There was an interesting observation in last week's Spectator
about the internal division within the Conservative Party on welfare reform. The gulf intensified on Question Time, when Nadine Dorries categorically ruled out supporting George Osborne's latest proposal to save money by targeting young people. She said: "I have already voted on something I don't believe in. So I will not be voting on removing housing benefit for the under 25s." In an article provocatively entitled 'George Osborne's very own nasty party
', the Spectator
explained this 'compassion gap':
Iain Duncan Smith, who is in charge of welfare reform, is appalled at the Chancellor’s apparent relish in imposing the cuts — uncomfortable for Labour, certainly, but even more uncomfortable for those who are affected. To the Work and Pensions Secretary this is about saving lives, rather than saving money — that is the premise on which the Conservatives’ social justice strategy is founded. But Mr Osborne is making clear he sees the matter in a very different way.
On one side of the Conservative Party are the nasty slicers and slashers, eager to cut and save cash at all costs; on the other are the huggers and humane, determined to ensure social justice for the poor. The former tend to think in terms of economics and statistics; the latter about the individuals affected and their life struggles.
George Osborne sees a mob of under-25s playing a very generous benefits system and manipulating their way to a cushy life of indolence. Nadine Dorries and Iain Duncan Smith have spoken to Claire, a young homeless girl who was turfed out by her parents at the age of 16 when she became pregnant. And they also keep in touch with Zach, a 23-year old who was physically abused as a boy and descended into drugs and petty crime during his teens. He's got a job now, but it's only just covering food and bills. Moving back in with mum and dad isn't an option for either of these youngsters: without some kind of support, they would be out on the streets.
George Osborne seems to think that young people are ripe for targeting, as though none is poor and they may easily make alternative arrangements when their housing benefit is cut. It isn't as though the Chancellor doesn't have other options: Peter Hoskin at Conservative Home
has identified a few, and His Grace knows one or two others
. So why is George Osborne intent on targeting the nation's struggling youth while wealthy pensioners go on getting their free bus passes, TV licences and winter fuel contributions?
Surely he wouldn't be so cynical as to skew benefits toward those most likely to vote Conservative, would he?
The poorest under-25s in the United Kingdom are not at all poor compared to the starving in Africa or the dispossessed across the Middle East. But the developed world sets higher standards.
Since poverty is relative, it is important to examine who the real poor are.
In the NT, the peasants who possessed little material wealth were not called ‘poor’ (Gr. ptochos
) if they possessed what was sufficient (ie subsistence). These were termed 'penes
', and the distinction is important. Jesus was concerned with the literal, physical needs of men (ie not just the spiritual, cf Acts 10:38). When Luke was addressing the ‘poor’, he meant those who had no money - the oppressed, miserable, dependent, humiliated - and this is translated 'ptochos
', indicating poverty-stricken, cowering down or hiding oneself for fear - quite literally, begging. The penes
has to work - sometimes at menial tasks - but the ptochos
has to beg. Those addressed by Jesus are the destitute beggars, not the penes
of few possessions. This is important in a modern Western context where the threshold of poverty is defined by having access to a total annual cash income less than one half of the national average, and the non-possession of a television, video recorder, or the latest Nike trainers.
The "irruption of the poor", as Gustavo Gutiérrez phrases it in his book The Truth Shall Make You Free
, remains a direct challenge to both government and church. He was writing in the 90s about the 70s and 80s, but the truth remains:
This new presence of the poor and oppressed is making itself felt in the popular struggles for liberation and in the historical consciousness arising from these struggles. It is also making itself felt within the church, for there the poor are increasingly making their voices heard and claiming openly their right to live and think the faith in their own terms.
If the ptochos
is deprived of the basic needs of life - food, water, shelter, clothing – the message of salvation demands the provision of the necessities to restore dignity. But for the penes
, whose life is manageable but manifestly subject to inequalities and deprivation, salvation also demands ‘human rights’ – an involvement in the democratic process, education, healthcare, and protection under the law. Gutiérrez sees both as a sort of death:
Death, in this case, is caused by hunger, sickness, or the oppressive methods used by those who see their privileges endangered by any and every effort to free the oppressed. It is physical death to which cultural death is added, because in a situation of oppression everything is destroyed that gives unity and strength to the dispossessed of this world.
George Osborne seems to want to analyse the causes of this ‘death’, and dispense charity according to worthiness. But there is no indication in Scripture that the there should be any such discrimination. Certainly, those who do not work shall not eat, but those who are not working because of the Government's economic policies and regional variations in wealth distribution is an oppression in which confidence is destroyed and hopes crushed.
The question of whether the poor are victims of their circumstances, or have made their own poverty, is of no matter in the context of evangelism. Matthew’s ‘social contract’ (Mt 7:12) becomes the great leveller, and constitutes the Church’s foundational expression of social justice.
The compassionate wing of the Conservative Party feels deprivation vicariously - often because they have experienced poverty or loss in some form themselves. They have either suffered, and then found release from a cycle of hopelessness and despair; or they have seen suffering, and been profoundly moved to take action to alleviate the effects.
The Hebrew word for jubilee (yôbêl) means ‘release’ (Ex 21:2-6 cf Lk4:18). In a sense it constitutes the removal of the barriers which prevent human beings from participating fully in the benefits and responsibilities of the community. The legislation concerning the Jubilee (Lev 25:8ff) releases those who are denied the means of livelihood (land) and are, therefore, forced to be dependent on others (25:39-41). Luke’s ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ (Lk 4:16-19) may be seen as a declaration that the time had come for the fulfilment of these laws, with Jesus declaring the purpose of his own mission and the future mission of the Church. The economic practice of the Early Church thus gives birth to a ‘Jubilee community’ not once every 49 years, but in its daily practice, in which social justice may be defined as giving to each his or her due.
There is a challenge here for political policy. Under-25s are not ptochos
, but they are perceived as being so
relative to other demographic groups, and, in politics, perception is all. George Osborne really ought to know that. And certainly, compared to the penes
pensioners, the penes
youth are in greater need of social support because they are tomorrows wives, husbands, mothers and fathers.
It is important to note that the Lord instructs the Israelites to give generously without a grudging heart (Deut 15:10), with the acknowledgement that there will always be poor people in the land (v11). He didn’t establish a redistributive governmental tax regime, but commanded his covenant people, out of love for Him and the Law, to care for the poor from their hearts.
The fusion of the message of God’s love in providing salvation, and His manifest concern for the needy, means that the mission of the Church has political implications because it demands that people repent of social as well as personal sins, and live a new life as a member of the community of the Kingdom. Nadine Dorries and Iain Duncan Smith are Christians; George Osborne stands aloof from their inspiration: he is a secularist. He only sees the penes
who is no ptochos
; they see the oppression of both.
Social justice has both political and religious implications because acts of mercy and love are a demonstration of the gospel. If a government is to rule righteously, it must be concerned with the release of all who are oppressed. While evangelism is distinct from social justice, they are contingent and related. David Bosch describes the partnership as a marriage
..in which husband and wife not only belong to, and depend on each other, but where one should also be able to see something of the one in the other. This means that there is an evangelistic dimension in all truly Christian social action even when explicit evangelism does not take place; likewise, there is a social dimension in all authentic evangelism, even where explicit social action does not occur.
The Book of Deuteronomy is a social charter of extraordinary literary coherence and political sophistication; it is the archetype of modern western constitutionalism. For Jews and Christians committed to the continuing struggle for social justice and human rights, the Deuteronomic model of theocentric humanism remains an eminently practicable legacy. But laws are not always sufficient in themselves; we need the narrative in which they are set to understand the principles on which they operate, and we need the later narratives, prophets, psalms and wisdom literature to see how they were taken up into the life of the nation. God has spoken in all the scriptures ‘in many and varied ways’, and we must use them all in building up our picture of his character, acts and purpose.
The Good Samaritan’s love in action challenges us to work for justice, because the Church cannot remain passive or neutral when fellow men suffer from poverty. Equally, it is not only a question of ethics in the present, but also proclamation of a hope that is future. Jesus blessed those who show mercy, who work for peace, who provide hospitality without any thought of reward (Mt 5:4-9; Lk 6:30-36), and the poor themselves are blessed, for in the coming Kingdom there will be sufficient for all (Lk 6:20f). Thus the Church is not called simply to proclaim the gospel, but simultaneously to live out its evangelistic message. In the words of Bosch: "Just as one cannot speak of the church without speaking of its mission, it (is) impossible to think of the church without thinking, in the same breath, of the world to which it is sent."
Nadine Dorries and Iain Duncan Smith are concerned with feeding the poor, housing the homeless and loving the lonely, because such actions reflect the humanitarian priorities which lie at the core of their beings. They are concerned with lives. George Osborne is perceived as being detached, judgmental and indifferent to the needs of young people. This is the 'nasty' image which no amount of Cameroon re-branding has yet managed to transform, perhaps because it is authentic and destructively deep-seated.