David Barclay blogs about the kind of change we can believe in…
We’ve become pretty immune to manifestos these days. I wonder how many people read any of the Parties’ manifestos before the General Election last year, let alone how many can remember what they said. Ed Miliband even carved half of his manifesto into a giant stone and people still didn’t take it seriously!
However if we’ve become jaded, we’d do well not to laugh off Jesus’ manifesto – in Luke 4. Fresh from his baptism and his time in the desert, having had 30 years to consider what his ministry might look like, Jesus chooses to kick it all off by making Isaiah’s words his own – “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
The remarkable thing about this manifesto is its breadth. This is no esoteric, spiritualised ambition. This is not ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to take away people’s sins so that they can have a better personal relationship with God and get to Heaven.’ It’s much, much bigger than that. This is a promise of the full restoration of a broken world, the turning back the right way up of all the ways in which our planet seems upside down. It’s spiritual, yes, but it’s also physical. It’s material. It’s political. It’s even economic, as ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ is a reference to the Old Testament practice of ‘Jubilee’ in which debts were forgiven and property restored to its original ownership. Jesus is announcing that something is happening, in him, which is going to change everything.
So this was Jesus’ mission. Therefore it remains our mission – but of course the question is how we should go about it. When the problems in our community are so multi-faceted and so huge, where do we even start? We’ve got a great example in the Old Testament story of Nehemiah, and particularly in Chapter 5. Here we read about the desperate poverty many of the Israelites were facing in Jerusalem – struggling to put food on the table, getting into debt and being forced to mortgage their properties and even their children just to make ends meet.
The first thing to notice about how Nehemiah responds to these huge challenges is that he starts by listening. He is willing and able to hear the real issues facing his neighbours, which suggests that he is working from a basis of relationship and trust that enables people to open up to him about what is really going on. That’s a great place for us to start too, by asking ourselves whether we’re really in relationships of trust with those in our community outside our Church. If we’re not, the first task is surely to create the time and the spaces which might enable these relationships to be built, so that any action we take can be based on the reality of people’s lives.
The next point of interest about Nehemiah is the way he identifies a ‘winnable issue’. He doesn’t simply parrot back the many problems that people present him with, but instead he digs underneath these problems to the central issue of the nobles lending the people money at excessive interest. Suddenly we’ve moved from a catalogue of unsolvable misery to a concrete and eminently fixable problem. This skill of digging into the often large and amorphous issues facing our communities in order to find tangible and winnable targets for action is one that we’d do well to practice today.
Finally, Nehemiah’s response combines both mercy and justice. In what is almost a throwaway comment he notes that he has already been lending people money and grain at zero interest, using his own personal resources to meet people’s immediate needs. And of course we can do the same today, through Foodbanks, homeless shelters, debt advice centre etc. But unlike many churches, Nehemiah’s response doesn’t stop with charitable acts of mercy. He sees an injustice, and he calls it out and puts it right. In doing so, he’s not afraid to name and shame the most powerful people in his society, the nobles, and to put them on the spot for the real life impact of their actions.
This has been our inspiration in the Living Wage campaign, the battle to put a cap on the cost of credit and now our fight to get churches involved in helping to solve the housing crisis. Turning these ‘manifesto commitments’ into realities for all in our communities is what we’re about.