Agents for change - Christians on the left makes an impact at Greenbelt

Haydon Spenceley writes from Greenbelt where the motion “This House Believes The 2015 Election Will Make No Significant Difference to the Future of Britain” was being debated. Haydon reminds us of the importance of the coming election and that however broken the system, it is better to be involved. 

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Lessons from Africa

Alan Staff reflects on his experience as part of a mission and fact finding team to Rwanda and Burundi, asking whether our approach to and perceptions of aid are quite what we might think.

Having recently returned from a working visit to Rwanda and Burundi I was struck by how the two different political systems have a direct effect on their respective populations, and the different attitudes expressed by residents concerning leadership.  While there is no doubt that most people in the UK would feel that Central African politics has little to teach and everything to learn from us, I think that there are some very obvious lessons which we might learn.  If there is one point that the National Genocide Museum/memorial in Kigali makes very strongly it is that human rights atrocities and welfare crises are invariably predictable, understandable, potentially preventable and yet repeated with a savage inevitability.  It is the belief that ‘it couldn’t happen here,’ which allows us to detach from or take a morally superior view of the issues which we would rather avoid dealing with.

Rwanda is beyond doubt a success story in developmental and economic terms.  Everywhere there is evidence of investment, infrastructure improvements and productivity, especially around the capital. A significant presence of aid organisations and corporate investors suggests that this country, so recently torn apart by politically engineered genocide is taking rapid steps toward prosperity.  Those benefitting from this new optimism are positive in their view of the future and very supportive of the Government for the benefits of infrastructure, agriculture and a sense of national pride.

In Burundi however we saw little sign of investment in infrastructure, a strong sense that corruption in both government and business was crippling the country, and a level of social tension and overt aggression was evident on the streets.  Huge numbers of disaffected unemployed young men congregate on roadsides and the presence of armed military, police and security guards everywhere merely increased the sense that this is an unstable society barely able to control its own fears.

Is all what it seems?  In Rwanda we were aware that there is sense that it is dangerous to criticise the government and that the apparent prosperity is at the price of living with a potentially repressive political system conscious of its country’s recent history and of the potential for political coup or of influential political movements emerging.  Political language, for all its modernised appearance still has elements of guarded violence and the further you go from Kigali the less evidence there is that the ambition of those in power is able to extend into the desperately poor rural communities.  This is not to say that the intention is not there but there is a difficult juxtaposition between the building of prestige projects ostensibly to increase the sense of national pride, and the chronic need of those for whom the growth offers no benefits as yet.

Burundi, facing elections next year, has a government which appears to be openly criticised by many of the population and has a long history of coups and corruption at the highest level.  It was very difficult to find anyone whose attitude towards the government was positive, and there was a degree of fatalism around the likelihood of social or economic conditions changing.  We spoke with a number of people who had lived and worked in both countries and there is a clear drift of employees from Burundi to Rwanda which is being replaced by relatively uncontrolled migration from the DRC into Burundi, usually with little in the way of resources or usable skills.

These two nations, in many ways so alike, offer a dangerous and highly flammable cocktail in an area already surrounded by civil disputes and ideological conflicts.  The combination of a marked contrast in the fortunes of the two countries, the presence of so many unemployed young people looking for a cause or point for their existence and the socio-political history of the area make this a seriously volatile region despite the world political view that at least one of the two countries is prospering and offers potential return on investment.  The impact of one country thriving and its neighbour declining presents huge problems in managing socio-economic migration causing increasing pressure on the one hand to control and marginalise those migrants, and on the other a skills drain from an area which most needs those workers.  To what extent do we consider these practicalities when we consider where we place aid, support or investment? Are there reasons to consider the effect of economic exploitation dressed in investment clothes into one area we like because they say the right things, but not into a neighbouring state which we fear to be less stable?  What are we actually learning from our political history in the world’s conflict zones if it is not that economic support which is given on ideological grounds rather than simply on the basis of need and humanitarian consideration has a very nasty habit of biting us on the tail.  This is especially the case where arms and associated supplies are included in the package.

Is cross border economic migration a natural balancing effect in international resource management or is it the precursor to cultural and social tensions which inevitably breed nationalistic and protective social change?  It is easy to look at places like Rwanda or Burundi and pretend that we are so much more advanced in our thinking and yet even the most cursory glance at our own socio-political landscape must send out warnings.  Most specifically these warnings will relate to a growing sense of or search for national or social cohesion leading to social fragmentation and a backlash against multi-culturalism.  This is frequently coupled with a reduction in trust in the government and law, concerns about transparency not only in public conduct but in economic practice and policy, and the impact of uncontrolled manipulation of populations and government by corporate entities including the press. Political responses to this tend to be predictable and most frequently based less upon rational or humanitarian principles and more upon appeasement of populist trends or vested interest.  Actually Africa looks a lot like us, just with less clothes!

Alan Staff is CEO of Apex Scotland, a charity working with offenders and those at risk of offending, and is an elder at St John’s Evangelical Church, Linlithgow.  He has a background in community development, mental health care and social policy.



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Thinking about the Scottish Referendum

In his article on the Scottish referendum Charles Litster examines the campaign and encourages us to think and pray about what happens after September 19th. 

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'Jesus, Community, and Politics'

Jesus spent most of his time with those on the edge of society but not exclusively so. In this article Keith Hebden looks at how Jesus was both an agitator for change and a community organiser working across the spectrum of society to bring people in line with his vision of God's peace and justice. Does this provide a model for social engagement? 

Practical Action

In the gospels we have a Jesus who, working for a more just system for all, engaged with a whole continuum of people in different ways. At one end of the spectrum are the disciples and crowds of ordinary people; then there are the professional classes who have much more invested in the present system then poorer people; finally the client rulers: who have the most vested in however the current systems work.

Reality is always more complicated and fluid than any continuum can handle. Ordering things as above helps us understand that different people have different needs and start from different places. In order to effect real change it is necessary both to engage people (including ourselves) wherever they are in the spectrum and help them move to larger and more irresistible alliances for change.

The Disciples and Crowds

We begin with Jesus’ natural allies: the crowds and disciples. The disciples have made a serious commitment in relation to Jesus personally and to his vision as they see it worked out. Jesus’ work with a core group of activists focused around creating an intentional community sharing some form of common purse as well as common ideals. Many of them experienced what it was like to be at the sharp end of an unjust system and so his talk of day labouring, debt, and violence painted a picture of a world they knew.

One of the most radical forms of intervention Jesus used was to heal people on the Sabbath: the holy day of rest. In order for a political elite to maintain social control over the crowds, there must be a class of people who are outcasts. These are the people that the crowds fear to associate with and dread as signs of their own future if they don’t work hard, pay their taxes, and keep their noses clean. By touching and healing the outcasts Jesus reintroduces them to the crowd, removing fear of them with love.

The Professional Classes

Turning to the professional classes, this category of people is divided into two: those who were sympathetic to Jesus’ vision and values and those who were suspicion or antagonistic to the cause. Many of these would have seen themselves as ‘of the people’ as they were certainly not ‘rulers’ nonetheless they held particular skills or privileges which set them apart. With the antagonistic group, public debate and confrontation were the two methods initiated by both Jesus and by his enemies. But for the sympathetic professionals, private conversations were necessary.

Among those who were the sympathetic elite, one would count a Roman centurion with a sick servant, at least three Pharisees called Simon, Nicodemus and Joseph, and a synagogue leader whose daughter had died and a rich young ruler. With the professional classes Jesus needed to draw a balance between challenging them in confidence while not colluding with them in private and by creating social situations where the elite were brought face-to-face with those they would never normally associate he gave the poor their own platform.


We come to a final social grouping: the client rulers. These are represented by kings’ stewards, tax collectors, temple priests, client kings of national descent but imperial loyalty, and of course Pontius Pilate the Roman procurator of Jerusalem. These people are the social network represented by palace and temple as the physical centres of a domination system.

So it is to the temple that Jesus must eventually go, in order to expose and confront the powers at their spiritual heart. There are many accounts of Jesus challenging the powers but this event – which is the climax of Jesus’ ministry, or its inauguration depending on which version you read – stands out in its explicit and aggressive challenge to power.

Mark (Mark 11:16–19) frames this event in prayer-warfare. Before they go to the temple Jesus and his disciples curse the fig tree, a symbol of national wellbeing, for not producing fruit. On returning from the direct action they discover that the tree has indeed withered.

The way the protest event is sandwiched between this cursing and denouncing of the spirit of the temple, that is the fig tree, shows how integral prayer and action are to one another in speaking out against injustice. But what it also shows is that Jesus and his disciples are willing to expose their political convictions so publicly as to threaten the existence of their movement in order to bring about a more universal change of perception and put pressure on the elite.

Systems under Pressure

In any challenge to the powers a key task is identifying ‘who’s who’. There are those with the least power who need to come alive to the way the powers rule their lives; those with some power and the beginnings of awareness but no tools or organization with which to resist. Finally there are the powerful, some of whom will have uneasiness about the roles they find themselves in and may be open to change. Identify these people – as much as possible by name – and find together the best way to work with them in order to put pressure on them to shift to the place of ally or to stand down from their position of facilitating injustices.

There is always fluidity and complexity in this but creating a simple matrix from which to begin to act is helpful to any program for change. This was Jesus’ approach and it is why he used parables that described real-life people and their power relationships in order to get everyone to work this out for him or herself.

Keith Hebden is a parish priest and Seeking Justice deanery adviser in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire where he chairs the Diocesan Greener Churches Group. He teaches and writes on practical theology and spirituality. His latest book, Seeking Justice: The radical compassion of Jesus plots experiments in faith based community organising and direct action. Some of his workshop material and other resources can be found at Compassionistas. He’s married to Sophie Hebden, a freelance science writer and they have two daughters. 

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The "Facts" behind Troubled Families

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life……..nothing else will ever be of any service to them…..Stick to Facts, Sir!”

These are the opening sentences of the Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Hard Times’ - a novel depicting the savagery and squalor of the Victorian town ‘Coketown’. He condemned the treatment of the ‘poor’ in not only their economic situation, but also in the prevailing social attitudes towards ‘the poor’. This social category –the poor’ and their ‘home’ - ‘poverty’ (after all, that’s where they live!), are still the subject of much argument and discussion as to ‘who they actually are and what they actually do!

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Independence Yes or No?

On September 18th there will be a vote on Scotland becoming independent and leaving the UK.  Many claims have been for and against the merits of independence for Scotland, and much of the debate has been around the question of social justice.

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For his entire adult life, until 2005, Ian Bartlett lived on the wrong side of the law, carrying out criminal activities to support his addiction.  He wasn’t addicted to drugs or alcohol, he was addicted to gambling and that addiction destroyed his personal life time and time again.  Things appeared to be getting better when he came to Faith in 2010 and as baptised but very quickly he returned to his addiction and this time instead of turning to crime he turned to credit, and was soon struggling to climb out of his financial pit.

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A Westminster Diary

I was very happy when I was able to secure an intern position in the office of Stephen Timms who is a Labour MP for the constituency of East Ham (in London), he is the shadow Minister for Employment. I was informed on my first day that the office is famous across Westminster and those working for Stephen are affectionately referred to as ‘Team Timms’.

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Reflections on post-liberalism and post liberal politics

‘Modernity failed our deepest human needs, and comprehensively fouled our physical and spiritual environment in the process; yet the liberalism of modernity, and those other modernists who reacted against it, seem to have exhausted most of what can be said and achieved. There is a sense now of a lack of vision, of aftermath, of epilogue’.[1]

When asked what he thought about the French Revolution Mao is reputed to have said ‘it is too early to judge’. My sense with ‘post-liberalism’ is much of it is too early to judge.  However, we have more than sufficient grounds to explore this concept and ponder the potential for a post-liberal politics.

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Coalitions of Conscience

By Dr. Graham Giles MBE, LCID Executive Committee

Labour Affiliates can punch above their weight on matters of moral responsibility by standing together, not least on the future aid budget.   Christians on the Left are providing resources to help local church groups up and down the country to become more active in local and national politics.  

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