Growing Church…out of trees!

This 30 second video is a wonderful look at what happens when you take the idea of growing a church literally! The walls of the Church are made of trees but there’s far more to this cultivated sacred space than that. Take a look.

Many of us are finding new ways to re-green our worship whether it’s through Forest Church or Wildlife Meadows or as part of an incredible edible project. But there’s nothing new under the sun; we’ve been composting the saints for centuries!


John M. Hull

It was sad news to wake up to this morning. John Hull was admitted to hospital on Friday, after a fall, and died in the early hours. I expect obituaries from the great and the good to follow – they certainly should! – but I felt like penning my own reflections too.

Those of us who knew John only in his years at Queen’s Foundation might not realise he was a lauded professor of RE for most of his academic career. It was John Hull and John Hick really – those were among the people who most shaped our ideas around a philosophy of religious engagement from a Christian perspective.

When he retired they wanted to keep him around and made him ‘Emeritus’ which is latin for ‘we wanted to keep him around’. John described this experience as like being “a ringwraith” loitering the corridors without any power or role so many years after retirement he decided to relaunch his career as an agitator of clergy: hence his journey to Queen’s Foundation.

Marilyn had asked him “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” and John had replied something like, “I want to transform the church and save the world.” Thankfully for the rest of us she had told him, “Well then, you’d better have a chat with [principal at Queen's Foundation] David Hewitt.”

And John set about doing exactly as he intended. Queen’s was the first college to include credits in political engagement as part of the core syllabus for Methodist and Anglican ministerial students.

It is, I’m sure, the only college to see staff members and students blockade Faslane nuclear submarine base in Scotland and to take a whole coach-load of staff and students to the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston to repent and lament our manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction.

Queen’s staff and students have dressed up as Robin Hood (you know who you are!) to support the Tobin Tax, had postcard campaigns, and engaged churches across the Midlands with Justice Mail. As well as a regular vigil at Elbit factory that makes drones used against civilian populations.

All this has been agitated by John Hull.

However, most people will not be thinking fondly of John for any of these reasons or because of his many books.

They will be remembering his humour, his compassion, his story-telling in which he willing offered of his personal stories of love and struggle and in doing so solicit other people’s stories and willingness to experiment in radical compassion too.

I will remember John with a glass of wine in his hand and throwing his head back in mischievous laughter or suddenly becoming prone with an idea – his hands in the air, ready to pounce on whatever new possibility for agitation it involved.

When it comes to the ‘Gods of this age’ John Hull encouraged us to be heretics – not to give in to the greed and fear that the Money-God engenders in our lives, whether it’s a false sense of charity or treating shopping as an ‘experience’ instead of a function he saw in our culture and idol worship of capital and capitalism that was at the shadowy heart of what was wrong with the west.

Today, in a small way, I blasphemed the money God, it’s a great way to honour his memory. Why not do that today too?

Is it too late to Party Now the Election is Over?


They Think It’s All Over

On election night in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire – a post-industrial, ex-mining town – nobody at the count looked happy. Labour one the parliamentary seat as usual but nearly lost control of the district council for the first time. The only conservative who showed up was the paper candidate who polled well but didn’t expect to win. UKIP and our “Independent Forum” did the best between them and in some ways are interchangeable, but, since UKIP only won a single seat in the country and it certainly wasn’t going to be ours they were just vaguely grumply. Us Greens and our neighbours from the TUSC were mostly just pleased to be there but couldn’t hide our disappointment at what was happening to the Labour Party that many of us once believed in.

So what happens next? 

The national papers have instantly framed the debate over Labour’s future as one about whether it move to the left or the right. But, as ever, this is simplistic.

What has happened to the Labour Party is there for all to see; it was once rooted in the unions – in organised labour – now labour is no longer organised and the party it christened is no longer interested in it. Neither of them have much power, both have ‘let themselves go a bit’ so both are talking about singing their Decree Absolut – the final legal papers in a divorce. The Dicree Nice? Well those papers were served by Tony Blair two years before he became Prime Minister in what has become known as the ‘Clause 4 moment’.

Clause 4

Clause 4 committed the Labour Party to unapologetic socialism. It reads:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.[1] 


In 1995 it was replaced with:

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect[1]

But it could easily have been replaced with:
Blah, blah, blah, democratic socialist party. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Blah.
Welcome to ‘New Labour’.
Labour’s Dilemma
The point is this: The Labour Party was strong because it was rooted in a union movement that was strong. Now it is financed by an ever weakening union movement it has tried to become The Conservative Party by moving to the right and courting the rich. The trouble with this is it only works once (1997); after that people who wanted a Conservative Party increasingly decided they would vote for one (or the Liberal Democrats whose “Clause 4″ moment is called “The Orange Book” and is lots of pages of “blah, blah, blah” that’s done them know good at all).
So if Labour move to the right they’ll achieve nothing but be a crap version of the Conservative Party and if they move to the left they’ll fall into the abyss of disorganised labour never to be seen again.
On announcing his decision (now taken back) to stand for Labour leader, Chuka Umunna, claimed that he could turn the Labour Party around in five years. But how do you build a national power-base in five years? It can’t be done. It takes a generation.
So, I reckon, that if the Labour Party is ever going to rebuild again it will take not five years but thirty years. Thirty years to re-organise Labour and build a party that secures for the workers the fruits of their industry.
If anyone’s still up for that?


Vote for What You Believe In

With just a few weeks to go before the General Election (7th May) the conversations are already getting a bit shrill and shouty but also a lot more interesting than usual. Today the Christian think tank, Ekklesia launch their invitation to Christians to “Vote for what you believe in“. A radically un-cynical offer in a horribly cynical world.

Voting is not democracy it is, as Vaughan Jones, Director of Praxis and an associate of Ekklesia put it recently “an event in democracy” and such a rare event that to pin all our hopes for democracy on that moment is like like hoping that an occasional facebook message is like having a real relationship with a friend. You can vote, if you like, if that’s what you want to do, but it isn’t the same thing as ‘taking part’.

So having swiftly put voting in perspective. Let’s think about what it means to ‘vote for what you believe in’. Is it a good idea at all? It’s a serious question since some people have very angrily (social media) insisted that we should vote instead for what will stop the [insert vilest political party here] from getting in, even if that means voting for something you don’t believe in.

Strategic voters dance to some else’s tune

Someone recently berated Green Party members on my late facebook page (may it rest in peace) for letting in the Tories and said that they should vote for the Labour Party – even if they didn’t like the Labour Party. Of course it turned out this person did like the Labour Party’s policies and really wanted them to get in. In other words, he’d like – no: insists – that Greens hold their noses and vote for his party but isn’t planning to make the same compromise himself.

And this is the main problem with what’s called “strategic voting”. It’s usually argued by people who want you to do it so that they get more votes: “You’re best strategy is to vote for me”. Well of course they’re going to say that. In fact the whole getting people to vote strategically is a strategy dreamed up by cynical political aides to get people to ignore the policies they don’t like and vote into power people they don’t want. It is, as you know, very effective, we’ve had governments we don’t want my whole life.

So the first reason to resist and reject strategic voting is that it’s someone else’s strategy – not yours! You’re being ‘done to’ again every time you take their advice and vote with your nose pegged.

Strategic voters are short-term cynics

But here’s an even better reason. It makes the voter complicit in the sort of short-term thinking that we so often criticise our politicians for. “I’ll vote for the Conservatives this year to keep UKIP out but I really want UKIP.” Really? And in five years time will you do the same? And then five years later?

Not that I’m suggesting you vote for UKIP since they are both racist and incompetent on a scale not known even by the BNP (and that’s saying something!). But if you do believe in UKIPs policies (ahem, when they actually decide what they are) then why would you vote Conservative?

It is in the interest of Labour and Conservative that we continue to vote short-term for a quick fix so that the smaller parties – some of who have the bigger ideas – stay small.

Strategic voters make the mistake of thinking this is a democracy

If I decided to vote at all, I want a vote that counts not just for the next 5 years but for my children and grandchildren (grace allowing). In fact since the party I want to vote for – The Green Party –  hasn’t a hope in hell of getting in where I live so my vote will be discounted as meaningless in the current faux-democratic system we live in.

First past the post system means that the majority wins and the rest – even if together they add up to more than the majority party – just get tossed aside as meaningless. That’s it. The event is over and your values have been duly noted and disregarded.

My vote isn’t going to change governments since governments these days are run by corporate interests anyway. It used to be that big business lobbied government. Not any more. Now governments have to lobby big businesses. Whoever you vote for Serco, Capita, Google, Shell Oil, Monsanto and the others will run the show. A handful of citizens elect the MPs and then an even smaller handful of suits write the cheque and buy them. MPs don’t get a say in this. They get bought whether they like it or not.

So if voting isn’t going to get you the government you one at least use your vote to register your belief in the government you’d like (if you’d like a government at all, that is).

If you want a strategy: organise! 

So vote for who you believe in. Or if you don’t believe: don’t vote. Either has integrity. But if you want to be really strategic then build power, tear down idols and prefigure in your neighbourhood the kind of values you’d like society to organise around. As Gandhi put it, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.

Of course first we need to work out what our values actually are!


Mark Spencer MP You’re So Wrong #RethinkSanctions

On Sunday morning, 1st March 2015, I was invited onto Verity Cowley’s Sunday morning slot on BBC radio Nottingham (2:11:30) to discuss the role of faith in politics – as if faith could be anything other than political – and joining us over the phone was Mark Spencer the Conservative MP for Sherwood.

I’m not one for turning MPs into pantomime villeins, I think most people go into most jobs with the best of intentions and are trying to do a good job.

But some people just don’t help themselves.

At the beginning of February, Mark Spencer MP is said to have “stunned fellow politicians” for defending the sanctioning of a welfare claimant with learning difficulties who was a few minutes late to an appointment and end up sat hungry in the dark and cold till neighbours realised (Big Society?). Well perhaps it’s a new year’s resolution because this month he’s at it again.

“What the conservative party are trying to do is to help people out of the welfare trap that the previous government caught them in”, is essentially his line of argument.

He went on to argue that “looking back” over the last five years “there are less (sic.) children in homes that are in poverty and we’re getting people out of that trap and it’s starting to work.”

I’m afraid I laughed out loud at this. I didn’t mean to and I know it’s rude to laugh but it was so daft I just couldn’t help it.

Today, the day after that conversation, a report called “Rethink Sanctions” was published by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Church Action on Poverty, the Church in Wales, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church. They claim that around 6.8 million weeks of sanctions were handed out in 2013/14. That’s people on the breadline and often in debt going weeks on end with no form of material support from the government.

100,000 children were affected by these draconian sanctions last year. Is this what Mark Spencer MP calls helping people out of a poverty trap. 

Mark Spencer MP claims that it’s by making people go hungry that we motivate them to get back to work because their benefits are higher than earnings. When I raised the possibility that it’s the wages that are too low rather than the benefits too high the best he could do is take a side swipe at the Church of England. Talk about playground politics!

Here’s what real people say about whether sanctions help them out of the so called welfare trap:

“During the first three weeks of my sanction I continued to look for work as I was required to. By the fourth week however I was exhausted, unwell and no longer had it in me. I was not eating as I had no food and was losing a lot of weight. I told the Jobcentre I was unwell through not eating but was sanctioned for another three months for not looking for work properly.” (taken from Rethink Sanctions).

Backing up the report, the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, said: “The findings of this report are disturbing. It exposes a system that is harsh in the extreme, penalising the most vulnerable of claimants by the withdrawal of benefits for weeks at a time. Most worryingly, it appears from DWP guidance, quoted in the report, that deprivation and hunger are knowingly being used as a punishment for quite trivial breaches of benefit conditions. Employers would not be allowed to stop someone’s wages for a month the first time they were 10 minutes late for an appointment, but this is the kind of sanction that is being imposed on some of the most vulnerable people in our society, including those with mental and physical health problems.

I don’t expect Mark Spencer MP to change his mind though. Because evidence provided by endless reports all proving that austerity isn’t working and the welfare reforms are failing hard working and vulnerable people… well… by his own admission he just finds that “frustrating”.

Tonight’s Channel 4 Despatches reveals more of the Sanctions Hell this government has delivered. 


The Lost Sheep of Islamophobia

This week, in our many ways, we mourn for those who have been killed or maimed by terrorists in Paris. We do so vigilantly: drawing in those who felt marginalized by the cartoons but did not choose violence and defending the rights of the cartoonists to satirise without fear of harm.

‘I have sheep who are not of this fold,’ Jesus said. Jesus recognized that the boundaries between ‘them’ and ‘us’ were keeping us from acting in solidarity with one another in the face of exploitation. Explicitly drawing in others into relationship without negating their distinctiveness is a pressing task at a time when all over Europe nationalism and violent rhetoric is on the increase.

We are encouraged by both scholarly press and popular media to see two global polarities, with Islam on one side and ‘the West’ on the other. Muslims in Europe today are treated in much the same way as Roman Catholics were treated at times in post-Reformation Britain. They are symbols of a hostile outside world that challenges supposedly shared ideals.

It was in a large Anglican church in the evangelical tradition where I first experienced the effect of this on a mainstream community group. It was a Sunday congregation of around four hundred mostly affluent families and students. The worship leader encouraged us to ‘pray for the city’ and people began to call out their prayers. I was horrified but not hugely surprised to hear this prayer: ‘Lord, we just pray for the salvation of our city, where the cancer of Islam is spreading all around us.’ The demonizing of Islam had become acceptable in ‘polite company’.

Leicester was the first English city to have a majority minority population and relations were generally good. I had lived in the heart of the Muslim-majority parts of the city for some time, taught Islam in a local school, and was involved in regular Muslim–Christian dialogue groups so you can imagine how I felt about that prayer. On a national level Muslims are increasingly stereotyped and marginalized, and even the more liberal media tend to focus on negative stories about Muslims. Politicians and religious leaders are vocal in their denunciations of Muslim extremism as though it were an endemic and isolated movement that had nothing to do with the cultural and economic fundamentalism of western powers.

When I heard a congregation member calling Islam a cancer it reminded me that Muslim–Christian dialogue needed to be expanded from small groups of liberal religious leaders to touch the lives of conservative Christians too. A group of us, including the rector, set to work on forming two groups – one for men and one for women that centered around a meal, a presentation (alternating between people from either religion), and informal discussion.

First we had a meeting of other members of the church to talk about cross-cultural encounters and I went with the rector to one of the mosques I liked to visit regularly. Some of the Christians were initially motivated only by a desire to convert the Muslims to Christianity. However, as the weeks unfolded, the friendship and joy of the men’s group grew at an incredible pace and motivations altered equally rapidly. This quickly affected the angel of the church itself.

Leicester has a history of actively celebrating cultural diversity, alongside the usual tensions and chauvinisms. Local community leaders have played an important part in that. But interfaith conversations happen more often, and with greater impact, on the informal scale of everyday life. When we started two Muslim–Christian groups with an evangelical church, the one for men flew and continued for many years while the one organized by and for women did not experience the same success.

Women in Leicester, and other cultural diverse cities, have been engaged in interfaith conversation long before old men formalized it for themselves. In the midst of their invisibility and the struggle women of different faiths are already knee-deep in each other’s political, spiritual, and cultural lives. Where they have created those spaces they are the compassionate activists of their communities.

In the summer of 2011 the media spotlight turned to the massacre of young political activists by a right-wing Christian extremist. Anders Behring Breivik was motivated largely by his fear and hatred of Islam as his website and videos explained. He was in regular contact with the English Defense League, a group whose supporters are notorious in Britain for instigating violence against Muslims. When the BBC first presented the news of the bombing and massacre of Oslo, they made it clear that they knew quickly that the lone terrorist was a Norwegian-speaking Scandinavian with connections to the far right and that he was white. So they got the facts straight. Yet almost all of their initial analysis suggested strongly that the attack was as likely to be perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalists as by any other group. They told us it was almost certainly a domestic issue but went on to only interview the Norwegian foreign secretary, further framing the story in anti-Muslim propaganda.

The front page of The Sun newspaper contained a self-evident lie: that the attack was a jihadist terror attack, and the Guardian, a liberal broadsheet, didn’t look much better. It is horrifying to acknowledge but the attitude of Breivik and that of most mainstream media are different only by degrees. There is no difference in the end result – the violent scapegoating of those pushed to the edges of empire.

This week we hear the disturbing news that terrorists, acting in the name of Islam, have killed and injured journalists and police officers in Paris. There will be many repurcussions to this atrocity. One is that more innocent Muslims (and non-Muslims who ‘look a bit foreign’) will experience random acts of hatred and violence across the western world. This is exactly what the terrorists want of course – they want more Muslims to experience direct violence because they hope it will swell their ranks. This is the cycle of violence that we – as strangers in fragmented communities – need to break. We need to sow seeds of peace: draw cartoons that build bridges of trust and respect – as well as speak uncomfortable truths – and draw in more of the ‘lost sheep’ of scapegoating and prejudice.

Keith Hebden is a parish priest and Seeking Justice deanery adviser in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire where he chairs the Diocesan Greener Churches Group. He teaches and writes on practical theology and spirituality. His latest book, Seeking Justice: The radical compassion of Jesus plots experiments in faith based community organising and direct action. Some of his workshop material and other resources can be found at Compassionistas. He’s married to Sophie Hebden, a freelance science writer and they have two daughters.

“Dutiful” Activists breach RAF Waddington Again

In October 2013 myself and five other activists were put on trial for making a gateway for peace through the fence at RAF Waddington where drones are remotely piloted causing devastation to civilian communities and potentially causing gruesome injuries. Although the judge found them guilty he called them “dutiful” people with a “legitimate target” and limited the compensation and costs to £100 as a sign of his support.

Today four activists, including Penny Walker of Leicester and Chris Cole Director of Drone Wars UK from the original six but also Katharina Karcher from Coventry and Eagle Spits a Methodist preacher from Nottingham joined them at a second attempt to find the drones and nonviolently disarm the pilots from their illegitimate and illegal war crimes.

Penny and Cathar have particular experience of working with sanctuary seekers form Afghanistan who have seen, first hand, the trauma caused by armed drones patrolling and striking in civilian areas and bring this message with them as they enter the high security military area today.

The activists have been arrested. More news to follow: catch the latest here and probably on the ekklesia news feed.

In a prepared statement the four have said:

“We come to RAF Waddington today to say a clear ‘no’ to the growing normalisation and acceptability of drone warfare. Thanks to the marketing of drone war as ‘risk free’, ‘precise’ and above all ‘humanitarian’, war has been rehabilitated and accepted as virtually normal by those who see little or nothing of the impact on the ground thousands of miles away. Remote wars mean most no longer hear, see or smell the impact of bombs and missiles. With just a little effort we can almost believe that war is not happening at all.
But behind the rebranding, war is as brutal and deadly as it has always been with civilians killed, communities destroyed, and the next generation traumatized. And so we have come to RAF Waddington, the home of drone warfare here in the UK to say clearly and simply ‘End the Drone War’.“

At the end of our trial in October we put out the invitation to others to do similar actions to the one we undertook and I’m so happy that today’s action has taken place. Vigils have been faithfully taking place each month through 2014 outside RAF Waddington and increasing numbers of people from the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham have been vigiling peacefully at the Elbit Drones factory in Shenstone for several years.

The Elbit site was also the scene of a significant direct action on 5th August 2014. This means there has been a direct action every year for three years and it’s only the first week of 2015 – we need to keep the pressure on and making it increasingly difficult for the MOD to wage these illegal, immoral, and ineffective wars.

While banks and Arms Companies run our government we will always have these showcase conflicts aimed at selling weapons and export death, debt, and democracy to peoples around the world who have done nothing to us but experience so much harm at our hands. All it requires is our complicity.

Lets make 2015 the year we disarm the drones; disarm the arms fair, disarm the bankers and rebuild peace.

Keith Hebden is a parish priest and Seeking Justice deanery adviser in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire where he chairs the Diocesan Greener Churches Group. He teaches and writes on practical theology and spirituality. His latest book, Seeking Justice: The radical compassion of Jesus plots experiments in faith based community organising and direct action. Some of his workshop material and other resources can be found at Compassionistas. He’s married to Sophie Hebden, a freelance science writer and they have two daughters.


Bridging the Chasm between ‘Us’ and ‘The Homeless’

We’ve occasionally hosted people seeking sanctuary who are, for one reason or another, homeless; it’s not always straightforward and we do it less often that perhaps we should. I know there are people in Mansfield who do it often and are quiet heroes to me. More often we have homeless people come to the church or vicarage who we don’t invite to stay but come in for a cup of tea or something to eat or, if they’re not sober, stay outside. Sometimes they are at the beginning of a wonderful turn around in their lives, sometimes they disappear as quickly as they came and it is painfully obvious to me that we’ve done nothing to help them.

Jesus tells a story of the rich man with his big house and the poor man at his gate. After they both die the poor man goes to be with his ancestors in paradise but the rich man is separated from him by a great chasm and ‘flames’. I know that in that story I am the rich man and the chasm between me and the homeless has nothing to do with the next life and everything to do with the life I live now.

Most of the time I don’t know how to cross the chasm between me and those who have nothing but there are others who help create a bridge; charities like the Framework Housing Association, for example.

“Jack” was “living in a shed for six months” over the winter. He lost his toenails through frost bite and, he had only his dog for warmth and comfort. Jack would self-harm through drug abuse and by other means and was utterly hopeless and lost. And once upon a time he’d been someone’s baby. Since he got in touch with framework his life has turned around: he no longer takes drugs or self-harms and has a roof over his head. He’s mostly in work and is saving up to get his tattoos removed and build a new life. There are dozens like Jack; men and women who have used up their last chance with friends and relatives, or fled from abusive homes, but through professional help can regain their dignity.

For the last ten years St Mark’s Church in Mansfield has had the privilege of hosting the ‘Mansfield Big Snore’. The event has been a huge success, raising thousands each year to support people back into homes and a new life. It’s outgrown our site and we’re really pleased that Mansfield Town Football Club have taken on the challenge. This year’s Big Snore will take place on 30th January at the Stags football ground: groups from all across Mansfield and Ashfield will get together and build a temporary cardboard city – sleeping rough for one night to raise money so that others don’t have to sleep rough anymore.

The need has rarely been greater. More work insecurity means increasing numbers of families are being made homeless too and cuts to county council funding meted out by Westminster mean that Nottinghamshire County Council have opted to slash funding to charities like Framework just when the crisis is at its worst.

I’ll be sleeping in a cardboard box – hopefully with a small team from St Mark’s – on 30th January to join others in raising money for Framework. You can sponsor us if you like by visiting Make it your new year resolution to help someone off the street and safely home.


Bayard Rustin and John the Baptist

Bayard Rustin and John the Baptist: Preparing the way for Justice and Peace

Have you ever heard of Bayard Rustin? Neither had I until last year when I first heard a community organiser mention his name.

Bayard Rustin was a leading activist of the early civil-rights movement, helping to initiate a 1947 “Freedom Ride” to challenge with civil disobedience racial segregation on interstate buses.

He recognized Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s leadership, and helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to strengthen King’s leadership. Rustin became a leading strategist of the civil rights movement from 1955 to 1968.

Rustin was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. After the passage of the civil-rights legislation of 1964–65, Rustin focused attention on the economic problems of working-class and unemployed African Americans, suggesting that the civil-rights movement had left its period of “protest” and had entered an era of “politics”.

Rustin promoted the integration of formerly all-white unions and promoted the unionization of African Americans. Rustin’s leadership also advanced and campaigned for a ‘Freedom Budget for All Americans’, linking the concepts of racial justice with economic justice. This was supported by over 200 prominent civil rights activists, trade unionists, religious leaders, academics and others, it outlined a plan to eliminate poverty and unemployment in the United States within a ten year period.

He sounds amazing to me! Why then has society done so little – both at the time and since – to celebrate the incredible achievements of this visionary man who left the world far better than he found it for so many people?

Rustin was a gay man who had been arrested for a homosexual act in 1953. Homosexuality was criminalized in parts of the United States until 2003. Rustin’s sexuality, or at least his embarrassingly public criminal charge, was criticized by some fellow pacifists and civil-rights leaders. Rustin was attacked as a “pervert” or “immoral influence” by political opponents from segregationists to Black power militants, and from the 1950s through the 1970s.

And yet we’ve all heard of Martin Luther King Jr who – despite his now notorious in ability to stay faithful to his wife – is celebrated for his “I have a dream”; for his tireless work for civil rights and for laying down his life for others. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated for standing up for Black people in America.

One really useful way to get into any passage is to ask what would happen if you take certain bits out. Would it significantly change the story? While mulling over the gospel passage for the third Sunday in Advent (John 1: 6 – 28), my wife, Sophie, asked me a really important question.

Sophie asked: what would have happened if there had been no John the Baptist?

It’s a fabulous question and I’ve never heard it before; I’ve never thought about it before.

What would have happened if there had been no John the Baptist?

Would Jesus have been baptised and begun his ministry without John to recognise and baptise him? Would the other disciples have been ready to follow Jesus at a moment’s notice were it not for the preparation work done by John the Baptists’ ministry… his called to repentance? Would Jesus have known how to lead and teach and inspire others had he not seen John the Baptist do the same? Would Jesus have even realised he had the potential to lead this mass social movement were it not for John recognise his leadership, just as Martin Luther King Jr would never have realised his ability to lead and inspire if Bayard Rustin had never taken him under his wing?

John the Baptist realised – even revelled in – the limits to his own role as the person behind the scenes and yet Jesus relied on him and was disoriented by his death; as were the disciples.

Perhaps you have met people like John the Baptist in your own life? How might you recognise a John the Baptist today?

Obviously they’d be people who eat weird vegetarian food, where itchy shirts and shout stuff about sin in the streets!

Hmmm. Maybe not.

People with the ability to help other people see the world as it is and speak out loud their hopes and aspirations as to how it should be.

People who are willing to step back and allow others to do the work; never doing for others what they can do for themselves but affirming them in what they do.

People who know their gifts but manage the use of them with modesty.

People willing to live differently and more simply in order to demonstrate their own calling to serve and strengthen the ministry of others.

Actually it sounds like we could all do with being a bit more like John the Baptist doesn’t it? Or even a bit more like Bayard Rustin?

If we could all be a bit more like John the Baptist perhaps we’d find a bit more of Jesus in the people around us and see the people we know in our churches and neighbourhoods proclaim the kingdom of God.

Feeding Britain – Reflections on the APPG Inquiry into food poverty

Today (8th December 2014) an All Party Parliamentary Inquiry published an extensive report into causes of food poverty in the UK and then suggested some responses. Campaigners from End Hunger Fast were invited to the initial launch of this report so here are some reflections on where it’s ended up and what that means for the rest of us.

End Hunger Fast and Food Poverty

In March 2014 I undertook a forty day fast because, like many of you, I could see that the rising tide of hunger in the UK was only going to get worse unless there was dramatic and sustained reversal of government policies and corporate greed.

The public mood was taken up with this idea of an act of solidarity with those who go hungry in Britain. Thousands joined End Hunger Fast in a National Day of Fasting, over a million people were reached by our twitter campaign, dozens of bishops and hundreds of faith leaders, academics and others signed letters and petitions calling on the government to change. At End Hunger Fast our asks were simple and non-partisan. Many of the bishops involved told us how please they were to have had the opportunity to fast with others and to share with the public the growing disquiet they were hearing from their dioceses.

The End Hunger Fast campaign has been calling on the government to ensure:

  • That the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger in Britain
  • That work pays enough for working people to properly provide for their families
  • That food markets function, promoting long term sustainable and healthy diets with no one profiteering off hunger in Britain.

Those in charge said we were wrong and continued to do so right up until recent months. They said that the reasons people were using food banks were down to their increased profile in public awareness and people’s inability to cook properly.

Since then several reports and research papers have come out. Each has given the same damming verdict of the government’s denial of the problem. The most recent of these – hot off the press – is Oxfam’s “Emergency Use Only: Understanding and Reducing the use of food banks in the UK”, dismissed by the government like all the others. A much better response to that report can be found here.

APPG Report Background

The panel was co-chaired by Frank Field MP (Labour) and Bishop Tim Thornton (Truro) and included two conservative MPs and one other Labour MP. The Inquiry was formally launched at Lambeth Palace and their “Terms of Reference” tried to balance systemic and functional responses to hunger while tried desperately (impossibly?) to be non-party-political.

Today (8th December 2014) the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) inquiry into food poverty publish a long-awaited report into the causes of the rise in food poverty and what we might do in response.

Working with Church Action on Poverty, FareShare, The Trussell Trust and academics such as Elizabeth Dowler and Hannah Lambie-Mumford, as well as referencing government and NGO reports and stories the report gives us the most thorough overview of the increased crisis of hunger in the UK in the last 15 years.

Key Findings in the Report

The stories alone tell us that we have lost our way and our humanity. For example:

“The Inquiry was told of one man in Birmingham who had made a mistake on his application for Jobseeker’s Allowance. He received no money for twelve weeks. During the twelve weeks he was seen rummaging in the bins behind a chip shop. When the owner of the chip shop got fed up with him rummaging through the bins and phoned the police, the man was arrested for trespassing.” (page 13).

The APPG were careful – perhaps too careful – not to confirm or validate any of the statistics they’ve read and instead wrote in cautious terms of trends and emphasis. There is a very occasional slip into the party political line that the use of food banks are “driven by the growth” of food banks but in such a long document these are rare and are superseded by observations like this summary:

“The number of people in this country relying on food banks and other forms of emergency food assistance is unprecedented, and has increased significantly in recent years. The evidence received by the Inquiry suggests that this cannot be accounted for simply by the growth in the sheer numbers of food banks, as new and well-established food banks alike told the Inquiry that demand for their services has grown.” (page 12).

The Daily Mail notoriously took food from a food bank under false pretenses under the pretext of exposing them as places where the lazy and feckless get free food from big hearted mugs. But the inquiry demonstrates that the real mug is the editor of the Daily Mail.

“The experience of having to take up this ‘last resort’ option, often following days of hunger, had made people feel ashamed and humiliated.” (page 13).

At End Hunger Fast we called for a specific inquiry into the rising cost of food and the APPG Inquiry should persuade most readers that this is still needed.

Britain’s poorest households spent 31% of their income on food, fuel and housing in 2003. This had increased by 9 percentage points to 40% by 2012. By contrast, the wealthiest households spent 13% of their income on food, fuel and housing in 2003. This had increased by 4 percentage points to 17% in 2012, meaning it was a little under half as steep as the increase in inflation felt by the poor.” (page 26).

Pointing to delays and sanctions we called for a “welfare system that works for the most vulnerable”. The report finds that increased delays and sanctions are a major cause of hunger.

“Against the long-term weakening of poorer households’ ability to absorb shocks, the Inquiry encountered in its evidence a wide range of triggers behind the growing reliance on food banks and other forms of food assistance. Chief among these were those experiences with the benefits system which, in some cases, had left people with no money whatsoever.” (page 68).

We also said that more should be done to make work pay since so many of those who visit food banks are in in-work poverty. In radio and TV studios around the country and in print in national media we argued that replacing the Zero hours contract with something fairer and promoting the Living Wage as a real and practical way to reduce the benefit bill and increase prosperity for those who work hard at the lowest paid jobs would be good for us all.

The APPG inquiry agreed that “too many people earning the National Minimum Wage today are relying on help from food banks” (page 43) and included in-work poverty as one of it’s three headline causes of hunger in Britain:

“Long-term trends in the prices of the three basic utilities – food, fuel and housing – have eroded the real value of the National Minimum Wage and working-age benefits. In doing so, they have exposed low-income households to the likelihood of hunger and food poverty – particularly as food tends to be the most flexible item in one’s household budget.” (page 30).

It is clear from this report that, when it comes to hunger, food banks are not a long-term solution and that better local and national provision for those most vulnerable to going without food and other basics is needed urgently.

No one should go hungry in Britain. No one should go to school or work hungry in Britain. No one should be made to feel ashamed or forced into theft and scavenging because of hunger in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Gaps in the Report

This report is radical more because of where it comes from than because of what it says. In this report we have the establishment admitting to something that others have been saying for a long time. Although this report is extremely comprehensive there are some things to be cautious about.

This report seems to ignore the weight of evidence of the effect of welfare reform on the most vulnerable; particularly those being assessed as ‘fit for work’ when they are disabled or have vulnerable mental health. No mention is made of the carnage caused by the scheme delivered by ATOS and Capita. It’s difficult for a panel made up of Conservative MPs to put their name to something that admitted to this huge moral and bureacratic failing that has literally cost lives. Difficult but necessary and sadly absent.

Much is made of the waste of food but less is said about the movement of food on national supply chains and international markets. This is a huge area that needs an inquiry of its own.

Finally (for now!), I would have liked to have seen more about what I and others call ‘corporate welfare’ and the scapegoating of the poorest. While there was some reference to the shame felt by those who go hungry in Britain we could have heard more about the role of some elements of the media and of government in generating and maintaining the link between poverty and shame.

Is “Feeding Britain” really “Beveridge Plus”? 

The ‘headline summary’ of the report is a joint venture it calls “Feeding Britain” partnership between state and voluntary sector. Without irony it calls this “Beveridge plus” (p. 102) even though it is plays into this governments scaling down of Beveridge’s vision of full employment and centrally adminstered welfare.

There is a danger in this that the voluntary sectors role as “welfare on the cheap” will be formalised and the hunger crisis we’re currently facing will turn into a chronic and acceptable norm.

Furthermore, emergency food relief has emerged because of the failure of the government to manage the economy for the common good and to administer welfare in a compassionate way. There must be some concern that state interference with voulntary sectors will only screw up the good work being done and volunteers taking over the role normally taken by the state will only legitimise government apathy towards the working poor.

I can’t look at “Feeding Britain” and simply raise a cheer. Above all the recommendations in the report this one needs the most scrutiny. For one thing, and Professor Liz Dowler has made this point well in interview. To see the masses of food thrown out by supermarkets as waste that can be utilised by the poor is deeply dehumanising. In an emergency – great! – but as a long term strategy: dystopian. Social Supermarkets buy us time and charity but eventually we need justice for the hungry not just crumbs from under the table.

What next? 

We need to do more than have efficient ‘hand-outs’ and ‘leg ups’ for the poorest people in our communities. The food gap is also a democracy deficit and a anti-working class narrative that comes straight from government. What David Cameron calls ‘red tape’ has been fought for over generations of organised working people and needs defending so that we can put an end to working poverty.

As long as corporations run governments, governments will not stand up to corporations. If we want to end hunger we have to start building an authentic democracy in our work places and in our public square.

The full APPG report can be downloaded here

Revd Dr Keith Hebden is the author of “Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus”