IN HIS new book On Rock or Sand, the Archbishop of
York, Dr Sentamu, has been joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury
in drawing attention to the growing gap between rich and poor. They
urge that this issue must be at the forefront of attention in the
run-up to the General Election.
Most Christians will be pleased with this move, especially those
who are involved in the growing number of foodbanks. As churches up
and down the country host hustings, and ply potential MPs with
searching questions in relation to growing levels of poverty, we
must, however, also demonstrate a similar passion for justice for
younger and future generations.
It is cheap grace to lobby for policies that are sympathetic to
the needs of the poor, but which serve to add to the burden of
younger and future generations. For example, over the past 20
years, the cost of improving infrastructure - whether transport,
schools, or hospitals - has been "kicked down the road" as a result
of the Public Finance Initiative (PFI). Governments of both Left
and Right have initiated almost 900 PFI contracts, which will
bequeath to future generations a debt of £240 billion.
With the British national debt close to £4.8 trillion, those who
would make a virtue of austerity easily seize the moral high
ground, by insisting that the best way to help those yet to be born
is not to saddle them with a massive national debt. Any Christian
commentary that proclaims justice for the poor has to address this
perpetual inclination to shift the obligations of current citizens
on to the backs of future generations as yet unborn.
Those who make a virtue of debt-reduction are, to an extent,
justified; but the risk is that reduction serves to turn the poor
of today and the poor of the future into rivals.
We know very clearly that the hardship associated with austerity
is disproportionately borne by those who are poor. It is, however,
possible to square this unholy circle, and this insight comes from
a surprising direction.
The First Church Estates Commissioner, Andreas Whittam Smith,
will present a paper, Church Commissioners' Funds and
Inter-Generational Equity, at the February meeting of General
Synod. He lifts the lid on the naïve and uncontrolled financial
liberality of the Church Commissioners in the 1980s and '90s.
For those of us with long memories, the first hint of financial
disaster at the Commissioners was their reneging on the commitment
to give £1 million for each of 18 years to the Church Urban Fund, a
commitment not reinstated when finances returned to an even keel -
evidence again that it is invariably the poor who take the biggest
hit from financial misadventures.
In his paper, Mr Whittam Smith clearly and wisely articulates
the conditions in which it is legitimate to "over-distribute"
monies, even if this is at a cost to future generations. He
describes the possibility of "bad" over-distribution, when money is
squandered by the "pull of the now"; but there can also be "good"
over-distribution, when spending is undertaken with clear purpose,
supported by evidence of effectiveness; and ventures are fully
costed, openly monitored and evaluated and, in the longer term, may
produce a positive financial out-turn. Mr Whittam Smith will, no
doubt, tell the General Synod that it is possible to spend church
assets wisely - i.e. to sell some of the family silver - without
being irresponsible in relation to future generations. We can and
must say likewise to those who, in the forthcoming General
Election, wish to be our representatives.
For the sake of justice, however, both now and for future
generations, we must also throw down further challenges to our
Democratic governments struggle to take account of long-term
concerns, because to do so cuts across the interests and pleasures
of those whose votes they would like to win. In speaking up for
justice and compassion, both for now and for younger and future
generations, we have to forgo self-interest.
This means a willingness to say Amen to the legitimacy of
inheritance tax. It means a willingness to say Amen to the
introduction of a land-value tax. (I pause here to ponder whether
our land-rich Church would wriggle and resist such an imposition.)
We have to own the distortion of our homes into repositories for
landfill, housing the stuff that we persistently accumulate.
Jesus observed that the poor will always be with us. Perhaps he
came to this conclusion having discerned the habits and
inclinations of the secure and comfortable.
When making the case for the iniquity of poverty-level pay,
people like me - and, most probably, people like you - have to be
very cautious indeed; for, when we are tempted to get on our high
horse and protest against the growing gap between rich and poor, we
don't just risk being snared by the presumed virtue of austerity
but, worse than this, we risk haemorrhaging integrity; because we
ourselves are not altogether innocent in relation to the processes
that make the poor poorer, both now and in the future.
Ann Morisy is an independent theologian. She is the author
of Borrowing from the Future: A faith- based approach
to intergenerational equity, published by