John Sentamu: Christmas in troubled times gives us a chance to reflect on building a fairer world

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I KNOW for many of you this Christmas you will find it hard to be positive and celebrate when there is such economic uncertainty surrounding us.

Materialism and Mammon have been given a severe pasting. Consumerism has been found wanting and is no longer regarded as the ultimate good

We live in a country facing appalling economic devastation, and some economists have even used the other “D” word – “depression”. We have rising debt levels, rising unemployment levels and increased poverty. How bleak, on one level, the future looks.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “I am not an optimist, I am a prisoner of hope.” Whatever difficulties we face, we must never lose the Christian virtue of hope.

We have a God whose plans for us are for good and not for evil, and can turn our difficulties into opportunities for love and self-sacrifice. We should never forget that with God all things are possible. We must learn to raise the level of expectancy.

We all have a duty to support and care for others, through good times and bad. We also have a duty to strive for a better society that is fairer and more equal.

Let us work hard to be part of the transformation in our society, fighting injustice wherever it arises. Our personal misfortunes ought to spur us on to help change the unfairness around us.

Despite the bleakness and uncertainty, we should not give up trying to be a force for good.

The British are renowned as a nation of battlers, people who stand up for what they believe in and will never give up in the face of adversity. We should remember our history and unite in troubled times, and not crumble under the strain that economic and social pressures put us under.

When we look at an overcast sky, we should not forget that the sun is still there shining with full strength. It is simply temporarily hidden by the clouds. As people of goodwill, we may not be able to stop rain clouds from forming, but we can help by providing cover for people who are most exposed: the young, and older people.

My own charity, www.Acts435.org.uk, helps put people in need in touch with people that are generous and willing to help. It is too easy for some of us to say that nothing we do can ever make a difference.

Acts435 has shown that small acts of kindness can make the world of difference to people facing tough times – however we should not be relying only on charity alone to solve the problems society faces, we should be campaigning for justice in the structures that preserve and perpetuate unfairness.

Can it be right that public sector workers, and those who work in British industry, face losing their jobs when those high earners in the banking sector who helped cause the economic crisis not only keep their jobs but rake in massive bonuses?

Also, how can we have a situation where someone will suffer the devastation of unemployment while others in our society remain so overworked?

It’s not just a problem restricted to the job market. Look at the housing situation. Homelessness grows while estimates suggest that around a million homes are empty because they remain unlet or unsold – and this is without taking into account people who have second homes they rarely live in.

Young people and those on low incomes are effectively priced out of the housing market, and in many cases have no option but to pay high rents in the private sector because of a shortage of affordable housing.

We have created a situation where many people live in relative poverty, while others have far more than they can ever hope to spend. In fact, the divide between the wages of the rich and the poor is growing in nearly all of the world’s leading economies.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Surveys show that people do not feel that consumerism is necessarily a good thing, but they do it, knowing that it reduces time for more valuable things like time for friends, family and community. Let us not be a society that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Let us value the contribution that every individual can make, not only in the workplace, but also at home and in the public square.

While we hope and pray for change, it seems that in the meantime we must have hope and courage that a number of years with little or no economic growth can be turned into a time when we think creatively about how we could move towards a different kind of society.

I recently sponsored a Fairness Commission in York that looked at the importance of prioritising essential services to protect the most vulnerable at a time of cuts locally and nationally.

While there is no doubt that we need more sharing within our society, it is also clear that we need a more sustainable steady economy in which the emphasis is placed on greater equality, where all participate for the wellbeing of all.

Difficult choices have to be made, but people and justice must be at the centre of all decision-making in our country. When we forget the importance and worth of every single member of society, we have forgotten what it means to be human.

The same kind of thinking needs to extend outwards to the world’s resources. Whether we are looking at reducing carbon emissions (which are already having serious effects on the populations of poorer countries), or finding practical ways of helping those whose countries and economies were decimated by the global banking crisis coupled with bad governance, we need to tackle these issues together. We need to recognise that it is not a great burden for the rich to help the poor, it is in the interests of our global village to do so. More than that, it is a responsibility.

May the message of Christmas turn all our fears into hope; and heal us from our tendency to wallow in cynicism.

We must believe that change is possible. Let us all go out and make it happen. May the peace of Christmas be your gift.