Church, Politics and the Common Good
One of the consequences of the pandemic has been that many people have reflected more deeply about what is really important in life. What is it that we truly value? Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, has recently written about value and values. He makes the point that not everything that is important and that we value can be measured in terms of the market value or GDP. This was clear during the first lockdown, as people in the local community (and throughout the nation) mobilised themselves to care for others. We all valued and were heartened by the ways people reached out to help others and it revealed that many value mutual care and neighbourliness. We also realised that in terms of the market economy none of this could be measured; it had no fiscal value but was immensely valuable. Personally, I was deeply affected by the staff at local grocery shops whose contribution to the community far exceeded what they were paid in monetary terms. Not everything that has value has a market value. So, the pandemic raised questions about what we really value and what values we want to live by. As a society we have shifted in recent decades from a society with a market economy to one which could be described as a ‘market society’ – one where everything has a price. It seems, in light of the past year, that we are now beginning to ask, ‘what have we lost in the process?’ What values - like courage or compassion - are eroded in a market society?
This theme of value and values is explored by Mark Carney in his recent book, Value(s): Building a Better World for All. He picks up on questions that many are asking. How can we build a better world for all? What do we really value? Who do we value? It has become clear in the past months that such questions may be a matter of life and death for some. Covid 19 has more negatively impacted some groups in society than others. Statistics have revealed that some groups in our society have been at much greater risk than other. Certain groups of people were always going to be more at risk. Even in the middle of 2020, the Institute for Fiscal Studies saw that workers whose livelihoods looked most at risk ‘already tended to have relatively low incomes, and were relatively likely to be in poverty’.
As we emerge from a third lockdown we are all aware that nearly all people’s wellbeing has been affected by Covid 19 and that the poorest people and most vulnerable groups in the UK have been more severely affected than others. As we look towards the future, many are wondering what kind of society we want to live in. Covid 19 has given us a chance to pause and really think about what we value, who we value, and what values we want to live by. Many economists and political thinkers are beginning to argue that unequal societies are less hardy, less healthy, less able to meet the demands of challenges like pandemics and climate change. Again, Mark Carney, in his book Value(s) writes ‘There is growing evidence that relative equality is good for growth. More equal societies are more resilient, they are more likely to invest for the many not the few, and to have robust political institutions and consistent policies. And few would disagree that a society that provides opportunity for all its citizens is more likely to thrive than one that favours an elite, however defined’.
In January of this year the Office for National Statistics published a report called ‘Household Income Inequality in the UK’. The statistics related to the financial year ending March 2020 and show that income inequality is at its greatest in ten years, and the gap between the richest in society and the rest of the population has widened in that ten year period. These figures were ‘pre-Covid’ but they reflect a pattern of inequality that has increased dramatically in the UK over a period of 40 years. Many in our society feel left behind and undervalued. How can we build a more equal society where different skills are appreciated and remunerated accordingly? How can we invest in training and opportunities for all people? How can we build a more equal society that is more resilient?
As Christians we need to be fully engaged with these questions. As has been said, politics is too important to be left to politicians! Inequality affects people’s personal wellbeing and health, ultimately it is a moral question which relates to if/how we love our neighbour. In a recent book called Reimagining Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, writes that our faith in God leads to our being drawn into the political sphere, to engage with the big questions and challenges of the day: ‘times of change require contributions from every part of society’ he writes. He also argues that ‘there is today a lack of common values, owing to what was once a shared narrative of virtue in the Christian tradition’. With this in mind, we can see that the Church has a distinctive voice that can recall us to our best inclinations. As many wonder and worry what the future will look like, it’s important that people of faith speak up for values like the common good. It is vital that we argue for a society that is more equal, protects the most vulnerable, and in the process may well become more resilient.
It is a positive sign that the language of the common good seems to be reappearing. The pandemic may have shown us that materialism and rugged individualism are a diminishment of our shared humanity, and that love of neighbour and mutuality help us all to live well. We all have a part to play in promoting the common good and the ways it makes societies and economies stronger. As Christians, we have a distinctive voice that is grounded in our faith in God’s goodness and God’s love for all. Jim Wallis, a theologian working in the US, wrote in The (Un)common Good, ‘We people of faith, at our best, may be the ultimate independents, engaged in politics only because of the people and issues that command our moral attention, and willing to challenge all political sides on behalf of them. Fighting for biblical justice and the common good, not partisan political goals, will be the core of faithful politics…responding to the call for the common good is always a very personal decision. My hope and prayer is that we will all decide for the common good in our personal and public lives and that we will teach our children to do likewise.’ I also hope that we will decide to work for and promote the common good. Our faith gives us perspectives and insights that bring light and healing to conversations in the wider society. As people of faith we can champion the values that reflect our faith in Christ. The demands and the opportunities of the present and the future are too important to be left to others, we all need to engage with the challenges ahead and be confident that as people of faith we have perspectives that deserve to be heard and can make a real difference in the way we all think and act.