The Undeserving Rich

It feels as though the Victorian idea of ‘the deserving poor’ have largely dropped out of our consciousness. There are the frugal poor, the people using all the tips and tricks recommended by governments and gurus to try to keep our heads above water. While advice about saving costs and keeping warm is welcome, it freights the implication that the poor have some hand in their own misery. ‘If only they could be a bit wiser, a bit more canny, then everything would be OK’. Apart from that, even right wing politicians don’t feel much need to divvy up the poor between deserving and profligate. The poor are now one homogenous mass of food-bank using, low income living individuals, occasionally doled out a bit of help from the centre. Put bluntly, we are now a society content to live with high levels of endemic poverty – set alongside an elite that clearly deserve to be rich, and are entitled to become even richer.

Perhaps this is the chief legacy of Thatcherism. The import of the notably American idea that we make, or discard, our own opportunities to be self-made and wealthy. Consequently, poverty is simply individual failure. Despite the mountain of evidence that refutes this simplistic narrative it can feel as though it’s now welded into the psyche of modern Britain. The very fact that we can tolerate such significant rates of poverty, including child poverty, supports the view that we have somehow imbibed and owned this destructive myth. While there is general support for striking nurses and paramedics, there aren’t yet massed crowds present in support asking why an employee of a national health service should need the support of charity in order to live. Compare this with France, where a million people demonstrated in response to the proposal to change the state pension age from 62 to 64.

Last week an MP suggested that if someone couldn’t live on £35K a year without using food banks ‘something is wrong with your budgeting’. I found this reminiscent of the remark made a decade ago, that in the face of a strike by petrol tanker drivers, people should store a can of petrol in their garage. Apart from the lunacy that this would add to shortages by encouraging stock-piling (and potential danger in holding unnecessary petrol supplies at home), there was also the implication that everyone with a car had a garage. It appears to be a constant thread throughout the gaffs of wealthy politicians, that they are wildly out-of-touch with the circumstances of many voters.

Which brings me to the undeserving rich. It is not unreasonable to expect that wealthy people in public life would want to ensure they have done at least the minimum to contribute to the public good. Which is why the tax affairs of Nadhim Zahawi rightly raise serious questions about his suitability for political office. The penalty imposed by HMRC is a strong indication that Zahawi has (at best) been fairly uninterested in paying his correct contribution to the NHS, and everything else funded by the public for our collective wellbeing. I am sure that there will be voices speaking in his defence, implying that he is very important and very busy. Yet there seems to be no end of money that can be found by rich individuals to ensure accountants let them pay the minimum amount of tax. Why not spend a little bit of money on other accountants, who will ensure you never pay less than you should?

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”

Pope Francis as quoted in The Pope, the Bible and Trickle-Down Economics, by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr.

In 2022 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation set out a ‘minimum income standard’ (MIS) for the UK. If the nurse mentioned above is part of a couple with two children, then the JRF calculate that the household MIS would need to be £43,400. Given our current inflation this figure might now be closer to £50K and, it is important to emphasise, this is a minimum income. It can hardly come as a surprise that a nurse earning £35K might need to use a food bank.

Even if MPs lack personal experience of poverty or the challenges of low income, there is no excuse for a failure to engage with reputable and independent sources of data and analysis. Whether it is in a lack of attention to personal tax obligations, or the choice to live only in an echo-chamber of the likeminded, there is plenty of evidence that the undeserving rich are happily thriving in post-pandemic Britain. Change is long, long overdue.

A Jangling Noise

During a recent trip to Austria I decided it was time to learn some German. In the dim distant past, at secondary school, I’d done a couple of years studying the language – but with very limited success. Now the internet and various apps make language learning much more accessible and entertaining. Alongside this I decided to learn one or two phrases by rote, including ‘happy New Year!’, which had rather specific and time-limited utility. However, making any attempt to speak a local language brings rewards, not least as it conveys the desire to learn; to understand and to be understood.

The only language in which I have any proficiency is Spanish. Living for a year in a Latin American country immersed me in the sounds and the culture of a land which felt very different from my own. Slowly the words seeped into my thoughts and I realised for the first time that language is about far more than translation. Words approximate – but they are not identical. Living and speaking in a culture different from my own taught me that language is an embodied experience of a particular way of seeing the world. As a result, the way we speak offers a unique insight into how human beings encounter community; reflect history; and give voice to their desires.

In the book of Genesis there is a fascinating account of how human beings moved away from one language to having many. It is a myth of explanation that seeks to translate the phenomenon of linguistic diversity into a tale of divine intervention. In the beginning ‘the whole earth had one language and the same words’ (Genesis 11:1). This is typically interpreted as a story about human pride in which, in due course, we would be able to achieve anything. Consequently God intervened and ‘confused the language of all the earth’ (ibid., v. 9). As Milton puts it, God sowed a ‘jangling noise’ amongst the people. In effect, pluralism of language was a punishment designed to slow the development of human power in response to the growth of human ambition.

“But God who oft descends to visit men
Unseen, and through thir habitations walks
To mark thir doings, them beholding soon,
Comes down to see thir Citie, ere the Tower
Obstruct Heav’n Towrs, and in derision sets
Upon thir Tongues a various Spirit to rase
Quite out thir Native Language, and instead
To sow a jangling noise of words unknown”

J Milton, Paradise Lost, Book XII verses 48-55

Some interpretations of the Babel story have seen it as God’s response to Empire. When one people use their common heritage to mobilise resources and expand their territory, to such an extent that nothing seems impossible, their pride is met with punishment. This interpretation is linked in particular to the role of Babylon in the oppression of Israel and Judah. Undoubtedly this view is informed by the common practice of single-language empires to suppress (sometimes with violence) the use of local idioms. However, this interpretation feels at times to stretch a point beyond its supporting evidence, and some recent scholars have turned away from the ‘pride-and-punishment’ exegesis to focus on the narrative as a theme of cultural origins following the flood.

In his paper on the interpretation of the Babel story, Theodore Hibert, argues that the primary motive of construction is not to affront God (pride) but to remain in one place (i.e. to avoid being ‘scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’ ibid, v. 4). This suggests that God’s concern is that human culture will remain homogenous and limited. Strikingly, this interpretation is aware that language and land belong together. Therefore, the mixing of language and the dispersal of the people is an early recognition that cultural diversity is dependent on geographical location. While there is no explicit reference to it Genesis 11, it is tenable to infer that the desire of the people to be culturally uniform and in one place ran counter to God’s instruction earlier in the book for the people ‘to fill the earth’. Consequently, the cultural diversity that arises from dispersion is seen to be divinely desired and instigated. (see Hiebert, T., 2007. The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures. Journal of Biblical Literature, 126(1), pp.29-58. Vancouver).

Yesterday The Guardian featured an article about the demise of many languages. The reason for this is primarily connected with climate change and the fact that many distinct cultures live in places liable to be harmed by global warming. The article reports the launch by the United Nations of a Decade of Indigenous Languages, recognising that this diversity is not only important for the people speaking these languages, but for all of humanity. As languages become extinct (which happens for one language every 40 days) we lose a distinctive way of seeing the world and, importantly, connecting with the natural environment. At the same time, as the late Ken Hale put it, losing any language is the cultural equivalent of ‘dropping a bomb on the Louvre’.

In a few weeks time Lent will begin, the 40 day period of reflection for Christians with a focus on the time Jesus spent in the wilderness. This Lent I’ll be mindful that in that brief span of time a language will die, and hope I shall be more motivated to contribute towards limiting climate change and its consequences – as well as continuing to learn and appreciate new languages. In my experience the rich diversity post-Babel is a joyful jangle, and God help us if we end up with the horror of a single voice.

This Doubtful Day

In Austria, on Palm Sunday, branches of pussy willow are used instead of palms to honour the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. In the parish church of Viehhofen, in Hinterglemm, I found a spray of pussy willow attached to a processional cross as part of the Christmas decorations. I am unclear about the reason for this, and a search of the internet turned up little. However, it seems a fitting nod towards the passion of Christ and serves as a reminder that events in the Christian year are interlaced in ways that are sometimes surprising.

In 1608 John Donne wrote about the coincidence of the Annunciation (25 March 1608) falling on Good Friday. (We don’t need to worry about that happening in our lifetimes, no matter how young you are, as it occurs next in the year 2157. It happened last in 2016). Donne reflected on ‘the head Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead’, the day when news of great joy lands on the remembrance of deep sorrow. News about the same person – anticipation of new life held simultaneously with the pain and suffering of that life being extinguished. In the calendar, the Church transfers the celebration of the Annunciation to another date. It is almost impossible to attend fully to both these extremities without experiencing some kind of theological breakdown.

All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

The conclusion of Donne’s poem: On Annunciation and Passion Falling on the Same Day

As a hospital chaplain there were many occasions when joy and sorrow were held in the same time. I shall never forget working in the neonatal units at Christmas, when all attention in the outer world was fixed upon a particular birth but, tragically, I was baptising and blessing lives that would not last the day. Every Christmas I think of those parents and families, for whom this date of joy in the world had become a time of painful recollection. Our annual baby remembrance service was held in early December in order to allow families a ritual of acknowledged loss, and then proceed to keep Christmas as well as possible for other children in the family.

We tend to think that Christmas should be a time when we are shielded from the harsh experiences of being human. Sadly, as the UK has witnessed, violent deaths have taken place over the festivities. Families have been devastated by loss when so much public narrative focuses on being together; reunited. Police officers speaking about these events have often said words to the effect that: ‘while this would be appalling at any time, it is particularly difficult coming at Christmas’. The remembrance of families will forever be made in a context of public joy and celebration.

It is the work of the Church to hold these things together. It is always both ‘our duty and our joy’. The word death is spoken in front of the family and friends of a child brought to baptism; in the joy of a wedding we are reminded it is ’till death do us part’. In a funeral we hear the language of a life to come, and resurrection. The wonderful life which Mary brings into the world is destined for abuse; mockery; humiliation; and a criminal’s execution. Donne called the coming together of joy and sorrow in 1608 ‘this doubtful day’. He knew not whether to feast or fast.

The crucifix doesn’t leave the church to make our Christmas feast more palatable. Neither is it wrapped in tinsel to pretend that suffering can be masked, so that our carols might be more joyful. Pussy willow seems a fitting decoration. A foreshadowing of the Passion that begins on Palm Sunday – but also one of the first heralds of Spring, and a reminder that in the death of winter, new life is promised.