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Mammon’s victims

02 December 2016

”THE truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Well, in the case of foodbanks, it just is. The people who use them are hungry and desperate. The reason that there are now more foodbanks is that more people are hungry and desperate. Stung by government attacks that they were just do-gooders, allowing themselves to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous wastrels (or words to that effect), the Trussell Trust has commissioned extensive research in recent years. Figures released in April suggested that 42 per cent used foodbanks because of delays or changes to their benefits; and 23 per cent were in work, but just not earning enough to make ends meet. It is no wonder, however, that the trust, which runs 425 foodbanks and is supported by 12,000 churches, is unpopular with the Govern­ment. When the former Prime Minister David Cameron wrote about Christian engagement in this paper in 2014, he could not bring himself to mention foodbanks by name, but did refer to them obliquely: “I welcome the efforts of all those who help to feed, clothe, and house the poorest in our society.” To acknowledge the need for foodbanks, the Government would have to admit to the cruel inadequacies of the benefits system — and then do something about them. As Chris Mould, Trussell’s outgoing chairman, said this week: “There is some­thing about resistance within government departments to hearing that things are not going right.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury suggests that the wrongness goes far deeper. In his new book Dethroning Mammon, he contrasts benefit sanctions, whereby claimants are penalised for non-attendance at meetings, in many cases regardless of a legitimate excuse, with approaches to tax “planning”. Indeed, he challenges the whole concept of tax “liabilities”: “The ultimate aim of taxation is to provide money to enable the state to ensure the dignity, safely, health and education of all citizens, which guarantees our common good, and allows us to show solidarity abroad.” In other words, tax is good.

Archbishop Welby’s personification of evil under the name of Mammon is striking. Whether it is a conceit or a genuine belief in a personality behind the movements of money which exploit the most vulnerable in society is unclear and ultimately irrelevant. The Archbishop’s decision to refer to Mammon as “he” or “him” assists his argument that the abuse of power through economics is not accidental. The sum of myriad self-serving financial decisions by investors, and the protectionist or aggressively liberal policies of governments on their behalf, may look monolithic and unchallengeable; but Archbishop Welby’s thesis is that Christ has subverted this form of power, and that the individuals behind it must be challenged to reform. Chief among those individuals at present are the govern­ment ministers who too readily defend a tax system that shies away from tackling the avoiders and a benefit system that too eagerly punishes the unfortunate.

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