It strikes me that there are unlimited opportunities for the church to stand up and make a significant difference in this country, especially for the poor. It is very true that many are doing that already. But there is more that can be done. I don’t think it is enough to simply criticise the government, although they have to be held to account. At the end of the day, the church is pretty much the one world organisation with ‘branches’ in almost every town and village in the world.
I’m sitting here this evening both sad and furious after some poor behaviour by UK MPs in Westminster today with a ridiculous and callous response to the debate raised on how many people are having to access foodbanks. It is expected that around 60,000 families in the UK will have to access a bank this Christmas time. I’ve been really delighted that Trinity have been able to respond to the food poverty need by being a collection point for a Trussell Trust food bank this year, something that I hope we will continue well into the New Year.
Growing up, I had my own experiences of food poverty. Our cupboards were very often bare and the food we did have was less than healthy and nourishing. You just can’t bring up a family like that. Thank God for the many children who are at least still able to access a free lunch at school. In my work with The Salvation Army in particular, I’ve filled more empty food cupboards than I’d care to count. This is first hand experience to me.
I rarely get ‘political’ here on this blog, but you see, this issue is not party political. This is prophetic political. The prophets continually hounded Israel to care for the needs of the hungry and the oppressed, to speak up against the oppressor. This is what it is to be an ambassador to the King of Kings, who has the government upon his shoulders. Isaiah 58 is a striking reminder of the stark call to action and a powerful insight into the mind of God:
‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I.
‘If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
This is quite clear, an astoundingly simple response to need that is more than echoed in the New Testament by Jesus, especially in Matthew 25, and by James in his epistle. This Isaiah text, however, captures both the needed response to the people themselves and to the people who are oppressing them. As witnessed today in the Houses of Parliament, an Member of Parliament who can sit in a debating chamber and laugh and sneer at the idea of people fighting over discounted food in the supermarket has really lost touch with his constitutional role to protect, defend and administer rightly and justly.
There are many complex reasons as to why people have to resort to ‘charity’, from issues like addiction, unemployment, lack of community, mental health and other health issues, to name but a few. Contrary to popular opinion, the ‘scroungers’ are actually few. I’ve met a fair few of them in the course of life and ministry this far, but this can never, ever, be the brush that we tar everyone with. Isaiah suggests we forget the malicious talk, the pointing finger, and act with compassion.
I don’t care two hoots if Scotland has independence in comparison to how I feel about people being able to eat a decent meal and for children to have a nourishing meal in 21st Century Britain. I’ll be blessed to sit down with my family on Christmas day and share a lovely meal, but also thankful to know that I’ve at least done something, however small, to ensure others can do the same. It is time that the church was even more exercised on this issue than it already is.