In praise of the Joint Public Issues Team on truth and lies about poverty

In praise of the Joint Public Issues Team on truth and lies about poverty

When I received an embargoed press release a few weeks ago from the Joint Public Issues Team (The Methodist Church, Baptist Church, United Reformed Church) and the Church of Scotland about their new “Truth and Lies about Poverty” campaign, my heart leaped.

The churches do some great work together – which just seems to have been getting better and better lately - on issues of social justice, politics, peacemaking and a generally broad, outward looking agenda. We have reported on it and supported it over the last few years as much as we could.

This latest campaign is perhaps JPIT's best work yet. You can see their Truth and Lies report here. In a nutshell it is aimed at exposing the lies about poverty and welfare that are being told by politicians, perpetuated in certain parts of the media, and bought by the public, turning the poor and vulnerable against each other and enabling a harsh political programme to be advanced.

It has received extensive coverage, and even brought out the Chancellor yesterday to launch an attack on the churches for having “vested interests” in helping the poor and being on “the wrong side of the argument”. When a politician attacks Christians for siding with the poor, then they know they are doing something right.

Reflecting on the campaign a little more since we first reported on it and published a copy at the beginning of March it seems there are a number of features that are worth highlighting:

1. This campaign was something which scratched an itch. Many people had a deep sense that what they were being told about poverty, the causes of our financial problems and welfare wasn’t true. There were many great blogs and research done on the different aspects of this, but it wasn’t always getting through. Bringing existing work together, as well as doing additional work around a campaign to expose the lies was what was needed and was timely. The churches spotted this and did it.

2. The churches had a legitimate and perhaps unique 'in' to the debate because they were talking about truth-telling. There is a general reticence to talk about morality among the political classes. Not least this is because everyone in the big three parties know that they tend to massage and manipulate statistics for their own ends. They also know that when they talk morals it comes back to bite them later with charges of hypocrisy The churches of course have no monopoly on morality themselves. Nor should they claim to be any more 'moral' than anyone else. However, there is something in much of the public consciousness which links the churches and morality. And of course it fits in nicely with the idea of “speaking truth to power”. This gave the churches a nice way in to the debate which they took.

3. It was cross-party. This wasn’t a swipe at the Government (although inevitably it would be seen by many in those terms) but a critique of how Labour has also bought into the narrative of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor, and failed to stand up for truth or indeed, the poor. And nor does the campaign stop there. It also points to the complicity of everyone who fails to challenge the lies being told.

4. For those looking in at the churches from the outside, this made a refreshing change from what often seems like perpetual navel-gazing and introspection around issues of feeling marginalised, defending privilege and obsession with sex.

5. Finally it highlighted – albeit not deliberately - the nonsense that the church needs established status to have an impact. These were churches who often live in the shadow of the established church because of the hierachy of importance that the media uses. The Church of England sits at the top and usually gets the attention, which means the impact and power of other churches is often lessened and it is hard for them to cut through. Thanks to an excellent campaign this didn’t happen this time (although certain reports at one stage have tried and link it to what the Archbishop of Canterbury had to say).

But it also implicitly showed how the Church of England's established status can neutralise and stifle its voice. It is hard to see the Church of England having the liberty to say the kind of things that the Joint Public Issues Team have done, about “lies”. If it did decide to do so, it would probably itself become the story, with the substantive issues it was seeking to raise becoming lost. The churches non-established status in this instance gave them liberty, and indeed the opportunity, to deliver a difficult message with greater clarity than the Church of England could probably have done.

There are more lessons I am sure to be learned, and it is worth reflecting more on them in the next few months. As we report this morning the churches continue to robustly challenge and make their point. Let’s hope the Joint Public Issues Team (joined also by the Church of Scotland) go on getting better and better.

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia.

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