OK. This might sound like a bit of self-justification. In truth, it probably is, partly at least. But as I have very little idea who’s reading this blog (I still haven’t quite got my head around that, but live in hope that conversations might begin here, or even spark real conversations out in the real world beyond…), it’s as much an attempt at a bit of self-understanding.
There have been plenty of public responses by now, to both ‘Big Society’ and to the cuts in welfare and public services. Many of these responses have been by Christians, some from Christian leaders. Some responses have been in the form of media soundbites, others have been much more ‘activist’. Others still have just got on quietly with the practical work of engaging, not so much with government policy, but with its effects on the ground.
I feel very much a ‘newbie’ at all of this. I’ve been doing the grass-roots engagement stuff, for a good 14 years now in one form or another, and been doing ‘on the hoof’ theology to try and make sense of the grass-roots realities as we’ve gone along. But actively responding to national politics feels fairly new territory for me – New Labour’s war-mongering being a notable exception. Signing up to ‘Common Wealth’ was partly, then, a ‘me too’ – a grabbing onto the coat-tails of others who I sensed were ‘thinking ahead of me’, to see where that journey would take us.
But more than that.
1. My sense of British politics, at least since New Labour, is that rhetoric – and rhetoric ‘spun out’ through the media – is at least as significant, on the lives and outlooks of ordinary people, as actual policy. To state the obvious: how we think and talk about life, and politics, and each other, profoundly shapes how we act and relate, and ‘sound-bite politics’ trickles down in powerful ways into everyday conversations. So when ‘new’ rhetoric comes along (and Big Society and all the talk around the cuts are two, inevitably intertwined, examples of ‘new’ rhetoric, I think) it’s helpful, vital, even, to interrogate it and de-construct it. CW does that – with the rhetoric of ‘sacrifice’ among other things.
2. CW also begins to imagine alternative possibilities – it offers the beginning of a theological imagining of a different way of doing ‘economy’. Imagining differently is the first step towards doing things differently. Can we imagine ways of ‘opting out’ of the economy, to produce all our fruit and veg through local co-operatives, for example? We should heed Jim Wallis’ warning that ‘alternative lifestyles’ can too easily function merely as ‘pressure valves’ to enable the system – it’s when ‘alternatives’ become ‘movements’ that they start to make a difference. But CW is an invitation to build a movement – just as Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne and others continue to do in the States. There is much more re-imagining and movement-building to do – but CW offers a place to start.
3. Closely connected, I think, CW puts down a marker in the mapping out of new political terrain. It helps ‘stretch out’ that terrain, by voicing a position that has not, as yet, seen much expression. It gives us more space in which to locate our own ‘position’. And for people like me, a morally-compromised mix of idealism and pragmatism, CW stretches out a space that helps me make decisions on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think the Con-Dem government are wholly ‘bad’ (as if New Labour were somehow wholly ‘good’!), and my natural inclination is to trust that the Big Society ideas originated in a mix of Machiavellian and much more worthy motives. There are sweeping areas of government policy that I need to say ‘No’ to – but other elements that I want to affirm, in however qualified a way. So I sign the ‘Common Wealth’ statement, I write an application for NESTA funding for local community organising – one of the ‘Big Society’ ‘big ideas’ – and I trust that such community organising, as it gets off the ground, will be clear-sighted about the political targets it needs to keep in its sights. Hypocritical? Maybe. I feel the inevitability of living with a complex conscience.
4. Lastly though, something more about guts than head. The need to lament, to cry and shout ‘No’, as something prior – chronologically, emotionally, theologically, politically – to any kind of constructive engagement. I cannot rush headlong into embracing the positives of ‘Big Society’ without first lamenting the effects – and many of the justifications – of the cuts. In these next few Advent weeks, Christians will be thinking a lot about hope – but Christian hope only makes sense not simply as a brightly-lit vision of ‘everything bigger and better’, but as a light shining in the darkness, when we have first stared the darkness hard in the face. Or, as Walter Brueggemann puts it rather better than I “loss grieved permits newness. And by contrast, loss denied creates social dysfunction and eventually produces violence… Without the hard, painful, preparatory work of loss and grief... the offer of hope is too easy and too much without context to have transformative power, much like having a Sunday victory without the loss of Friday.”