"Feed My Sheep": At some point in just about every Sunday service, Christian congregations recite the Lord’s Prayer. God’s will, they affirm, is to be done “on Earth, as it is in Heaven”. In short, Christianity has always been about much more than mere personal salvation. The gospel of the carpenter from Nazareth has to be applied. Accepting the universal obligation to care for our fellow human-beings has become a lot harder in Neoliberal 2017 than it was in Christian Socialist 1938.
WHEN THE NATIONAL PARTY dismissed the Labour Prime Minister’s social welfare legislation as “applied lunacy”, his response was crushing. Michael Joseph Savage simply informed the House of Representatives that his preferred description of Labour’s Social Security Bill was “applied Christianity”.
In the ears of young, twenty-first century New Zealanders, Savage’s riposte must sound rather quaint. In 2017, New Zealand’s “mainstream” Christian denominations are, with the notable exception of the Catholic Church, advancing towards their respective graves on a collection of wobbly Zimmer Frames. Meanwhile, in those few churches still able to attract a youthful following, the theology being preached elevates faith above works with fundamentalist certitude. To the lost and the disappointed, salvation is presented as the permanent pay-off of their personal surrender to the Almighty. Neither version strikes much of a chord with New Zealand’s millennial generation.
Ah, but 80 years ago, it was a very different story!
Every Sunday the churches were full, and their lofty interiors rang to the sound of heartily sung hymns. Little children went to Sunday School and their older brothers and sisters to Bible Class. People said their prayers and, in the midst of the greatest economic depression the world had so far experienced, pondered the meaning of Matthew 9:24, where Jesus says: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
And that kingdom was about something much more engaging than “pie in the sky when you die”. At some point in just about every Sunday service, Christian congregations recited the Lord’s Prayer. God’s will, they knew, was to be done “on Earth, as it is in heaven”. In short, Christianity was about more than mere personal salvation. The gospel of the carpenter from Nazareth had to be applied.
Mickey Savage’s sound-bite possessed divinely sharpened teeth!
That he said nothing more about National’s “applied lunacy” quip was because it said so much for itself. It drew the voters’ attention to the desiccated economic rationalism of the laissez-faire capitalism from which the National Party sprang – and to which it was irrevocably dedicated.
Giving the taxpayers’ hard-earned cash to the shiftless and the idle would always be lunacy. Without the goad of poverty to drive them back to the shop door and factory gate, what was to prevent the poor and needy from becoming a vast underclass of worthless spongers permanently subsidised from the public purse? Christian charity (an expression which has always stuck in the throat of the rich and the powerful) should be reserved for the “deserving” poor only. And their eligibility must always be subject to proof.
If this gospel resonates more loudly in the ears of contemporary Kiwis, it’s because it’s the gospel we have heard preached every day for the last 30 years. Indeed, so pervasive has it become that the Labour Party of 2017 would strongly counsel its leader against veering “off-message” and into the political long-grass of religious expression.
A government uneasy about reciting a parliamentary prayer in which God and Jesus still rate a mention is likely to become entirely unhinged by even those most oblique references to camels, needles and (shhh!) rich men.
And yet, as the report released just a few days ago by the Child Poverty Action Group makes agonisingly clear, the need for some “applied Christianity” is as strong today as it was in the 1930s. “Further Fraying of The Welfare Safety Net”, penned by Dr Gerard Cotterell, Associate Professor Susan St John and Dr M. Claire Dale offers a grim picture of what happens when a nation succumbs to the “applied lunacy” of free-market economics.
Mickey Savage, were he able to read the following words from the Report’s conclusion would shake his head in disbelief and wonder where it all went wrong:
“New Zealand’s traditional safety net, once described as “cradle to grave”, is failing to support the many families who need it most. There has been a subtle process over three decades in which New Zealand has lost sight of the original intentions of the welfare state. This has allowed a gradual unravelling to proceed regardless of which major political party has been in power.”
I suspect he would conclude that when the religious obligation to do God’s will “on Earth, as it is in Heaven” fades away to the point where it’s regarded as a quaint relic from the distant past; then the democratic-socialist injunction, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, is likely to follow hard upon its heels.
When caritas – the Christian love of humankind – withers and dies, then the fashioning of public policy on any other grounds than those of naked self-interest becomes politically suicidal.
The behaviour not of a saint, but a lunatic.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 December 2017.