Showing Up: Alternative Hope

In this chapter, we start to think more about idolatry and the alternative (false) hopes that people living in urban neighbourhoods are offered.  Showing up, is the stage where we start to think about why idolatry offers false hope by showing up its failings and flaws. Idolatry offers false hope because whilst for a time it might appear to meet felt needs, it does not meet a person’s real need. Indeed they are likely to discover that it does not meet their felt needs either.

I have classified the types of alternative hope as follows

  • Socio-economic hope
  • Political hope
  • Religious Hope

Socio-economic hope

I live on a council estate. Our house built in the 1930s between the wars. The aim of these estates was to lift people out of deprivation. They were for people living in inner city slums, back to back houses with poor sanitation.  Our estate isn’t bad. We live in a fairly quiet area, about 50% of the houses are owner occupied and the other half rented via the Council’s housing association. Moving to our estate in the 1930s and onwards into the 50s and 60s would have been seen as an opportunity to escape the slums to well built houses with large gardens.

Yet, estates today have a terrible reputation. I grew up in South Bradford where much of that part of the city was a large sprawling network of council estates all of which had a bad reputation for crime and poverty. Even back in the 1980s many parts of the larger estates were considered both undesirable and unsafe. Lynsey Hanley writes of her own experience growing up on an estate:

“It’s not something you think about when you’re growing up. Wow, I’m alienated. My school is suffering from its single class intake. What this estate needs is a public transport infrastructure. It’s more a sense you have. A sense that someone who lives in a proper house in a proper town, sat on the floor of an office one day with a box of fancy lego bricks and laid out with mathematical precision, a way of housing as many people as possible in as small a space as could be got away with. And in so doing forgot that real people aren’t inanimate yellow shapes with permanent smiles on their plastic bodies. That real people might get lost in such a place.”[1]

Remember, it wasn’t meant to be like this. An early report stating the purposes of building new estates says:

“It is not enough merely to cover the ground with streets and houses. The site should be considered as the future location of a community mostly engaged in industrial pursuits having many needs in addition to that of house room.”[2]

Did you see that? The aim was to build communities. In other words, to offer the very hope denied to the dispossessed majorities in cities, community, culture, safety.  Ravetz explains that

“Council housing, historically had two goals: the cure of poverty and the replacement of a working-class culture deemed undesirable by a new and ideal one.” [3]

Now, we may observe something in the second part of that objective deeply disturbing and negative. Even in the context of benign desires to improve life we see prejudice and suspicion.  Estates are the product of class and elitism, a belief that there is a ruling group in society that knows what is best for everyone else. Estates are rooted in the belief that there is something dangerous and undesirable about working class culture.  As Hanley comments:

“The first council houses were built in a spirit of something-has-to-be-done paternalism, reflecting the values that defined the Victorian era.” [4]

Yet mixed in with prejudice was that genuine desire to offer a better hope.  This can be seen in Labour politician Aneuren Bevan’s hope for post-war estates that

“If we are to enable citizens to lead a full life, if they are each to be aware of the problems of their neighbours, then they should all be drawn from different sectors of the community. We should try to introduce what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the famer labourer all lived in the same street.”[5]

The aim was to replicate communal village life in the city so that, “the official expectation was that estates would become permanent and stable communities with community associations and ideally an estate hall or centre.” [6]  Those responsible attempted this by designing estates around green spaces with the hope that community would naturally form.[7] Indeed, Ravetz identifies a tension at play right from the start:

“A major dilemma was at what stage, and through whose efforts, a hall or centre should be built. Should it be there at the start so that the absence of premises did not impede the emergence of community life? In that case tenants might take it for granted and not be duly appreciative. Or should it depend upon their own efforts, so affording a valuable lesson in practical democracy?” [8]

So often the high hopes for community were not realised. Indeed this led to an increased sense of  disconnection. Those living on estates are and were  often isolated because shops, hospitals, services and churches not found where they live.[9] 

Furthermore, the Estates failed to cure inequality. Rather, as Hanley comments, people found new ways in which to distinguish between each other so that  “families who moved from the cities onto the new estates …could place themselves in a new class spectrum according to the poshness of the part of the estate they found themselves seconded to.” [10]

Differences might be identified in terms of when the housing was built leading to differences of quality. Early aims to provide spacious, well-built houses and gardens often fell victim to the pressures of space and cost so that the physical markers include whether or not you live in one such house or in a high-rise block and whether you live at the centre of the estate or at the outer edges. If the latter, then you are likely to be closer to privately owned housing, amenities and the connections offered through public transport.

Therefore, council estates marked out distinctions and divisions between the people who lived on the estates and in relation to those who did not. The latter happened because living on an estate excluded you from access to one of the great idols of Western society, choice. Hanley explains:

“The point is that most people now have a surfeit of choice in their lives at the same time as a large minority have none. That large minority tends to live on council estates whether in cities or outside of them. The 50 percent of poor people (that is whose incomes are less than 60 percent of the median average) who are homeowners also tend to live on council estates as beneficiaries of the right-to-buy-policy – proof, if any were needed that a property owning democracy doesn’t necessarily mean an equal one. They too have little choice where they live due to the fact that council housing -with the exception of one or two listed buildings in London – is never as desirable, and therefore can never be worth as much as private.”[11]

And so, the estates that offered hope have failed. Yet, surprisingly, the solution offered by Hanley and others such as Owen Jones is that we need a return to more council housing not less accompanied by greater restrictions on choice.  Jones believes that the problems of estates are rooted in the intentional hostility of Margaret Thatcher’s governments to working class people leading to the sale of council houses and the removal of funding for social housing. He comments:

“Councils were prevented from building new homes and, over the last eleven years, the party of Bevan has refused to invest money in the remaining houses under local authority control. As council housing collapsed, the remaining stock was prioritized for those most in need. ‘New tenants coming in, almost exclusively in order to meet stringent criteria, will either be single parents with dependent children, [or] people out of institutions including prisons,’ explained the late Alan Walter, a lifelong council tenant and chairman of the pressure group Defend Council Housing/ ‘And therefore, they are almost by definition, those without work.’”[12]

Note too his issue with right to buy schemes for tenants, it brought in that ugly word “choice.” This:

“drove a wedge through working class Britain, creating a divide between homeowners and council tenants. Right-to-buy meant that the best housing stock was sold off; and it was the relatively better off council tenants who were becoming homeowners. Those who remained council tenants tended to be poorer and in the worst homes.”[13]

Hanley has the same issue with choice and private provision. She uses the NHS as an analogy.

“Quite why most people are happy to depend on that great state monolith, the NHS for their wellbeing but are loath to depend on council housing for their shelter is a slippery and complex question.” [14]

Now, if I could let Hanley into a little secret, the answer is that people are often not “happy to depend on that great state monolith.” To give one minor example, I remember as a child the horror and stigma attached to NHS spectacles.  But in any case, Hanley advocates an equivalent “National Housing Service.”

It seems to me that this response is an attempt to ignore reality. If Thatcher were solely to blame, then why did estates already have a bad reputation by the time she came to power? Council house sales met a real demand as indeed did the other consumerist policies of Thatcherism such as share ownership and the types of school reforms continued by Labour, coalition and Conservative governments alike. This is not to say that Thatcherite capitalism is any less of an idol offering false hope. Rather, it is to point out that you cannot simply stop hunger for choice by denying it.

Furthermore, both Hanley and Jones acknowledge in their commentary the elephant in the room. The building of Council Estates did not solve the problems of poverty and inequality. Indeed, whilst it is natural to attach wicked motives to your political opponents, is it not possible to consider, without agreeing with their solution, that the very reason that the Thatcherites decided to sell council house.

Political Hope

One of the fascinating things about our present political climate is the level of agreement between politicians on both the left and right of the spectrum about the nature of the problem. This is not just about the centre-ground of politics either. Whether it’s radical socialists or what has been termed “the alt-right” there is a high level of agreement that a substantial proportion of the population is alienated, demonised and left behind.

Let’s have a brief look at two examples, one from the radical left (Owen Jones, a newspaper columnist) and one from the radical right (Douglas Carswell, former Conservative and UKIP MP).

Owen Jones, class-war and socialism

In “Chavs”,  Jones rights about the demonization of the working classes through the use of pejorative language and offensive stereotypes He particularly engages with the story of Shannon Matthews as a case study.  In February, 2008, Shannon Matthews went missing from her home in Dewsbury. Everybody feared the worst assuming that she had been kidnapped.  It turned out that her mum had in fact  faked a kidnapping in order to generate money.  Jones observes three things about the Matthews’ case.

First of all, he argues that the media was immediately less well disposed towards a working class family such as the Matthews than it was to a middle-class family such as Madelaine McCann’s parents where there was a much greater desire to help and offer resources. [15]

Secondly, he observes how, once Shannon was found, this opened the doors for an all-out media attack, not only on Shannon’s family but on their working-class, estate culture. 

“Acting as the nation’s judges, juries and executioners, the tabloids turned on Dewsbury Moor. Local residents were fair game: after all, they had the audacity to live on the same streets as Karen Matthews. The estate became a template for similar working-class communities up and down the country. ‘Estate is nastier than Beirut’ was one thoughtful Sun headline.”[16]

Thirdly, he suggests that this caricature required the media to take a shallow and simplistic view of things overlooking the positive aspects to estate culture and community.

“Journalists had to be more than a little selective to create this caricature. They didn’t mention the fact that when the media became bored with some scruffy working-class girl vanishing ‘up north’, the local community had compensated by coming together to find her. Scores of volunteers had tramped door to door with leaflets every night of her disappearance, often inpouring rain. They had booked coaches to take teams of people as far afield as Birmingham to hand out notices, while multi-lingual leaflets had been produced to cater for the area’s large Muslim population.”[17]

The result was that:

“This sense of a tightly knit working-class community, with limited resources, united behind a common cause, never became part of the Shannon Matthews story.”[18]

Jones sees the Shannon Matthews narrative as part of three pronged attack on the working classes.  This includes the Media as seen in the specific example but also culture and politics.

The second prong, culture, includes the systematic take over of traditionally working class institutions such as football by the middle-classes. 

“Although major clubs shifted away from their origins long ago – for example, Manchester United was founded by railwaymen -they remained deeply rooted in working class communities. Footballers were generally boys plucked from the club’s local area.”[19]

Things began to change as more and more money went into football through sponsorship, satellite TV and the creation of the Premier League. Nothing seemed to signify this more than the end of standing terraces as a result of the Hillsborough disaster.

“When the old terraces were abolished after the Hillsborough Disaster, the cheaper standing tickets disappeared. Between 1990 and 2008, the price of the average football ticket rose by 600 percent, well over 7 times the rate of everything else. This was completely unaffordable for many working class people.”[20]

The cultural prong also includes overt mockery of working class culture disguised as art. Following the Second World War, there was an increased  focus on working class life in books, plays and TV, take for example: Coronation Street, A Taste of Honey and Only Fools and Horses.[21] Working Class life was portrayed grittily, at times darkly but at least sympathetically.  However, working class stereotypes, especially the “chav” increasingly became obvious targets for mockery, ridicule and easy laughs, take for example Harry Enfield’s  Wayne and Waynetta Slob[22] or Little Britain and Vicky Pollard. In the latter case, Jones observes that  “we are laughing at two ex-private school boys dressing up as working class single mothers.”[23]

Then we have the third prong, politics which Jones sees primarily through the prism of class-war. From his perspective, right-wing, Conservative politicians exist to serve themselves and to protect the establishment elite.  He cites an unnamed moderate Tory grandee

“’What you have to remember about the Conservative Party,’ he said, as though it was a trivial throwaway comment, ‘is that it is a coalition of privileged interests. It’s main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the way it wins is by given just enough to just enough other people.’”[24]

The class-war, he argues was escalated under Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, he detects in Thatcherite policies a vindictive seeking of revenge on the Trade Unions for the defeats inflicted on Ted Heath’s administration, particularly by the miners. [25] On Thatcherism he comments:

“The demonization of the working class cannot be understood without looking back at the Thatcherite experiment of the 1980s that forged the society we live in today. At its core was an offensive against working class communities, industries, values and institutions. No longer was being working class something to be proud of: it was something to escape from. This vision did not come from nowhere. It was the culmination of a class war waged, on and off, by the Conservatives from over two centuries.”[26]

He goes on:

“There has been no greater assault on working-class Britain than Thatcher’s two pronged attack on industry and trade unions. It was not just that the systematic trashing of the country’s manufacturing industries devastated communities – though it certainly did, leaving them ravaged by unemployment, poverty, and all the crippling social problems that accompanied them, for which they would later be blamed. Working-class identity was itself under fire.”[27]

If he sees Thatcher’s actions as vindictive, he also sees a strategic intent in them. Just as Hillsborough and the end of football terraces was totemic for the cultural assault of working class life, so the 1984 Miners Strike marked the turning point politically.

“Retribution wasn’t the only motive. The miners had been the vanguard of the union movement in Britain throughout the twentieth century. Britain’s only general strike had been called in support of the miners in 1926. They had the capacity to single-handedly bring the country to a standstill by cutting off its energy supply, as they had demonstrated in the 1970s. If you could see off the miners, what other group of workers could stop you? That’s why the Miners’ strike was the turning point in the history of modern working-class Britain.”[28]

Thatcherism was, he argues, an attempt to stop people thinking collectively, to prevent the working class from uniting against their oppressors.  New Labour marked the Left’s complete capitulation to and continuation of this strategy. However, that capitulation and betrayal had been a long time in the making.[29]

“Labour’s repeated drubbing had consequences of its own. The idea that Labour gave a voice to working-class people, that it championed their interests and needs, was severely weakened during the 1980s. On issue after issue, Labour under Kinnock capitulated to Thatcher’s free-market policies.”[30]

The effect of this was in Owen Jones’ assessment, devastating.

“Those working class communities who had been most shattered by Thatcherism became the most disparaged. They were seen as the left-behinds, the remnants of an old world that had been trampled on by the inevitable march of history. There was to be no sympathy for them: on the contrary they deserved to be caricatured and reviled.”[31]

So what solutions does Jones propose?  These can be summed up as follows. First of all, increased taxes both as a means to achieve greater equality through redistribution and to fund public services.[32]  Secondly, greater availability of skilled employment.

“Another core demand must surely be for decent, skilled, secure, well paid jobs. It would not just be for the unemployed. It would also provide a possible alternative for many low-paid service sector workers.”[33]

And thirdly a return to collectivism including the restoration of Trade Unionism.

“The decline of the trade unions lies at the heart of many of the problems of the working class: the fact that they don’t have a voice; their stagnating wages; their lack of rights in the workplace and so on.”[34]

Jones believes that such policies have no reason to alienate the middle classes, rather, the lower middle class benefit from education, health etc funded properly and can’t access private insurance.[35] Indeed, the reason that socialist policies have been seen as harmful to the squeezed middle, in Jones’ opinion is that the class boundaries have been drawn in the wrong places.

“Politicians and journalists have sneakily misrepresented what ‘Middle Britain’ actually is. ‘ One of the most successful things that the wealthy have done is to almost persuade the middle class that they are middle class too’, says maverick journalist Nick Cohen. When politicians  and journalists have used the term ‘Middle Britain’ (or ‘Middle England’), they have not been talking about people on median incomes -the median being, after all, only around £21,000 a year; they actually mean affluent votes in ‘Upper Britain’. This is how modest tax rises on the wealthy can be presented as attacks on ‘Middle Britain’, even though nine out of ten of us earn less than £44,000 a year.”[36]

In other words, part of the solution involves re-imagining Britain. Rather than thinking in terms of a vast majority doing okay and a small minority who are left behind, society from a socialist perspective is divided between the many and the few, between the majority who are denied access to the very wealth they produce and a small oligarchy who control resources and power. This analysis is important when comparing the radical left with the radical right.

Douglas Carswell and the radical right

Douglas Carswell is a politician who used to represent the Southend constituency in the UK Parliament. Initially he sat as a Conservative but not long before the 2015 General Election he defected to UKIP who were campaigning for the UK to leave the EU. He managed to defend his seat successfully in both a subsequent bye-election and the 2015 General Election.  Carswell is seen as an original and independent minded thinker on the right of politics.

The fascinating thing is that Carswell shares Jones’ assessment of the problem in so far as he also identifies an elite few, or oligarchy, which to use language that many on the left would be comfortable with, he identifies as parasitical. [37]

“A new oligarchy is emerging right now throughout the Western world. The super rich are no longer millionaires but billionaires – often many times over”[38]

This is seen economically with many people feeling excluded and left behind by progress.

“It certainly is the case that for many millions in the United States, Britain and Europe incomes have stagnated over the past twenty years. The average blue-collar household in America is no better off today than they were when Bill Clinton was in the White House. In fact, it’s worse than that. The average hourly wage for non-management, private sector workers in American when adjusted for inflation has not risen since Ronald Reagan first entered the White House. For millions in the US, wages in 2016 are what they were in 1981.”[39]

In common with Jones, he sees those affected as a much larger group than a small under-class. Instead, he too sees those aggrieved as including those usually identified as lower-middle class. He argues that political reaction is not primarily from the have nots but from people who are doing okay.[40]

Indeed, the problem is not economic failure, in his analysis. We are wrong to be pessimistic. The world is in fact getting better and we can demonstrate improvements in health, life expectancy, technology, food provision etc.[41] However there is a problem of exclusion. He sums this up as follows:

“The super-rich are as Boris Johnson puts it, building basement swimming pools in their London houses, yet many of their employees cannot afford to get on the housing ladder. They pay for private jets as their staff make do with ever longer commutes just to get to work. As wages have been held down and corporate salaries have soared, unease about the inequality spawned by the new digital economy is growing.”[42]

Culturally, he also sees a group who are rejected, despised, sneered at. However, from his point of view this primarily happens through political correctness.

“All cliques have manners and mannerisms that act as badges of acceptance. At times, the highly moralized linguistics of the politically correct can become a badge indicating membership of  an in-group – an in-group of the self-righteousness.”[43]

The political dimension to the problem is seen in the way that our rulers have become remote and unassailable.  This happens first of all because consensus politics denies us a choice at the ballot box.

“The politicians all seem to have agreed to agree on many of the big macro questions. The focus of legislative debate has narrowed to questions of which barely differing technocratic means are best suited to achieving the same uncritically accepted ends.”[44]

Secondly, politicians become remote and inaccessible because it is practically impossible to remove them. This significantly reduces their need to campaign and therefore engage with ordinary votes.

“Of course in the UK almost all parliamentary seats are ‘safe seats’, never shifting party allegiance at a General Election for as long as anyone can remember. Between 1987 and 2005 there were five General Elections in the UK. Yet in four of those five elections, only one in ten seats was won by a different party. Even in the great Labour landslide of 1997, fewer than three in ten seats changed hands.”[45]

This means that:

“in most seats, most MPs can assume that they are more or less immune from the views of the voters. Party insiders can be parachuted in as candidates for safe seats almost regardless of what the locals think. Which is precisely why in counties like Suffolk in England, although almost six in ten people voted to leave the EU, each of the county’s seven members of Parliament (all of whom are Conservatives) backed Remain.”[46]

When those who have become remote and immune to challenge, this furthers the impression that they have got where they are unfairly. If there has been a tendency to talk about the undeserving poor, we may also identify an underserving elite. If politicians can get into power without truly having to earn the right through the ballot box, so too, it is possible to get rich without earning your wealth. Contra Jones though, Carswell argues that the problem is not with capitalism per se but rather with its corruption. In his view, capitalism and market economics have worked.

“In Britain, the workforce has increased from 27 million to 31 million. Far from mass unemployment, there are more jobs in Britain and America today than ever before -and this great growth spurt in job-creation has coincided with greater global economic interdependence”[47]

People are better off not just through increased employment and pay but through lower prices too.”[48]

“Since 1996, the real cost of household appliances has fallen by over 40 per cent. The cost of footwear and clothes by 60 per cent. Previous generations of mums and dads struggling to make ends meet complained about not being able to afford shoes for their kids. Today’s parents can buy them from Tesco for five quid.”[49]

However, the beneficiaries of this wealth creation are not necessarily the wealth creators themselves, he argues. Our economies are risk averse and do not always reward the entrepreneurs. Instead, the beneficiaries have in his opinion been corporate administrators who commit “corporate kleptocracy.”[50]  He explains:

“In a free market, reward is associated with risk. But the FTSE 100 chiefs who get the largest rewards are not taking any risks with their own money. They are corporate administrators, not entrepreneurs. So why the big rewards? Corporate pay is not rising because of ‘the market’ but because conventional corporate governance no longer works.” The rules that underpin capitalism, and which ought to make those that run businesses accountable to those that own them, have been subverted – allowing executives to pay themselves even more.”[51]

The remoteness and lack of accountability we see in political life repeats itself in corporate life too because boards are self-appointing with no accountability to individual share-holders[52] because most shares are actually held by pension and trust funds.

So what is Carswell’s solution? Well he claims to be an optimist who offers hope.  His trust is in the following things. First of all, economic and technological improvement, he believes that things really are getting better. Secondly, in the power of human-reason.[53]  In fact Carswell opposes God and religion believing that these get in the way of reason and innovation.[54] Furthermore, he associates religion with dependency on grand plans.[55] So, thirdly, he wants to let the market system do its job. [56] This means getting rid of middle-men, regulators and grand planners so that contracts are directly between two consenting parties. [57] Furthermore it means the removal of cheap, easy credit through monetarist policies. [58] Finally, he advocates greater power to individuals so that they have more power over the state. For Carswell, this requires greater localism, more direct democracy and the breakdown of traditional party systems. [59]

Some brief reflections on the left-right debate

I would like at this stage to make a few short observations about these political solutions. A detailed engagement with the pros and cons of each position is beyond the scope of this present work.

However, we may observe first of all that both authors are much closer than one might assume to a common assessment of the problem. For both of them it boils down to the existence of an elite, unaccountable oligarchy who keep power and prosperity to themselves. At the same time, they are wildly apart in their identification of possible solutions. I would suggest form this first of all that if their reason and empirical observations lead them to this, then this highlights both the viability of reason and empirical evidence as sources of truth and the limits. They are able to apply their minds to the same data, the same issues and yet not reach agreement on a way forward. Secondly, the fact that both men share a common concern suggests to me that the use of hyperbolic arguments to question the motives of political opponents and demonise them is rather overplayed and unbecoming.[60]

Furthermore, in terms of their ability to identify solutions, it is my opinion that both authors tend to be long on problem identification and very short on solution.  Their solutions lack development, are often simplistic and sound very familiar. In Jones’ case we see the state solutions of higher taxes, nationalisation and union power which we associate with the 1970s. Carswell’s approach in many respects could be labelled “Thatcherism revisited.” 

Yet, as we have already observed, there was a reason why Thatcher’s policies were seen as popular in many quarters, the socialist solutions of the 70s were seen to fail. Similarly, there is a reason why 40% of the population voted for a political party led by a committed socialist in 2017, not to mention all those who voted for populist and nationalist options at that election and over the past few decades. Many people experienced Thatcherism not as a good thing but as harmful. 

Now the tendency with advocates of radical political positions is to insist that a pure form of their approach has never been properly tried or that a little more education will convince the doubters.  That to me seems both naïve and arrogant at the same time. Is it not more likely that flawed and finite politicians do not after all have all the solutions. That’s why we tend to see a constant pendulum of political hope swinging backwards and forwards between left and right.

Brexit

Writing from a British perspective, we cannot move on from a discussion about political hopes without mentioning Brexit.  The UK joined what evolved into the European Union in the 1970s and there was a referendum to confirm this decision in 1975. Over 40 years later in 2016 a further referendum resulted in a decision to leave. For nearly half a century, the UK’s relationship to Europe has proved one of the most toxic and divisive political issues. It has divided both of the major political parties at different points and arguably cost at least three prime-ministers their jobs.[61]

The two people we have engaged with already represent the two main positions on EU membership. Carswell is Euro-sceptic and a former UKIP MP whilst Jones has consistently campaigned for Remain. However, the issue transcends the usual Left-Right divide.  There are Eurosceptics in both the Labour Party and in the Conservative Party as well as Euro-enthusiasts.

Supporters of the EU see it as a means to encourage greater European unity. The project was in part a response to the two terrible world wars that cost so many lives during the first part of the 20th Century. By creating a powerful trading block with a single internal market, the EU is also seen as offering economic hope and believed to have encouraged greater prosperity. The EU is also seen as offering protection against the failures and tyrannies of state governments.  The European Court of Justice offers potential remedies when states fail. Furthermore, through regulatory means, the EU is seen as providing protection against the more malign elements of capitalism. 

Negatively, Eurosceptics see the EU as a monolithic, distant and remote bureaucracy. For Carswell, this would provide an example of the type of parasitical third parties who attempt to control through top-down planning. Its institutions are also seen as democratically unaccountable although the elected parliament’s powers have evolved over the years. Ironically, whilst many on the left see the EU as a bastion against the worst excesses of capitalism, it has traditionally been seen on the far left as a capitalist project. Once again, the perception from both left and right is that the EU forms part of the oligarchy narrative.

How does this affect urban witness? Well, I remember the Sunday after the referendum vote and a number of our congregation were deeply despondent including those about to lead the service. They were in mourning and this was likely to affect the tone and content with a theme of lament and repentance.  I had to remind them that for many people likely to attend that Sunday, the feeling would be the opposite, one of freedom, celebration and joy. This reflects the fact that our catchment area includes two very different types of neighbourhood.

On the one hand, the Brexit message had played well on council estates amongst white, working class voters. Voting Leave was an opportunity for those excluded and left behind by the liberal elite to protest and maybe even take back control. The campaign had focused heavily on immigration with the promise that leaving the EU would enable us to take back control of our borders and end mass immigration.

On the other hand, in the more ethnically diverse, inner city part of our community, exactly because of the racial overtones of the Leave campaign, there was greater support for Remain (this may well also reflect a younger population too).  Many within our community have come to the UK from other EU countries and the decision to leave has caused them great anxiety and uncertainty.

Religious Hope

Alongside socio-economic and political offers of hope, we also find overtly religious offers (shortly we will see that the socio-economic and political options have in fact a deeply religious dimension too). In this chapter, I want to highlight Islam here and then introduce a few alternative Gospels within the Christian tradition.

There are, of course, hundreds if not thousands of religious options out there but I have chosen these three because they are both typically representative of religion and dominant in terms of the most common challenges we are likely to face.

Islam

According to the Office for National Statistics, there are 3,372,966 Muslims in the UK. [62] 1,012,823 live in London with 234,411 in Birmingham and 129,041 in my home city Bradford.[63]https://www.statista.com/statistics/870608/leading-cities-by-muslim-population-england/  Many Muslims are either immigrants or 2nd or 3rd generation descendants. However, the figures also include converts to Islam from white and black backgrounds. For example one report estimates that,

  • There were 60,669 converts to Islam in the UK in 2001 with 55% from white British backgrounds
  • 5,200 people in the UK converted to Islam in 2010.
  • By 2010 the estimated number of converts may have been in the region of 100,000.[64]

There are also significant numbers of conversion to Islam among prisoners, particularly those from African and Afro-Caribbean background. As BBC Correspondent, Mark Easton, reported:

“Around 30% of Muslim inmates are converts and many of those are, according to previous Home Office research, from black rather than Asian ethnic groups. In 1999, it was found that 37% of Muslim male prisoners were black compared with 7% of those in the wider population.”[65]

Muslims believe in one God, Allah. The religion is believed to have been founded in the 6th Century by Mohammed, recognised by Muslims as the last and greatest prophet. Muslims believe that he received their holy book, The Quran by direct revelation from God.  They believe that Jesus was also a prophet but not divine as were many of the great patriarchs of the Old Testament. The Law, Prophets and Gospels are recognised as Scripture, however the versions we have today have been so badly corrupted that they cannot be relied upon as revelation.

The Word “Islam” literally means submission. Muslims are those who submit to the one true God.  Allah, is sovereign and unchangeable. He is also hoped to be merciful. A devout Muslim will be committed to serving God with their whole life. This also means that the practice of Islam should be seen as a unified whole embracing religious, political and cultural aspects of life. Indeed, the spread of Islam during its early centuries was marked by political expansion and the conquest of much of north Africa by the Caliphate. So called “Islamic State” is a contemporary attempt to recreate the Islamic empire of the past.

At the same time, Islam is fragmented. There are a number of strands of Islam some with a more mystical take on life. The most obvious (but not only division) is between Sunni and Shia Muslims. There are also Sufi Muslims who tend to practice a more mystical form of Islam and as well as other sects, many Muslims practice in effect a folk religion with an alertness and fear of spiritual beings known as Jinn.

Additionally, Peter Riddell has identified the following three typological relationships to Islamic teaching and practices:

–  Muslim Traditionalists

–  Muslim Modernisers

– Islamists

Note, this “typology” fits fairly neatly with a Christian typology of liberals, traditionalists and evangelicals. It can therefore be recognised as a helpful simplification and we need to keep in mind the additional complexities of different types of Muslim doctrine and culture.

Muslim Traditionalists

“Muslim traditionalists emphasize the primacy of the scholarly elite, with congregations trained to acknowledge the wisdom of accumulated traditional authority  rather than to engage dynamically with the primary sources themselves. In Muslim minority communities in western countries. Muslim traditionalists tend to be the immigrant generation.” .[66]

Muslim Modernisers

“Muslim modernizers are concerned with defining faith within a contemporary world context. They follow a method of interpreting the Islamic texts to fit the modern context.”[67] Includes secularized and cultural Muslims.[68]

Islamists

“Islamists use Islamic Scripture as the filter through which all discussion passes. They dream of a past ‘golden age’ when Prophet Muhammed was establishing his community om Medina and when God’s law the shari’a, held sway. Many Muslim young people born in the West og immigrant parents  opt for the Islamist paradigm, because of a sense of alienation from the majority culture.” .[69]

 Fragmentation by way of Integration and engagement

Fragmentation can also be seen by the attitudes of Muslims living in non-Islamic countries to engagement and integration in the host nation. Peter Riddell notices two typical trends among Muslims in Britain.

 “Option 1: Participate”[70]

Riddell argues that “The majority of Muslims in Britain are committed to participating in British society as an integral element in in. They see Britain as their home and their future.” [71] He includes within this definition, both those who  want to “blend in and assimilate” [72]  and those who want to “participate and influence society.”[73]

He argues that the former group (assimilators) are likely to be increasingly influenced by the western secular society around them until their Islamic identity is significantly watered down.

“This is the group whose Muslim identity may weaken with succeeding generations through intermarriage, secularist influences and conversion to another religion or no religion.”[74]

The influencers on the other hand are likely to recognise creation of fully Islamic society is unrealistic however their approach  “is based on the notion that Muslims in Britain should participate fully in the majority society but should strengthen their Muslim identity and try to impart Muslim  values and views in the process.” [75]

 “Option 2: separate”[76]

Muslim identity and culture within the UK also includes those who are “separating within Britain” and  those “preparing to leave Britain to live in Muslim majority countries.” [77] Some Muslims find themselves so disillusioned with Western culture that they seek an alternative life in countries that better support the practice of Islamic belief and customs.

On the other-hand, there are those who do not wish to integrate and participate in UK life and culture but wish to live here following their own beliefs and customs distinct from British culture. This includes those who are campaigning for right to follow shari’a law in the UK.[78] It will include those who desire to co-exist peacefully alongside other communities. However, within this category are also Islamists who agree with the pessimism amongst influencers that a fully Islamic society is possible through integration but still seek to achieve that through other means.

Alternative “Christian” Gospels

Within the Christian tradition, there have been a number of attempts to offer versions of the Gospel that will appeal particularly to the poor and dispossessed. Often these traditions require a rejection of the authority of Scripture and a departure from central beliefs about sin and the cross.

The Social Gospel

Christians have consistently throughout history had a strong association with social activism and the desire to show God’s love practically. The Evangelical movement is particularly associated with William Wilberforce and the abolition of Slavery as well as factory reform, the founding of schools and the availability of medical provision prior to the founding of the NHS.

However, the concept of a social gospel is primarily associated with liberal theology. From this perspective, Christ’s mission was to set a better example of what it means to live a good life showing concern for the vulnerable and the poor.  Christian mission from this perspective includes famine relief, education, environmental concern, food banks and debt cancellation. Christians are first and foremost called to act to bring about change in society.

The Prosperity Gospel

This is the belief that our essential problem is sickness and poverty. We were made in God’s image to enjoy health and wisdom. We were made to enjoy the goodness of creation by subduing the world around us. Therefore if we are poor, sick and powerless then we fall short of what God made us for.

How then, can we be restored to what God intended for us? The answer is by exercising faith. Faith is demonstrated in the words we say (hence this is often known as “The Word of Faith Movement.). Promises are to be claimed and there must be no place for negative, defeatist thoughts. If believers exercise enough faith, demonstrated by the prayers they say and by tithing, then God will bless them with all they need.

Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology may be seen as a close cousin of the Social Gospel. However, whereas The Social Gospel is primarily paternalistic with an emphasis on those who have helping those who don’t, Liberation Theology has a more radical edge with its promise of liberation for the poor and disposed so that power is placed back into their hands. Additionally, whereas the  Social Gospel is mainly associated with liberal Protestantism, Liberation Theology is essentially a Roman Catholic Ideology.

This approach is particularly associated with South American and Spanish theologians, particularly as Gustavo GutiérrezLeonardo Boff, Juan Luis Segundo  and Jon Sobrino. In this approach, greed is seen as the primary sin and the cause of poverty. The poor are victims and the Gospel promises freedom for them. This theology is very much rooted in the Exodus narrative and therefore unsurprisingly in addition to Hispanic versions, some  forms of Black theology are deeply sympathetic to the theme. [79]

Initial Reflections

One can immediately see why these approaches appear to offer hope and are likely to be popular. They all respond to peoples’ felt needs by offering practical help and hope. Additionally, Social Gospel approaches offer meaning and purpose to Christians seeking to serve on mission in communities where there is a hardness and resistance to the preached message. Our church may not be seeing converts but we are still fulfilling the Great Commission in the work that we do.

Furthermore, those offers of help tend to play into two of our deepest temptations. First of all, they set the narrative up in terms of injustice, unfairness and victim-hood.  The redemptive narrative is that we live in a world where particular people and entities hold power. The minority who hold power are essentially wicked whilst the majority of us who do not are essentially good. We are the victims and we need to be rescued from the bad guys.  The temptation for those entering into such situations on a missional basis is either to present themselves as the heroes, the rescuers or to attempt to self identify with those they are coming to as fellow victims. At the same time, people coming into a situation are unlikely to be seen as fellow victims or heroic rescuers but rather as oppressors. As part of the problem.

At the same time, the offer of hope in political and religious redemptive offers is also wrapped up in false promise that somehow we can save our-selves. There is often a collectivist element to this, the workers can rise up against the bourgeois, a racial grouping can in its collective identity stand firm against colonial oppressors. However, the primary message is that by learning the right relationship practising the right rituals and developing the right behaviours it is possible to save yourself.

In chapter 7, we observed that all people in common are asking the following big questions “Who am I, what is my purpose in life?” “Where did I come from? What are the origins of the world around me?” “Is there more than this? Does God exist and who is he?” and “What happens when I die?”[80]

Urban dwellers need to recognise that their urban gods have failed to answer those questions, failing to bring truth or hope. From there, we may take them to Christ in order to show them where truth and hope are found and where their real needs and desires will be properly met and fulfilled.


[1] Linsey Hanley, Estates, 5.

[2] Tudor Walters Report, 1918. Cited in Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture, 137.

[3] Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture, 172.

[4] Linsey Hanley, Estates, 18.

[5] Owen Jones, Chavs, 34.

[6] Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture, 138.

[7] Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture, 138.

[8] Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture, 138.

[9] Gans, “From ‘Underclass’ to ‘Undercaste’” 146.

[10] Linsey Hanley, Estates, 13.

[11] Linsey Hanley, Estates, 4.

[12] Owen Jones, Chavs, 34.

[13] Owen Jones, Chavs, 62.

[14] Linsey Hanley, Estates, 212.

[15] Owen Jones, Chavs, 13-14.

[16] Owen Jones, Chavs, 20.

[17] Owen Jones, Chavs,20-21.

[18] Owen Jones, Chavs, 21.

[19] Owen Jones, Chavs, 134.

[20]Owen Jones, Chavs, 135.

[21] Ow 110.en Jones, Chavs,

[22] Owen Jones, Chavs, 111.

[23] Owen Jones, Chavs, 127.

[24] Owen Jones, Chavs, 40.

[25] Owen Jones, Chavs, 54.

[26] Owen Jones, Chavs, 40.

[27] Owen Jones, Chavs, 48.

[28] Owen Jones, Chavs, 55.

[29] Owen Jones, Chavs, 70.

[30] Owen Jones, Chavs, 70.

[31] Owen Jones, Chavs,71.

[32] Owen Jones, Chavs, 258.

[33] Owen Jones, Chavs, 260.

[34] Owen Jones, Chavs, 266.

[35] Owen Jones, Chavs, 268.

[36] Owen Jones, Chavs, 250.

[37] Carswell, Rebel, 149-178.

[38] Carswell, Rebel, 8.

[39] Carswell, Rebel, 6.

[40] Carswell, Rebel, 6-7.

[41] Carswell, Rebel, 21.

[42] Carswell, Rebel, 7.

[43] Carswell, Rebel, 19.

[44] Carswell, Rebel, 50.

[45] Carswell, Rebel, 53.

[46] Carswell, Rebel, 53.

[47] Carswell, Rebel, 80.

[48] Carswell, Rebel, 80.

[49] Carswell, Rebel, 80.

[50] Carswell, Rebel, 84.

[51] Carswell, Rebel, 85.

[52] Carswell, Rebel, 90.

[53] Carswell, Rebel, 249.

[54] Carswell, Rebel, 250.

[55] Carswell, Rebel, 250.

[56] Carswell, Rebel, 250.

[57] Carswell, Rebel, 243.

[58] His reasoning is that credit hands power to the bankers who are one example of the parasitical corporate administrators. Carswell, Rebel, 306 -307.

[59] Carswell, Rebel, 373 -376.

[60] This sadly comes through heavily in Jones’ book which is more polemic rant than reasoned argument. In my opinion, his work is poorer for it.

[61] Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron and Theresa May.

[62]https://www.ons.gov.uk/aboutus/transparencyandgovernance/freedomofinformationfoi/muslimpopulationintheuk/

[63] https://www.statista.com/statistics/870608/leading-cities-by-muslim-population-england/

[64] https://faith-matters.org/images/stories/fm-reports/a-minority-within-a-minority-a-report-on-converts-to-islam-in-the-uk.pdf

[65] https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markeaston/2010/06/islam_prison_1.html

[66] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 19.

[67] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 19.

[68] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 19.

[69] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 19.

[70] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 61.

[71] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 61.

[72] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 61.

[73] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 62.

[74] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 62.

[75] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 62.

[76] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 62.

[77] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 62.

[78] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 62.

[79] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberation_theology

[80] Reference needed

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