Providence, faith and politics: theological reasons to mistrust calls for radical change

There is a widespread feeling that “things have gone wrong” and that a change in political direction is called for; variously this might be independence for Scotland, UK withdrawal from the European Union, the far-reaching transformations envisaged in the programme of the Green Party. These have in common a sense that we urgently need to do something very different. The UK Independence Party argue that immigration is wreaking and is going to wreak havoc on all we hold dear, that society has changed for the worse and that the time has come to revert to an older and better order of things. The Green Party argue that a rampant capitalism obsessed with growth will inevitably lead to irreversible degradation of the ecosystems of the planet unless something radical is done. The SNP argue that English indifference to the poor and needy and the dominance of London and its greedy bankers will lead to a brutal smashing of the welfare state and that Scots can only save themselves by separation.

I find all of this deeply misleading and rather worrying. I have a view of the world at once sceptical of the ability of human beings to take control of history and consciously shape it for the better and also confident that God will keep the promises made to us. These promises, made repeatedly through the history of God’s people as recorded in what we call the Old Testament, are reiterated and renewed by Jesus in the New Testament. They are for a new age of peace and justice in which poverty is abolished and oppression ended, in which all are free and all are fed. They are for freedom from sin and from sickness. They are for a world in which the violence of war and of laws regulating the relationships between people are replaced by a community of love and service.

Clearly we are now a long distance from that glorious kingdom of God. War, violence, oppression and poverty, let alone sin and disease remain all too real and present. However it is not unreasonable to see in the history of the last 60 years an incredible degree of progress towards the realisation of the promises made. Medical science has come a huge distance and continues to advance. The proportion of the world’s population living in absolute poverty fell (according to World Bank figures) fallen from 52.2% in 1981 to 22.4% in 2008. This astonishing advance came, in quite large part, through the dizzying growth in China, itself a product of that country’s integration into the world economy.

That integration has caused significant turbulence and difficulty for the world system and was, I would argue, the root cause of the collapse of the financial systems in 2008-9 to a much greater degree than, for example, the ways in which bankers were paid. The arrangement whereby we in the West bought goods made in China using money borrowed from the Chinese couldn’t last forever. Similarly it made it very difficult for people in Western countries to command the high and rising wages they had come to expect unless they could do something much cheaper Chinese labour couldn’t.

At the same time rapid technological advances have put pressure on a range of occupations susceptible to automation. We are in a period of change so rapid that our societies and economies are struggling to adapt. This makes this time similar in some ways to the middle of the 19th Century when steam transformed all sorts of things and caused dislocation and crisis in ways documented so memorably by Engels in his “Condition of the Working Class in England”.

What was true then is likely to be true again now. The long-term resolution of the crisis was not, primarily, a matter of conscious political will but of the evolution of a new economic and social order that accommodated the new technologies and ways of organising our lives. Political action was essential to this but had to fit in with the slow process of finding out how to change all manner of things to fit the new realities. Nobody in 1830 could have foreseen or created the relatively stable and much more comfortable world of Edwardian Britain (which is not to say that Britain in 1910 was paradise or without its injustices and horrors, just to say that the mid-nineteenth Century crisis conditions had abated and a new stability found).

Where attempts were made to change direction radically these sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed but in the end tended towards the same set of destinations. Something similar will, I’m sure, happen again. The very real problems the world faces are best tackled by incrementally responding to the most urgent while seeking to manage the least urgent. Finding ways of minimising and adapting to global warming while simultaneously continuing to raise people out of poverty through economic development is the core issue. Key to this is likely to be technological advance in electricity generation, storage and distribution. The costs of renewable electricity is falling but the problem of storage remains. Here, too, progress is being made. In time there is no reason to think that we will not be able to resolve this so that the use of fossil fuels becomes a niche part of our energy consumption.

In the meantime we will have to accept the continuing necessity of burning these fuels and seek ways to make this as efficient and clean as we can, whether by improving power stations or by switching from coal to gas. There is no realistic prospect of a political settlement that will persuade India and China to reduce their growth and, therefore, no realistic prospect of their not needing more power. In the absence of that the solutions are inevitably in the area of technical expertise and there are promising signs that the Chinese, at least, are recognising and prioritising this, whatever doubts one might have about their hydro-electrical and nuclear power projects.

Theologically it seems to me that we, who proclaim faith in a loving God, are called to confidence in the long and obscure historical processes rather than to panicky demands for urgent action to take conscious control over them. This is not to argue that we are not called to responsible and compassionate action. It is absolutely our duty to assess the possibilities and realities with which we are faced and to act in the way that will most adequately answer to the demand the we love our neighbour as ourselves. In the contemporary world our neighbours must include those suffering poverty and oppression in rural India, those threatened by Ebola in Sierra Leone and the millions whose lives have been devastated by the wars in Syria and Iraq as well as those struggling to put food on their table in our own towns and cities.

In all cases what we argue for and what we do should, must, have a realistic prospect of making a positive difference. My experience of being a member of the Green Party (albeit nearly 10 years ago) was that the more I found out about their policies the more likely they seemed to do more harm than good in the unlikely event of their being enacted. This party has a contribution to make in raising the profile of issues that are of great importance but which tend to be overlooked but its proposed solutions are mostly completely misconceived. What is most unhelpful, though, is the suggestion that the problems cannot be solved with changing the basic structures of our society, since this implies, really, that they can’t be solved at all, since such change is extremely improbable.

We would be much better advised, and more faithful to the Christian message that creation has already been redeemed in Christ, to assume that all our difficulties can and will be dealt with. In confident trust in our providential God we should seek the way forward, praying for guidance and patience as we work together to identify the path marked out for us.

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