Both before and since the welfare row that blew up recently – and with a minor excursus into who allows whom to contribute to the public discourse – I have been bothered by a missing question in most reportage. That question is: what is it all for? Put differently, what is the end to which welfare, taxation, work, profit, etc. is the means? This isn't a question of the function of any particular business, but the purpose of that business as a 'player' and shaper of wider society that is not neutral. I'll come back to this in a minute.

I was chatting to a (self-defined non-religious) business man recently about a massive problem that runs through our culture. With reference to Paul Kearns' The Value Motive and Kenneth Hopper & William Hopper's The Puritan Gift (which, in fact Paul put me on to), he considered that most business exists to make a profit – all well and good, pretty obvious, and totally valid. A business that does not make a profit won't exist at all. But, what is that profit for? Or, more precisely, for whom is that profit to be made – whom is it to serve? The business itself and those who own it or work for it, or wider society as a whole?

(Incidentally, these were broadly the questions behind speeches at the opening of new offices for the Pfarramt für Industrie und Wirtschaft in Basel last Thursday evening. And, even more incidentally, it is the question Aristotle puts at the heat of his ethics: telos, or the goal/end desired.)

At the beginning of his book A Public Faith, Miroslav Volf makes an observation that is pertinent here, describing Max Weber's view on the modern 'market':

If you play the game, you've got to play it by preset rules, which in the case of the market means that you must maximise profit; these rules, and not moral considerations, determine how the game is played. (p.14)

But, this simply points to the modern lie that has been conveniently assumed to be incontrovertibly obvious: the market dictates how we must follow it. This is nonsense. People drive markets by the choices they make. If profit is the ultimate goal – as opposed to a penultimate goal, a means to a greater end – then it is so because we have decided it should be so. There is nothing inevitable about this. Human agency, human responsibility and human choices dictate how markets are shaped, to what ends they are directed, and what values underlie them.

So, to go back to the original question, we must ask what is the point of it all. Christians (but not exclusively, of course) will argue that profit should be made, not as an end in itself, but in order to serve the common good of people and the planet. That is, economics should serve anthropology and not vice versa. We work to live, not live to work (although an argument can be made that human beings do live to work – which raises questions about those who refuse to work and how a moral society treats those who are unable to work).

And this is where some of us have a problem. Why is it a moral matter that poor people should be squeezed until they bleed – incentivised by being made poorer or more pressurised – whilst the same moral imperative ceases to apply to those who have the resources to play the system, get others to pay for their failures and get away with self-preservation as a sanction-free 'good'? Bankers and politicians got us into the catastrophic financial crisis of the last six years, but they seem not to be paying: the tax payers – including the poorer and squeezed ones – are paying for mistakes made by the rich. And the bonuses keep being paid. If the poor fail, they are disgraced and humiliated; if the powerful fail, they must be incentivised whilst others pay for their failure. Big-time tax evaders are not ritually humiliated in the press.

Is this justice?

Well, the point is not to relativise justice, but to ask what the point of profit is. If business put economics into an anthropological framework, asking whom this whole project is supposed to be for, it would find itself framing its language and choices differently. 'Corporate social responsibility' should not be a useful add-on, making people feel better about themselves (again, as an end in itself), but should be an integral purpose that shapes decisions about people.

In other words, profit should make society better and enable all people to flourish in a society for which we all take responsibility. A Christian theological anthropology can say nothing less.

And, ultimately, markets do not dictate anything. The people who create and shape markets do. And they do so according to assumptions they hold about human and economic purpose. People are responsible, not abstracted or personified dynamics behind which people can hide.

So, being pro-business, pro-work, pro-profit and pro-value, I simply ask where welfare and profit and taxation fit in to which anthropological ends we have decided to choose?

 

Well, would you believe it? A whole day at the General Synod in York without bishops being on the agenda. (Don't worry, Monday's coming.)

The mission of the Church of England makes it essential for us to open the door to women bishops – although there now seems to be a greater determination in the Synod itself to get it right rather than to get it quick. Yet, today we debate matters that affect the lives of huge numbers of people in the communities our churches are called to serve and reach in the name of Christ: (a) safeguarding (following up the Chichester commissaries' reports), and (b) welfare reform and the church.

Naturally, our appetites will be whetted by worship in York Minster in the morning and some wonderful legislative material in the early afternoon: The Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2013 and other stuff I am not even going to begin to describe. All important, but, in some way, opening the door to the heavy debates later.

The Church of England is determined to be transparent regarding safeguarding matters. There is determination in these papers to face the historic problem and make sure abuse or grooming cannot happen again. No complacency or illusions, but real determination. It has to be a good thing, surely, that more survivors of abuse are feeling able to come forward – even if this causes institutions like the church massive embarrassment, humiliation, reputational damage and loss of moral authority.

Indeed, when I spoke to a group of young leaders in Ilkley last week, one young woman put it to me that the church had forfeited any moral authority because of such scandals – a charge I took very seriously. I hope this will be the start of a conversation about 'moral authority' and what legitimises ethical comment and judgement.

Welfare reform is causing misery and devastation in many of our communities. I have written on this many times before now. Suspend your ideologies and political allegiances for one minute and it becomes possible to see the effects of the cuts (as, if you like, observable phenomena) aside from justifications or condemnations.

The numbers of people using food banks is growing by the day. These are not 'skivers' or 'scroungers' or people whose “chaotic lives (not shortage of cash) cause parents to send their children to school without breakfast” – as Education Secretary Michael Gove put it so generously last week. Meanwhile the misrepresentation by the powerful of poor people continues unabated.

The Synod will debate these matters not in order to boost its self-referential credibility or its self-justifying sense of righteousness. It will debate these matters on behalf of those whose voice is not heard and whose plight is too often ignored or misrepresented. And it will do so because of a biblical mandate to “open your mouth for the dumb” (Proverbs 31:8-9) and because Jesus said/did things that were good news for poor people and bad news for the cushioned rich.

The church can do no other than articulate what it sees and experiences every day. Synod brings together the stories and the analysis and places a magnifying glass over both. Not for the sake of the church – just for the sake of those whose life is tough.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.

Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

 

Having a brief holiday, I thought I'd give my blog a miss for a week. Then I belatedly saw the Daily Mail's front page judgement on the appalling Philpott story.

I rarely get shocked by anything. In various life and work contexts I have seen and heard and read too much. And I can't bring myself to do 'mock shock'. But, this I do find shocking.

The Philpott story is dreadful. But, to use it shamelessly to categorise and damn people who receive from the welfare state is in itself shocking. Why? Because we have seen this sort of generalising categorisation before. I remember reading it in Der Stürmer. Even those who think the welfare reforms are right and justified should be worried about the language and approach of the Mail and the new direction it takes us in: generalised categorisation and vilification of certain groups of people.

Try this from the headline: 'Vile product of Welfare UK'. So, the welfare system produces utterly corrupt people – without distinction?

Or this: 'Man who bred 17 babies…' – as opposed to non-welfare recipients who 'have' children rather than 'breed' them? Animals breed…

Philpott's lifestyle is indefensible. His morality is damnable – although people not in receipt of welfare might also share some of his values. Yes, there are people who take welfare for a ride. Yes, the system needs reform – as does the system for rewarding the wealthy at the other end of the scale. But, something deeply corrupting is going on in our culture if the language of Osborne and the Daily Mail become common currency.

The Mail follows George Osborne's division of people between 'strivers' and 'skivers', shamelessly categorising people without for one minute questioning the basis for it – most welfare recipients work and work far too hard for the good of themselves or their families.

Do the Mail journalists take any responsibility for the remaining children of the Philpotts who, presumably, will now have to continue to live with the stigma generated by this reporting? Haven't they already suffered? But, the current onslaught against 'welfare' pays no attention to the children, making them suffer for the sins of the parents the children didn't choose. 'Suffer the little children', said Jesus; it looks like we read that wrongly and will make damned sure they suffer.

One day we shall be ashamed of this period in our history.

(Having written this, I then read the Guardian's intelligent and apposite editorial and Zoe Williams' excellent and pointed response to the Mail.)

Yesterday an open letter from thirty church leaders in Yorkshire and Humberside was published. Addressed to the Prime Minister and copied to the Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, the letter aims to highlight concerns about the impact of welfare cuts in the part of England we serve. It was timed to preempt the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement due tomorrow.

The thing about church leaders is that we have people in every community, from every stratum of society, and of a huge diversity of origins and backgrounds. Perhaps we are unique in that respect. Our reach goes deep and wide – and the pictures we build are not fabricated according to ideology, prejudice or even theology.

The letter caught local headlines, but managed to omit reference to a crucial paragraph in which the potential for getting people off welfare and into work is applauded. However, we also have to maintain a concern for those who cannot work, cannot get work or who fall through all the nets. Churches (among others) are currently and quietly providing night shelters for homeless people, running food banks, caring for people (and families) whose life has been radically changed for the worse.

The letter adds the voice of thirty church leaders (on behalf of those who tell us their stories of grassroots experience) to others attempting to inform the Government how its proposals are impacting on people (in our case) who live outside London; welfare cuts are having an impact on people every day and the poorest are paying the highest. In Bradford we have 38,000 children living below the poverty line. We still see the poorest people getting poorer, while the richest people are getting richer – and that’s a scandal.

The letter, accompanying a study entitled Am I my Brother’s Keeper? A Christian Overview of Welfare Reform and Cuts in Public Spending (Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber), reads as follows:

As Church leaders in the North of England, we would like to express our concern over the way that cuts in public spending and reforms to the welfare system are beginning to play out in the communities we serve. We commend to you a policy paper written by the Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber, Am I My Brother’s Keeper, which offers an informed overview of welfare reform and cuts in public spending in the context of the values that have driven welfare since the inception of the Welfare State.

We are concerned that the ideology behind many cuts and reforms serves to undermine fundamental principles of mutual care that are basic to our vision of a good society. We are similarly disturbed that the political rhetoric that is increasingly used of benefits claimants, “scrounger” and “feckless” to name but two, stigmatises welfare in such a way that those who are in genuine need become reluctant to make claims, to the detriment of themselves, their families and the communities in which they live.

We express support for those aspects of Universal Credit which make a genuine attempt to address longer term problems within the welfare system that can act as a deterrent to work. Indeed, we agree that work is the best route out of poverty for many people. However, we would also wish to draw your attention to the need to ensure that full-employment remains a policy aim for the Government in support of a system that sees welfare as transitional assistance for those that are capable of work.

We are especially troubled by welfare reforms that time-limit benefits at a time when structural unemployment makes it impossible for many to get the jobs they need for themselves and their families.

We would also urge care in applying means-testing in an aggressive way that further polarizes the debate about welfare into one in which the independent and self-sufficient think of themselves as being in permanent support of the dependent and “feckless”. Our view of the good society as interdependent and of people as fundamentally of equal worth, makes it impossible to support that polarization.

We wish to confirm our support for:

  • The Welfare State
    • As a mechanism for remedying the worst effects of laissez faire capitalism
    • As a way of addressing social inequality
    • As a safety net for those who are temporarily, or permanently, in need
  • A system of taxation that encourages responsibility among the wealthy to share their good fortune with other members of the society to which they belong
  • A work ethic which encourages all people towards employment and the duty to care for themselves and their own families in the first place, as they are able and when economic life permits
  • Full-employment as a policy goal that allows the Welfare State to function properly

Finally, our experience in the North underlines the need to achieve a better balance in the UK economy between the South – and especially the South-East – and the North. This would enable people in northern communities to deploy and benefit from their skills and abilities and thus contribute to enhancing the productivity of the country as a whole.

Just got back from a great trip to our link diocese in the USA – Southwestern Virginia – and trying to pick up what has been going on while I was away. Both the BBC and the Guardian websites were re-shaped into US sites while I was over there, so some domestic news seemed to slip by.

So, what strikes me on my return?

1. The Leveson Inquiry continues, but things are getting worse as four more journalists have been arrested – this time not from the defunct News of the World, but from the Sun. I can’t weep for those who have (a) indulged in unethical or criminal activity in the name of ‘the freedom of the press’ or (b) shredded other people’s lives before simply moving on to the next cash-generating scandal. However, I do weep for good journalists who now find themselves tarred with the brush of corruption – even if they now know what it feels like to face a situation of personal injustice that they cannot resolve by themselves… an experience familiar to victims of their tabloid colleagues. Not to forget also that it was excellent investigative journalism (and considerable nerve) that exposed this apparent web of corruption in the first place. A good democracy and a good society need a good, free, intelligent, accountable and ethical press.

2. While we spent nearly four hours on Saturday night with a couple of hundred others in Roanoke packing 176,000 food parcels for Sudanese refugees and displaced people (the remarkable and motivated young people of Southwestern Virginia raised the $35,000 it cost – and did so explicitly in the name of Christ), questions were being raised here about the viability of the new state of Southern Sudan. The challenges are huge, but they extend even more precariously in the north (Sudan itself). Christians there continue to be persecuted, expelled, attacked, dispossessed and dispersed. At least one British newspaper keeps this in the news (others may be doing so, too, but I have only had time to check the one).

3. Lord Carey, former Archbishop for Canterbury has bashed the bishops for being so feeble as to defend the poor in the face of the governments welfare cut proposals. Actually, it is clear that the bishops in the House of Lords have not opposed cuts per se and do take seriously the need to re-calibrate who gets what in the future. With the caveat that I have lifted this from the OUTRAGED Daily Mail report, this is what Lord Carey said about the bishops’ amendment regarding Child Benefit:

‘Considering that the system they are defending can mean some families are able to claim a total of £50,000 a year in welfare benefits, the bishops must have known that popular opinion was against them, including that of many hard-working, hard-pressed churchgoers,’ he writes.

‘Yet these five bishops – led by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds – cannot lay claim to the moral high-ground.

Victoria Coren responded effectively in the Guardian, defending the right – nay, the obligation – of Christian bishops to speak on behalf of the poor, whether or not they win the eventual vote. But, my question really has to do with the insinuation that the bishops should not go against ‘popular opinion’. This cannot be serious. Since when has ‘popular opinion’ been the singular guide to ethics, Christian thought and action, or prophetic wisdom? Coren put it like this:

But I’m not a bishop. It doesn’t matter whether I think they’re right or wrong; I think it’s their job to do what the Bible tells them to do, ie look out for the needy, like the innocent children on whose behalf they raised the amendment, who might otherwise get lost.

The right-wing press that is so angry with the bishops has been complaining for years that Christianity (for better or worse, our national religion) is too weak and small a voice, that its values are not fought for. Now it’s happening, they hate it.

Lord Carey might have an opinion on the government’s handling of the debt, but to suggest that the bishops should be guided by popular opinion (as opposed to, say, the Bible?) is just weird.

Or have I missed something?