Churches need allies in resisting attacks on poor

Opposition by churches to harsh treatment of the poor is welcome, as further benefit cuts hit hard-up households. It is important to work with, and learn from, those with a long track record of resisting economic injustice.

A benefit cap is rolling out across Britain, hitting families in areas where housing costs are extremely high. Further cuts to social security and public services are planned. Church leaders’ increasing willingness to speak out on poverty is important.

For instance in 2013 the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Methodist Church, Church of Scotland and United Reformed Church published The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty. In July the Church of England’s General Synod called for "close attention to the impact of welfare cuts on the most vulnerable” and criticised “the misleading characterisation of all welfare recipients as 'scroungers'”.

Speaking out for justice as well as caring for those in need is in keeping with the church’s calling to proclaim and serve a God who is a refuge to the poor and needy in their distress (Isaiah 25.4).

Worryingly however, after discussing “welfare reform”, Synod also urged politicians to consider “whether the ring-fenced provision of universal benefits may be becoming the enemy of targeted benefits”. Many anti-poverty campaigners and specialists have warned of the impact of undermining the principles of social security, while some people on low incomes hate means-testing so much that they would rather go short.

Church institutions have a long track record of charity. But it is also important to listen to and learn from those – Christian and otherwise – who have been involved in defending the badly-off against worsening injustice, including campaigners and scholars. Above all, it is important to consult and involve those directly affected by poverty.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said that “With all parties committed to austerity for the foreseeable future, we have to recognise that the profound challenges of social need, food banks, credit injustice, gross differentiation of income – even in many areas of opportunity – pressure on all forms of state provision and spending: all these are here to stay. In and through the church we have the call and potentially the means to be the answer that God provides.”

While this is true of the three major parties some, such as the Greens, have consistently opposed austerity and proposed alternatives. Part of what God may be calling the churches to do is to ally with others battling for a more just society, sift carefully through different approaches and weigh up evidence.

Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is constantly at work, sometimes in unexpected places. If church leaders are open to dialogue and joint working, their actions in combating poverty are likely to be more effective.

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She was written extensively on the theological and religious issues involved in debates about sexuality and marriage equality. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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