comic relief | conscience relief

14 03 2015

At face-value, Comic Relief is A Good Thing. I’ve supported it since the first one, although being 11 in 1988 I gloriously missed the point and made my own red nose for free. Comic Relief has moved on since those early days… or has it?

Back then the passive telethon-style fund-raising – entertain me, show me a heart-rending film, I give money – was all the rage. It worked. And it still works. But should it?

There’s something missing from Comic Relief. It isn’t comedy, or relief, that’s missing. It is a sense of social justice, corporate responsibility; currently it’s the perfect consumer-poverty experience. It demands nothing from us, the viewer, other than the simple text donation. £5 text sent, 2 mosquito nets bought, job done. Conscience relief.

Particularly for the African segments, the presented narrative is very old-school: terrible poverty, money needed, problem solved. There’s little mention of long-running projects, usually run by churches or Christian charities (never mentioned in Comic Relief, except to poke fun at); and there’s no mention of the underlying causes of the poverty.

These days we know the world is interconnected. We know about Fair Trade, trade justice; we  know about multinationals exploiting local labour and dodging taxes. Comic Relief, for all its good points, and there are many, I think could take a much stronger line on this. We, the public, need to be reminded that every time we shop, we contribute, positively or negatively, to poverty. Challenging poverty is more than buying a red nose. Sainsbury’s take note. Challenging poverty involves challenging my lifestyle. 

This is where we the church are way ahead, and can show the way. We’ve been involved in trade-justice, in micro-finance, in child-sponsorship, in medical provision for decades. And lifestyle challenge forever. Comic Relief doesn’t seem to have realised.

I love Comic Relief. This is constructive-criticism from a friend, not cheap shots from an enemy. But it’s time for the BBC, so often accused of being lefty, to change their approach. Children – and adults – need to recognise our responsibility for poverty, our contribution to global injustice. It’s not as straightforward as the tried and tested method. It is political – but not more than the old-school generous-but-disconnected philanthropy it currently is, in which we (the wealthy) give hand-outs to them (the helpless poor).

78 million changed lives would make even more difference than the (frankly amazing) £78 million. Challenging our lifestyle would treat us like adults, the recipients like equals not underlings, and then will actually be Comic Relief, not just conscience relief. 

the advent sessions // floorboards

19 12 2013


Have you ever been in a house with bare floorboards? Not the intentional ones all buffed and polished, smoothed to a shine to be cared for and cherished; but cracked and splintery and dark and unfinished.  Have you ever been in social housing before? To visit people with no pennies to buy themselves carpets or curtains so it’s unintentionally spartan; this is rarely a lifestyle choice, I’m certain.

On the subject of poverty I come over all cynical and my opinions may well not be typical; inside my head I’m so angry like the prophets of old my language is not holy and spiritual but shouty and physical with lyrical rage at how we seem to accept Foodbanks as natural.

Well they are a natural result of the free market that lines the rich with deep pile carpet and hold the poor in the deep pit of hopelessness and bare boards and I know some will say that the poor are deserving with their whiny subservient scrounging taking advantage of the generously benevolently incidentally wealthy and I say so bloody what.

Because for every  person who is taking advantage there’s a thousand others without a vestige of boldness to take what’s not theirs. Have you ever been humiliated enough as to walk into a handout and manage to walk out with your head held even higher lifted by the kindness of strangers who lift you from the dangerous pit of despair not asking how you got there by fault or circumstance but giving you a chance to get through 3 days without a glance askance but seeking to enhance your life from existence to living.

I hate the Foodbank not because it’s not a good system but because the society we live in should damn well not need them so if you’ve never used one put yourselves in the shoes those who do before dismissing the few who abuse them before suggesting we lose them or with it the entire welfare system.

So what has this post got to do with advent; well the prophets spoke of one who would be finally sent to deal with the malevolent, the bent, who with cruel intent that stinks so pungent cause an ancient fermenting lament; and this is what’s meant by the arrival of the pregnant, the silent, the unlikely regent, the beginning of the celebration of the benevolent. The Prince of Peace.

Kindness with longevity not just seasonal generosity. Long may it reign. For many need it so desperately.

This is part of a series called the advent sessions, using local images to help reflect on advent.  Previous posts are:
the advent sessions // fork handles
the advent sessions // for candles
the advent sessions // rebuild
the advent sessions // despair    

it’s good there’s poor people

8 11 2013

“It’s good there’s poor people, because we can do mission now.”
“It’s good there’s poor people, because now they need us and when people are in need they listen.” 
“It’s good there’s poor people, because we needed to salve our conscience by helping somebody.” 

Like any good writer, I made those quotes up. Imagine how you would feel if you actually heard somebody say them? The thing is, I don’t think you have to scratch very far in many of us and our churches to find those opinions, however unspoken, however unrealised. Let me explain, and I will begin by saying some really positive things about the church generally at the moment.

The church (or a lot of it) is seizing the moment and being active among the poor and those in need, even parts of the church that didn’t used to do much. The support for FoodBanks, Street Pastors, School Pastors, debt counselling and so on is, without doubt, a Good Thing. And it is being (slowly) collectively realised that much of our contemporary worship is removed from the world in which we live, so there are (a few) songs that actually mention how we live (e.g. Bring Heaven to Earth by Andy Flannagan and Build Your Kingdom Here by Rend Collective). This is good. It almost goes with out saying that church pilgrimages like New Wine/Spring Harvest/Soul Survivor have a practical social action element to them. Brilliant. 10 years ago this was new. 

Now to the crunch though. I was recently in a meeting of church leaders in which a speaker was talking about the link between government welfare cuts and church social action projects; he said that it isn’t and never was the state’s responsibility to care for the poor, but it is the church’s responsibility, and we should see the (positively spun) welfare cuts as an opportunity for mission. To my horror, there was a murmur of approval from many of said church leaders.

Reduced to it’s unspoken core, this says it is good there are poor people, because now we can do mission. For churches who were faltering to find a place and a voice in contemporary society, and who were not engaging with people in poverty in any meaningful way, it is so easily seen that way. I will now tell you why I think this is wrong. 

1. Poverty should never be an opportunity for mission, but an opportunity for service. Service must come first. We serve the poor, relentlessly and selflessly and even if they never come to church we serve and serve.

Sutton Foodbank

2. Poverty needs more than sticking plasters. Martin Luther King said the church is great at being the Good Samaritan, but not good at going back to the Jericho Road to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Desmond Tutu said the church is great at pulling the bodies out of the river, but what we need to do is go upstream and see who is pushing them in. And stop them. Foodbanks are great, an essentially but TEMPORARY sticking plaster. There is one in my church but I don’t want it there – not because I don’t like it, I don’t think we should need them.

3. Tackling poverty is a long-term community-based issue, which means building relationships, asking questions of councillors and MPs, lobbying on behalf of those who do not have a voice. Finding out about people who are not me. 

I feel passionately about this because I am so middle-class I know how easily it is to think you’re helping by buying Fair Trade, supporting a Food Bank and shopping in Waitrose. But it’s not enough. Can you write good letters? Write them. Can you argue well? Argue for the poor. Are you a shareholder who’s CEO salaries are outrageous? Tell them. Campaigning for a Living Wage, for example, must be done hand in hand with FoodBanks, as 60% of people on benefits are IN WORK. 

We need to see the current economic situation not as a wonderful opportunity to do mission but a terrible opportunity to do service. Challenge your church leader. Ask them for a theology of poverty. Do a Bible study on Isaiah 58. And see what happens. 

I’m thinking about joining Christians on the Left (formerly Christian Socialist Movement). Have a look for yourself. 

headaches and toast – living on £18 a week

3 04 2013

I came across this today, and am posting it because it is encouraging that MPs are taking this seriously, even if it is not making any difference. On the Hansard you can read transcript of debates in Parliament, and here is a report from Helen Goodman MP, who decided to try living on £18/week during the recent parliamentary recess. I think it makes interesting reading for those of us who are so financially removed from the poorest in our society.   

Helen Goodman MP

“I was so shocked when I read what my constituents wrote to me about the implications for them of the bedroom tax, and about how little they would have left to live on, that I decided during the week of the recent recess to see if I could survive on £18 a week, which is what they will be left with to buy their food after 1 April. That figure of £18 is entirely based on the experiences of my constituents, in particular women on employment and support allowance who are about the same age as me, but who had to stop working owing to chronic health conditions, perhaps after 20 years of working life. Out of their £71.70, they have to find £10 for electricity, £20 for heating—gas or coal—£6 for water rates, £4 for bus fares in the case of those who live in villages and have to get to the main town, and £10 for the bedroom tax, which left them with £23 for weekly living expenses.

That £23 has to cover more than food, of course. We did a calculation, and set aside £5 for all the non-food things everyone has to buy—soap, washing powder, washing-up liquid, toothpaste, loo paper—plus a small amount in order to save £50 a year for clothes or a pair of trainers, or in case the iron breaks. That leaves £18.

I therefore took up the challenge of trying to live on £18, and I want to tell Members what it is like. It is extremely unpleasant. I had porridge for breakfast every morning, as I usually do, but I make my porridge with milk; now I was making it with water. I had to eat the same food over and over and over again. Single people are hit particularly hard, because cheap food comes in big packs. I made a stew at the beginning of the week, and I ate the same food four nights a week. I had pasta twice a week. I had baked potatoes. I had eggs on six occasions. It was completely impossible to have meat or fish; that was out of the question. It was also impossible to have five portions of fruit and vegetables a week.

I therefore also have a message for the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who is responsible for public health. She was criticising people on low incomes for obesity. Of course people on low incomes are more likely to have that problem; they have to fill up on toast and biscuits.

I found myself waking up in the middle of the night absolutely ravenous, having to make cups of tea and eat biscuits. I had a headache for five days in that week, and I was completely lethargic and exhausted by 4 pm. Some people are on jobseeker’s allowance and are looking for a job. Looking for a job is a job in itself; it takes time and energy. The people whom DWP Ministers want to do workfare are being expected to work 30 hours a week, yet they are not going to have enough to eat properly.

Most shocking of all was the fact that come Sunday I ran out of food—there was literally nothing left to eat that night. If Ministers are happy with the notion that 660,000 of our fellow citizens are literally not going to have enough to eat by the end of the week, all I can say is that I pity them because they have no pity and no conception of what they are going to do to the people in our constituencies who will be faced with this bedroom tax.

The Minister has been very free and easy in talking about all these wonderful alternatives, such as the fact that people can move. In my constituency more than 1,000 people will be affected by the bedroom tax, but there are fewer than 100 smaller properties to which they could move. In my constituency, it is not possible for all these people to increase the number of hours they work, as seven people are chasing every job; people are in part-time work because they cannot get full-time work. Government Members have shown their complete ignorance of the benefits system by saying, “You just have to work a couple of hours a week on the minimum wage.” Of course that is not true, because these people would get then into the tapers and the disregards, and their benefits would be cut or they might find themselves paying tax. The numbers simply do not add up.

Of course some individuals or couples have properties that are larger than they need, but the so-called under-occupancy is in one part of the country and the overcrowding is in another. It simply is not credible to suggest that all the large, over-occupying families in London will move up to Durham, particularly given that the unemployment rate there is more than 9%. What would they be moving to? What would they be moving for?

I made a video diary of my week, so I got a lot of feedback from people affected by this policy. Interestingly, they said, “Yes, this is the reality of our lives. We are not able to survive properly now and things are going to get worse to the tune of £10 a week from 1 April.” In 2006, I did the same experiment under the previous Labour Government, living on benefits to see what life was like for young people on the lowest rate of income support. I found that difficult, but there was enough money to get through the whole week. I wish to point out to the Minister that we have reached a new low, because the £21 that people had in 2006 is equivalent to £28 now, and that should be compared with the £18 with which people are going to be expected to feed themselves.

The Minister has made much, too, of the discretionary housing benefits, which many hon. Members have questioned. In County Durham, £5 million of income will be taken out of people’s pockets and out of the local economy. The size of the discretionary fund is half a million pounds, so once again there is a huge gap between actual need and the resources being given to people to deal with it.

Many hon. Members have pointed out the unfairness of the policy for people who are disabled and need to sleep separately, be they adults or children; people who have children in the Army; foster carers; and separated parents. This policy is a fundamental attack on the poorest people in this country. People are going to lose between £500 and £1,000 over the course of next year, through no fault of their own. But the really disgusting thing is that on the same day that the bedroom tax is being introduced millionaires are being given a tax cut that will be worth £1,000—not over the year as a whole, but every single week.”

This is copied directly from Hansard, beginning at 27th Feb 2013 5.36pm

So let’s not be taken in by arguments about fairness. Current benefit changes are not fair; and not the ‘not fair’ of the whining child who hates to lose a sweet or the ‘not fair’ of the CEO being challenged about his right to a several million pound bonus he has ‘earned’; it’s the ‘not fair’ of the working poor and the non-working poor who are unfairly bearing the brunt of these cuts and literally have nothing – nothing – to fall back on. 

stuff and nonsense

24 10 2010

stuff and nonsense

Taxidermy is the act of mounting a dead animal for display. Hunt it, kill it, stuff it, display it. Trophies of success. Look at what was alive and is now dead. Look at the power I have. No longer will the animal roam freely, because its freedom is not convenient for me.

The drastic cuts the Conservative Coalition government is bringing in reminded me of this. The poor are a nuisance, an inconvenience. So stuff ’em. Them with their dirty scrounging fingers, a bunch of frauds and benefit cheats. Like foxes who steal our eggs. The welfare burden is so great that we must reduce it; we will change the rules about what constitutes illness, striking fear into the disabled community; we will punish childbirth by not increasing benefits according to the size of the family, striking fear into large families. We will caricature poor communities as lazy and we will say that we support ‘hard working families’ (code: middle class, who prove their worth by their income), no matter that people on (less than) the minimum wage often work the hardest for the least reward.

Hunt it, kill it, stuff it, display it. Stuff the poor, so those in wealth and power can stay comfortable. Christian activist and anarchist Philip Berrigan once said this:

The poor tells us who we are, the prophets tell us who we could be. So we hide the poor, and kill the prophets.

For our current situation I suggest this:

The poor make us feel bad, the profits make us feel better. So we blame the poor, and we keep the profits.

If we are passionate about justice – if we really believe that Jesus meant what he said about speaking good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind and liberation for the oppressed – then we must be concerned and in more than a ‘hmph’ kind of way. Passion comes from the Latin ‘pasi’, which means ‘to suffer’. Passion involves suffering. If we are not poor, and passionately believe God’s heart is for the poor, then we must be prepared to suffer for them.

So if we are ok for money, instead of protecting our assets and income how about shouting “tax me!” If it is a choice between reducing welfare payments to dangerously low levels, or me paying a few hundred a year more in tax, tax me! And if that doesn’t work for you, then be generous in your charitable gifts, in your  actions, in your opinions. Not some “Big Society” nonsense, but Kingdom of God sense.

The poor must not be stuffed. They are not a plaything, a trophy, something we use to display our power. They are our sisters and brothers, our people. Anything else is stuff and nonsense.

a slumdog sent[i]mentality

1 10 2009

D. It is written.

If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you will know.

Some things we see or experience or know can connect us with something bigger than ourselves, something awesome and powerful and terrifying and hopeless – true desperation, poverty, horror – and yet something so hopeful the hairs on the back of my neck rise and make me want to shout out loud in a slightly embarrassing way “you see, there is more!!”.

Something, dare I say, spiritual.

it is written

it is written

When I see a film like Slumdog or The Constant Gardener or The Interpreter or many others that deal with the harsh realities of life I find they connect me with my spirituality – as if we can ever be “disconnected” – far more profoundly than a church service or a beautiful mountain scene or those horrendously cheesy posters with a big dog a small cat and a cheerful bible text.

Spirituality can so easily become entwined with sentimentality that it becomes nothing more than something about positive feelings. About me, my life, my well-being. In popular speak it refers to that un-identifiable something or other, usually accompanied by a “warm feeling”. A spiritual experience usually means a personal, inward looking one.

The moment...

The moment...

But that is not a spirituality that sits well with Jesus. Sentimentality like that is too easy, too shallow; it cannot engage with true pain, with poverty, with torture, with utter hopelessness and desperation, with mediocrity or the plain dull; it cannot engage with the cross, the resurrection, with Jesus as Lord. It fears and resists being linked with a god who self-empties, who gives of himself and does not clutch his divinity or majesty but instead is willingly sent to be and to know and to love and to be loved by his human creations.

It is, of course, a start. We must feel and we must express sentiment. But that is not where it ends. There is a greater, deeper, more profound and beautiful and challenging and uncomfortable aspect to us that if we remain disconnected from it, we cannot be fully who we are created to be.

We are called not to have a sentimentality, but to have a sent mentality. It does not have “i” in the middle. So we must see films like Slumdog, or find some way to engage with real pain – which is far more than knowing it exists and feeling sorry for it – because it is to the middle of that pain that our spirituality is sent. To be part of the hope, the change, the light. That is the hope. Always the hope.

Our spirituality therefore must be robust. If it is weak it cannot stand among the slumdogs or the millionaires. And it must be centred on Jesus, not on the “I” of me. If it centres on me, then it has nothing to offer or give except me, and no-one to be sent except me, and that is not enough because only Jesus is. True spirituality must be about being sent to the mess, not sentimental about it.

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