“We’re all in this together”. To hear those words from both David Cameron (as he heralded the ‘age of austerity’) and Jim Wallis (in Birmingham yesterday – more of him in a day or two) suggests that those same words can mean very different things…
For Cameron, it would be convenient if we all believed that the decisions he and his government have made recently are the only possible decisions, tough but, well, ‘tough’ – but that we, if we were in his position, would do likewise. But “we’re all in this together”, he tells us – we share the responsibility for these decisions. To use an old-fashioned phrase, we share the burden of guilt for them.
But as our school children get out onto the streets in protest, words from the Iraq war echo around again: “Not in my name”. This is not just adolescent shirking of responsibility – it is saying that there are other possible choices than these, and we will not be co-opted into the rhetoric of inevitability that the cuts must be this big, and this soon, and fall on these areas.
Because here’s the second use of that phrase that needs challenging: we are not, it seems, “all in it together” in shouldering the burden the cuts. The ‘age of austerity’ seems to mean destitution for the already-poor, and a minor inconvenience for the rich. Not only do the percentages of income reduction seem to be weighted against the poor, but the poorest are also the biggest victims of cuts to public services. Let’s be clear: the much vaunted rhetoric of ‘fairness’ is not remotely the same as the over-arching Christian priority of care for the most vulnerable – let alone the Magnificat vision of ‘turning the world upside-down’ so that the poor are exalted and the rich sent away empty. “We’re all in this together” is simply not true, when spoken by millionaires whose belts barely need tightening.
But there are other senses of the phrase that need to be spoken. One is to consciously undercut any self-righteousness we might be feeling as I write, and as you read, those last few paragraphs. There is no morally pure ground to stand on in this conversation, or argument, or battle. I write this as someone whose job and house are as secure as any in the current climate. I am, therefore, one of ‘the rich’. I am also inextricably tied up in the unjust system that I claim to want to resist. I put my money in high street banks, I spend my money with global corporations, I’ve bought a house as an investment in the hope that house prices will rise in the next few years… Christians use another old-fashioned word for the realisation that “we’re all in this together” and moral purity is unattainable – we call it ‘sin’. Whatever judgments we make about this current crisis of economic and social values, we do it from a position that is enmeshed in the sinfulness of it all, and there is a painstaking unpicking of our own mixed motives and dubious commitments that is just as necessary – if not more so – than shouting at George Osborne.
There is yet one more thing to be said. Jim Wallis, an American Christian with a passion for justice and the ear of the last few US Presidents, reminded those who heard him on Thursday that many of our political leaders have simply not met many poor people, let alone understand how they live, what the struggles feel like, what a difference a cut in benefit, or in local services makes, what the negative, stigmatizing rhetoric feels like when ‘people like you’ are the target. “We’re all in this together” is a call to solidarity. To looking people in the eye, valuing them as fellow human beings, listening to their concerns, and finding bold, humble, and compassionate ways to offer shoulders to share their burdens when it gets tough.
It is easy, and rhetorically necessary, for those in government and their supporters to demonise those in our society who are growing increasingly angry and fearful at the ‘age of austerity’, re-defining them as beyond the boundaries of ‘decent’ and ‘civilised’ citizenship. But it is too convenient to exclude them from the “we” and write off their claims to dissent and critique. If “we” haven’t yet summoned up the guts to get out there and voice our own protests at some of the decisions and rhetoric of our current government – then let us at least start ‘gossiping’ our solidarity with them. As reports filter through of the police in Westminster ‘kettling’ 16-year-olds for hours in the November cold, let’s dare to say, with conviction: “we’re all in this together…”
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