FOR many of us, buying something extra for the foodbank that our church either supports or organises is a routine part of the weekly shop. It is an instinctive response to an obvious need, a way of loving a distant neighbour in contemporary Britain.
This book by Charles Pemberton, a tutor at St Chad’s College, Durham, is designed to make us think again about what it is that we are doing. The contention is that, by our actions, we are unconsciously perpetuating injustice. It makes for uncomfortable reading.
The author’s starting-point is the Durham County foodbank and those who go there for food and companionship. An early chapter introduces us to some of its volunteers and users, although the interviews are unstructured and fleeting. They are used to raise theological and political questions about the relationship between Christian faith and issues of economics and global food policies.
Much of the book is then taken up with a sustained attack on what the author sees as the reason for the appearance of foodbanks in the first place: the politics and economics of neo-liberalism. These are the policies associated with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, which led to the deregulation of markets in the 1980s and attempts to withdraw from direct state intervention in the economy.
Pemberton believes that this created conditions of extreme economic precariousness for many people, leading to the rise of the foodbank movement, as charitable people responded to growing inequality and poverty.
This raises the question whether the foodbanks, by mitigating the worst effects of an unjust economic system, let us off the hook of having to ask more fundamental questions about economic policy and our collusion with it. Pemberton draws on a range of authors who are all critical of neo-liberalism and what are said to be its consequences for the nature of employment, our ability to feed the world’s hungry, and the future of the planet.
And this is the problem that I have with the book: it scarcely engages at any point with those who, from a Christian perspective, would broadly support a more free-market approach. I would expect to see in the bibliography at least some reference to Christian writers such as Brian Griffiths or Michael Novak, who have reflected on the Thatcher-Reagan approach.
They would argue that, in so far as the world’s poor have been helped at all over the past 50 years, it is because they live in countries that have embraced market capitalism, including the former Soviet Union and Communist China. But the references in the book are to those who support the anti-capitalist theme rather than challenge it.
What the book fails to recognise is that the UK has never pursued neo-liberalism in its pure form, not least because of its membership of the European Union. The social-market approach of the EU has always meant that member states sought to protect workers’ and consumers’ rights, and to secure food safety and animal welfare, through regulation and direct government action. This is one reason that the more ardent advocates of neo-liberalism wanted to leave the EU.
What is finally commended in the book is hardly an adequate solution to the obvious economic injustices and food poverty that exist: a Universal Basic Income, the disestablishment of the Church of England (as a sign that its members were dissociating themselves from the injustices of the prevailing system), and a commitment to growing one’s own food as far as possible.
Christian theology does not take us to any particular economic system; nor does it allow us to dismiss any economic system because it does not meet the full standards of the Kingdom of God. No political economy could ever do that. This is because we always live this side of the Kingdom.
The Revd Dr Alan Billings is the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire.
Bread of Life in Broken Britain: Food banks, faith and Neoliberalism
Charles Roding Pemberton
Church Times Bookshop £16