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.