Cameron wants us to remember Jesus’ birth – but not his life

David Cameron has just released his Christmas message, calling on us to mark the birth of Jesus and to remember those who are hungry or lonely at Christmas.

I find Cameron’s message hard to stomach. David Cameron speaks of the meaning of Jesus even as his government wages class war on the poor and pursues endless war in the Middle East.

I do not claim to be a better Christian than David Cameron. I fail to live up to Jesus’ teachings all the time. I sometimes struggle to understand Jesus’ meaning. I do not assume that all my conclusions about Jesus are right.

This does not stop me expressing my revulsion when Jesus’ name is invoked to back up a government whose policies are geared to promoting the short-term interests of the rich and powerful.

Let’s have a look at Cameron’s message. It begins with these words:

“If there is one thing people want at Christmas, it’s the security of having their family around them and a home that is safe. But not everyone has that.”

Cameron goes on to talk of those living in refugee camps. Are these are the same refugees who the UK government has been so reluctant to welcome? He then adds, “Throughout the United Kingdom, some will spend the festive period ill, homeless or alone.”

Hunger and loneliness do not happen by chance but are due to inequality, capitalism and an individualist society. More people are hungry, more people are lonely, as a direct result of Cameron and Osborne’s policies. Rough sleeping in the UK has gone up a whopping 55% since Cameron became Prime Minister.

Cameron goes on to pay tribute to nurses, volunteers and others who work to support “vulnerable people” at Christmas.

I am happy to pay tribute to those who support vulnerable people, as well as those working to change the situations that make them vulnerable. More such workers and volunteers are needed as Tory policies increase poverty and remove support from people in need.

The Prime Minister then praises the armed forces, saying “It is because they face danger that we have peace”.

Cameron seems to think that peace is the absence of violence. UK armed forces are sent to fight in wars for commercial and strategic interests in which innocent people are routinely killed. War does not lead to peace any more than promiscuity leads to chastity.

The message talks of those who are “protecting our freedoms”. We are very fortunate to have a great many freedoms in this country. We have them because our ancestors campaigned for them, not because the powerful graciously handed them down.

Referring to peace, the Prime Minister says:

“And that is what we mark today as we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”

Britain is not, and never has been, a Christian country. Jesus did not call for “Christian countries”. He spoke of the Kingdom of God, in which “the first will be last and the last first”. This is a challenge to all the kingdoms, powers and hierarchies of this world.

Jesus sided with the poor, called on the world to change its ways and was arrested after leading a protest in the Jerusalem Temple. He was executed by the Roman Empire with the collusion of religious leaders.

Most of today’s politicians, had they been around at the time of Jesus, would have labelled him a dangerous extremist. Editorials in the Daily Mail would have demanded his crucifixion.

Jesus said, “To everyone who has will be given more; but anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has.” Jesus was aware of the inequality and injustice in his own society, but it sounds like an equally good description of the UK government’s current policies.

My prayer at Christmas is that we will follow Jesus’ call to look into our hearts and that we will reflect on how we contribute to both justice and injustice in the world. In the light of this, I pray that we will end our subservience to systems of exploitation and war and follow Jesus’ example of resisting them.


My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, has just been published by Darton, Longman and Todd.

Grassroots activism and the Leaders’ Debate

Leaders’ Debates are always going to be unbearable on some level. The petty attacks, the narrowness of the discussions, the very limited time span, the tendency of some people to think that shouting loudly constitutes debate (meaning Nigel Farage in this case).

Nonetheless, it could have been a lot worse. Compared to the equivalent debates in the 2010 election, this one included reference to some relatively progressive ideas. There was talk of scrapping zero-hour contracts, cracking down on dodgy landlords, building more houses, ending NHS privatisation and challenging energy companies. While Farage blamed everything on immigration, the panel did not generally dance to his tune and for once his nasty xenophobic agenda failed to dominate the discussion.

I’m not being naïve. Discussion of progressive policies does not necessarily mean that they will be introduced, even if those who promoted them come to power. Also, things could have been considerably more radical. It’s a shame that in the education discussion, no-one challenged the power of fee-paying schools. Capitalism was not attacked explicitly. Only one leader (Nicola Sturgeon) repeatedly mentioned nuclear weapons.

This won’t stop me being glad that progressive ideas came up more than might have been expected. They may even have shifted the election debate slightly to the left (though this partly depends on which bits the media choose to focus on, and I’m not holding my breath).

So why did these progressive ideas come up in the Leaders’ Debate?

Partly, of course, it was due to the presence of three leaders to the left of Labour (Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon). Wood did a good job of challenging xenophobia, telling Farage to be “ashamed of yourself”. One of the best quotes of the evening surely has to be Wood’s comment, “It was not Polish care workers and Estonian bar workers who caused the economic crisis. It was bankers.” All three of them rejected the notion of austerity, with Sturgeon saying we can’t “afford any more austerity” and Wood saying Miliband offered only “austerity light”.

While none of these three went as far as I would have liked, I think we have a lot to thank them for.

Yet some of the progressive ideas were emphasised by Ed Miliband: ending zero-hour contracts, cracking down on corporate tax avoidance, raising the minimum wage, tackling private sector rent levels. I don’t believe that these things came up simply because Ed Miliband feels strongly about them. Indeed, when he became leader four and a half years ago, he had barely mentioned most of them.

These issues became noticed because of the work of people at the grassroots, in their communities, high streets and workplaces, speaking up and taking action. Corporate tax-dodging was noticed by the media and mainstream politicians only after UK Uncut took nonviolent direct action in tax-dodging shops in 2010-11. Zero-hour contracts and fuel poverty have been the focus of campaigns backed by trades unions, faith groups and others around Britain. The state of private sector renting has been a disgrace for decades, but the efforts of campaigning groups have combined with criticisms of rising house-prices to make people like Ed Miliband realise that challenging it can be a vote-winner.

Whether Labour – or for that matter, the SNP or others – will stick to these policies after the election is another matter. That’s why we will need to keep up the pressure after 7th May. But the fact that they are even talking about them demonstrates the effect that grassroots activism can have.

Elections are only one small part of politics, only one event in democracy. Real democracy means using our power whether or not an election is on. That’s why we need to keep campaigning after the election – through pressuring politicians, through direct action, through protests, boycotts and strikes, through living out our values where we find ourselves.  When we vote we hand over only some of our power, temporarily, to the people we elect.

Trident: What is security?

What is security?

If your family is going hungry because your benefits have been cut, security might mean knowing that you have enough to eat. But David Cameron wants to make you secure by renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system at a cost of £100bn.

If you’re waiting for hours in pain in A&E as the Tories sell off the NHS, security might mean knowing you can be treated in an emergency. The government says security is about Trident and the cost of it is unavoidable.

If you’re suffering the humiliation of going to a food bank because of the delays in processing your benefits, you might feel more secure if you knew your claim would be processed quickly and you would be looked after by the welfare state for which you have paid your taxes. The government prefers to use your taxes to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world.

If you have given up the idea of going to university because you’re frightened of a massive debt, security might mean a right to a free education. Both Cameron and Miliband want to make you secure with a set of weapons that can only ever work by killing millions of people.

If you’ve lost your job after working hard for decades, you might think security lies in meaningful work, a guaranteed income and respect from others. Philip Hammond prefers to talk about jobs in the arms industry, not mentioning that the numbers are falling as arms companies move production overseas.

If society disables you by excluding you due to a mental health problem or a physical impairment, and a biased assessment declares you fit for work, you might feel that security depends on equality and dignity. MPs are keeping you safe by putting millions into atomic weapons research.

If you’re frightened that runaway climate change will drive up poverty, disease and destruction, you could feel more secure by real investments in alternatives to fossil fuels. The government offers to “deter” devastation with bombs, tanks and men in uniform.

If you can’t pay the rent because of the bedroom tax, if you’re shivering in your flat because you can’t afford the heating, if you’re trying to explain to your children that there’s less to eat in the weeks when your zero-hours contract produces no hours, you might not feel secure. Don’t worry: the government’s looking after you with four nuclear submarines.

They say that Trident is necessary, to save us all from being invaded by a foreign power. After all, invaders might introduce a government that would treat us really badly.

New Year Revolutions

A number of my friends have today written “Happy New Year” messages on Facebook with strongly political content: 2015 is the year to “get rid of the Tories” or “kick out the ConDem coalition”.

I couldn’t agree more with the desire to get rid of this nasty, petty, poor-hating government. The government is so awful that many people would understandably accept almost any alternative. This is itself is a problem, for if we choose the lesser of two evils, we are still choosing evil.

I will have a sense of relief if Labour replaces Cameron in the general election this May. But I do mean “relief”, not joy or celebration. A Labour government would be slightly better than a Tory one.

Despite Tony Blair’s attempts this week to portray Miliband as some sort of radical leftie, the reality is that Miliband’s policies are basically pro-austerity. Miliband has bought into the ConDem rhetoric about “reducing the deficit” (although the deficit is not high in either historical or international terms). He is not committed to reversing most of the Tory benefit cuts and is firmly behind the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system.

True, Labour is committed to scrapping the bedroom tax, introducing a mansion tax, raising the minimum wage and taking action on zero-hours contracts and energy prices (although the details seem worryingly vague). If all this happens, I’ll be very pleased, although it’s only scratching the surface in terms of building a fairer economy. My fear is that Miliband will be pushed to the right once in office and these policies will be watered down or scrapped altogether. Virtually every Labour Prime Minister has moved to the right once in power; the exception is Tony Blair, who was already too far to the right to move any further.

Things might be better if a minority Labour government has to do deals with the SNP (or, if things are very close, even with Plaid Cymru and the Greens) to remain in power. However, I’m not optimistic about Trident renewal being prevented in this way alone (a minority Labour government could rely on Tory votes to get Trident through). Further, we would need to keep campaigning to hold minority parties to their progressive pre-election promises once the sniff of power reaches them.

Nonetheless, I will never agree with those who say that the election result makes no difference. Even a slight improvement on the current situation is welcome. This does not mean that a slight improvement should be our aim.

When the suffragists and Chartists campaigned so hard for the vote to be extended to women and working class men, they believed the vote was the most powerful tool for bringing about change. Indeed, the vote has been used to bring about some pretty massive social changes: the National Health Service would not exist at all were it not for the Labour landslide of 1945. At the same time, we must remember that this was an election result made possible only by the growth of left-wing ideas during the second world war, ideas which spread at the grassroots rather than through formal political processes.

Most suffrage campaigners did not foresee that power would move away from Parliament, making the vote less relevant. Economic changes that are sometimes lumped together as “globalisation” have globalised wealth and power but have not globalised democracy. Even if a genuinely progressive government were to be elected, it would struggle to follow progressive policies in the face of the vast power wielded by multinational corporations and other unaccountable vested interests. As it is, most party leaderships are stuffed full of people who have an interest in basically preserving the status quo and who see corporations as their allies rather than as a threat to democracy.

This is why I respect people who take a principled decision not to vote. They do not want to legitimise an unfair system. But while I respect them, I take a different position. I believe in using what power we do have, as well as taking advantage of the results – however limited – of our ancestors’ campaigns for the vote. The system is already morally bankrupt; low turnouts have not led to is rejection.

Voting is only a small part of democracy. If we had to choose between voting or working for change in other ways, I would choose the later. If voting makes anyone feel that other forms of activism are unnecessary, I would rather they did not vote. However, it is possible to vote and at the same time to take to the streets, to the media, to the internet and to the picket lines to work for change.

So I will go out on the morning of 7th May and vote for what I believe in, or as near to what I believe in as I am able to. I do not yet know who I will vote for; I don’t know who the candidates will be in my area. The constituency I live in goes by the quaint name of Cities of London and Westminster, although I am not sure that I will still be living here in May. It is a rock-solid Tory seat and you might well say that my vote will make no difference. This will not stop me expressing my view through the ballot box, just as I will express it on the streets and in the media.

So what should someone like me do during the election campaign? Carry on as normal, as I believe the election is only one event in democracy? Throw myself in to campaigning for left-wing candidates, hoping that a strong vote for parties such as the Greens and Plaid Cymru will send a message even if they have no chance of taking power?

To be honest, I’m not sure and I haven’t decided. I’m willing to campaign for candidates and parties when I share many of their views, as long as they do not believe that elections are the only way to achieve change. I have a lot of time for the Green Party and back many of their policies, but I am nervous of how Greens elsewhere in Europe have moved rapidly to the right, notably in Germany and the Republic of Ireland. I could campaign for the Greens while being to the left of many of their members, but part of me wonders if I would be very different from those left-wingers who join Labour despite disagreeing with many of its policies. When it comes to much smaller outfits such as the Peace Party, my instinct is to ask them, “Why don’t you just join the Greens, who you agree with on most things?”. But is that any different to Labour left-wingers asking Greens why they don’t just join Labour?

As you can tell, I have more questions than answers about involvement in election campaigns. They are questions to myself at least as much as to anyone else, and I would value your thoughts. I know that several of my friends and comrades will refuse to vote and see participation in the election as collusion with an unjust system. At the same time, other friends and comrades, who in many ways are just as left-wing, will be enthusiastically campaigning for particular candidates or parties.

There is one thing I am confident about: we can use the election to campaign, whether or not we vote. With the media focused obsessively on the party leaders for several weeks in April and May, creative protests and interventions can have at least some influence on the course of political and media debate. For example, the four leaders on whom the London-based media will concentrate – Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage – will not be talking about Trident. We can be thankful that Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett will talk about it, but let’s not rely on this alone. If we can find opportunities to challenge leading politicians about Trident, face-to-face or as close as we can get, during election time, they will at least be caught on camera and draw some public attention.

It’s only one tactic, of course, on only one issue. But effective activism requires creativity as well as persistence and a diversity of methods. That’s why I’ll be trying to do things like this, as well as casting my vote according to my beliefs. And whatever the result, I’ll be out on the streets after the election as well as before, because justice comes from below and never, never from above.

Cameron’s “Christian country”

Since David Cameron spoke about Britain being a “Christian country” two weeks ago, there’s been a lot of controversy around the issue. I’ve written an article about it for the New Internationalist, which you can view here. I suggest that a society that favours the rich and punishes the poor is far away from biblical visions of equality and justice.

Cameron talks about faith, churches and poverty

David Cameron has spoken this week of his Christian faith. His sincerity has been widely questioned on Twitter, but it’s not for me to judge him. God can see into Cameron’s heart but I can’t. However, the Prime Minister and I have very different understandings of Christianity.

Cameron praised churches for their work with the poor. Thanks to Cameron and his allies, British churches are doing more work with the poor than they have done for decades. This is because the coalition government’s policies have led to a sharp rise in poverty in the UK, with half a million people using food banks, rough sleeping rising by a third in three years and thousands of disabled people losing basic means of support. At the same time, the coalition has cut taxes for the rich and is planning to spend £100bn renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system.

While churches rightly reach out to help those in desperate need, Cameron has good reason to be thankful that they do so. Without food banks and the like, the government might well have a lot more riots to deal with.

I am as biased as anyone else when it comes to interpreting the Bible. My background affects my approach, just as David Cameron’s affects his. I am sure I have misunderstood Jesus in all sorts of ways. Nonetheless, however we interpret Jesus’ teachings, it is difficult to argue that they are not concerned with issues of poverty and wealth.

The Gospels show Jesus declaring he had come to “bring good news to the poor” and declaring “blessed are the poor”. Most of his parables had economic dimensions, however much they have been spiritualised and domesticated by centuries of interpretations in the hands of the powerful.

I suggest that Jesus did not practise charity in the narrow sense of helping out less fortunate individuals. He drew attention to injustice, attacked the priorities of the rich and powerful and challenged us all to repent and live differently. His support for individuals who were ill or distressed was in the context of solidarity and mingled with teachings about the unjust practices that contributed to their suffering.

As churches struggle to cope with the rise in poverty and homelessness, let’s remember a crucial question: are we simply patching over the cracks, or are we standing in solidarity with poor and marginalised people and challenging the sinful systems that lead to poverty and inequality?

Anti-Roma prejudice and an unlikely prediction

Come January, the right-wing media in the UK might have some explaining to do. The Daily Mail (and their friends in UKIP and the Tory Right) have been telling us that Britain will be flooded by immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, as the last restrictions on their immigration to the UK are lifted.

Some of the rhetoric gives the impression that you will barely be able to move in London, Dover or Skegness for the number of Romanians and Buglarians pouring off the boats.

I dare say that Nigel Farage and his friends will soon be brushing away the figures showing that Romanian and Bulgarian immigration is lower than predicted. Neither UKIP nor the Daily Mail let the truth get in the way of scaremongering.

Much of the coverage easily confuses “Roma” with “Romanian”. Last month, the Daily Star ran a front page attack on “Roma” immigration. It quoted the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, who has suggested that such immigration could lead to riots.

I find it hard to believe that such immigration could really reach the levels of Polish immigration a few years ago; the UK was not in the middle of an economic crisis in those days.

The Sun said recently that that Romanians and Bulgarians would come to Britain for its welfare state and “generous benefits”. This is even more unbelievable, given that to get here they will have to pass through countries with considerably more generous welfare states (notably Germany).

One of the reasons that might help to draw migrants to Britain is the fact that they are more likely to speak English than the languages of certain other European countries. Ironically, the global dominance of the English language is an indirect result both of US global power and of the general British unwillingness to learn languages. These are both things that tend to be defended by the same people who condemn immigration to the UK.

In the 1930s, the Daily Mail ran attacks on Jewish migrants “pouring” into Britain. They were fleeing the Nazis.

Today, racism and xenophobia are still alive and powerful in the UK. The BNP may be disorganised and the EDL disintegrating, but the Mail and the Sun always had far more power than both of them. UKIP are considered a respectable mainstream force, as their racism comes with suits and smiles.

Decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and other forms or racism continue to be powerful forces. The recent cases of children being snatched from Roma parents who don’t look like them shows crude racial bigotry hovering just below the surface of supposedly democratic state authorities.

I began this blog post on a train from London to Brussels. The journey took two hours, slightly shorter than the train trip from London to Manchester. To get on the train, I was required to walk through a metal detector and then display my passport. Why is this required for Brussels but not for Manchester or even the much longer journey to Scotland? Because of a series of historical accidents that divide people up into nations and nationalities.

Corporations can largely ignore these borders, moving money and employment wherever the mood – or the profit – takes them. The rest of us are confined by them, encouraged to define ourselves by them and to rate those of our nationality as being more worthy of life and work than those who live across an arbitrary border.

Lack of housing is blamed on migrants rather than on the failure of successive governments to build decent social housing and to stop people leaving houses empty. Low pay is attributed to migrants willing to work for less, rather than a lamentably low minimum wage.

It is common to blame our problems on those who seem different to us. I know that I can do this too. My prejudices are not acceptable either. The first step to overcoming prejudice, at a personal or social level, is acknowledging its existence.

Being British is part of my identity. So is the fact that I have a beard. These two aspects of my identity are of roughly equivalent importance to me. But I am constantly told that I must rate one of them as more important than anything else about me. Indeed, we are so accustomed to thinking in this way that we barely notice we are doing it.

When Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbour?”, he responded with a story about a man who showed love to a stranger despite racial, religious and cultural differences (commonly referred to as the “good Samaritan”). It’s time we recognised nationality and ethnicity for the arbitrary and trivial distinctions that they are.

Benefit payments and the Living Wage

UK ministers and their allies are fond of talking about the need to reduce the welfare bill. They give the impression that the welfare bill goes to feckless scroungers, but almost never mention any statistics about who is actually claiming the money.

In reality, less than two percent of the welfare bill goes to non-disabled unemployed people. The biggest chunk goes to older people in the form of pensions, but a sizeable amount goes to people in work. Much of this is paid in tax credits and housing benefits.

Tax credits go to people who are in work but who are not paid enough, while housing benefit is high because there is no cap on private sector rents (so in this case, the real benefit recipients are landlords).

This week is Living Wage Week, when faith groups, unions and individuals across the UK are pushing for all employers to pay a Living Wage. Payment of a Living Wage would reduce the welfare bill and, more importantly, tackle poverty.

Currently the vast majority of the UK’s largest companies do not guarantee a Living Wage to their staff. The organisation Share Action is urging people who own private pensions to email their pension fund about the living wage.

If you have a pension, you can urge the fund to add to the pressure for a Living Wage within the companies in which it invests. Share Action have produced an online form to make the process quick and easy.

This tactic is already working. When Share Action launched their “Just Pay!” campaign for living wages two years ago, just three of the biggest 100 hundred companies in the UK paid the Living Wage. Due to the campaign, ten more of these massive corporations have now responded to public pressure by signing up.

Although I don’t have a pension myself, I wish the best of luck with this tactic to those of you who do. If you want to find out more about the Living Wage, and what you can do to promote it, you can visit the Living Wage site and Share Action.

Sorry for the (apparent) silence

If you’re one of the few people who keeps a regular eye on my blog (and if so, you’re much appreciated!), you’ll have noticed that I haven’t posted anything here for several weeks.

Sometimes I go a bit silent when I’m busy or stressed, but this time is different. I’ve been silent here, but making a noise elsewhere.

I’ve been rather busy, partly because I’ve recently moved house (to a Christian community) but mainly because I’ve been campaigning against the arms trade, and particularly the London arms fair that took place earlier in September. I was arrested along with four other Christians while kneeling in prayer. We were blocking the entrance to the arms fair from Custom House station.  We will be in court on Tuesday (24th September).

I’ve been really moved and uplifted by all the messages of support we’ve received, including one from former archbishop Rowan Williams.

You can read more about the case here. To follow details, keep an eye on the website of Christianity Uncut.

And I’ll be back to blogging on here shortly!

IDS and the bishops: Some overlooked facts

I have often been critical of the Church of England’s leadership for being slow to speak out on issues of economic justice. I’m therefore delighted that 43 CofE bishops have criticised the coalition for cutting benefits (or technically, for raising them by one percent, which is below the rate of inflation and therefore a cut in all but name).

It’s good news that Justin Welby has backed their stance, in one of his first high-profile acts as Archbishop of Canterbury. I am hoping that this is a sign of how he means to go on.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has responded to the bishops with a statement that (while not containing any direct lies) gives a very misleading impression of the welfare budget.

He said:

“This is about fairness. People who are paying taxes, working very hard, have hardly seen any increases in their salary and yet, under the last government, the welfare bill rose by some sixty percent to £200bn. That means they have to pay for that under their taxes, which is simply not fair.”

There are several things that Iain Duncan Smith knows to be true but is not mentioning.

He knows that the majority of the welfare budget goes on pensions and other benefits for older people that the government is not, in any case, proposing to cut.

He knows that many benefits, such as housing benefit and disability living allowance, go to people who are employed as well as people who are unemployed. Some of those “working very hard” are among the beneficiaries of the welfare budget.

He knows that unemployed people, as well as working people, pay taxes. They do not pay income tax, but they pay VAT. Even homeless people pay VAT.

He knows that a major reason for the rise in the welfare budget is that tax credits are subsidising poverty pay, while housing benefit is going into the pockets of landlords at a time of rising private sector rents. But it’s not landlords and employers who will lose out from the coalition’s cuts.

Iain Duncan Smith knows all these things. But he’s not going to mention them. The bishops – and the rest of us – need to proclaim them loudly and clearly.