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Speaking Out Against the Nations’ New God – Austerity

All my life I have taken an interest in politics because I have an interest in how my life is affected by political decisions and policies.

From my parents, I learned the importance of cooperation in working toward a better life for everyone.

I learned also the generosity and sheer hard work of those who don’t have much, but who have learned how to share, support and above all respect the dignity of people irrespective of income, possessions, address or social background.

I still remember the farmer for whom my dad worked regularly came down to our house at Saturday around lunch and handed my dad his wages, peeled from a large wad of banknotes.

At age 6, I wondered why he had so much and my dad who worked so hard had so little.

Call it the politics of envy, but that was the beginning of a deep questioning that would later find ethical, theological and political concepts that enabled that question to be asked with deeper intent and intellectual passion.

By the time I left school at 15 and was working in a brickworks, I was elected a shop steward for the Transport and General Workers’ Union.

My appointment as a local union representative was due to my ability to argue, listen and argue better.

While there, I studied for my exams and made a late entry into university at age 20.

The years studying moral philosophy, Scottish history and social administration were formative in ways that have permanently set my inner compass toward the magnetic North of social justice and ethical politics (not an oxymoron).

Teachers such as Bob Holman and Kay Carmichael taught me the important lesson of impatience when it comes to issues of care for the poor, looking out for and speaking up for the vulnerable, being open and welcoming to other people who are human as I am, wanting the best for their families as I do, looking for a chance to live in a fairer and safer society, then patience can easily become indifference.

In an unjust world, passivity is collusion with a system set up in structures that do not allow for the flourishing of each human person.

Long before privatization of the National Health Service (NHS) became such a controversial political debate in Great Britain, and long before benefit sanctions, Holman and Carmichael were arguing and gathering evidence to demonstrate the realities of poverty, the necessity of a compassionate benefits system and the absolute duty of government to lift children out of the poverty trap, and all the social disadvantages that flow from early deprivations.

As a recently converted follower of Jesus, of the limited and narrow evangelicalism of the early 1970s, I was confronted by two lecturers who sounded more like Amos and Isaiah than any preachers I had so far heard on a Sunday.

Holman’s faith was never overt in class, but we knew he was a powerful advocate and an eloquent but not easily intimidated voice for the poor who lived all around him.

He taught me that following Jesus is about justice, righteousness, compassion, generosity, moral imagination and, though the phrase only came later, speaking truth to power.

Carmichael took us through the politics of poverty, the economics of welfare, the psychology of selfishness and the sociology of power; she made an unforgettable impression when she went incognito as a homeless woman to test the responses of the social security system in the east end of Glasgow.

So no wonder I am pondering the results of the latest United Kingdom general election.

I have deep questions about a population that affirms the policies of these past five years. Not that the years before were perfect or without that far more telling deficit, in ethical and morally principled politics.

But the health of the NHS, the compassionate provision for the poor and the vulnerable, the social justice imperative that seeks to ensure a basic social security as a right – these are now principles of social organization that for me are ethical, political and, more important, theological. And they are not prominent in the actualities and realities of what is actually happening.

Many of these same challenges and conversations are facing government leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In the current status quo, the new god on the block called austerity, accompanied by its demanding consort deficit reduction, is to be challenged as to its veracity, legitimacy and efficacy.

Like the false gods in Isaiah 46, Bel and Nebo, they are gods who have to be carried around, carted as burdens and hindrances.

Isaiah proclaims a contrast: We can be the people who carry our gods or trust the God who carries his people.

Don’t spiritualize that into an apolitical spirituality. Isaiah was talking about the economy, monarchy, Temple, city and its courts and markets – these would come under the judgment of God.

Part of my pondering concerns the nature and the timing of God’s judgment on societies in our time that behave in ways mirrored in Isaiah, Micah and Amos: the trampling of the poor, the selling of people’s livelihoods for the price of a pair of trainers, neglecting the care of the widow (immigrant, asylum seeker, benefit sanctioned single mother), appropriating land and goods into the hands of fewer and fewer.

Is that a naive hermeneutic? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Before deciding, read Matthew 25:31-46.

James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.