An important new book has just been published called Reclaiming the Common Good. The book brings together a range of Christian authors who are severely critical of the UK Government's austerity programme and argue that we've stopped paying attention to what is in our common good. The ongoing deaths and suicides of disabled people and the unemployed, the Grenfell Tower disaster and higher death rates for older people are all the result of decades of misguided thinking, accelerated under austerity.
Our post-war welfare inheritance is being incinerated, we will soon be left with only ashes.
During the last 7 years the Church has often been relatively outspoken in resisting the worst extremes of austerity; but its protests are often very muted, perhaps from a mixture of fear or from undue politeness. Worse, some Christians have been taken in by the idea that we really need a Big Society, in which the Church might play bigger role. Other have been tricked into believing that 'welfare reform' is actually a reform rather than increased inequality, stigma and social control.
The Church is not alone in having to face the difficult task of interpreting Government Newspeak. Harsh reforms come hidden in cosy sounding verbiage: Employment & Support Allowance, Personal Independence Payment, Universal Credit, Conditionality, the Work Programme and much else besides. Even experts in social policy can take their time to understand how vicious and damaging the cuts can be. I remember in 2010 most commentators really did believe that the Coalition Government was giving 'extra money' to social care. Too many read the press release, but they didn't read the fine print and find out what was really going on. Now, with more than 700,000 people having lost their entitlement to adult social care (and similar cuts for children) few are so deluded.
However difficult it is, the Church does have a special responsibility to speak out on these issues. Social justice is central to the Bible (which is the cornerstone of Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Just to take one example, God says in the book of Exodus:
You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
So the Church can never accept policies that discriminate against immigrants, asylum seekers or refugees. Moreover the Church can never accept policies, like most of the 'welfare reforms' that stigmatise citizens and turn them into second-class citizens in their own land. Of course, many others, of different faiths and none, are equally insulted by these policies; but in the UK many political leaders (for example, Blair, Cameron and May) have gone out of their way to claim that their policies are somehow connected to their Christian faith. When politicians exploit their Christianity in this way then the Church must speak out. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb put its:
If you see a fraud and do not say fraud you are a fraud.
I hope this book acts as a useful corrective. The book not only describes the harsh reality that hides behind terms like welfare reform, but it also offers better solutions for improving the welfare state. It also links together the different responsibilities we share, not just to our own citizens, but also to immigrants, to the environment and for world peace. Christians have much to say that is relevant today, ideas and examples which can help us to find a better way of living together - for the common good. But we must no longer be fooled by the lies and rhetoric that have led us astray for the past few decades.