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Essays, Justice, Politics of Scripture

Occupying the Big Society – Part Two

In the Gospels Jesus invites women and men to join him in a dynamic movement, to discover what it means to be part of God’s inclusive Kingdom. Is Jesus’ movement a prelude to David Cameron’s ‘big society’? Originally introduced in his speech at the 2009 Conservative Party Conference a year later Cameron put it this way, “You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society” (Hugo Young Lecture, 2010). Since the 2010 UK General Election Cameron has placed a strong emphasis on the ‘big society’ as the anchor for the social policy of the current government. In an interview in ‘The Guardian’ in February 2011, “if neighbours want to take over the running of a post office, park or playground, we will help them. If a charity or a faith group want to set up a great new school in the state sector, we’ll let them. And if someone wants to help out with children, we will sweep away the criminal record checks and health and safety laws that stop them.”

So where does the idea come from? One answer to this question is the book ‘Red Tory’ by the Anglo-Catholic theologian Philip Blond (2010) which argues that both the political Left and the political Right have presided over a collapse in coherent cultural values and a shared commitment to the ‘common good’. The ‘broken Britain’ to which Blond points can only be ‘fixed’, he argues, through a combination of cultural conservatism, the redistribution of power from the ‘top’ to the ‘bottom’ and anti-market economics. For Blond the creation of an inclusive ‘big society’ rests on the empowerment of local communities and those with (to use Labour leader Ed Milliband’s words), ‘no stake in society’. It relies on the re-forging of the voluntary networks of trust and mutuality made possible through what Robert Putnam (2000) and John Field (2003) call ‘bridging social capital’ – a resurgent civil society. Is this what we find in David Cameron’s ‘big society’ or is the policy providing camouflage for an ideologically driven dismantling of the state, a rolling back of the Welfare State and cover for biting spending cuts? And so my concern is not so much with the concept of a ‘big society’ as it is with who gets to define what the term means. If those who are socially included get to define terms then we will end up with a rosy and idealised picture. If however it is those who are socially excluded that are heard we may well end up with a far rougher image more akin to Luke’s version of the beatitudes than Matthew’s more often read ‘common good’ take on the upside down ‘big society’ of God’s Kingdom. Does, in other words, the ‘big society’ pass what we might call the ‘Sheep and Goats’ test? Does it privilege those who are hungry, naked, captive or strangers? If it doesn’t then maybe it’s true that we are really looking at a PR makeover for a rolling back of the state and brutal spending cuts… ’We’re all in this together’? Well maybe some of us are in it more than others, especially those who have no ‘capital’ to throw into the ‘big society’ pot!

The language that Blond uses may be drawn from his own take on ‘radical orthodox’ theologies but his emphasis on voluntarism, community, localism, empowerment and shared social responsibility can, to a degree be aligned with the model of broad based community organising established by Saul Alinsky in the Chicago in the 1940s and taken all the way to the White House by Barak Obama in 2009. The communitarian ethic that is implied in Blond’s framing of a ‘big society’ resembles the heart of community organizing practice with one critical difference: Broad based community organising, whilst not faith specific, revolves implicitly around two key core values – a fundamental commitment to egalitarianism and a bias towards the powerless, seen for example in the most high profile example of UK community organising, the campaign for a ‘living wage’. Perhaps it is possible to see Cameron’s ‘big society’ community organisers as a kind of ‘community organiser light’ – organizing empowerment but not for justice or equality. Perhaps the true ‘big society’ is found in the ‘Occupy Movement’ that I spoke in my last post: a critical ‘big society’ shaped according to the needs of the 99% and by the kind of plural, messy and creative civil society that marks multicultural Britain in 2012 and which challenges PR savvy political soundbites about empowerment which lack a commitment to an equal society.

So what’s this all got to do with Jesus’ disciple movement I spoke of earlier? Before I sign off for now let me suggest a couple of thoughts…First the Kingdom which Jesus exemplifies (a truly ‘big’ society) is radical, inclusive and diverse at the same time (a diverse unity often referred to as ‘catholicity’). The test of Mr Cameron’s ‘big society’ is found in the Gospels – Whose in and whose out? Whose voices are heard (and ignored)? Is the ‘big society’ an affirmation of our God given diversity or an attempt to shut down difference? Second, in the face of the ‘age of austerity’ we now live in will people of faith (to use Robert Beckford’s [2004] words) be ‘scared/bought out’ of a prophetic stance against a bias to the included so that precious funding to maintain ‘big society’ community projects is not lost? What does it mean to ‘take up the Cross’ and to follow where Jesus led? That’s something I will return to in the last of this ‘Occupying the Big Society’ min-series in a few weeks time.

Chris Shannahan is a Methodist Minister and a Research Fellow in Urban Theology at the University of Birmingham






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