken 99% or does the Gospel mandate of a divine bias to the oppressed rouse us to organise, speak, preach, pray, act to subvert the 1%? The African-American cultural critic Cornel West (1999) challenges preachers, teachers, ‘academics’, writers, bloggers….’To be an intellectual means to speak a truth that allows suffering to speak (to) create a vision of the world that puts into the limelight the social misery that is usually hidden or concealed by the dominant viewpoints of a society.’ The tent city that has grown up around St Pauls in the shadow of the City of London is a symbol of a wider and deeper question than the way in which the Cathedral authorities and the Church of England handled the occupation. To obsess about the minutiae of Cathedral politics is to miss the point. The tents outside St Pauls Cathedral synthesise perhaps the single most central question before the Christian community in the global ‘North’ – ‘What does God’s bias to the oppressed mean today and does it matter enough for us to move beyond consensual common good discipleship to take seriously a preferential option for the oppressed and ram a spoke into the wheel of injustice?’ That’s a question I want to return to soon, but for now I simply ask the question to myself and of us all.

2 thoughts on “Occupying the Big Society – Part One

  1. The first spoke rammed into the spoke of injustice was the Bishops’ challenge in the House of Lords to the cap on welfare benefits. I hope this leads to the church reflecting more about the bias to the poor and what this means in practice.

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