The moral case against welfare provision…

Those of us this side of the Atlantic find the American polarisation around the provision of state welfare/health care extremely puzzling. Here, for the last 60 years there has been a general hegemony that it is the job of any government to look after the most vulnerable people in our society, even allowing for the fact that there are differences between the left and right of the political spectrum as to how we might do this.

People like me would go further- and say that the best measure of a society is the degree to which it looks after the poor and broken, and how the structures of society mitigate towards providing as much equality of opportunity as possible.

From here this seems like the only moral position that could be compatible with a modern state- particularly one with its roots into the teachings of Jesus.

So how then does a society that is avowedly Christian, and is the wealthiest, most powerful state in the world manage to more or less take a different view? What moral choices justify this position to the moral majority- the middle American mostly Republican, conservative Christian majority?

If this interests you, then I very much recommend listening to this radio 4 programme.

The eminent American political philosopher Michael Sandel is Radio 4’s “Public Philosopher.” Now, as America prepares for its Presidential elections, he is going on the road in America with a unique mission to challenge ordinary voters and lay bare the deeper moral questions bound up in the noisy Romney and Obama campaigns.

In this week’s programme, Professor Sandel is at Harvard, his home university in the intellectual heartland of New England. Much of the debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama has been about welfare policy, social security and healthcare. Underlying this, Professor Sandel believes, is a moral and philosophical disagreement about the nature of the American dream itself.

Earlier this year, Obama was attacked for his remarks about the role of government. “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive,” the President said. “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Republicans saw this as an attack on business and accused Obama of stifling the idea of individual success at the core of the American dream. The right’s policies are more focussed on individual choice — lowering taxes and opposing, for example, the type of universal health care policy which Obama has enacted.

Against this backdrop, our public audience will be asked: “Who Built It? Is the American vision of individual responsibility for one’s own success a myth?” Michael Sandel weaves through these issues with the help of philosophers past and present.

The programme allows real debate between thinking Americans about the nature of government and sets it within a philosophical and world wide context. However, I was most interested to try to understand the American/Conservative perspective- because like it or not, the power lies here- not just in America, but through the various world wide institutions and globalised interests, the morality inherent in the position affects us all.

Follow me on this a little- I would suggest that no human endeavour exists in a moral vacuum- rather it grows and is driven by a set of underlying assumptions, leading to half understood rules and codes, and eventually to a kind of automated set of behaviours. The same set of principles that result in a moral stance firmly against state welfare and health provision also result in free market capitalism, evangelical Christianity and economic growth systems depending in endless innovation, and conspicuous consumption. (You will note that so far I am trying hard to remain neutral in this piece!)

The Michael Sandel  radio programme allowed members of the audience to state clearly the reasons behind their support of both sides of the welfare debate. Those AGAINST clearly stated some of these things;


This was the powerful idea behind many parts of the argument. The idea that government tax is a form of coercion, that being made to give money is a fundamental invasion into the rights of the individual.   Freedom is seen as the pre eminent idea of what is truly American.

(I can no longer stay neutral!)

There seem to me to be some real problems with this idea. Freedom is not abstract- it is constructed. It arises in a particular social context and is meditated by many powerful self interests. There is also the fact that one person may extract their freedom (for example to enjoy a particular lifestyle) at the expense of others. Might they not also wish to be free from what they regard as oppression?

Americans seem to have not problem in paying taxes to government to build up massive military forces. To protect their ‘freedom’.


Allied to the idea of freedom is a powerful sense of individualism- the idea that the individual is always more important than the collective. That is not to say that small town neighbourliness is not important, but that society ought to be based on the hard work, the opportunities made and taken and the achievements of- the individual. This principle extends right to the point of individual rights to protect what is ‘mine’ by the use of the gun.

I have come to see the dominance of individual, personal rights as part of the reason for much human distress in Western culture. Researchers will point to the fact that the more dependent connections we have on those around us, the more we are anchored to our context, then the happier and more fulfilled we will tend to be. It is how humans are made. When Margaret Thatcher said ‘There is no such thing as society’ she was never more wrong.

We have a choice between anchoring our society around a sense of common good, or against a common enemy. The Americans (and by association the British) have tended towards the later of late- and this is something that I think we should deeply regret.

Encouraging and rewarding fecklessness.

This is the powerful idea that benefit breeds dependency and laziness  The end result is that people who work hard end up supporting those who will not work, and a huge growing underclass is created of state sponsored inactivity.

This is of course one of the issues that any State benefit system has to contend with. How to prevent people getting ‘stuck’ in the system. How to constantly find ways to encourage and develop people, not stigmatise and exclude people from full participation in society. Our system in Britain pegs benefits below the level of the minimum wage, and has evolved a huge machine into which people are churned in the hope that they will emerge into renewed enterprise. It is far from perfect.

Some people can not work in any society. They are sick, or broken, or addicted. They may also be very unlovely, and brutalised by their experience. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that we in the UK (as a result of having a developed welfare state) have more of these people than in the USA.

Charity is a better means through which to provide welfare.

This idea suggests that where people are in genuine need, then individuals can still offer help via donating to charities, voluntary agencies and self help groups, who will operate more efficiently and are better able to meet the needs of the poor and sick than the state can ever be. This is of particular interest to faith groups and churches, as this might then become their natural field of operation.

Back in the Victorian times, a man called Samuel Smiles wrote a book called Self Help, which was an excoriating account of the inefficiently of the charitable activity of the time. Charities have the capacity to be every bit as efficient or inefficient as government action. They are also likely to be piecemeal, and lacking in any kind of overall vision or common principles.

It will be no surprise to you to know that I do not think the moral case against welfare provision hangs together- particularly from a Christian perspective. It owes more to enculturalised ne0liberalism than it ever does to the words of Jesus.

But there is a moral argument nevertheless- polarised and dualistic as it has become…

“The long failure of the enlightenment project”

One of my heroes was interviewed on radio 4 this morning- Bishop Tom Wright. You can listen again in this link-

Tom Wright on Enlightenment

He was asking questions about the nature of society, in what he described as an ‘increasingly religious age’- where the poor and rich are more divided than ever.

And particularly, what might be the place of the Church. And he said- do not look at the Church- Look at Jesus.

More of him on the radio please…


Blair and Hitchens debate religion…

I have just listened to the debate on religion on radio 4 between Tony Blair (convert to Catholicism, former prime minister, invader of Iraq, possible war criminal) and Christopher Hitchens (writer, journalist, atheist, cancer sufferer).

They debated the proposition that ‘religion is a force for good in the world‘- you can listen again here.

I found myself in agreement with much of what Hichens had to say. He was witty, erudite and thoughtful.

Hitchens described faiths’ view of mankind as-

“…victims of a cruel experiment, in which we are created sick and then ordered to be well. Over us, to supervise is installed a dictatorship- a kind of celestial North Korea… But there is a cure- salvation at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties.”

Blair was Blair- earnest, persuasive, but at the same time repetitive, on message, but a message that is degraded by our recent shared history. He spoke of the good that faith pours into the world, and how bigoted fundamentalists exist both within and without our institutions of faith.

Hitchens won the debate hands down for me- but that was more because his moral authority and his intelligence won against Blair- who is yet to be re-invented by history as many politicians are in the years after power.

I was left to reflect on my own faith- which has had to find a place within the powerful critique that Hitchens uses, but somehow still survives- is stronger even.

I am not alone. Many of us who have grown up trying to reconcile the irreconcilable have found that if you let go of trying to hold together the absolute truths- to stop the desperate defence of positions on Biblical authority, atonement, sexual sin etc etc- then we rediscover the hope that God is bigger than all of that.

And we turn again to Jesus.

Anyone want to buy a used crown of thorns?

I have been continuing to enjoy the radio 4 series ‘A History of the world in 100 objects.’ It is a great idea- using ancient objects as windows into the culture and circumstances that produced them. It almost (but not quite) justifies all of that Victorian relic collecting in the days of Empire (otherwise known as plundering.)

Todays programme concerned itself with an object I had never heard of before- the Holy Thorn Reliquary.

This object was made some time around the 1390’s to be the receptacle for a thorn from what is claimed to be the crown of thorns that Jesus was made to wear when he was crucified.

It is decorated with scenes of the crucifixion, and an imagination of the return of Jesus on the day of judgement. It is a fabulously expensive object- covered in jewels and gold. The thorn itself is displayed behind some polished rock crystal.

The King of France bought the Crown from Constantinople around 1239- after it had been sold to the Venetians to pay off a debt.

At the time, it was probably the most valuable and expensive object in the whole of Christendom. Its owner was able to use it as evidence of his piety and power, and claim it as a blessing on his nation and Kingship.

In many ways, this object might be seen to objectify a pre modern medieval world view that the coming of the modern enlightenment and the Reformation swept away. All the bad stuff of bloody crusades and rich sinners buying indulgences to atone for terrible crimes.

And of course, in the brisk trade in religious relics- from the bones of minor saints, right through to the Holy Grail, or fragments of the true cross of Jesus.

But perhaps the most venerated object of all is the Crown of Thorns- kept as it is in the centre of the most famous Cathedral in the middle of Paris- Notre Dame. Stained with the blood of Jesus. Forced onto the head of God, come to earth.

Now I know what you are thinking- surely no one really thinks that these objects are genuine?

It certainly seems that people did- from as long ago as 409 AD there are records of people venerating these objects, and the King of France was prepared to shell out a huge sum of money- 5 times the cost of building a cathedral- to get hold of the Crown of Thorns.

What interests me, as ever, is what these objects might have meant to the faith of individuals- indeed, what they might STILL mean to the faith of individuals. Where they just power statements of a faith-gone-wrong, or was there something about them that might have carried the sacred into people’s minds and hearts?

Like all faith, we can only understand from our own perspective. Meaning is always filtered by context and experience.

We POST moderns seem to have a fascination with the pre-modern world. It represents a mystical perspective that we lost for a few hundred years- replaced by hard logic and rational discourse.

And these relics offer a window into other forms of Christian faith…

The myth of immortality..

I have been very much enjoying the series on Radio 4 called “A history of the world in 100 objects”

Today’s object was the statue of Rameses II, made around 1200 BC, broken up by an ex-circus performer-cum antiquities dealer, and sold to the British Museum.

It caused a sensation- inspiring poetry and art- including most famously, Percy Shelley who wrote this famous sonnet after visiting the museum in 1818

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Rameses II was perhaps the greatest of all the Pharoes of the new Egyptian Kingdom. He ruled for 67 years, and determined to outshine all other pharaohs, called himself ‘ruler of rulers’ and had more monuments and statues created than any other Pharaoh. He ruled the most powerful nation in his world, but still, his concern was on casting his memory for ever in stone.

Shelley’s poem catches the futility of this ambition so beautifully. And so this statue can be seen as a symbol of the fragility of all human achievement.  They remind us that all civilisations, not matter how great- will fall. And no matter how meglomaniacal our leaders become- they too are made of clay. After Rameses II- it was downhill all the way for the Egyptian empire. Each successive Pharaoh was weaker, and had to make more compromises with the surrounding powers. Corruption and decay set in.

I began to think of this desire we all have to be immortal. As a young Christian, I was taught that this was the great selling point to offer as a carrot for potential converts. The promise of eternal life.

I have come to believe that this all consuming pre-occupation with living for ever prevents us connecting with the stuff of here and now. We forget that, as Brian McLaren would say, Christianity is not an ‘escape plan’, but rather an invitation to participate fully in the here and now.

Perhaps we also are affected with the same impulses that drove Rameses II- it can all become about ME. Placing ourselves at the centre of our universe. Including at the centre of our religion.

God exists in order to make me (and others that are like me, and believe in the stuff I believe in) immortal.


Jim Jones, and surviving the sociopaths…

I was listening to the radio this afternoon in my office whilst tidying up some papers, and was captivated by this programme

The compelling true story of two sisters, Annie and Carolyn Moore, who died in the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana on November 18th 1978. Over 900 people died that day, followers of Peoples Temple and its leader, Jim Jones. This documentary drama is one family’s experience of Peoples Temple, which began with the highest ideals. It’s told through the actual letters between Carolyn & Annie and their parents back home.

This told the story of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple church right to the bitter end- from the unique perspective of insiders- people who kept faith in Jones right to the very end. Two women who were in leadership positions in Jonestown, and whose parents even seemed supportive of their involvment.

What was fascinating is a kind of insight that emerges as to how people would be prepared to follow this man- prepared to put their faith in him- to believe in the world he created, and be even be prepared to die at his suggestion…

Attempts to make sense of what happened at Jonestown have tended to paint Jones as something other than human. He is seen as evil personified, able to cast a mystical spell over the brainwashed people he surrounded himself with. They, in turn, we tend to see as weak lambs to his slaughter.

But hearing this programme made me think that this was too easy.

There was so much about Jones that was attractive, and I could imagine how seekers after a radical spiritual way of life could be attracted to him. How I might have been interested in the way of life he offered…

Another thing I began to wonder about was the degree to which the dreadful end to the People’s Temple and Jonestown was an extreme example of a more common experience- namely the power we ascribe to leaders in religious/church contexts.

I came across this post recently, by Bill Kinnon, where he quotes from this series, which discusses the role of sociopathy in church, and in Christian leadership. I have a mental health workers suspicion of easy labels given to human patterns of behaviour- but perhaps it is worth lingering with this concept for a while…

Here are a few quotes that Bill uses-

The Sociopath is unable to develop any kind of true, loyal attachments to people. This inability to be genuinely connected to others renders their experience of life bland, colorless, boring, and tedious. Consequently, they turn to power, not love and relationship, as the primary motivational factor for their lives. The sociopath seeks to gain power through which she can find some sense of connection to humanity by causing the suffering of others. The more she is able to make another suffer or hurt, the greater her sense of personal power, and the more exciting and invigorating life becomes. (Dr Martha) Stout says that the motivation for self aggrandized power is so strong in the sociopath that many of them work hard to place themselves in leadership positions because the authority of an office or position gives the sociopath the tools and avenues she needs to both feed and fuel her mental illness.

It is stunning the extent to which Christians forgo what they know to be true, pure, and right when they get to sit across the table from a powerful and charming bishop, pastor, or seminary professor. Studies show that otherwise normal and healthy personalities will do some of the most atrocious things in their blind allegiance to an official with a title.

The suggestion made here is that around 1 in 25 people could be described as having sociopathic tendencies, and that sociopaths will tend to gravitate towards situations where they can exert power, control and manipulation. Places like church.


I have posted before about the phenomenon that has come to be known as church abuse. (See here and here for example.) Many of us carry hurt and scars from finding ourselves part of church situations where leadership goes badly wrong. There are of course many reasons for this, and throwing around accusations of sociopathy at our leaders is unlikely to help.

But there are wolves who come dressed as lambs. When we see a hint of tooth or claw, may we have the discernment and the courage to recognise what we see.

There are some suggestions as to what to do when you are confronted with leadership like this here.

If you are in this situation- God be with you. It can be extremely difficult.

Lord Reith 1, Atheists 0…

Long term TFTD contributor Rabbi Lionel Blue

Each weekday millions of people in Britain reach for their radio and tune to BBC radio 4’s Today programme. It has been my primary window on world news and events for 40 years. In a world of sound bites and looped infotainment it’s continued popularity is remarkable. Thoughtful extended reflections on real issues? Serious journalistic inquiry that makes politicians tremble in their Gucci’s? It will never catch on surely?

Today programme listeners tend to be very protective of their habitual morning listening. We do not like things to change. We do not like things to be trivialised or tarted up. John Humphrey’s can often irritate and annoy with his savant-pedanticism- but he does this as one of ours. Like an older brother at Christmas.

At 7.45 each morning, we are offered a Spiritual slot, called Thought for the Day. A selected bunch of folk from different faith backgrounds are given 120 seconds to reflect on a current issue. It is often bland and esoteric. Sometimes it is beautiful and moving. It is one of those rare ‘pause, breathe in and think’ moments. Or at very least a moment to switch the kettle on.

Step forward the Militant Atheists. They object strongly to their morning listening being corrupted by religion. Particularly when Atheists and humanists are not invited to speak. This from the National Secular Society

“Every edition of Thought for the Day is a rebuke to those many people in our society who do not have religious beliefs…This is so blatant an abuse of religious privilege that we cannot simply let it pass. Our evidence shows that five out of six of the public are heavily on our side. We will be looking at other ways of challenging this unjustifiable slot.”

And so complaints were sent (7 in total) and much huffing and puffing was made in many quarters. The BBC trust sat in leather chairs for quite some time- then rejected the complaint.

The ghost of Lord Reith, Presbytarian forefather of the BBC- rested again in peace…

Of course, we may yet Atheist voices Thought for the day. But I find myself in agreement with The Guardian’s John Plunket who said this-

Introducing secular voices to Thought for the Day wouldn’t just have changed the slot, it would have killed it. As one of its former editors John Newbury said, there is no need for a non-theological Thought-style reflection at 7.50am – there is plenty of that elsewhere on Today and across the Radio 4 schedule.

Evangelical muscular atheism seems to me as anachronistic in these pluralistic times as the street corner preacher in his sandwich board proclaiming the nigh-ness of the end.

And whilst I have no desire to get into pointless arguments with people who have claim to know what can never be known (who remembers last year’s bus campaign?) I must confess to a feeling of more than a little smug satisfaction at the rejection of their complaint…

The Siege of Münster and the Anabaptists, via Melvin Bragg…

The cages hanging from a church in munster which held the corpses of the anabaptist leaders

Another great programme on Radio 4 the other day- available as a podcast for your listening pleasure here.

This one digs into the story of the Anabaptist attempt to create a New Jerusalem in the city of Munster during troubled times in 1534.

I had not heard about this tragic part of church history before- and am grateful to old Melvin for waving it at me through the ether. It is a case study from the beginnings of the protestant experiment- in the early days of the old reformation. Much of what we children of this reformation have come to accept as the bedrocks of faith can be seen in the various sects and streams of the Anabaptists. They were the pioneers.

Indeed if you will forgive me for being partisan for a moment- they were the radical activists of the ’emerging church’ of their day.

But as this programme points out, they were a disparate bunch, who regarded persecution as signs of God’s election- so justifying some pretty odd wacky ideas too. So alongside adult Baptism, the leading of the Holy Spirit, the authority of Scripture (now widely available of course thanks to the technological revolution of the printing press) there were leaders who claimed to be the Godly ordained successors of David, or Gideon, and to claim Biblical justification for polygamy.

Oh- and the Anababtists of Munster thought that the world was about to end- and in such a context, murder, despotism and all sorts of evil became legitimate means to an end…

As ever, we grasp some things of the Kingdom of God, whilst confusing and even perverting others.

Perhaps above all, this is case study of what happens when Jesus (or at least his most fervent followers) and politics are thrown together in troubled and changing times.

Add in a dose of charisma, a dollop of religious zealotry, and the result is bloodshed and destruction.

I think one of the biggest lessons we children of a new unfolding reformation need to learn is that Christians are called to lay down power in the name of love and service.

Or the funeral fires of Munster will have burned for nothing.

Oppression, freedom and homosexuality…

stonewall riots

How far we have travelled…

There was a really interesting programme on Radio 4 this morning- part of the ‘Reunion’ series. This is the blurb from the website-

Sue MacGregor presents the series which reunites a group of people intimately involved in a moment of modern history.

Sue Lawley brings together the men and women who founded the gay rights campaign group, Stonewall. She is joined by Sir Ian McKellen, Matthew Parris, Lisa Power, Michael Cashman and Olivette Cole-Wilson.

In 1989 a small group joined forces in a campaign against a law now known as Section 28. This law banned councils from ‘promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promoting the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.

The gay rights scene at the time was radical and activist and there were no campaign groups engaging both gay men and lesbians together. Stonewall aimed to create a professional lobbying group that would fight against the discrimination of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. Dubbed Stonewall to signal doggedness and to commemorate the New York riots in which gay protestors had fought back against police brutality two decades before, it called for full legal rights, which still seemed a loony-left pipe dream.

Stonewall’s moderate tone attracted criticism from more radical veterans of the gay rights movement, but also lent its advocates greater media respectability and a hearing from government ministers.

Since its inception, Stonewall has led the way with an impressive number of reforms, pressing ministers and taking test cases to court. These reforms include the repeal of Section 28, equalising the age of consent, permitting civil partnerships and overturning the ban on gays in the military. Another legacy has been to allow gay and lesbian politicians into the mainstream – not just demanding equal rights, but as representatives of the wider community.

You can listen again to the discussion- here.

I remember the time in the 80’s when Stonewall were starting to be listened to by the media. I was part of a Christian community who were at best uncomfortable with homosexuality- and at worst rabidly condemning and judgemental towards anyone who ‘came out. Even the most liberal of us who were uncomfortable with the hard doctrine, would have thought that homosexuality was just plain WRONG. Unbiblical. Against the laws of God. Sin.

Listening now to what the protestors were subjected to- I am ashamed.

Why were Christians not standing in the streets alongside these brave campaigners?

Because no matter what your theology, our greatest call is not to condemn people for their private sin, but to stand with the oppressed and the marginalised.

Isn’t it?

Listen to the programme, and I invite you to imagine twenty thirty years into the future, and wonder what people of faith will make of this matter then. Ask how this will compare with other civil rights battles fought in the 20th Century…