It is now four years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank precipitated the global economic crisis that is still sending shock waves across Europe (and beyond). In the UK we are now in the middle of the longest ‘double dip’ recession for 50 years.
At one level, all of this can seem very remote from our daily lives, and the day to day concerns of a local church community. Its hard to spot an unemployed person walking down the street; its even harder to spot someone who has just had their benefits reduced or taken away altogether. The impacts of the crisis aren’t always obvious – but they are increasingly all around us, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
And no part of the country is now immune.
The tentacles of poverty and hardship are now stretching far and wide into even the most affluent parts of the UK. Even I was somewhat surprised, when giving a talk a few weeks ago in leafy Amersham, to find that a foodbank has recently been opened in the heart of the Chiltern commuter belt. In fact, across the UK Foodbanks run by the Trussell Trust have fed a staggering 128,697 people in crisis nationwide in the last 12 months – more than double a year ago.
So, in the great words of Lenin, what is to be done?
To be sure, many are responding in magnificently practical ways. Over 100 new Food banks have been opened in the past year. Christians Against Poverty are working towards realising their vision of having a Debt Centre in every town and city in the UK (approximately 500 centres). I am certainly not here to knock the sterling efforts of countless churches and thousands of volunteers engaged in local projects the length and breadth of the country, without whom – quite literally – the hungry would go unfed, and the homeless would be without shelter.
But, still I am faced with a nagging question: Is the churches’ response limited to becoming the forth emergency service? Is our response to the global economic crisis limited to handing out food parcels to the victims?
The words of Jim Wallis regularly ring in my ears – as they should surely in all our churches: “We are not just social service providers, we are prophetic interrogators for why so many people are hungry or homeless. We have to keep asking the “Why” question not just keep pulling bodies out of the river, but send people upstream to see who or what is throwing them in.”
The United Reformed Churches’ General Assembly certainly made a good start at ‘going upstream’ in July: The Scarborough Statement was a great first stab at asking the ‘why’ question. It is short, pithy, goes straight to the point – and it would be great to imagine that it was going to be read and studied in all 1500 URC churches over the coming months. But is that enough? Do we simply reading the Statement, agree (or disagree) with it, and move next business?
Surely our prophetic duty demands more of us than that?
So what can we do to ‘go upstream’ and work for economic justice locally? What can we do to enact the challenge implicit in the Scarborough Statement in our own congregations and communities?
More directly, can we harness the power of the fairtrade movement to achieve economic justice closer to home? Over the past few years, churches have taken to heart the challenge of promoting fairtrade for folk thousands of miles away. Is it not time to start asking equivalent questions about rates of pay for the folk who pick our carrots or cucumbers, or clean our own offices and schools? Is not economic justice is just as pressing for underpaid care workers as it is for Columbian coffee farmers?
So here are five simple ways you could start to ‘go upstream’ and add your voice to the call for a more human and humane alternative to the policies which are continuing to throw thousands into the river – both in our own communities and across the globe:
- Invest and bank with ethical banks and credit unions by signing up to the Move your money campaign (www.moveyourmoney.org.uk)
- Buy your gas and electricity from the ethical energy supplier Ebico (0800 458 7689 or www.ebico.co.uk)
- Ensure your church is a Living Wage employer – and if they are, ask your local Council whether they have signed up as well (www.livingwage.org.uk)
- Challenge your own MP over their attitudes to cuts, tax dodging and poverty
- Get on board with the campaign for Tax Justice (0161 236 9321 or www.church-poverty.org.uk/taxbus
Niall Cooper is National Coordinator of Church Action on Poverty and Convenor of the Inner Manchester Mission Network.
This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in the September edition of Reform magazine.