Acting Together for Economic Justice

Acting Together for Economic Justice

Today's decision to cap the cost of payday loans did not emerge in a vacuum. It is the fruit of years of determined campaigning, which started in churches, mosques and synagogues in some of Britain's poorest neighbourhoods. Indeed, George Osborne's announcement comes exactly four years after 2000 members of the religious and civic institutions in Citizens UK asked all three parties' Treasury spokesmen to adopt precisely this policy.

As Clifford Longley reminded us on yesterday morning's Thought for the Day, the origins of the Living Wage Campaign lie in this same movement. Citizens UK's double success shows the extraordinary power of patient and persistent community organising. It also reminds us of the unique contribution faith can make to public life.

Back in 2009, a delegation from Citizens UK (of which we were both members) delivered the holy texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to the chairman of RBS, a bank which the UK government had just bailed out. This symbolic action carried with it a serious message: that the banking system needed to pay attention to the wisdom contained within these books if it was once again to serve the common good. In particular, as ordinary taxpayers had bailed out the banks (to the tune of almost one trillion pounds), we wanted an end to exploitative lending to the poorest in society, and we called on the government to invest just 1%of the bailout funds in the mutual banking sector.

As journalists acknowledged at the time, faith was adding a unique and vital voice to the economic debate:

"It is telling that the lead voices in this new effort are from mosques, inner-city churches and synagogues. The politicians have been left looking flummoxed by the financial crisis, apparently desperate for normal business to resume as soon as possible. It has been left to the Pope to offer the most comprehensive critique of our devastated economic landscape, in his latest encyclical."

Like the Living Wage, the call for a cap on interest rates was initially dismissed as unrealistic and impractical. And, like the Living Wage, the witness of inner-city congregations - drawing on the testimony of local people, and the moral vision of their faiths - is beginning to reshape the wider economic discourse.

This year has seen the appointment of new leaders for two worldwide churches - the Roman Catholic and Anglican Communions. Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby are "both/and" Christians, who emphasise the personal and the social dimensions of the faith. Each has spoken out forcefully on issues of economic justice. Once again, they seem to be voicing something which is absent from the secular political debate, and which resonates with citizens of all faiths and of none.

Pope Francis' words and deeds provide a powerful rationale for the work Christians and Muslims are doing in Citizens UK. His behaviour speaks of a confident and yet humble engagement with other faiths. We saw this most strikingly in his unprecedented decision to wash the feet of a Muslim woman as part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. His visit to Lampedusa (the Italian island which is one of the nearest gateways to Europe for Africans fleeing poverty and conflict) challenged the treatment of refugees and migrants by the world's wealthiest nations. He has repeatedly demanded that we pay more attention to the voices of the poorest - so that social action is not simply a condescending attempt to speak for those in greatest need, but begins by engaging with what they have to say. This insight stands at the heart of community organising, with its 'iron rule' that we do not do for others what they can do for themselves. It is action by the poorest, and not simply for them, which has led to the extraordinary success of the Living Wage Campaign, and which is at the heart of the Citizens UK's campaign against exploitative lending.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury brings a weight of business experience which has won him a serious hearing from economic commentators. Today's announcement follows the very public stance he has taken against exploitative lending, and in favour of more local, mutual forms of finance.

While Christian leaders are making waves, Islamic finance is quietly growing across the globe and particularly in the UK. Based on the unacceptability of interest in Islam, a number of interest-free Islamic banks (more correctly 'Sharia compliant finance') were established as private or semi-private commercial institutions in some Muslim countries since the late 20th century. Britain is the first country outside of the Muslim world that has accommodated Islamic banking, doing so now for over a decade. Islamic finance has been growing 50% faster than traditional banking and global Islamic investments are set to grow to £1.3 trillion by 2014. Once again, the common action of Christians and Muslims in Citizens UK played a significant role in this journey.

Of course, Christians and Muslims have some very significant areas of theological disagreement. These lead on to practical differences on economics, as on some other issues. We do not wish to deny or minimise these differences. But we believe that in the midst of such differences, it is possible to act together in ways that benefit us all. Such action does not dilute our religious identity. Rather, in many cases, our engagement with brothers and sisters of another religion helps us to become more authentic and faithful in our own religious practice.

The events of the last five years reveal that our society urgently needs a "religious sensibility" in fields such as economics. Christians and Muslims must continue to work together to ensure that this vision of a more just social order becomes a practical reality - a reality shaped by the voices and experience of the poorest citizens, as well as the richest and most powerful.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, community activist, author and parenting consultant. He served as the Secretary General of the Muslim Council for Britain from 2006 to 2010. Follow him on Twitter:

Canon Dr Angus Ritchie is Director of the Contextual Theology Centre in East London, and Co-editor of 'God and the Moneylenders'. He is Assistant Priest at St Peter's Church, Bethnal Green.

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