Prime Minister David Cameron has written about his Christian faith and his belief in the UK as a Christian country. There has been much public debate in the Press, on the airwaves and the Twittersphere has been on fire.
Tony Blair’s former media guru Alastair Campbell famously once said “we don’t do God”, yet it seems Mr Cameron does, and he is quite open about it. Some commentators think this is a cynical ploy by a Tory leader anxious about the rise in support for Ukip, and an attempt to shore up support from Christians upset about his support for same-sex marriage.
Yet I believe the Prime Minister was entirely sincere and honest in what he wrote. I know he attends church and I believe him when he says his faith has been really important to him.
At a recent reception for Christian leaders, he talked about how his faith sustained him after his son Ivan’s death and how he had felt the healing power of faith at first hand.
As CEO of Church Army, a national Christian charity leading a team of hundreds of amazing people serving the homeless, the poor, those in debt or battling addictions, I am encouraged Mr Cameron believes the Christian faith drives some of the “most inspiring social-action projects in our country – our faith-based organisations play a fundamental role in our society. So, in being confident about our Christianity, we should also be ambitious in supporting faith-based organisations to do even more”.
While I accept Mr Cameron’s sincerity, I struggle to see how this faith works itself out in some of the policies of the Government he leads. Earlier this month, more than 600 clergy and 42 Anglican bishops signed an open letter about the hunger crisis in this country.
The Trussell Trust reported a 163 per cent rise in the use of food banks during the past year, with more than 900,000 food parcels given to the hungry.
My Church Army colleagues run food banks all over the UK and they tell me about the tears, the pain and the humiliation people feel having to admit they need a handout to feed their children.
Of course, we have to ask how many more people are starving in their homes and are too afraid and too embarrassed to use a food bank.
As people go hungry, we are seeing rickets emerge, a disease we defeated after the Victorian era.
Families are driven to food banks because they have too much month at the end of their money, because they can’t afford rising food costs, energy costs and the cost of living crisis.
Oxfam reports this week that 1.75 million families are paying more through a perfect storm of benefit reforms, the bedroom tax, the benefits cap and ending subsidised council tax payments for the poorest people.
More than 80 per cent of those using food banks say benefit reforms and delays in benefit payment have reduced them to starvation. My colleagues tell me any change of personal circumstance means an instant stop to benefits. This plunges people into poverty. It simply won’t do when Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, totally dismisses the clear evidence from food bank volunteers up and down the land when he says increased use of food banks has nothing to do with benefit changes. The firm evidence is that there is a direct link between his Government’s reforms and the use of food banks.
Jesus Christ himself is clear: we judge faith not by eloquently spoken words, beautiful buildings, or fine liturgy. Jesus tells us in Matthew 25, we judge faith by how we treat the least in the world around us.
Caring for the poorest and most vulnerable is the litmus test of faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
In Matthew 25, Jesus reverses the logic of the world. Jesus says: “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was homeless, I was shivering, sick and in prison, whenever you failed to help someone overlooked and ignored, you failed to do it to me.”
As Mother Teresa put it beautifully, the poor “are Jesus in disguise”. Christian people across the land understand Matthew 25 and it is they who are often the glue holding communities together, simply with the power of their service and love. Like my Church Army colleagues Richard and Neil working in Selby, or Kinder and Maureen working in Sheffield, or Andy, Damien and James working in Bradford.
So when the Prime Minister writes of his “faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives”, I don’t question his sincerity, but I do want to ask him about the 900,000 food bank parcels, I want to ask about those who cannot afford to heat their homes, or the disabled people penalised by the bedroom tax. I want to ask him about the poorest people hit by the welfare cap, the million young people unemployed, the millions earning below a living wage, or those trapped in insecurity by zero hours contracts. The Prime Minister says he wants to make work pay, yet far more taxpayer pounds are spent subsidising low pay than helping those out of work.
Christianity at its heart is a message of hope and Christians across Yorkshire will continue to serve their communities, working with people of all faiths and none, to bring hope to those in need and campaign for a better, fairer Britain.
• Mark Russell is chief executive of Church Army and represents Yorkshire and Humber on the Executive Committee of Christians on the Left. He writes in a personal capacity. (@markrusselluk)