The challenge to the Church is to discover how we can contribute to building a positive movement which is powerful enough to bring about the social, political and economic changes necessary to Close the Gap between rich and poor both in the UK and globally.
Underlying all the other inequalities in the UK is a Power Gap: Big business exercising too much power, whilst local communities feel that the have little or no say in decisions that affect them.
In our modern globalised world, it is easy to feel disenchanted, disempowered and disconnected from the big decisions which shape our lives and the lives of our communities. Global economic forces, corporate power, distant political parties, managerialist bureaucracy, and untransparent decision making processes conspire together to drain any sense of agency away from the local. We can easily feel like we have no power to affect the big decisions that really matter.
As Helena Kennedy observed in the Power Inquiry: “The disengagement from politics … cannot be dismissed as the preoccupation of the chattering classes. Its substance has come from the voices of thousands of people around the country who feel quietly angry or depressed. When it comes to politics they feel they are eating stones. Principle and ideas seem to have been replaced with managerialism and public relations. It is as though Proctor and Gamble or Abbey National are running the country.”
Demos, in its recent report The Power Gap argue that it is power, not income, which is the critical inequality in Britain. This is the divide that matters to our wellbeing and progress as a nation. In its Power Map of Britain, the areas with the least power are the inner urban areas – Glasgow, Birmingham, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesbrough – with the highest levels of poverty.
As Barack Obama, drawing on his time as a Community Organiser in Chicago, makes clear: ”The problems facing inner-city communities do not result from a lack of effective solutions, but from a lack of power to implement these solutions.”
Set against this, banks and financial institutions seem to wield enormous and entirely unaccountable power over the fate of whole nations. To conceal this reality, commentators euphemistically describe the actions of ‘the markets’, as if they somehow existed outside of human agency, rather than constituting the sum of cold amoral calculations of overpaid men in suits sat in trading rooms across the globe.
Human agency: Made in the image of God
Fundamentally as Christians, we believe that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. But what does this mean in practice? Arguably nothing defines us as human beings more than our agency, or in theological terms, our free will: If we are rendered powerless, our very humanity is threatened.
Yet, within the churches, we also sometimes seem to have an antipathy to power. When we see power being exercised over people, we rightly recoil. But power can be a force for good, as well as for ill. As Martin Luther King once said, “Power is the ability to achieve a purpose… It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change.”
If we are passionate about wanting to see healthier communities, or a more socially just society, we must surely also want the strength (or power) to bring these things about.
As Christian Aid have noted: “Ultimately social change is about power – what form it takes, how it is distributed and used, the people it affects, and how people react to it. Empowerment is a process of accumulating or increasing access to power. Poverty and poor human development are themselves a reflection of disempowerment and marginalisation – inadequate influence and access.”
And in relation to the role of the Church: “Religion has the capacity to express a collective worldview and the deepest hopes and aspirations of large groups of people. Like any form of organised human activity and power, it has the capacity for abuse and doing harm, but also has the capacity to be a force for good.”
Building a movement to reclaim power
Change – real change – never comes without a struggle. A struggle to transform our own lives, lifestyles and attitudes to consumption, wealth and our own fellow citizens. A struggle to challenge the lives, lifestyles and attitudes of others who, consciously or unconsciously, fail to treat others – or the planet – with respect. A struggle to challenge unaccountable politicians; unjust policies, and unsustainable distribution of the nation and the planet’s resources.
Our task is to be ‘windchangers’, to shift the public mood from blaming the poor, to championing their cause. It is our task to create the conditions in which politicians and political parties have to take seriously the challenging of ending poverty close to home, in just the same way as Make Poverty History has done for international poverty.
We know, from the efforts of Jubilee 2000 – as well as from Make Poverty History – that when the Churches come together with others and mobilise the power of our collective voice, we can bring about change. We know too from our work at Church Action on Poverty that this approach can and does work in a domestic context as well.
Together, we can enable local communities to have a more effective, stronger and more powerful public voice – and Churches can play a key role in this task.
Can we inspire hope? Can we inspire belief that change is possible? Can we, in the churches and in the wider community, build a powerful movement for change?
Yes we can.