And the poor inherited Blair

Witness: The Church and Politics

IT WAS the second anniversary of the coming to power of the Blair Government and the opposition was in something of a state of disarray. Not the Tories. This opposition was the unofficial one.

During the long years of Thatcherism and Majorism (if the latter merits anything so coherent as an "ism") you will recall that there was nothing much in the way of effective opposition from the "old" Labour Party. It seemed both riven by splits and bereft of ideas to combat the grand narrative of The Unfettered Market which the New Right had brought in. That, of course, was before New Labour decided that it was the only idea in town, and decided to pinch it.

In those far-off days, it was commonly said, the only real resistance to the tide of Thatcherism came from the Church. It was not that the Church had changed. It had merely stayed where it was, in the traditional English middle ground of decency, fair play and happy, non-ideological muddle. It was just that the political world had changed around it. Suddenly it found that its concerns - for the urban poor in its Faith in the City report, its insistence on praying for the Argentine dead at the end of the Falklands war, or its concerns for social justice in the Catholic bishops' Common Good document - left it as a rare voice of public contradiction.

But then came Tony Blair, with his Sunday Mass-going, his membership of the Christian Socialist Movement, and his conference speeches full of scriptural echoes about the dangers of a society passing by on the other side. Christian activists paused. All this was mixed into a policy agenda that sounded as tough in many ways as that of the Iron Lady predecessor for whom he happily proclaimed admiration. Should they back Tony Blair or criticise him?

For two years, the Church has hesitated, hopeful yet wary of abandoning the finely honed skills of opposition developed under 18 years of Tory rule. This week, the compromises of Blairism were never far from the heart of the discussion when 300 activists and theologians gathered at Newman College in Birmingham for a conference on the future of political theology, which was entitled Proclaiming the Gospel of Justice in a World of Global Capitalism.

"There is an increased tension and a growing mutual denunciation," Dr Ian Linden, of the Catholic Institute for International Relations, told the opening session, "between those who see the role of the Church as one of prophetic condemnation and those in favour of gradual, incremental political change."

It is focused around Tony Blair's decision to ask Church agencies and activists to help implement the government's "New Deal" welfare programmes. Those who say Yes are accused by the others of selling out the poor; those who say No are accused by Blair enthusiasts of being romantic dinosaurs.

There was no mistaking the level of suspicion. The choice was between being "the Church of the poor" or a "social-exclusion quango", said Elaine Graham, professor of pastoral theology at Manchester University, condemning what she called the "mad dash for relevance". "For Christian socialists, an attack on poverty was always an attack on inequality," she said. Equality had now been replaced by inclusion - but only for those who could be effective in the job market. One of the great problems of poverty is that it dehumanises the poor. New Labour's "whiff of coercion" would do nothing to counter that. The Church should not collude in the process of blaming the victims.

In the opposite corner were those such as Alison Webster, social responsibility officer for the Anglican Diocese of Worcester. It was true, she said, that those successful on the new training schemes often better themselves and then move out of the area - "which is great for them but does nothing for the community or those who are left behind". But the challenge was to discriminate between schemes that treat the poor as passive victims and those which allow them to become agents of change in their own lives. "Instead of tools of opposition, we need new tools of critical engagement."

There is, of course, nothing new in all this. The same debate is entrenched in the Hebrew Scriptures in the debate between the books of the Prophets and those of the Wisdom tradition. More recently, there are similar tensions in the approaches of Liberation Theology and Catholic Social Teaching.

The former, developed among the poor in Latin America, insists that theology must begin as the voice of the 1,300 million people in the world who live on less than $1 a day. "Being a Christian starts with taking a position on that," said Jon Sobrino, a theologian from El Salvador who has put his body where his mouth is. He was abroad the day in 1989 when government troops entered his home and slaughtered the entire community of Jesuit priests and their staff. He immediately went back, in defiance, to live there.

The latter, developed mainly among the rich in Europe, insists on trying to find a balance between individualism and collectivism. It calls for reform not revolution; it points out flaws in existing social models but resists proposing alternatives; though it has a presumption in favour of making current systems work more effectively.

Which offers a better paradigm for modern Britain? The problem with Liberation Theology, suggested one activist, is that its two key principles seem incompatible in the West. The first is that theology must grow out of the specific context in which people live, rather than out of some abstract principle. The second is that it must start from the point of view of the poor and marginalised. In Latin America, that is the majority of people, said the London activist, but in Britain most people are not victims but those who profit, however unwittingly, from the unjust economic system that keeps the Third World poor.

The answer, said Jon Sobrino, is "to build on your best traditions". That means staying primarily focused on the local, said Ken Leech, an Anglican priest in inner London who insists that 80 per cent of his activity must be conducted within one square mile of his East End vicarage. It also means we have to make our own connections between the local and the global, said Denys Turner, a Roman Catholic Marxist who is soon to be a professor of divinity at Cambridge. "We have to engage in the same exercise of unpacking the structures of power and pauperisation," he explained.

Chief target must be the cynicism and weary irony of our post-modern culture - which late capitalism uses to undermine any values that question the right of the market to determine everything. Tesco ergo sum, as one academic wag put it.

"Capitalism rests on the perversion of desire," said Tim Gorringe, a professor of theology at Exeter. The present economic order promotes a lifestyle which, if adopted by everybody, would exhaust the globe, he said. "Only the spiritual mastery of greed can save us."

And if you're wondering how to do that, Dr Mukti Barton, an Asian feminist from Birmingham, offered a concluding tip, borrowed from Gandhi: "Consider the poorest person you know and ask whether the step you are about to take will be good for them," she said. She could, of course, have the precept framed and sent to Downing Street. Whether Tony Blair would hang it above his desk for the next three years is another matter.

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