Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings - 08/10/2012
A few days ago I was sitting in the central square of a small provincial town in Northern Spain, sipping coffee. It was pleasantly warm and tranquil; until a crowd of people appeared, arms linked, chanting, and blowing whistles - a shrill protest by Catalonians against the latest austerity measures in their region – job losses, lower wages, higher taxes, reduced pensions. The mood was not difficult to interpret: anger, certainly; but behind the anger, fear. Deep anxiety about the long-term future.
As we too wrestle with austerity how do we guard ourselves against that kind of fear?
The Book of Proverbs has a verse: 'Without a vision, the people perish.' It's a much quoted verse because it contains an important truth. We can get through difficult times if we have some sense of where we are heading, some sense that the sacrifices made will not erode all that we think is valuable in our society now, and that we want to see sustained in the future. So we need clarity around that question of direction – something the political parties are wrestling with at their annual conferences.
Christians are not alone in wanting a society in which burdens are not borne equally, but more by those that have the means to contribute most; and in which rewards are used to raise up the less fortunate – the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the poor. This is why, in a time of shrinking resources, it's right that we think afresh about the amount of tax paid or avoided by the reasonably well-off – and I would include myself in that - and the implications for the less well off of benefit changes and cuts in services. For Christians it's about how you take the parable of the Good Samaritan or the injunction to love your neighbour and apply it in a more complex society, a society of taxes and benefits, where your neighbour in need may not live in your part of town or your part of the country; a society where love sometimes has to operate at a distance.
To safeguard the economic future some argue for infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy and provide jobs. But for a good and resilient society we also need to attend to another infrastructure – that of values. There is a moral and spiritual infrastructure that needs to be in place if the years of the locust are not to make us a more divided, more inward-looking or less generous people.
Without a vision, the people perish, because a vision enables focus, and focus leads to purpose, and purpose brings drive and determination to succeed. This is the political challenge – to renew our vision of the good society. But it's not just addressed to politicians. We can all do some soul searching about the contribution we can each make.