Tag Archives: society

A food bank is not just for Christmas

Yesterday saw a debate in the House of Commons on food banks. This was secured after a petition started by Jack Monroe which received over 140,000 signatures in just a few days. I was not able to watch the whole debate as I was at work at the time, but did catch up with some bits and listened to an account from my father, who is currently the operations manager of a food bank in the home counties.

The overall impression that he gave was that there were some good backbenchers but that the behaviour of the front bench was disgraceful. The secretary of state, Iain Duncan Smith, was seen laughing at the debate and also left early, thus refusing to listen to a vital debate on an area of great public concern for which his department is responsible. This abdication of responsibility is not behaviour becoming of a person who is fit to execute office with which they are charged. Esther McVey also did nothing to show that she understood the problems by stating, “As we are saying, it is positive that people are reaching out to support other people.”

When obtaining a voucher for a food bank, those in need are asked to state why they are having to resort to the use of the food bank. This data is gathered by the Trussell Trust, though to my knowledge this has not yet been published as a full scale study. From my father’s experience of administering the vouchers, the overwhelming reason is because of the benefit reforms pushed through by the current government.

The big frustration that arises is that the Conservatives know that the rise in food banks is a result of their policies. Britain isn’t eating because of what our leaders have done in the name of austerity. Yet the Conservatives live in a state of denial, which was exemplified by the debate. They spent more time trying to blame Labour for the increase in the last three and a half years and showed no care or humanity for the half a million or so people who have been helped as a result of the food banks.

The debate, however, was poorly attended for most of its duration. I have yet to investigate this, though I read several notes from people claiming that no more than 50 or 60 Conservatives were in the chamber at any one time, yet when it came to a vote, they mustered enough people to win the vote, though for each who voted for Conservative denialism (a vote, in my view, which demonstrates a callousness and a deep disrespect that is a shame to our common humanity), there were opposition members who didn’t come along. For any member who represents a constituency which has no present need of a food bank, I can understand why they might not have attended, though given the widespread nature of the problem, they could have stood in solidarity with their neighbours.

There is much more that could be written, though I would rather move on to a more practical and forward-looking proposal.

Christmas is less than a week away. This is a very busy time for many people for a variety of reasons. This is no less so for those who help keep the food banks running, collecting and distributing essential items to those in need.

Many people will also have either finished or come close to finishing their Christmas shopping. My request to you is that as you do you shopping for your family or friends or just for yourself, that you pick up two or three additional non-perishable items that you can donate to your local food bank. If you are not sure where yours is, simply Google “food bank [place name]” and you should very quickly be able to find one. There are contact details on any Trussell Trust website so you can find out where to drop items off. If you cannot drop food off, please consider a monetary donation.

As busy as Christmas is, the need for food banks doesn’t end there. There will be people who are struggling to eat at New Year, in the 2nd week of January, the 3rd and the 4th. Please continue to support on an ongoing basis. A food bank is not just for Christmas. Please help ensure that help is available for those who need it. If a society is judged by how it treats its elderly, its poor, its disabled and its most vulnerable, then let’s demonstrate to our politicians that society is more decent than that which they are attempting to engineer.

It is a tragedy that in a modern society we have to have food banks. It is a shame on our leaders that so many are denial that the policies they have planned, voted for and implemented are a leading cause of the massive increase in food poverty over the last three and a half years. Jack’s petition was one form of democracy and we will have another in a year and a half’s time to change the current status quo. Until then, our humanity compels us to help one another.

Should christians accept bonuses?

Background

I had a recent chat with another christian when this question came up as part of the conversation. Anyone who knows me or reads this blog will know that I am distinctively left-leaning. One of the main reasons for this is because I am a christian. I have a lot of difficulty understanding the idea of the “christian right” as I consider it to be an oxymoron.

Subsequently, I have quite strong views when it comes to money. So I wanted to lay out my reasoning for why I think the answer to the question ought to be “no,” though I wanted to understand the counter-argument. As a result, I asked around a little bit, which is laid out below. I have also attempted to play devil’s advocate.

Of course, I am not judging christians who do accept bonuses as part of their remuneration. If you do, all I’d like to do is make you think and question your motivation for accepting it.

Why I think the answer ought to be “no”

The fundamental reason why I would not be happy to accept it is one of motivation. Without giving too much confidential information away, employees in my company are given a choice. They can accept a fixed salary of £x per year, or else they could take a lower salary with a bonus which, when combined is greater than £x. So let’s say someone might be offered a basic pay of £30k, or they might be offered £28k with a £4k bonus. Of course the bonus is tied to their meeting certain conditions. If they meet their targets, they will obtain their bonus; if they get part-way they will be awarded part of their bonus. If they don’t meet the minimum target, they won’t get anything.

To my way of thinking, this creates a danger that we then work, our motivation becomes the creation of personal wealth. Following on from my recent post on worship, this would indicate that we are worshipping money. Of course, we may to rationalise this by claiming that we are accepting the bonus structure in order to pay our rent, fund the train fares, feed the family, etc. What I do not like about this view is that it creates the false impression that we would not be able to make ends meet without the bonus.

I would rather my motivation to work be because I want to do a good job. As I touched on briefly recently, there are many ways we can worship. To me, trying to do a good job at work is a part (though by no means all) of my worship. There is the very famous warning in 1 Timothy, where Paul writes “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Tim 6:8-10, NRSV) Often only a part of that is quoted, but I wanted to include the lot.

Having worked in financial services for several years, and subsequently working in the finance side of a different type of business, I am surrounded by those who are obsessed with money. It would be very easy to get sucked into that world, where I’d care about profit and trying to boost my own pay, quite possibly at the expense of others. That’s not someone I’d ever want to become. I want to be someone who is content with what I have.

Another passage in my thinking (though I recognise that money is not the primary purpose of this particular discourse) is Romans 4, where Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.” (Romans 4:4, NIV) This is as close as I can find to anything about bonuses. I hope you don’t think I’m stretching scripture too much; that’s not my intention.

The devil’s advocate argument (why it might be OK)

You have to recognise that the pay culture we have in modern society would be totally alien to those living in the 18th century, let alone anyone before then. So the people of the bible wouldn’t have known enough to either speak in favour or against company bonuses.

There are various people in the bible who had great wealth and who were not condemned for it. Abraham was a bit of a Richard Branson-type figure of his day, and in terms of a single individual owning a high proportion of the world’s wealth, Solomon was probably one of the richest men in history. Yet neither of them were condemned for their wealth. It was incidental to them. This brings us on to the so-called ‘prosperity gospel.’

Proponents of this view often cite Psalm 37 as a justification for not only claiming that wealth is acceptable, but that it is a sign of reward for faithfulness: “Trust in the LORD, and do good; Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the LORD, And He shall give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:3,4, NKJV) I interpret this quite differently. Given the preamble of verse 3, I think what constitutes the “desires of [our] hearts” will be changed so that we no longer will be desiring of wealth, but rather we will be desiring the riches of God. (c.f. Romans 12).

Given the balance of the number of times wealth and money are referred to in the bible, I think that prosperity advocates must have a hard time defending their position. For brevity, I’ve omitted most references I could use to back this up; maybe another day.

Some practical considerations

Of course, not everyone is given a choice to not have a bonus as part of their pay packet. You have to be in a particularly high-end job to be able to change the terms of your employment contract. Given that I have only ever taken jobs whilst unemployed, I never had much bargaining power, so I simply wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise the prospect of employment.

Then you have the choice of what to do with it. I asked on Twitter what people thought about it, though I only got 1 reply which was that it’s OK to accept a bonus, so long as it is donated to charity. More widely, there are a number of good things you could do with additional money, of which giving to charity is but one. However, I think christians always have to keep a tight reign on their motives. For example, if you donate via a Just Giving page (or similar) do you disclose your name and the amount you are donating, or do you go by the principle of “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matt 6:3)?

Conclusion

For my conscience, I am happier to not take a bonus. I do not think it is inherently wrong to do so. What is important is what you do with it. In this, I probably ought to be honest about my own pay packet. I contribute to a pension scheme which removes from my pay packet 10% of my gross pay. This pushes me down into the “basic rate” tax band. Had I opted not to do this, I would be higher rate tax payer, having a marginal rate of 40% on a small portion of my salary. As it stands, my effective rate (total tax+NI/total pay) is 26.7%. From this, you can tell that I am paid significantly more than the average salary. This is slightly tempered by my train fares of £87.50 a week. Once you take tax into account, this means that if I got a job within walking distance of home, I could take a gross pay cut of just over £6,000 per year and it would have no effect on my take-home pay.

Given that I am such a highly paid job, putting me amongst the top few percent of UK workers, I think that to demand any extra would be selfish and immature. When I work long hours, I don’t complain about a lack of overtime, in spite of pressure to do so. When I think of all the millions in this country alone (let alone the billions elsewhere in the world) who do not have the material riches that I have, it is very humbling. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b, NIV) It is a huge responsibility and one that has to be taken seriously. Personally, I find those who have abundant material wealth, and yet who complain about a lack of it, to be repugnant; it’s one of the biggest intolerances I have. Maybe I’m being harsh and lacking grace; I don’t know.

So that’s my choice. What’s your take on the matter?

Book Review: Surprised By Hope by Tom Wright

Before reading this, I knew it was a kind of ‘lite’ version of the Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG), which Wright published a few years earlier. There was also some additional material included, where he built upon the conclusions reached at the end of RSG. The only other thing I was aware of was that it was not universally welcomed by all christians, and has faced something of a backlash at times.

The book is certainly aimed at a wider audience than RSG as Wright tries as hard as possible to say away from technical terminology, though he can’t resist returning to ‘inaugurated eschatology’ on one or two occasions. As usual, though, his writing style is brilliant, clear and easy to follow. He picks his analogies carefully, and always maintains a pace to keep the reader interested.

His basic thesis is as follows: many christians have muddled beliefs about death, resurrection and the afterlife. This then leads on to a confused idea of how the ideas of life after death relate to ideas of life before death. The book outlines some of the current ideas about these topics and Wright contrasts these with the beliefs of the early church, or what we might consider to be “authentic” christian belief. He demonstrates how some ideas that are commonly assumed to be christian are in fact adopted or adapted from alternative sources. One example of this is the notion of Hell. Many christians that I know have very firm ideas of a literal lake of fire and eternal torment, when in fact this is really just the Hellenistic idea of Hades, with some twists put on it by the likes of Dante Alighieri and John Milton.

Similarly, the traditional idea of heaven and the Roman Catholic idea of Purgatory are also shown to have no real relation the beliefs held by the early church. As I read it, I found myself agreeing with much of what he said, sometimes suspiciously too much, so that I questioned whether or not my own prejudices were being pandered to. Certainly I find myself frustrated when I wish to challenge fellow christians about what they believe only to have told to me “The bible says… [insert Sunday school cliché]” to the extent that I question how many people regularly question what they believe and look to the bible for a proper basis, rather than cherry-picking certain passages and claiming the bible “says” what their particular interpretation is of this particular passage.

Of course, I don’t deny the possibility that I may do that myself. Just like anyone else, I’m a fallible human. If you think I’m wrong, please feel free to point me in the right direction (or at least, what you believe the right direction to be!).

Wright develops his own idea of “Hell” which he admits has no significant precedent. His view is that we become more and more defined by that which we worship and define ourselves by. So while christians become more Christ-like, those who “refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light…by their own effective choice, [become] beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.” (emphasis included in original text).

I do not agree with this, as my understanding of the bible leads me to be an annihilationist. I know this is also not a widely accepted view, though this does only prove Wright’s point that there is a wide range of beliefs within christianity.

From here, the level of controversy only increases. Having set out his stall with the historic evidence for the resurrection, what the ascension meant and what the earliest creation hope for “life after life after death” he then moves on to the idea of salvation. The two key questions posed, which I think we all ought to answer, are:

1) What are we saved from?
2) What are we saved for?

Wright’s particular answer is framed in terms of creation and new creation. Given my own liberal-baptist background, I have been used to the idea that salvation is about the restoration of a broken relationship with God. Wright calls this into question and claims such a worldview has missed the point. Personal salvation is a secondary matter to the restoration of creation. This view is, I think, one of the main areas where he rubs up against a large number of christians, who have been taught a different emphasis. I say emphasis, because I don’t think it really is a fundamentally different understanding from that taught from the front of churches week in, week out; but the deanthropocentrication represents a massive shift in focus.

Following on from this, the final section of the book looks at how this all affects the look of the church. Here, Wright does not shy away from politics. And when christianity (or religion, if you consider christianity to be a religion) and politics mix, controversy almost inevitably follows. It is probably fair to describe Wright as morally conservative but socially liberal. He has criticisms of both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Probably the most insightful area of this section is when he talks about the “massive economic imbalance of the world, whose major symptom is the ridiculous and unpayable Third World debt.” He goes on to say, “I simply want to record my conviction that this is the Number One moral issue of our day….The present system of global debt is the real immoral scandal, the dirty little secret – or rather the dirty enormous secret – of glitzy, glossy western capitalism.” Now that you’ve read that, consider this: this book was published in 2007, a full year before the Credit Crunch.

The conclusions of the last couple of chapters are not always that insightful or strong. Here, Wright does betray an Anglican bias, particularly with his advocacy of liturgy and other such religious rituals. So in one moment he calls for us to be living as “resurrection people” but in the next he supposes that the best way to live this out is in religiosity. I completely disagree with this application. I don’t think religion should have any part in christianity, so for me, this final section devalues the book slightly.

Other than that, it is an insightful and thought-provoking read; well-written with a razor sharp wit and a well-researched basis.

French-style secularism?

While I was munching breakfast, I came across this story that hit Twitter a few times from the Telegraph, about prayer being banned from the streets of Paris.

What an outrage! This is a suppression of freedom of expression, it’s stigmatising those who pray and discriminating against those of a religious persuasion!

Or is it?

On closer inspection, it turns out the problem is not really about prayer at all. It’s a traffic issue in one particular area of Paris. The headline of banning prayer is a misleading one, as prayer is not really being banned. There is nothing to stop me (apart from the cost of the train fare!) from walking the streets of Paris and praying silently while I do so. I am apt to do this around London quite often, but I doubt many, if any, are aware of this. So this legislation is not supposed to deal with prayer in general, but is solely against Muslims who are too numerous in one area to fit into a small mosque.

This is not an example of the Thought Police in action; the root cause is a gathering of one particular religion in an area that holds up traffic on one day of the week. It would be interesting to visit the scene in question just to find out how bad the issue is. To quote the article, “the prayer problem was limited to two roads in the Goutte d’Or district of Paris’s eastern 19th arrondissement, where “more than a thousand” people blocked the street every Friday.”

However, there are issues raised by this that ought to be considered with due sobriety. For one, there is the understanding (or lack thereof) of the term ‘secularism’ by Claude Guéant. According to the report (if we are trust the content & the translation) “praying in the street … violates the principles of secularism.”

I have outlined my own views on secularism before and why I would describe myself a mild secularist. This, however, seems to completely miss the point of secularism, which is to remove (if there ever was any) religious privilege. One of the architects of secularism was Martin Luther, as his reaction against the overt political power and lack of accountability afforded to the Roman Catholic Church; though it is worth noting that his 95 theses were posted not long after the reign of the Borgias, which is one of the most shameful of periods in Catholicism.

But Luther’s intention was never for an “out of sight, out of mind” approach that we have evident in the thinking of one French minister, and possibly the wider government. It also begs the question why any action needs to be taken on such a wide scale, and why it is not limited to the time and place where the problem occurs.

If the problem was solely due to traffic, then it should have been sorted out as a traffic issue, not as one of religion. I’m trying to avoid going down the “thin end of the wedge” route, but I can’t escape the possibility that some French Muslims may well have just cause to think the wedge was already feeling quite thick by now.

As a side note, there is a march for this French kind of secularism happening in London on Saturday. I couldn’t attend if I wanted to, as there are major engineering works on the routes into and out of the capital this weekend. I won’t say any more about that now, as I can’t better the well-balanced piece that came out of Theos earlier this week.

The different worlds we live in

A note to begin with. I started writing this before the riots and looting broke out in London. The addition of the section on that was inserted after the first draft was completed.

The other day, while I was waiting for a train, I was thinking about how different a life I lead from those around me; probably. We all inhabit the same world in a spatio-temporal sense, yet many of us live in completely “worlds.”

When I was a child, I was used to my environment. It was the very definition of normal. Any changes to this or different environments or lifestyles were completely alien and, to my mind, unnatural. I think I still live with something of this mindset, even if the framework by which I understand the term ‘normal’ is now somewhat different from what it was a few decades ago.

Before I give you a little window on my world, to see what defines a ‘normal’ life for me, I will tell you what I think many of friends and family consider normal. Most got married young, to people they met either at university or shortly after graduating. There may be between one and four children in the family by the time they’re 30. They live in houses (with a variety of terraced and semi-detached, with detached being reserved only for the richest) and drive cars. They work close to home and have a working day (which I define as the time between leaving home and getting home) of around 9-10 hours. They take holidays once or twice a year. At weekends, they go away and “do things” to relax.

I occasionally visit this world, but to me it is a strange, alien place; a kind of Middle Earth, if you will (albeit far more resembling The Shires than anywhere else).

For my part, I do not marry. I have explained at some length about this before, so I shan’t go into that again. Consequently, I do not have children of my own. I’m perfectly happy to be an uncle, and I hope my nieces and nephews find me to be entertaining, informative and a welcome occasional visitor into their lives. I live in a one-bed flat above a busy junction with the constant noise of traffic outside, which I have learned to block out for the most part. My work is a long way from where I live. Typically, I spend about 2.5 hours on a number of different trains every day (hence why I can get so much reading done) and, combined with longer than average working hours, my typical working day is around 13 hours. This would appear to leave me with 11 hours at home per day, which sounds an awful lot. But there are some things I missed out.

I sleep less than the average person, and typically get about 7 hours per night. Anything less than 6 and the effects on my health quickly become detrimental. So do I really have as many as 4 hours a day spare? Well, as noted above, I do not marry, so I am entirely dependent upon myself for all domestic chores. To prepare, cook and eat a decent meal from scratch will typically take at least an hour; maybe an hour and a half. Then I have to clean up afterwards, as well do any other cleaning and tidying around the flat, as I am convinced that my presence there accelerates the increase of entropy far more than natural. That would, of course, imply that I am doing something particularly ordered and constructive, though I do not know what that might be. My meals are typically done more for nutrition and taste than for presentation. So cleaning will take another hour. This has now left me with 2 spare hours a day. However, you may note that I have not washed yet in all this time. (*eeewwww* I hear you say). Well, there is a little more to that. I would estimate that washing, getting dressed and generally waking up takes about an hour. I’m not a morning person.So, as you will have worked out, the “me” time I get is about an hour a day. This time is where I try and squeeze in my bible study, prayers, food shops, blogging or watching tv. This is only an average. When I have been particularly busy, this can be zilch, leaving me with zero spare time from Monday morning to Friday night, which is pretty exhausting.

In spite of being a bloke, I can multitask a bit. Thankfully my home is arranged so that I can watch tv or listen to anything while I am doing the washing up or cooking, or ironing my shirts. I do in fact have a link on the right of this page to some lectures which I find very interesting. The Gifford lectures have very few recordings online, although I did recently spend a week going through those of Simon Conway Morris. The Faraday lectures can be quite interesting (though of varying quality of speaker) and the sound recording isn’t great, so you can’t really hear it if you’ve got a stir-fry sizzling away. If I miss church on a Sunday (if I’m away with family, or upstairs doing the childrens’ work) I can catch up mid-week via a download from the church website.

So that’s a rough outline of my week. It mostly consists of work, commuting and household maintenance. I’m sure, if you could somehow quantify how interesting someone is, I would fall into the bottom few percentiles. As for the weekends, I am perplexed at how people who “do things” can find that at all relaxing. Some friends go horse riding, some go scuba diving, some go bird watching, some race cars, some play football, some play golf. I fail to see how any of those things are anything but stressful. Maybe I’m strange. I find talking to people stressful. Even if it’s a so-called “casual” conversation, my heart rate goes up and I start to perspire. That’s why Saturday is always my favourite day of the week. I very rarely speak to another human being on Saturdays. Even if I do, it’s usually only the checkout girl at the local supermarket in order to tell her:

a) I prefer to use my own bags; they won’t split by the time I get to the end of the car park

b) I am capable of packing my own bags

c) If I had wanted cashback, I would have asked for it.

During a recent training course at work, I was told (amongst other things) that this was because I find supermarket checkout staff “intimidating.” I think this statement lacks truth and was a verdict delivered by someone who had only met me a few minutes beforehand. I would rather just get on with my day.

To further contrast myself with those around me, I neither drive nor take regular holidays. As mentioned above, spare time is at a premium, so finding a regular hour in the week to take driving lessons is just not a possibility for someone in my position. As for holidays, I had one last year, but I won’t be able to take any more than a day or two off work at a time for this rest of this year. My only hope is to try and get as far away from London this time next year, as I would quite like to be 300+ miles away from the Olympics.

So that’s the window on my world. If you’ve read this far, you may be as boring as I am – just consider that!

In spite of this, I am well aware that many people, not only this Western culture I inhabit, but many more besides, lead greatly differing lives. There are countless “worlds” which I doubt I will have the opportunity to experience. It is my firm belief that we are all shaped to varying extents by the environments in which we grew up and by those in which we find ourselves today. Our outlook on life is dependent on the things we see, the books we read, the music we listen to and the conversations we have.

As an addendum, it was very interesting to be in London the other week during the riots. I saw some horrific scenes on the television, and read some quite disturbing things online describing what was going on. And yet, had it not been for the media or for half-overheard conversations, I would have been none the wiser about it. I walked 3 miles across London, through several estates, and saw absolutely nothing. I “knew,” from the media that there had been trouble in the areas I was in, but there was nothing apparent. From my perspective, it might as well have been in a different city in another country. It raises certain epistemological questions, though I shan’t embark on those here.

OK, I think that turned a little bit rambly, but that just reflects my thought process. I am just in wonder at the different worlds we live in and how different they can be, in spite of their proximity to one another.