George Hargreaves, leader of the Christian Party, appeared on television this morning to express his support for the government's cuts. Thankfully, the BBC allowed me to appear – albeit briefly – to make clear that many Christians do not share this view.
Hargreaves, who is influenced by the US Christian Right, appeared to welcome the dismantling of the welfare state, saying enthusiastically that churches will be able to provide services previously run by the state.
I've no doubt that Hargreaves, and other Christians who have welcomed the “Big Society”, genuinely see this as a chance to exercise compassion in the name of Christ. But it is one thing to give a compassionate response to suffering. It is quite another to applaud those who inflict the suffering that triggers our compassion. There is something deeply twisted about the spectacle of Christians thanking the government for creating victims that churches can help.
Many churches, along with other faith groups and voluntary organisations, already provide a great service tackling poverty and empowering people on the margins of society. They are likely to be most effective in this action when they are unafraid to challenge the structures and attitudes that lead to such a deeply divided and unequal society.
However, faith groups that provide official public services are required to meet all sorts of criteria and prove their effectiveness. It is quite right that a public service should meet high standards. But the role of churches is not to meet government targets but to live out the Gospel of Christ in service to God and our neighbours – which may often mean challenging those with power. The sad reality is that some churches have made this situation even worse, by seeking exemption from government regulations not to oppose inequality but to perpetuate it – usually by demanding their 'right' to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexuality or gender.
For Christians such as Hargreaves, the 'Big Society' is an opportunity to extend churches' role and influence. This aim is implicit in the comments of other Christians who insist that churches can “do the Big Society”. Many are far more moderate than Hargreaves but history will judge them as dangerously naïve if they are fooled into accepting the ConDems' cuts agenda in the belief that it is an opportunity to promote the Gospel.
As Christians, we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves (a teaching shared by virtually all religions and of course by many non-religious people). Faced with the challenge of deciding our response to the cuts, the question should not be, “How can we use this to extend the churches' influence?”, but rather, “How can we best serve God and our neighbours in this situation?”.
We will not serve our neighbours by cheering on the dismantling of the welfare state. As someone who grew up in a council house and went to university without paying fees, I can see only too well the likely effects of Cameron's vicious assault on social housing and his plan for a hike in tuition fees – to name but two of the consequences of the ConDems' agenda.
Opposing the cuts does not mean ignoring the deficit or promoting economic recklessness. Cameron and Osborne seem to be interested in taking money only from the working class and lower middle class, while those at the top continue largely as before. Clegg has muttered about tax evasion, and the final decision on Trident has thankfully been postponed.
But these measure are feeble when compared to the possibilities of a real crackdown on tax-dodging by the wealthy, a decision to scrap the UK's nuclear arsenal, a significant increase in taxes for the rich, a Robin Hood Tax on banks and financial transactions, withdrawal of troops from the counter-productive war in Afghanistan, an end to subsidies for the arms industry and the abolition of VAT exemption for fee-paying schools.
George Hargreaves is well to the right of the present government – he wants to abolish the top rate of tax altogether. But he and his allies could provide the ConDems with the same sort of service that the Christian Right has provided to right-wing governments in the US, putting forward a theological defence of attacks on the poor while clutching at opportunities to extend churches' influence.
This is a vision that most Christians in the UK will reject. But it would be equally wrong to sit on the fence, waiting until the cuts have hit home before speaking out against them or pretending that the 'Big Society' is anything other a euphemism for the end of the welfare state.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus saved many of his harshest words for those who abuse their power. The Bible is full of demands for justice for the poor and oppressed, and denunciations of those with wealth who deny that justice. As followers of Jesus, I believe we have a responsibility to support nonviolent and effective protests and strikes that aim to stop or reduce the cuts. I dare to suggest that it is through resistance to injustice, not through seeking out influence for ourselves, that Christians can demonstrate the power of love and compassion which Jesus embodied.
(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia, and author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion (New Internationalist, 2010).