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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.
The effects of inequality
by Jude Smith
A few years ago I was working as a community development worker in one of the UK’s outer housing estates. One day a distraught local resident came in to the offices to talk to one of my colleagues. His complaint was that he had been thrown out of, and barred from the local DWP office.
He couldn’t understand why. To add to his distress he had been called by the local school, telling him that he may be getting into trouble for keeping his children at home.
It turned out that he had arrived at the office to find out why his benefit money had been stopped. In his frustration he had raised his voice to a member of staff- earning himself the ban. He was annoyed that he couldn’t get his money straight away, because he needed it to be able to put money on his electric meter which had run out. Which is where the school comes in. He hadn’t sent his children in that morning, because with no power, he couldn’t bathe them, and he didn’t want to send them to school dirty lest they get bullied.
For me this is a pertinent example of inequality.
The issue is not simply that our resident had less money than you or I: it is about how he was treated as a result of that. Inequality in the UK is sometimes hard to quantify, In many ways, it is not supposed to exist: but in this story it is real and it plays out in three ways.
First is the lack of power (quite literally in this case). Our resident could do very little about his situation. He was beholden to others to be able to look after his children as he would like. He had to wait until the systems designed to look out for him were ready to deal with his needs. He could not make things happen at the pace he felt he should. If we want to see where inequality lies in the UK, look for those who wait.
Second is the lack of choice. Homeowners with good credit histories are bombarded with choice about how to pay utility bills. With no such record you have no such choice. Paying for power on top up meters leaves people with less choice and quicker deadlines for payment. Our resident had very few options in sorting out his power issues. In looking for inequality we should look for those who have fewer choices.
The third is the cumulative result of the first two. It’s a loss of dignity. Powerless and choiceless people are asked to engage with institutions which often don’t hear them. Communication can break down to such an extent that people feel the need to shout.
It leads to frustration, hopelessness and ultimately a loss of humanity, a sense of somehow being worth less than anyone else. Frustration with systems, shouting at civil servants or simply disengaging can be signs of inequality.
In looking for a model of hope in dealing with equality the Old Testament may seem an unlikely choice: but in these issues it is just that. It begins with the very foundation of humanity, that all men and women bear the image of God and are therefore to be treated with immense dignity. This thread underlies the rafts of social legislation that make up the early books of the Old Testament.
Core to the Law was the need to maintain people’s innate sense of dignity and equality, even when circumstances meant they had little, or were stigmatised in other ways. This process began with acknowledging that inequality will always be around us: ‘the poor you will always have with you’.
Having acknowledged that there is inequality, the ancient Near East society set about making sure that it never undermined the fundamental humanity of anyone. Farmers were to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that the poor could gather their own food (the poor being people with no land of their own (either due to bad management or being aliens in the land), those whose harvests had failed, those who were unable to work their own land). Every seven years further allowance was made to those folk: and in a legislative piece of genius, in every generation the land was to be returned to its original owners (from the basis of an original fair allocation). In short the indignity of poverty was never passed on to one’s children.
Inequality lurks in our society. Where it is primarily dealt with by institutions there is a distinct chance that people will lose their dignity. Avoiding that requires people to perhaps take a leaf out of the Old Testament scrolls. Starting from the foundational place of understanding that all people bear the image of God. We need to start watching out for the signs of inequality, and looking for ways to make sure that it doesn’t stretch out across the generations.
Jude Smith cut her teeth in Marsh Farm Luton, where she developed a love for poor urban communities. She is currently training to be a priest in the Church of England where she hopes to bless, serve and encourage those very communities.
Jude Smith, 05/02/2009