When UK chancellor George Osborne and other ministers pledged to slash benefits further, and remove basic rights, while protecting the assets of millionaires, the words of the prophet Zechariah two-and-a-half millennia ago seemed appropriate.
He described the people of his day as a “flock doomed to slaughter. Those who buy them kill them and go unpunished; and those who sell them say, ‘Blessed be the Lord, for I have become rich’”.
In ancient times the prophet Ezekiel, too, likened unjust and unwise rulers to untrustworthy shepherds or sheep-traders.
He spoke out against leaders who “have been feeding yourselves. Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
He warned the rich and powerful too that God would “judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged”.
Their words resonate today, though in modern urban societies we may look for other images to describe a ruling class wreaking havoc on others while protecting its own interests. Perhaps we might liken our national leaders to police in league with armed robbers, or dodgy doctors harvesting organs from destitute patients to sell to paying customers.
For instance in the UK, pre-election pledges of a tolerant, compassionate society where those unable to work would be protected, those able to do so supported and the NHS would flourish have been shown to be hollow.
Instead, while the rich and multinationals have enjoyed generous tax reductions, a programme of savage cuts has been pursued which leading economists warned would worsen the economic crisis and public health specialists pointed out would cost lives. Sure enough, government economic policies have not even succeeded in their own narrow terms, while public health has been severely affected.
Homelessness has risen steeply, while sick and disabled people have been subjected to bizarrely unfair tests that have left many suicidal and harmed others’ physical health with sometimes fatal consequences. However privatisation has opened up lucrative opportunities for large corporations so, from top politicians’ perspective, things are not too bad.
Meanwhile the government, despite increasing evidence of the devastating impact of climate change and need for urgent action, complacently ignores the seriousness of the situation.
Could the opposition be seen as “good shepherds” who care for ordinary people? Certainly the policies which Labour leaders would pursue would be less damaging. However their record is tainted; some of the government’s worst measures are built on foundations they have laid.
It is repellent to hear ex-banker Liam Byrne, shadow work and pensions secretary, threaten harsher treatment of those who lost their jobs in the recession. Nevertheless, those on middle incomes might suffer less under their rule, and the damage might be on a smaller scale.
What of faith groups and networks, and the wider voluntary sector? Have they sought to defend the vulnerable?
Much has been done to help those in dire poverty. In addition, some campaigning groups, from Church Action on Poverty to Oxfam, have spoken out boldly, and public figures such as Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams have been critical of the government’s cavalier attitude to the disadvantaged and to the public good.
In some parts of the UK, churches have gone further; for instance the Church of Scotland backed a Poverty Truth Commission. Christians have also been involved through other groups and networks to which they belong, taking part for instance in trade union-led anti-austerity protests in London, Glasgow and Belfast in October.
Yet others in faith communities and the voluntary sector do not appear to have grasped the scale of the crisis, are too inward-looking or afraid of the repercussions for their organisations if they speak out too strongly against the government of the day.
While Christians, for instance, are called on to follow the example of a good shepherd willing to lay down his life for the sheep, and others of various faiths and none would be willing in theory to suffer in the cause of justice, the response overall has been weaker than might be expected.
At grassroots level, many activists are doing valuable work in comforting the worst-hit and pressing for change. More can be done by groups and networks to share information, most importantly personal stories that convey the human cost of what is taking place.
Otherwise, all too many people will try to carry on as normal until they themselves are about to be served up with mint sauce.
© Savi Hensman is a Christian commentator on religion and politics. She is an Ekklesia associate.