Why sticking plasters are good, but not enough…

The Centre’s Communications Officer, Andy Walton, writes in response to the increasing focus on foodbanks and other ‘sticking plaster’ solutions to poverty.

The explosion in the number of foodbanks opening up across the UK has been greeted with several different responses. Today at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, Labour Leader Ed Miliband suggestion it was a clear sign that things were “getting worse” that “more working people are relying of foodbanks.” Prime Minister David Cameron responded that the provision of this emergency provision was a sign of the ‘Big Society’ in action.

The Christian charity which helps local communities set up foodbanks, The Trussell Trust, now says that up to three such centres are opening per week across the country. A record number of people are thought to have come into contact with a foodbank in the past year. This number is expected to increase again in the coming year with the impeding changes to benefits and further cuts to the public purse.

Here at the Contextual Theology Centre, we are proud of the role we have played in helping to set up Hackney foodbank. It has been a remarkable success since setting up and has seen a number of local churches, schools and other institutions coming together to serve the whole community regardless of the faith position of those in need.

However, we are also concerned that so called ‘sticking plaster’ solutions such as foodbank are not the only response that the church has to the increasingly desperate plight of our poorer communities. Foodbanks, soup runs, night shelters and other emergency provision are absolutely vital to those who face crisis situations. Many of them also do a superb job in guiding clients onto other groups and services which can provide them with the means to escape poverty in the medium term.

However, we also recognise that there is a prophetic role for Christians to play in tackling the root causes of injustice, rather than just its consequences. In ancient Israel, gleaning the fields was allowed to provide for those who needed something to eat. But this was recognised as a temporary solution. The real solution to poverty was the radical redistribution of wealth promised in the Jubilee, the recognition that ultimately everything belonged to God and that to acquire and keep more than your family’s ‘fair share’ was only an ephemeral state of affairs.

For this reason, sticking plasters (or so-called ‘mercy ministries’) will always be an important part of our work, but never the full story. A second component of our social justice effort is focused on ‘justice work.’

As veteran civil rights campaigner Dr John Perkins puts it, “You’ve all heard it said that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. That if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime. But I say that if we are to be truly successful in making this a viable community…we must own the pond the fish live in. He who owns the pond decides who gets to fish.”

To this end, we are involved in a number of campaigns which seek to redress the economic balance of our country and our world. From tax justice to the Living Wage, we want structural change which makes a difference for the local communities we work in, across east London and beyond.

The latest example of this fight for justice comes in the form of our recent appointment of David Barclay. The former President of Oxford University Student Union is an alumnus of our Jellicoe Internship and has recently been appointed to lead our work against the deeply worrying increase in exploitative lending by companies such as Wonga. Keep up to date with this campaign by following this blog and the centre on Twitter (@theologycentre)

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