22/11/2011 07:25 GMT | Updated 21/01/2012 05:12 GMT

Picking sides: Rich v poor

Christians need to side with the poor, and they need to find meaningful ways of doing it -- soon.

Class war is like triumphing over a sin. The only people talking about it are the ones who are already doing it. A quick glance at the news coverage of the ongoing 'Occupy' movement protests, the Republican party in the USA or the campaigns surrounding our own political situation makes the point. When the phrase 'class warfare' is used, it is almost always by people either already engaged in class warfare.

Like the latest Mac, most centrist political parties and NewsCorp, 'class war' is a tool of the rich. The phrase is used to frighten people, with its connotations of guillotines and Bolshevik revolutionaries, into suspicion of almost any movement, protest or law that seeks to protect the poor from the rich. Unions are accused of it often as they try to get a moderately better deal for huge numbers of people who don't earn very much but work very hard. Mainstream parties of the Left, when they can be bothered to get out of the pocket of Big Business long enough to propose taxing the corporations and individuals who benefit so richly from the stability and infrastructure taxes provide, are also tarred with that brush. And anyone from civil society who suggests that perhaps the richest be encouraged, prodded or coerced to part with wealth for the common good are also accused of it.

Those who act on behalf of the rich (the mainstream parties of the Right, the media companies owned by the rich and the grassroots movements that have been convinced by the language of 'class war' and years of anti-socialist propaganda) are never accused of class war. And yet they engage in it almost all the time. The politicians who enact programmes of spending cuts that hurt only the poor while giving breaks to companies owned by the rich: what are they engaged in, if not the class war they invoke every time a manual labourer goes on strike for an annual wage increase the politician would spend on coffees in a month? What is it, if not class war, when our government's strategy for dealing with the fact that benefits often pay better than work is not to raise the minimum wage but cap the benefits? It certainly does not affect all classes equally. When public services, owned by all citizens, have funding cut or are sold to people who will use them for profit, is that not the wealthy stealing the security of those who have no choice but to rely on those services? When corporations that pay billions to shareholders pay less tax than blue-collar workers do, and when banks bought with those taxes are sold at a loss to those corporations, is that not an act of aggression against those of us without shares in the new owners?

Christians are not called to sit on the fence. We are not called to impartiality in a one-sided, morally-clear conflict. The Bible, from the law and the prophets to Jesus and his Apostles talks often of the conflict between rich and poor. It almost never sides with the rich. That might not be enough to convince us to pick sides, but it is a clue. When considered alongside commands to take care of the weak, feed the hungry, and to know that we cannot serve God and greed, the case is convincing. From Amos to James, in Matthew and Acts, again and again we see the righteous side with the poor and needy.

Few on the side of the poor talk of class war until they feel they have no alternative. But there are ways forward. They all start with picking a side. Then we can, like the group of Bishops (including Rowan Williams) did last week, raise our voices against the injustice of government actions that harm the poor and ask little or nothing of those lucky, blessed or brilliant enough not to be poor. We can vote for the lesser evil in elections, for the people who seem to have picked the side of the poor. And we can preach with more boldness in our churches, so that our congregations don't believe the lies and propaganda they are fed about a class war that is apocalyptically one-sided.

This piece first appeared in The Baptist Times