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|Religion and Politics|
|Organised religion is always ambiguous. It can be both an instrument for good or for great evil. When I consider the history of organised religions the world over and look at the present state of our world and the countless acts of violence committed.
|Inequality: it’s not the politics of envy|
|It’s hard to hold onto intuitions that equality and fairness are important when others – including most of the government – seem to have abandoned theirs. A belief in greater equality has always been close to the core of socialism.
Hope and Challenge on the streets of Balham
by Stephen Hance
Balham has changed dramatically since the 1960’s. Once working class south London, it now has one of the most professional and educated populations in the country. Many of the longer-term residents were driven out when their landlords realised just how much money could be made from their properties. Others, who owned their own homes, chose to sell and live near family elsewhere. Those who moved in were wealthier, usually without long-term roots in the area - city workers or media types.
A familiar tale of London gentrification, then. And something similar has happened in our church, Ascension Balham Hill. Whereas once the congregation consisted of mainly older, longstanding local residents, now we’re made up principally of younger people in their 20s to 40s, with professional careers and university educations who live here for only a few years before moving on.
For a long time we were what I call a “come and see” church. We would run lots of services and programmes and the main responsibility of the congregation was to resource these programmes, through giving and volunteering, and then invite people into them. And it worked. People were helped. And the church grew. But over the last couple of years it didn’t seem enough. We felt a dissatisfaction with something that was apparently pretty successful. We began to sense a nudge from the Holy Spirit to get out of our comfortable, ordered church life and start engaging directly with the needs of the people of our area.
So this year we signed up, with lots of other local churches, to be part of Hope 08. Hope 08 is a movement to mobilise Christians to serve their communities as creatively as possible throughout this year and beyond. (See www.hope08.com for more.)
Working side by side with Christians from other Balham churches in a way that we have never done before, we found ourselves engaging with the hidden parts of Balham. We learned that there was a whole lot going on beneath the surface of this community that many of us were unaware of.
For example, 100 Balham Christians gave their Bank Holiday Monday to serving people in various types of need by redecorating their homes or renovating their gardens. Some of us experienced a wake-up call as we saw the accommodation in which people were living. We discovered that there are people living in Balham in cramped and badly-maintained flats, in squalid and unsafe conditions, even in buildings which look pristine and inviting from the outside.
We spent another morning visiting the single mums at a homeless persons unit, located in the most prosperous corner of our parish. I was shocked to find this place, because after nine years as vicar of the parish I didn’t even know it was there. We found families living with little space or privacy or security for the future. That visit was the one that moved me personally most deeply, and has left me wondering about how we as church can most appropriately engage with these vulnerable people, many of them still in their teens.
Our week ended with a street party on a local housing estate. Years ago all this accommodation would have been local authority owned. Now it is a mixture of private ownership and housing association, with huge differences in the conditions of the flats and the circumstances of the people who live in them. Like many estates there isn’t much public space or opportunity for community celebration. So we hired a hall and invited people to come and party together. To watch young and old, rich and poor, talking together and enjoying each other, felt like a little taste of the Kingdom.
What have we learned from all this?
First of all, I’ve been reminded that beneath the surface of even a wealthy area like mine, inequality exists and poverty is real. It is no doubt true that there is not as much absolute poverty as there was and much of that is due to the advances that have been made under this Government. But the single mum who is effectively housebound with a baby all day because there is nowhere else to go is experiencing a kind of poverty. The retired person who is lonely because he speaks to nobody from one day to the next is experiencing a kind of poverty. The teenagers with nothing to do in the evening except hang around on the streets are experiencing a kind of poverty. As Christians we are mandated to care about all of these poverties, economic, social, and spiritual, because we worship a God who has a love for every single individual and a particular passion for the poor.
Secondly, I’ve seen again that people are not only motivated by their own interests. It has become a political truism in recent years that people are basically self-interested and therefore for a political party to win power it must have policies that build a coalition representing a majority of voters. Whatever the other demands and pressures, Christians are uniquely placed to lead a movement which declares loud and clear that the needs of the least powerful must be absolutely front and centre for any government, and especially a Labour government.
What gave me hope from Hope 08 was the realization that lots and lots of Christians – especially younger Christians – understand this. Whether they are politically engaged or not, they are Labour’s natural partners. They are passionate about alleviating poverty, committed to meeting the needs of the marginalized. That same biblical passion which shone through the Make Poverty History campaign can be channeled into a movement to end poverty in this country. If that isn’t a cause for hope, I don’t know what is.
The main responsibility of the congregation was to resource these programmes through giving and volunteering, and then invite people into them. And it worked.
Rev. Stephen Hance is the Vicar, Ascension Balham Hill and a Member of Battersea CLP
Stephen Hance, 05/02/2009