The debate over food banks seems to be turning into one of those ‘religion and politics’ issues. A bit like Faith in the City nearly 30 years ago, opposition to government policies has been better expressed by church leaders, like the Bishop of Warrington with his excellent Christmas message, than by other political parties.
There is a long article in today’s Church Times, reporting that over 350,000 people were given food parcels in the run-up to Christmas Day. This is a tripling of demand.
The largest foodbank provider is the Trussell Trust which, according to its website, is ‘a Christian organisation motivated by Jesus’ teaching on poverty and injustice’ and serves ‘people of all faith groups and beliefs or none’. Church Action on Poverty produced a poster saying ‘Britain isn’t eating’, a reminder of the Conservative Party’s famous 1979 election poster saying ‘Britain isn’t working’. Together with Oxfam it estimates that 500,000 people in Britain now depend on food aid.
The main target of criticism is Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, whose changes to the benefit system are considered the main cause of the deteriorating situation. The Church Times quotes Duncan Smith as responding:
I strongly refute this claim and would politely ask you to stop scaremongering in this way. I understand that a feature of your business model must require you to continuously achieve publicity, but I’m concerned that you are now seeking to do this by making your political opposition to welfare reform overtly clear.
Both Justin Welby the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his predecessor Rowan Williams, have issued strong replies to Duncan Smith. They both argued that caring about the poor and vulnerable is not political point-scoring. On the contrary it is a Christian duty.
Good for them. But there is a conflict of perceptions here. Why shouldn’t church leaders make political points? Behind this question is another one: how do we decide whether a point is political?
In practice, Duncan Smith and his colleagues have grown familiar with a situation where politicians debate against each other and don’t expect their views to be challenged except by other politicians. To a large extent this is fair enough: just watch Prime Minister’s Question Time and it immediately becomes clear why most voters despise the political class. So, in their minds, the things they are concerned about are ‘political’ and non-politicians, as non-experts, should leave those things to them. The Church can condemn gay sex and abortion as much as it likes; but when it wants the hungry fed it has entered the sphere of politics and thereby broken a taboo.
It is easy to see how Duncan Smith and his colleagues can end up thinking like this, but it’s wrong. There is no distinct range of concerns classified as ‘politics’. The whole idea of a democracy is that we elect politicians to do whatever we want them to do.
So before any more archbishops deny that they are talking politics, let’s remember what the word means. It comes from the Greek word polis, the city. Aristotle approved of the person interested in the affairs of the city and disapproved of the person only concerned with private matters. He called the former a politikos, and the latter – after the Greek word for ‘private’ – an idiotikos.