This coming Sunday many churches will be focusing on John the Baptist. As I began my sermon preparation an advertisement for Crisis at Christmas was being broadcast on the radio; and the free magazine of Liverpool City Council came through the letter-box with an article on the Council’s ‘plan to tackle rough sleeping’.
The centre of Liverpool, like most cities these days, is a no-go area for anyone who doesn’t want to see homeless people huddled in sleeping bags on the roadside.
When I reached the age for a free bus pass I decided to give the money saved to a homeless person when I reached the city centre. I know there is an argument for giving to homeless charities instead, but the counter-argument is that we shouldn’t be paternalistic: let the homeless judge what they most need. Like most people, I don’t know enough about it to make an informed judgement.
A few years ago I heard Sam Wells argue the case for spending time talking to the homeless, being with them and treating them as equals – which of course they are, according to Christianity and most faith traditions.
So why don’t I? I always manage to convince myself that I’m too busy. In any case, there are just too many of them. Just as I can’t give my bus fare to all of them, I can’t spend ten minutes with all of them. So most of the time I walk past, making some kind of eye contact, but doing nothing useful.
It leaves me unhappy. Okay, I can’t house all the homeless, but by walking past, contributing absolutely nothing, time after time, what am I doing to myself? Am I becoming hardened to the suffering of others? Am I slowly getting used to not caring? And if it’s happening to me, what about everyone else? Are these experiences making us a meaner, more selfish, more uncaring society?
This question takes me back to the responses I began with. Liverpool City Council apparently spends about a tenth of its Council Tax on temporary accommodation for the homeless. Thus the community makes provision through compulsory taxation. ‘We’ – through our elected councillors – redistribute money to care for those in need.
Crisis at Christmas, on the other hand, is a voluntary charity. Like all charities depends on the generosity of private individuals. Nobody donates anything at all unless they want to. The success of charities depends on eliciting sympathy. They pull at the heart-strings.
Neo-liberal economic theory insists on the priority of individual freedom of choice. Taxes bad, freely chosen donations good. This is the position recently defended by Jacob Rees-Mogg in a controversial speech:
To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens, I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are.
But if individual free choice takes priority, why should anyone choose to have compassion? Why should anyone give to any charity ever?
There are two possible reasons. One is hormonal: photographs of homeless people on the street at Christmas evoke in us an instinctive desire to help. This is emotional manipulation. When we give in response to the advertising we are indeed helping the homeless; but it is only a one-off act, not part of a thought-through policy. If this is the best we can do, there will always be homeless people.
The other possible reason is that we have moral standards. We believe it is right to help the homeless – or, to put it the other way round, everybody should have somewhere to live. No doubt this is what Rees-Mogg had in mind.
The trouble is that neo-liberalism, rooted as it is in secular social theory, undermines all moral commitment. It tells us that there is no higher moral truth authorising our beliefs about right and wrong, so all our moral standards are the freely chosen choices of individuals. It follows that there would be nothing immoral about deciding, any time we like, to invert our moral values. If we judge that giving to the homeless is good, this would be a personal decision which we can abandon at any moment. So any belief we ought to help the homeless gets reduced to a statement of how we are feeling just now. It loses its moral force.
In these ways, the long-term effect of neo-liberalism is to tell us that nobody has good reason to give to the homeless, or to any other charity, at all.
Yet neo-liberalism has been the driving force behind our governments for over 40 years. Why, then, do so many people still feel we ought to help the homeless?
Partly, I think, because of the continuing influence of faith traditions, telling us that there are higher moral truths; we really ought to care for those in need.
Partly, also, because neo-liberalism, although it dominates the way we are governed, is so blatantly wrong.
We are not isolated individuals living in our own cocoons. We are what we are, and have what we have, as a result of our engagement with other people and the physical world around us.
History shows us that, unless governments intervene, there is a constant tendency for the powerful to benefit themselves at the expense of the powerless – usually without noticing that they are doing it. The cult of individual freedom of choice accentuates it. It encourages the powerful to do what they wanted to do anyway, and tells them not to care about the suffering it causes to others. It is a recipe for the destruction of society.
John the Baptist knew.
Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.
When asked what authority he had for his preaching, quoted the prophet Isaiah:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’
The way of the Lord is the way of a just society, a society where we live the way God has designed us to live at our best.
The Bible knows nothing of modern individualism. God has created us to live at our best when we care for each other. Caring is sometimes done by individuals, sometimes by the nation. The Bible contains a great deal of ethical instruction; some of it is directed to individuals but most is directed to governments.
Providing for the homeless should not be left to clever advertisements pulling at the heart-strings of the sentimental. As long as anyone is homeless against their will, our whole society is guilty of moral failure. We can do better.