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Don’t let the weak go to the wall again

22 May 2020

Society needs wise, statesmanlike leadership — not a mad rush back to profiteering, says Tom Wright

PERHAPS the most vital question of all, and one that should be near the top of serious conversations at the highest level between Church, State, and all interested parties, is how we move back towards whatever the “new normal” is going to be.

Some people have expressed the pious hope that, when this is all over, we will have a kinder, gentler society. We will pay our nurses much more. We will be prepared to give more in taxes to support health services, and we will give much more help to the hospice movement. We will have enjoyed the fresh air so much, unpolluted by thousands of cars and planes, that we will want to travel less, and spend more time with family and neighbours.

I wish I thought that this were true. I fear, however, that, as soon as restrictions are lifted, there will be a rush to start up again such businesses as we can — and, in all sorts of ways, that is quite right and proper. Nobody who is desperate to avoid bankruptcy is going to think twice about using driving again, or flying, if it will help.

We are told on all sides that the economic effects of the lockdown are already catastrophic, and could get worse. The problem is, then, quite like the tragic decisions that leaders face during a war: think of Churchill during the Blitz, deciding whether to sacrifice that unit for the sake of rescuing this one, and whether to send coded messages to the enemy which would make them bomb those houses instead of these public buildings.

At the time of writing, we have been concentrating entirely on “staying safe” — at a massive cost in terms of bankruptcies, unemployment, and social malaise. The huge government handouts to those in need as a result will, sooner or later, have to be paid for. Certainly, if the debate is conducted between those who see death as the worst of all possible results and those who see economic ruin as the worst of all possible results, the end product is likely to be an acrimonious dialogue of the deaf.

 

IF ALL this is approached purely pragmatically, as though the machinery of state were, well, machinery, rather than the wise working interrelationship of fully alive human beings, the result will be predictable. The weak will go to the wall again. They usually do. After the 2008 financial crisis, the banks and the big businesses, having accepted huge public bail-out money, quickly got back into their old ways, while the poorest parts of Britain just got poorer and stayed that way.

Someone needs to stand up and read perhaps not the riot act, but Psalm 72. This is the list of priorities that the Church should be articulating, not just in speech, but in practical proposals to go at the top of the agenda:

 

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. . .
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.. . .

[The righteous ruler] delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
And precious is their blood in his sight.

Psalm 72.1-4, 12-14

 

This could be mocked as wishful thinking. But it is what the Church, at its best, has always believed and taught, and what the Church on the front lines has always practised.

We need to think globally and act locally — but, in doing both, to work with church leaders from around the world to find policies that will prevent a mad rush back to profiteering and letting the devil take the hindmost. Of course, in the middle of that, we need to strengthen the World Health Organization and insist that all countries stick firmly to its policies and protocols.

 

WE URGENTLY need statesmanlike, wise leadership, in which prayerful Christian leaders take a place alongside others, to think with both vision and realism through the challenges that we shall face in the coming months.

It could be that, in the days to come, we will see signs of genuine new possibilities, new ways of working which will regenerate old systems and invent new and better ones, which we could then recognise as forward-looking hints of new creation. Or, perhaps, we will just go back to “business as usual” in the sense of the same old squabbles, the same old shallow analyses and solutions.

But if we simply sit and wait to see, and wring our hands either because our churches are locked, or our golf clubs are shut, or our businesses have been put on hold, then it is all the more likely that the usual forces will take control.


The Rt Revd Professor Tom Wright is Research Professor of New Testament at St Andrews University and Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He was Bishop of Durham from 2003 to 2010.

This is an edited extract from his book God and the Pandemic: A Christian reflection on the coronavirus and its aftermath, which will be published by SPCK next Thursday at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.20).

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