Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Christian Socialist Movement prayer breakfast

Below is the address I gave at this mornings event.

One of the great privileges of being Vice President of the Methodist Conference is being able to visit and meet Methodists across the world. And one of the striking things that is common to all that I have met is the way they set out to be alongside the poor, the disadvantaged or the prejudiced in their society. So when I was in Macedonia in April I saw how the church there is working alongside those in the Roma community and with Albanian refugees.

In Bulgaria in May I saw the Church living alongside the Turkish speaking minority, supporting them as they struggled against discrimination and prejudice. And 2 days ago I was in Chile where the Methodist Church is working with the Mapuche indigenous population in poor rural areas, as well as with Columbian refugees who have fled the fighting and drug wars going on in that country.

I’ve predominately seen Methodist work around the world but I’m sure I could say the same for all other Christian denominations represented here. Christians are working for and alongside the poor of the world; indeed it should come as no surprise for that is what we are commanded to do, to love our neighbour, to follow Jesus’ example of sitting with the outcast and the marginalised.

This also means that when we consider the economy, both our nations and across the world, we automatically do so with a view to the impact on the poorest in the world. We can be distracted by envious looks to the minority that pay themselves obscene bonuses, and we do as Archbishop Rowan Williams has done, call for a sense of proportion in the way bonuses are paid, but more importantly than that we call for financial systems that work for the benefit of the poorest in the world and that don’t simply enhance the wealth of the rich minority at the expense of the poor majority.

Again as Rowan Williams has said, the widening gap between rich and poor will lead to an increasingly dysfunctional society, and we all will suffer as a result. It has been good to hear that even in a time of financial pressure, this Government will maintain it’s commitments to fund international development, but important as that is, it’s seriously addressing the issues of climate change, or working for fairer world trade rules that will make the most difference to developing communities around the world.

It’s ensuring robust and meaningful international regulatory systems are in place to protect our world from the unchecked greed of a small number within the financial sector. Not least in challenging so called vulture funds that make profits from buying up the debts of the poorest countries only to try and recover the cost often by legal action, so debt relief money finds its way I to the pockets of wealthy investors rather than paying for education and health care in developing countries.

It’s working to ensure all within the world have equitable access to health care, education, clean water and sanitation. If we are to take Jesus’ commands to us seriously then all Christians, indeed all people of faith, cannot avoid engaging with the bigger political picture that will have the most impact for the poorest in our world.

In Chile at the moment there is a presidential election underway. The current President, Michelle Bachelet has served her term of office and is unable to stand again, even though she has a popularity rating of 72%, a poll rating I’m sure this Government would love to have. Chile has benefited from the rise in copper prices on the global market, but rather than squandering the resources they have received they have invested them in a big programme of subsidised housing development and for the first time ensuring all women receive a state pension. They have also taken care to manage Government debt to a level that is not destabilising.

We live in an increasingly individualistic society, and the increased emphasis on a policy of Choice has played strongly to this change. However we can’t all have what we want as soon as we want it. We have though seen this culture of unchecked individualism lead to crippling personal debt for many. And we know all too well the size of the burden of debt the nation now carries.

We cannot live beyond our means, either personally or as a nation. It is wonderful to see new schools and hospitals being built, but if this is all through PFI projects that leave our children to manage the significant mortgage repayments to private companies over the next 30 years then we do no one a service. And then if we go on to bail out these private companies with public money when the going gets tough, is it any wonder why people have lost confidence in the political system.

We need to be more honest and open with each other. When there are painful choices to make we should not try to hide the fact for fear of being seen to be weak or somehow to have failed or worried what the 24 hour news media might say. As Christian leaders we want to support the many men and women of integrity who serve this great nation of ours through their public office, we want to engage in political debate and work together to find solutions to the difficult problems that face us.

But we can only do so in a spirit of trust and mutual respect. We need collectively to be honest and realistic about what we ask our politicians to achieve, and not push them to promise what cannot or should not be delivered within the resources that we have. We need to recapture a sense of working towards the common good, what is best for the majority not what is best for me. And at all times we should work together to achieve a fairer world, where it is acceptable to give more to those with the least and to offer a little less to those that often shout loudest.

We can do this, we want to do this and as Christians we are commanded to do this, and if we do it together then, with God’s help, we might just succeed.

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