After so many shocks and plot twists, 2016 felt more like a dark and disturbing thriller than real life at times. Last year’s seismic political changes have left us with a divided UK down pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit lines, and a misogynistic, racist, narcissistic authoritarian President in the US. There are many reasons for these two separate but linked situations, and not everyone will agree on what the reasons are. For my part, I believe there are two major themes: the total failure and moral bankruptcy of the neoliberal, capitalist worldview and the scapegoating which occurs when people are angry and/or afraid.
Figures show that Barack Obama was a fairly successful president in economic terms. He lowered unemployment to 4.9% and the US economy recovered following the 2008 crash under his leadership. The UK economy was also fairly steady and unemployment figures looked good on the surface before the Brexit vote. Unfortunately, underneath these figures there is another truth that hurts working people: low wage and low security jobs. Despite a growing economy and low unemployment since 2010, poverty in the UK has got worse. In the United States, the situation is similar: the gap between rich and poor is widening and many people are afraid of being stuck in dead end jobs with ‘crap wages’. Many of the new ‘jobs’ created on both sides of the Atlantic are self-employed or part-time (and part-time often means zero hour or very low hour contracts). We knew all of this before Brexit and Trump, but we still didn’t read the signs of the times.
Neoliberalism, capitalism’s aggressive sibling, is out of control. As Cornel West puts it in his analysis of Obama’s legacy: ‘Our… world is suffocated by entertaining brands and money-making activities that have little or nothing to do with truth, integrity or the long-term survival of the planet. We are witnessing the postmodern version of the full-scale gangsterization of the world.’ The commentator George Monbiot says that the main problem with neoliberalism is that the only ‘good’ it defends is competition- in a neoliberal world, you fight for what you want and you get what you deserve. If you don’t do well or you’re poor, it’s your own fault. This ideology leads to a multitude of evils: loneliness (the UK is the loneliness capital of Europe), self-harm and depression. It also leads to scapegoating, because when you’ve had enough of blaming yourself, you easily slip into blaming someone else. Sadly, those who are scapegoated are rarely to blame.
Christians should know a thing or two about scapegoating. After all, our entire religion is founded on someone who was scapegoated by the authorities and society. The French philosopher René Girard is famous for having developed ideas about ‘mimetic rivalry’ and the ‘scapegoat mechanism’. Mimetic rivalry is a theory which says that we all copy one another’s desires, including the violent ones. Therefore, throughout human evolution, in order to keep society in check, there has been sacrifice and scapegoating. Girard says that the Bible- and the story of Jesus specifically- exposes this mechanism for what it is.
The violence of the neoliberal ideology, which has created a situation of growing desperation and poverty for an increasing number of people, has led to the scapegoating of minority ethnic people, just as at other points in history. Many people who felt their lives were better before are trying to recreate the past and recapture the privileges they feel they once had. The poverty which has always affected people of colour, women and minorities disproportionately is now beginning to affect white men on a big scale too. The anger at having a job which is ‘crap’ compared to the job you had before is understandable. Sadly, this anger has led to racism and misogyny, because a) many (subconsciously) want their privilege back, and b) they want to blame someone. The bad attitudes which simmered under the surface in better times have spilled over now that poverty is affecting more people.
The good news is that, despite all of the negative things that happened in 2016 and seem to be escalating under Trump in 2017, God continues to work for justice and peace in the world. If we must live in a neoliberal, capitalist world for now, we need to at least use our spending power to our advantage and start investing in things which will benefit the planet and people. We must join in with the building of God’s kingdom wherever we see it, and there are plenty of reasons to be positive in 2017, despite the imminent triggering of article 50 and the horror of President Trump’s actions so far.
On the environmental front, solar power is now the cheapest form of energy, and Google is leading the way on renewable energy – it will most likely become 100% renewable by the end of 2017. Electric cars are becoming cheaper and more practical every year- it won’t be long before the amount of miles they can do on one charge and the cost of buying one make them very attractive to customers. China- one of the world’s worst polluters- is fast becoming a world leader in renewable energy, and the International Energy Agency said in December 2016 that China’s coal-fired power plants “make no economic sense”. It is likely that Trump will find his dream of resurrecting the coal industry impossible.
Added to this, and bringing much needed competition (pun intended) to the capitalist model, the cooperative movement continues to grow and thrive throughout the world. Cooperatives are often found to be more resilient than other business models, because customers ‘buy in’ to the organisation and therefore have an added incentive to use it. Of course, on an ethical level, it is likely that workers who part-own a business will not exploit themselves in the way that they are being exploited in the capitalist world! This is why we must support cooperatives wherever we can.
If you would like more reasons to be positive, Positive.News online has produced a list of twenty ‘things that went right in 2016’. Even when we feel despondent about the political happenings here and across the pond, we must remember that we have the power to change things locally and nationally. So be prepared to fight against injustice in 2017, but seek out and celebrate the positive things too.
Director Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake has already won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival and is causing waves in the media. The film is a fictional account of a carpenter who is unable to work due to an accident and follows his struggles with the benefits system, which eventually leads to the humiliation of his family needing to use a local foodbank.
It has caused certain parts of the right-wing press to claim that the film is ‘misery porn for smug Londoners’ and that it ‘doesn’t ring true’, but the facts and figures, and the stories from countless disabled people and their families, say otherwise. I, Daniel Blake has hit a nerve, precisely because it is so close to the truth, and some people prefer to close their eyes to that truth. It is a human response: if we deny that a problem exists, we don’t have to feel guilty or do anything about it.
But it does exist. The number of people living in poverty in this country has increased massively in the past decade. There are now 500,000 people a year dependent on foodbanks, and one of the most common reasons for foodbank use is benefit sanctions, often for the smallest of infractions. There are two million people in the UK who are considered to be malnourished and a further three million are close to being so. The hunger situation is spiralling out of control and the government desperately needs to stop ignoring the issue.
This is why a coalition of large and not so large charities – the Trussell Trust, Oxfam, FareShare, Sustain, the Student Christian Movement and others – have joined the End Hunger UK campaign spearheaded by Church Action on Poverty encouraging people to ask the government to sit up and listen, admit that there is a problem and take concrete action to resolve it. The first task of End Hunger UK is to conduct a ‘Big Conversation’ throughout the country. You can get involved by writing your answer to the question ‘What does our government need to do to End Hunger in the UK?’ on a paper plate, tweeting a photo of your plate with the hashtag #EndHungerUK and sending the plate to your MP. You can also do this on a larger scale by hosting a Big Conversation in your church. Click here for more information and to download everything you need.
Having volunteered at a foodbank I fully understand why Church Action on Poverty is mobilising the network of thousands of volunteers in foodbanks across the country: if you aren’t politically engaged when you start volunteering, after speaking to even a few people coming into the foodbank to collect a parcel, you become so.
Any person of goodwill cannot fail to be moved by the stories of people who use foodbanks and struggle with debts and endless bills, often working full-time but on such a low wage that they can’t make ends meet. Our country is the seventh richest in the world, and we signed ‘a binding commitment under international human rights law’ in 1976 ‘to secure the human right to adequate food for everyone’. There is no excuse for the number of people who are homeless, malnourished and in precarious financial situations in this country.
As a Christian, I am compelled by my faith to care about those living on the margins of society, with no way of knowing whether they will be able to eat from one day to the next. The injustice of the divide between rich and poor is a topic which is brought up throughout the Bible. Money is mentioned 800 times; more than anything else. Unlike other issues which the church often fixates on (marriage and gay relationships come to mind), poverty is a major thread in the Bible: we cannot ignore it and pretend it doesn’t matter.
I have recently been studying John’s Gospel as part of my Graduate Diploma in Theology at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. In chapter 21 (vv. 16-17), Jesus asks Simon Peter three times over if he loves him, and an increasingly exasperated Peter replies that of course he does. Jesus’ command in response to this is ‘Feed my sheep’. When something is repeated three times in the gospels, it is significant: we need to pay attention. Other important moments where the number is meaningful are the cock crowing three times as Peter disowns Jesus and Jesus rising on the third day.
When Jesus says ‘Feed my sheep’, he is not only saying this to Peter; he is saying it to all of his disciples, and this means us too. If we love Jesus, we must feed his sheep spiritually, emotionally and physically. In practical terms, living in the UK now, this means not only feeding people by handing out food parcels: it means looking into the reasons why people are forced to come ‘begging’ (as they see it) for food parcels in the first place, and trying to change the way things are. It means speaking out and demanding that the government acts. This is why I urge you to back the End Hunger UK campaign and come out in solidarity with the one in five people who now live below the UK’s official poverty line. As the activist Chris Rose says, ‘Normal politics is the art of the possible. Campaigning is the art of the impossible’.
Guest blogger Ruth Wilde works as Faith in Action Project Worker for the Student Christian Movement, as well as working freelance for Christian Peacemaker Teams UK. In her spare time, Ruth studies Theology at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. She is in the process to be approved for fostering.
My wife Ellie and I have always wanted to look after children who have no-one able to look after them. We considered adoption at first, because we, like many people, had ideas about adoption being inherently better than fostering by virtue of it being more ‘stable’ (or so we thought). Then Ellie suddenly felt what could be described in Christian terms as a call from God. It became apparent to us both, through speaking to other foster carers, and through reading and watching programmes about fostering, that we may well have a vocation to fostering.
We now understand the need for and importance of both fostering and adoption, depending on the child’s circumstances, and how both can help a child to grow and develop in a healthy, secure environment. We also learnt that there is a severe lack of foster carers in the UK. Aristotle once said, ‘Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation’. We certainly felt that the need was for foster carers rather than adopters, and we also felt that, if God was calling us, we must be capable of doing it.
It is important for Christians to stay informed about the care system, so that we don’t make the same mistake as David Cameron who, in his final Queen’s Speech, announced a bill aimed at pushing adoption over fostering, claiming that he was ‘unashamedly pro adoption’. Back in 2011, he also shamefully said that children were ‘languishing’ in foster care, a statement which insulted foster carers and undermined the important work that they do.
According to a recent national survey, ‘nearly 70% of social care professionals do not support the government’s reforms.’ Sadly, the government reflects the ignorance which exists more generally about fostering and adoption. It hasn’t got everything wrong in the new bill, of course. It is absolutely right about the need to help care-leavers more. Nowadays, the average age at which young people leave the family home is around 25/26, and yet young people from far more difficult backgrounds are expected to be ready for leaving care at 18 (or as young as 16 if they sign themselves out).
However, the problem with the government’s bill is that they don’t seem to understand what foster care is about and for, and therefore they don’t understand why pushing for more adoption and quicker adoption is not the answer. There are many things which are wrong with the care system, but cutting more children off completely from their entire extended families (which is what happens in UK adoptions), is not always appropriate or the right solution.
Foster care, when done properly, can be just as long-term as adoption. The main difference is that children are able to remain in contact with their birth families, often through regular face-to-face contact. This means that the crisis of identity, which many adopted children have, and the drastic cutting off of not only parents but aunts, uncles and grandparents, is not necessary. Staying in contact with birth families, according to Kevin Williams, Chief Executive of the Fostering Network, is the best thing for most children. Children understand where they’ve come from, and they make their own minds up about their parents and other family members, all the while being brought up in a safer and more stable environment by a professional foster carer, who understands the child’s complex needs.
Which brings me to the other major point about foster care and its importance: the availability of professional training and support. Listening to a phone-in on the radio confirmed what I already knew to be true: the biggest problem for adopters is that they have little to no support post-adoption. When their adopted child begins to have behavioural issues linked to a difficult start in life, adopters are left on their own dealing with these complex problems. They are given no extra training. The fact that the government has no interest in this has prompted many experts to believe that the government’s new plans are really driven by a cynical desire to save money.
Foster carers are trained professionally and taught all of the latest research on child psychology and techniques for dealing with difficult behaviour. They continue to train throughout their careers. And yes, foster carers are considered as having a career and treated as professionals. This is good for the children, and it’s good for the carers themselves. The education and training given to foster carers is incredibly important for the stability and development of the children in their care. Adopters, who have children from similar difficult backgrounds to foster carers, are given almost none of the training that foster carers receive.
As Christians, it’s important that we advocate for what is best for the children themselves. We are after all followers of Jesus, who said ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs’ (Matt 19:14). At another point, Jesus makes it clear that family is not always about blood ties, and can be made up of people with whom we voluntarily join together: ‘Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother’ (Mark 3:35).
Instead of being, in the words of David Cameron, ‘unashamedly pro adoption’ and (by implication) against fostering, the government should, ‘be unashamedly pro foster care as well.’ The government should also crack down on for-profit agencies which give millions of pounds each year to their board and directors instead of making sure money is put back into supporting foster carers and children. So much of our tax payers’ money, which is meant to be spent on care of disadvantaged children, is lost to rich owners of for-profit agencies each year – to me, this is obscene.
God wants us to put children first and care for them, just as God cares for us. We need to call on the government to put children, not money, first, and to give both foster carers and adopters the right support and encouragement in the job that they do.