David Cameron has spoken this week of his Christian faith. His sincerity has been widely questioned on Twitter, but it’s not for me to judge him. God can see into Cameron’s heart but I can’t. However, the Prime Minister and I have very different understandings of Christianity.
Cameron praised churches for their work with the poor. Thanks to Cameron and his allies, British churches are doing more work with the poor than they have done for decades. This is because the coalition government’s policies have led to a sharp rise in poverty in the UK, with half a million people using food banks, rough sleeping rising by a third in three years and thousands of disabled people losing basic means of support. At the same time, the coalition has cut taxes for the rich and is planning to spend £100bn renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system.
While churches rightly reach out to help those in desperate need, Cameron has good reason to be thankful that they do so. Without food banks and the like, the government might well have a lot more riots to deal with.
I am as biased as anyone else when it comes to interpreting the Bible. My background affects my approach, just as David Cameron’s affects his. I am sure I have misunderstood Jesus in all sorts of ways. Nonetheless, however we interpret Jesus’ teachings, it is difficult to argue that they are not concerned with issues of poverty and wealth.
The Gospels show Jesus declaring he had come to “bring good news to the poor” and declaring “blessed are the poor”. Most of his parables had economic dimensions, however much they have been spiritualised and domesticated by centuries of interpretations in the hands of the powerful.
I suggest that Jesus did not practise charity in the narrow sense of helping out less fortunate individuals. He drew attention to injustice, attacked the priorities of the rich and powerful and challenged us all to repent and live differently. His support for individuals who were ill or distressed was in the context of solidarity and mingled with teachings about the unjust practices that contributed to their suffering.
As churches struggle to cope with the rise in poverty and homelessness, let’s remember a crucial question: are we simply patching over the cracks, or are we standing in solidarity with poor and marginalised people and challenging the sinful systems that lead to poverty and inequality?