Norman Hamilton: Cost of living crisis demands action
As the cost of living continues to climb, with soaring energy prices posing particular problems, Christians need to act on the issue of inequality in society. The Rev Dr Norman Hamilton reflects on two recent pieces of research and Jesus' teaching on compassion
THE news is awash with stories of the ever-rising costs of living. Just before Christmas, a forecast for BBC Panorama reported that "a typical UK family will spend £1,700 more per year on household costs in 2022".
At a more local level, the BBC also reported in December that LifeHub - a Belfast food bank which helps more than 600 families each week - saw a 250 per cent increase in demand for food in the last year.
And to add to the statistical misery... The children's commissioner states that "almost one in every four children in Northern Ireland lives in a family which struggles to provide for their basic needs. These are children whose parents often have to get into debt to pay to make ends meet."
My wife and I see a little of those pressures, for we are paying 50 per cent more for heating oil than a year ago - and everyone else is too. And that is clearly going to get worse during 2022.
But as a family we are not in need of more money to pay for the oil, nor needing to visit the local food bank, and we do expect to be able to weather the economic storms that may come our way over the next few years.
Our situation is not very different from many others, and that makes it all too easy for many of us to be relatively unconcerned about the intense stress and distress around us right now as winter deepens.
But there is a major and ongoing change in the thinking of God's people on this subject of inequality, which was highlighted in several major pieces of research in 2021, led by the Christian think-tank Theos in London, and the Jubilee centre in Cambridge.
Their findings are entirely consistent with the straightforward teaching of Jesus himself. If He was walking our streets today, he might well repeat what he said so many years ago: "I have compassion for these people; I do not want to send them away hungry."
And he would look to me - and to you - as he did then, to offer what we can to help. Indeed, the account of the last judgement in Matthew 25 is both a sobering warning and a call to action here and now: "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.'"
Crucially, this message of Jesus, and the wider teaching of the Bible captured by the Christian academics is not just about fixing material poverty: "The impact of excessive and/or widening inequality is as evident in our relationships as in our bank balances."
The research clearly spells out that inequality becomes a problem when it undermines our having good relationships with one another and when it separates us from the wider community. Indeed, the title of one of the research papers puts it very well: Money Can't Fix Everything.
Another suggestion, albeit fairly controversial, is put on the table for more and hopefully better discussion: a wealth tax.
This, broadly speaking, is a tax on the difference between what someone owns and what someone owes, and would be taken from those who are really wealthy. There are, of course, arguments for and against such a tax, but the researchers suggest that the discussion on the possibility needs to be opened once again. It is hard to disagree given that the pandemic has made some people very wealthy indeed.
This leads to one final, and hugely challenging thought from the research. It seems clear that as a society, we never think about what it means to have 'enough'. In both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus describes himself as having "nowhere to lay his head".
Given that I personally do have enough and to spare (to quote from the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15), what are the implications I need to face?
As the costs of living continue to rise, I have both a Christian and a moral obligation to answer that question properly. For I know only too well that faith without works really is dead - very dead.
The Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church.