Some thoughts after a Bah! Humbug! Christmas
I’m not going to go over too much old Christmas ground – I’ve blogged previously about my past before – see here. Instead, I want to look at some themes that I’ve noticed in the backdrop of the problems of the world, and particularly here in the UK.
‘It’ll be lonely this Christmas…’
You know the song. I’ve blogged about my own experiences of it, and I’ve also blogged very recently about the public policy issues of loneliness. (See here). The telly comedian Sarah Millican just before Christmas started the hashtag #JoinIn, reaching out to those people who really were alone and lonely at Christmas. News articles also picked up the problem – mainly in the context of the elderly – see here.
I chose to be alone this Christmas – in my room asleep for much of Christmas day. For some reason this year, Christmas has been incredibly triggering for all of the wrong reasons. I spent a few days tanked up on tranquillisers before Christmas day. Rather than facing the whole thing, I took the cowardly option of staying in my room hiding away from it. Don’t like the food, don’t like the music, don’t like the expense, don’t like the religion. I can grump for Britain, me! In a way I’m surprised that hardly anyone seems to have cottoned onto a market for people that want to have an ‘anti-Christmas’ – perhaps wanting to get out and about doing activities away from the fuss, expense and insatiable demands of advertisers at Christmas.
“But isn’t Christmas an excellent time for charidee?!?!”
No. For me there’s no such thing as ‘an excellent time for a charity’ because a charity’s existence indicates that there is a problem within society that needs to be alleviated. It might be an excellent time for people to do a one-off action genuinely to try and make a difference (eg lots of people taking annual leave/holidays at the same time), or to feel good about themselves & write something in Christmas round robin letters (I make no judgement call either way), but something’s slightly different this year. I put it down to the bleak economic and social background of today.
Christians for social justice – giving ministers a hard time too.
One of our local residents gave Iain Duncan Smith a kicking – see here. Not that this will make much of a difference to IDS as a politician. Where the former Archbishop takes offence (and rightly so) is that he sees a government minister attacking volunteers who are giving their time and donations (in many cases regularly) to help the poor. But it’s not just former archbishops giving governments a kicking. The current ones are too – this from the Archbishop of York. And the current Archbishop of Canterbury has crossed swords with ministers before – see here.
Actually, a couple of months ago I turned up to an event on food justice, hosted by some high profile academics who are also Christians, at the United Reformed Church in Cambridge – see here. This wasn’t an event about raising money for poor people, this was an event where people cross-examined some fairly senior food industry people about why the poor had little food. This is one of the things that more religious figures who can command mainstream media time are repeatedly coming back to. For example some parts of the conservative press have it in their DNA to cover church issues. If an archbishop makes a big issue about a social justice issue, they are sort of duty-bound to cover it, even if they don’t like it. It’s a bit like the cricket – if England are taking a pounding as they currently are in the Ashes, they still feel duty bound to cover it.
This is also where perhaps the current pontiff is getting much better press than his predecessor – not just in what he is saying but some of the changes to his routine. Perhaps this is more amplified because of the nature of his succession (succeeding a retiring rather than a deceased predecessor) and the behaviour and style of his predecessor too. As I mentioned in the food security blogpost, for those Christians who are active in social justice issues, having a spiritual leader set up some amplifiers and turning them up on the issues you are passionate about can make a huge difference.
But what happens when the Christmas food kitchens close for the year and the temporary volunteers go back to their day-to-day routine?
Well. That’s the awkward bit. Because otherwise we go around in circles – every year the same thing. You do X for charity to alleviate someone’s needs for a few days, but it doesn’t quench the need. Paraphrasing the Oxfam advert, “you give a starving person a bowl of food, it feeds them for a day. Teach them how to fish…” -> But what if the lake has been poisoned by the insatiable demands of global agribusiness buying up prime land to produce food for export? Or by a mining operation leaching toxins into a lake on which the livelihoods of many are dependent?
This for me is the stage where we’re getting to now – and it’s where mainstream party politics is really falling short. Those with the power are still at the giving out bowls of food mindsets of charity. Those in mainstream opposition still seem to be at the teaching them how to fish mindset stage. Yet I’m coming across more and more people who are politically aware and disillusioned, who are at the stage of wanting to tackle the interests that are doing the equivalent of poisoning the lakes.
Sustaining philanthropy and donations, or sustaining campaigning?
This article from one City manager makes for interesting reading as it touches on a number of issues. The first is about one-off donations vs regular sustained giving, especially by those that can afford it. He cited this study from the University of Manchester:
Professor Li said that in 2010/11 the poorest 20% gave 3.2% of their gross monthly income to charity during the four weeks before they were interviewed, and the richest 20% gave 0.9%. The remaining 60% gave under 2%.
The second issue was about face-to-face interaction with those in need. In my experience, we need to differentiate between ‘one off’ meetings with individuals vs sustained face-to-face interaction with individuals in need that allow us to build friendships across the barriers that separate us.
What’s the bit that is missing?
I come down to the structures that we have in place that entrench the inequalities at a very young age that as adults we try (or claim to try) to fight against. It’s when you start looking at those structures that some people (especially those that have benefited from them) start to get defensive. Private schools, private tuition, family support here, a wink and a nod for an internship or work experience there. In the case of the City manager above, are the activities of the industry that he is part of exacerbating some of the social problems that he fights against in his charity work? That’s not to say ‘Stop doing charity work’ (because individuals in need are benefiting) or even ‘give up the day job’ (because such are the financial rewards in the City that there will always be someone willing to step in, leaving the structures in place), but rather looking at some very big problems from a much wider perspective.
But if tackling these problems is not something an individual can do alone, what’s the point?
It’s something I’ve struggled with for years. It’s where you want to see your efforts make a difference, whether or not people acknowledge or appreciate your efforts. For years, I had a mindset – a ***big*** narcissistic streak in me where I wanted people to appreciate the stuff that I did & thank me for it in a big way. I think a mixture of that not happening as I wanted back then plus growing out of it means that it’s not so much of a big deal anymore. And you can’t solve all of the problems of the world. That said, reading about Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, I note that by the time they had reached my age (mid-30s) they had already led a movement that overthrew the US-backed Cuban military dictator Batista and had taken power.
The difference between then and now?
Let’s compare the year we’re about to go into – 2014, with 100 years ago. The big difference is that someone like myself living 100 years ago could not aspire to get anywhere near the levers of power – or ‘high society’s top table’. Those were reserved for the royal families of Europe. The difference now is that people are led to believe they have access to the latter – mainly through the false glamour of ‘celebrity’ or winning lotteries. Also, you could say that the ethnicities of the global super-rich are also much more diverse than those with global power 100 years ago. (Even though it is still the men that dominate). Yet on the cult of the super-rich, this article got me thinking. Footballer, soapstar, popstar. Even the old “It could be you” lottery strap line. But then look at the chances of all of that happening. Then think of the talent that has hit the limelight only to implode in a sorry descent. Football is littered with them.
“You’ve wandered from the title again”
So I have. The point I want to make is that while it’s all well and good for people to be nice and charitable at this time of year towards those in need, do our one-off annual actions make a lasting difference? Because if they don’t, and if we do want to make a lasting difference, what can we do?
For me, this falls into two themes
- A one off action where you seek to find new knowledge in something
- A behavioural change
The first one on seeking new knowledge links to my previous blogpost on time to think. (See here).
My questions/challenges to everyone (myself included) are thus:
1) For whatever social justice issue you might be interested in, what is the bigger picture around it? What are the factors and causes of it?
2) What is the one day-to-day/regular behavioural change you’re going to make as a result of what you have learnt?
So for me in recent times, I reviewed my interactions with people, community groups and councils locally. I asked myself why I felt I was having little impact – or rather seeing little evidence of it. My behaviour change? When turning up to council meetings, submit questions in advance in good time (ie a week before) asking for progress updates on whatever the last set of questions I asked were. It may not change the world, but it might get things done – things that I cannot do myself.