Is it just me or has anyone else got to the point where they just want to get to May 7th and move on to the next step of trying to piece together a workable government? Having a fixed-term parliament has brought about some clear benefits, but the downside has been the tediously drawn out build-up that is nothing short of a marathon, both for the politicians and the public.
Perhaps it wouldn’t feel so bad if there were good reasons to get excited – like SNP supporters appear to have. But this has been an incredibly pragmatic election campaign: none of the big parties appears to want to risk anything, and are playing the game with a very straight bat. Even the Scottish Labour Party continues to amble along without any great urgency, heading inexorably toward parliamentary extinction at the hands of the SNP.
If there are any political visionaries in our parties, they’re doing a very good job of keeping quiet. Instead, it has been largely down to those who do not need to gain the voters’ approval who have used this election to share bolder dreams of what could be.
The Church of England’s bishops had a good go at this all the way back in February in their Pastoral Letter, expressing the hope for political parties to discern “a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be”. Once you work your way past the claims of party political bias, you’ll find a desire to see a more engaged forms of politics. It talks of developing fresh political visions to combat social isolation, loneliness and consumer individualism. The bishops say Britain is hungry for a new approach to politics which reaffirms our ties at a national, regional, community and neighbourhood levels.
It may be thin on detail, throwing up more questions than answers, but the bishops’ letter can’t be accused of being tame or lacking imagination. Neither can Tearfund’s Restorative Economy report which was launched by Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, earlier this month. It has bold ambitions that aspire to cause us to re-evaluate how we see our place in the world as individuals and as a nation, and how we use our wealth of resources, not just to benefit ourselves but beyond. We need to remember, it says, that we are part of a global community where inequalities far exceed those we see at home, and also that we live on a planet that is being severely impacted by our continued consumption of its resources.
This sort of political talk is rarely going to win votes, which is perhaps why the environment has mostly been ignored during this election campaign. All of the parties give it attention in their manifestos, but, by and large, these policies are remaining on the pages. Even the Greens would rather talk about the economy than environmental sustainability in the hope that they will be taken seriously, not giving too much attention to their plans (which, for example, promise to spend an incredible £45 billion on ‘free’ home insulation). Chances are that when Pope Francis releases his next encyclical in June on climate change and the environment, it will cause far more attention to be drawn to the matter than our politicians have managed over the past few months.
Both the Pope and Tearfund’s report talk of Christians having an important role in asking the difficult questions and defending what others ignore. In all of our talk about the state of our nation, we mustn’t lose sight of the bigger picture; of a world where inequality means that the top one per cent owns as much as the other 99, and more than a billion people still live in extreme poverty. But if we think these problems are insurmountable then we should look to what has been achieved in the last 25 years, with millions of families around the world having escaped poverty. Life expectancy is increasing; diseases such as malaria and measles are retreating; more children are in school than ever before and the number of children who die each day has halved since 1990. Fired up by the biblical concept of jubilee, the Jubilee 2000 campaign achieved extraordinary things, with low-income countries’ debts falling from nearly 75 per cent of their national incomes in 2000 to just over 25 per cent today.
Jubilee in the Bible is centred on restoration both between humans and between us and the earth. Those agencies who work with the poorest in the world know that money alone will not solve everything. If they are hit by floods or drought then much good work can count for nothing. Our intimate relationship with our planet cannot be taken for granted.
Tearfund’s report sets out a biblical perspective on this as follows:
The overarching story of the Bible – from the fall in Genesis, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth in Revelation – is a story about mending broken relationships through the process of atonement.
Atonement is the central element of Jesus’ ministry – an act of self-sacrifice that was both intended to deal with sin and usher in ‘his kingdom come’ on earth. It is about reuniting relationships that have been torn asunder, about healing, reconciliation and peace in the fullest sense.
Atonement is also a very practical idea that finds its political and economic expression in jubilee. Jubilees, and the closely linked idea of sabbaths (every seven days and every seven years), set out concrete procedures for how to correct economic, social and environmental imbalances – in effect, providing an instruction manual for how to build and maintain a restorative economy.
It argues that restorative economies need to be built which will ensure that we live within environmental limits, and that everyone might be able to meet their basic needs and keep inequality within reasonable limits. These are big if not impossible aims, and the report acknowledges this, but at the same time it insists that we should always start with high ideals. It goes on to say:
More broadly, a restorative economy depends on restorative living – with the whole of society engaged in repairing creation, taking opportunities to be producers rather than just passive consumers, building resilient communities that are creative and fun to be part of, and restoring bonds of fellowship and friendship.
Many of the changes required involve sacrifice – but also, paradoxically, offer us the chance to live more fully, in the same way that following Paul’s call for us to be ‘living sacrifices’ brings opportunity for transformation (Romans 12:1). To live like this, we need to choose not to conform with the lifestyle patterns around us and to raise our voices in witness to the injustices that we see all around us – those breaches of right relationship with God, each other and creation. In short, we need to model a fresh approach. If we can rise to the challenge, then the force of our actions and words will have real prophetic power.
And this concept of sacrifice is one that brings us back to the election campaign. At the heart of this election, the debate has been austerity: how much do we cut and how fast? Contrary to the expressed views of some politicians, austerity is not about attacking the poor. Austerity can be used to re-balance an economy and bring our national debt under control without hitting the poorest beyond what they can cope with – if it is done with sensitivity and care. Too often those who oppose austerity know that their cries will appeal because we are not willing to make sacrifices to our living standards: we would rather leave it to someone elsewhere in a future time to deal with.
Efforts and visions which seek to bring restoration can rarely be achieved without a price. We give up something or change our habits in order that all of us might benefit and be blessed. And sometimes that may cause significant discomfort. This, though, is why we need prophets with vision – to speak up offering hope, but also to challenge lifestyles and attitudes even at the expense of being dismissed, disowned or worse.
When we are faced with these challenges we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to respond accordingly, and, if not, is it because we our more interested in our own individual comforts and luxuries than with the good of all?