Two Short Stories and a Brief Comment

The religious authorities had a problem. A rabble rousing preacher was undermining their authority, speaking out for the poor and the marginalised, even bringing his message into the very heart of their temple, upsetting the tables of moneylenders and market traders who supported the work of the temple and made significant contributions to their own incomes. This was very popular with the people but ignored the realities of maintaining some sort of a balance in a world where all the real power lay in the hands of the imperial government who could crush them all on a whim. They were doing their best for the people. In the light of that their leader suggested that it was better that this one man should be sacrificed for the sake of the nation’s interests (and their own interests).
So they took their problem, and that man, to the local imperial representative to ask him to pass judgement on him, because they had no real power to do anything with him, and described him as an enemy of God and the empire.
The imperial representative was reluctant to do anything at all. First he tried to pass the problem over to a local political leader, but he passed it straight back. Then he tried to persuade the religious leaders that this man had done nothing wrong. But they were insistent that he was a threat to their faith and to the empire itself and that if the imperial representative would do nothing then they would contact the head of the imperial government.
So the imperial representative turned to the crowds in the place where people usually gathered for political pronouncements and generously offered them the chance to get this preacher released, but by means of agents placed in the crowd the religious leaders had stirred up the people to reject the offer… opting instead for someone who had led a rebellion some time before.
So the imperial representative gave orders that the preacher should be executed, and publically washed his hands of the whole affair.

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The imperial authorities had a problem. Their books simply didn’t balance, so they had arranged for a wholesale revision of government spending across their domain. They wanted to their best for the people, and took the decision that it was better that some of those on the margins of society should be sacrificed for the sake of the nation’s interests (and the interests of the governing party). They appealed to the people through friends in the print media, painting some of those who were recipients of the government’s generous support as undeserving and deceitful.
Various rabble rousing preachers and protesters were however, undermining their authority, speaking out for the poor and the marginalised even setting up camp on the steps of the temple in the heart of the money-making district, upsetting the government’s friends who contributed significantly to the economy of the country and their party’s resources. This appealed to the liberal news media but ignored the economic realities of maintaining some sort of a balance in a world where all the real power lay in the hands of international money markets who could crush them all on a whim by downgrading their credit rating. So again they appealed to the people through their friends in the media describing these preachers and protesters as being as dangerous as the rioting mobs that had rampaged across the land some time before, all of them enemies of business and the national interest.
But the religious authorities seemed to be swayed by these rabble rousing preachers and protesters, and were being obstructive to government legislation. Some provincial church leaders even brought their objections and concerns to the seat of imperial power.
In response local imperial representative came to the place where people assembled to discuss religious matters and summoned the local religious authorities to a meeting, where he made clear that he had no real power to do anything about their concerns and that the beneficent will of the imperial government would have to apply to them as to the rest of the imperial domain. He placed his own agents among the crowd, to persuade the people to accept his reasoning, but they were not convinced.
However, ultimately he made it clear that the finer details were a matter, not for him, but for local political leaders, metaphorically washing his hands of the whole affair.

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Both of these stories occurred. One 2000 years ago in Jerusalem. One 2 nights ago in Belfast. I was an eye witness to the latter, in Church House in Belfast, when, at the invitation of the leaders of the 4 largest Christian denominations in Ireland the Secretary of State, Owen Patterson, and local Minister of Social Development, Nelson McCausland, met with an invited audience of church leaders and a significant number of members of the Northern Ireland Conservative Party, who were kind enough to distribute some literature produced by the Conservative Christian Fellowship beforehand… From the media coverage you would think the only thing said at the meeting was that Mr. McCausland was considering snatching free bus tickets out of the hands of pensioners in a bid to save money… But the content was much broader and more chilling than that… If you would like a more briefer, and more focused analysis of the evening, check out LesleyCarroll’s new blog… It must have been an important evening to have kick-started such a busy individual as Lesley into writing a blog…
Anyway… I said that this final section would be a brief comment… let me make it 8 brief comments:
  1. The Welfare System NEEDS reformed… It is Byzantine, expensive, deeply dehumanising, and frequently abused… By contrast we want a system that cannot be abused, but also one where the vulnerable are not abused, either by the system itself or those who see those who need its help as a drain on the economy, paid for by the private sector and the middle classes
  2. The British economy is a basket case… and Northern Ireland is a special case only insofar as it is an even bigger basket case than the rest… At this stage it really doesn’t matter who caused it, whether it was the banks or New Labour or a combination of both… the question is where do we go from here…
  3. Partly due to both of the above, public spending in the UK is WAY out of proportion with public income… and that is even more the case in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK.
  4. Trying to reform the Welfare system whilst trying to save colossal amounts of money at the same time makes it seem that those who have very little to begin with are being made to pay for the bailing out of the bankers who effectively caused the economic crisis in the first place… Our friends from the Conservative Christian Fellowship might suggest that there is Biblical precedent for this… Check out Jesus’ endorsement of capitalism in Matthew 25: 14-30. But as one of the respondents, Glenn Jordan from Skainos put it, the perception is that the banks were too big to fail and the those who will be worst affected by the cuts and Welfare Reforms are too small to matter.
  5. The repeated mantra that private sector jobs are where economic redemption and personal fulfilment lie, may have some merit… But where are these jobs? Cuts in unemployment benefits may make it more profitable to work but that remains only a theory if there are no actual jobs to go to… Or the people looking for the jobs don’t have the necessary skills because of long term unemployment and an education system that is chronically failing those at the bottom of the academic ladder (and once again Northern Ireland scores higher than most other regions in that measure). To be pro-welfare system is NOT to be anti-business, as we are consistently characterised. However, I am anti the sort of business that sees people only as a cost on a balance sheet, and one to be kept as low as possible.
  6. Another repeated mantra was that the system cannot be based on worst case scenarios. One core principle is that the single (suitably capped) benefit that those on welfare will receive will, from now on be paid to the recipient rather than to landlords or other agents, to empower those on benefits and to teach them to manage their resources. There is some merit in this. But what about those who, due to addiction, mental illness or lack of basic numeracy cannot manage their own money? The Welfare system was originally established to help the very worst cases, and I believe that to do that you actually need to start with the worst case scenarios and work up. Actually, there is a another parable to deal with that one, Matthew 20: 1-16, with its concluding statement that the first will be last and the last first. The CCF probably don’t quote that too often even though Jesus did.
  7. At the end of the day it is about choices. Do we put the poor and the powerless first, or the bankers and “leaders of industry”? (heard that those paying 50% tax have been bleating about it in the papers yesterday… my heart bleeds…) Do we put our money into the welfare system, or trident, or Afghanistan, or (and on this I found myself agreeing with the Tories) a sectarian education system?
  8. Finally, again repeatedly, the third sector (which no-one ever defined in this context, but I took to be the community, voluntary and faith sector, although the last of those three is often omitted from this sector by groups like NICVA) was cited as being the best way to address the needs of those who will slip through the safety net of the welfare system, yet no-one said where that sector would find increased resources to meet the increased need in the current climate.


This post has broken my Lenten resolution to focus on “that which is good”, so let me at least finish with that note… I believe that it was good that the church leaders have taken the lead in this dialogue and refused to let Wednesday night simply be a platform for the articulation of government policy. I’m sometimes one of their harshest critics, but in this, I believe that the church hierarchy were on the side of the angels… and the poor…

We need to continue to this advocacy and seek to prompt and support our local ministers as they seek to ameliorate the worst aspects of this legislation and creatively find ways of lifting up the poor and the powerless whilst speaking up for the voiceless and vulnerable.

Shalom

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