Something quite amazing has happened this week. A growing group of over 30 Christian organisations and church networks from across the political and theological spectrum have come together with a shared narrative. A shared story has been told into a political environment that is all about division and controversy. But this hasn’t happened overnight. It is based on a set of carefully nurtured relationships, and the reality of what is happening on the ground in the UK. People are finding unity in a shared mission.
All over the UK, the Church is rolling up its sleeves to serve. It has been wonderful to witness this explosion of creativity and passion. We all know about the Foodbanks, the Street Pastors, and the debt counselling services to give just three examples. More and more politicians of all parties are recognising the vital contribution that these and many other projects are making to communities and individuals up and down the land. Even more significantly, these projects represent many thousands of relationships being built with those who are badly in need of them.
But there are countless other acts of ongoing weekly service that will never make the headlines. The single mum receiving gifts. The young person being mentored. The elderly people getting a visit. The shoe boxes heading to Romania. The patient prayer for the sick. All this is cause for celebration, but in this election year of 2015, as Christians in Politics, we believe a further challenge needs to be made.
All the work we have mentioned is crucial. But there is a definite temptation. There is a difference between charity and justice. We enjoy dishing out charity, as it actually makes us feel good. We enjoy helping the struggling family. We feel better because we have given a pound to the beggar. Even if our work is properly empowering people to make better decisions for themselves and could not be pigeon-holed as mere charity, it is often hands-on. We are able to see the transformation up close. We are able to connect hand-to-hand and face-to-face. This is good, but it can’t be the whole story. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King once explained that as the church we often enjoy playing the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside. We are wired for compassion. It comes naturally. It gives us a sense of significance and an immediate buzz from having tangibly helped. But he went on to warn that we rarely take the time to do the harder work of going back to the Jericho road. Who is going back to work out how to stop more people getting mugged? Could we improve the lighting, or increase the policing? Perhaps some more CCTV cameras are needed? The thing is that those are political decisions. But they’re often made around dull committee room tables, poring over statistics and reports. You know that those small changes will mean hours of potentially boring meetings. But as believers, surely that is also where we need to be, bringing salt and light and the drive to make change happen.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it like this: “As Christians, we need to not just be pulling the drowning bodies out of the river. We need to be going upstream to find out who is pushing them in.” As Christians, we are very good at treating victims, bringing Christ’s care. Charity is the sticking plaster that is required because injustice remains. Displaying compassion deals with the symptoms of a sick global system, whereas seeking justice pursues a cure for the disease with which it is riddled. We often prefer charity to justice because charity makes us look good, but challenging systems involves inevitable conflict with powerful vested interests for whom the present system works very well. These are the prophetic battles that we often back away from as they will involve disagreements with corporations, politicians, or councils. Popularity is much more easily achieved through charity.
We live in the context of a global economic system that is widening the gap between rich and poor. Even the advocates of the unbridled free market admit that the bottom billion of our world cannot even make it onto the ladder, never mind climb up it, with our present system. New victims are being created every day. But as the Church we will be stuck treating victims for the next 100 years unless we employ any of the intelligence and leadership that we have been endowed with to help bring some change to the system. We also, of course, need to make sure that systems don’t hold people in dependency, and instead encourage them to work and take responsibility for their actions.
While working with Christians in Politics, I often observe people making a journey along a spectrum of engagement. It runs from APATHY to CHARITY to JUSTICE-SEEKING.
People are lifted from their apathy by some sort of engagement with their local communities. For example, this happened to many Christians during 2008, through the HOPE08 campaign, where over 1,500 villages, towns and cities took part in unified missional efforts in their communities. Through these projects, people were exposed to some of the huge needs in their neighbourhoods. They saw the challenges for those on limited or no incomes. They saw the difficulties of those with disabilities and those whose own family backgrounds militate against self-belief or learning. These interactions left people thinking: “Why?”
Why is the playing field so skewed? What can we do that means we aren’t coming back here every year to do the gardening, or restore the playground? What background issues do we need to challenge that leave people in poverty? Once you start asking these questions, you are inevitably coming up with answers that need political expression. Interestingly, they may also lead you in different political directions, from the same motivational starting point. This is another reason why, as Christians, we sometimes shy away from this part of the process, because we want to avoid conflict with one another. One Christian will see a situation and feel inspired to campaign for a Living Wage to be paid, while another may see the same situation and campaign for measures to strengthen family life, or free up entrepreneurs to start small businesses.
So could we make this testing part of the journey from charity to justice-seeking? It’s not that we leave compassion and charity behind – perhaps a better description of that spectrum would be a spiral where we revisit different areas of engagement as we journey outwards from our selfish self towards God’s world.
That is why we have created the SHOW UP campaign. It is encouraging Christians to not just shout from the sidelines but to get on the pitch of political life. In the run-up to a general election, it is all too easy to spend all our time discussing who to vote for, again allowing the Church to retreat into the role of commentator and critiquer, rather than participant. Could 2015 be a springboard so that in 2020 we aren’t just asking the questions at hustings, we are answering them? Because of the Church’s community work, church members are often best placed to assess the needs of their communities. The question is will we keep those opinions to ourselves, or will we SHOW UP?
Please watch the campaign video and then ask for it to be shown at your church gathering. For those who can, please also share it via Twitter, Facebook and email to take this vital message to the breadth of the incredible body that is the Church in UK.