It could be logical to assume that belief in God, life after death or anything supernatural would lead to people who are less committed to issues in the here and now. Surely ‘pie in the sky when you die’ displaces a concern for ‘steak on your plate while you wait’?
But actually, it is extraordinary how many movements for social change have been sparked by churches and people of faith.
At the moment, I am re-reading Blood and Fire, Roy Hattersley’s biography of William and Catherine Booth, the founders of the Salvation Army.
Probably no movement more obviously represents faith-fuelled social activism. But there are plenty of others.
Last weekend, I was at the national UK assembly of the Emmaus movement who have 30 communities in which formerly homeless people live and work. They were founded by an inspirational Catholic priest Abbe Pierre.
Yesterday, I was at New Hope, a fantastic Christian organisation based in Watford, who run emergency accommodation, outreach and day services for people affected by homelessness.
And today I was at a Night Shelter conference hosted by the Christian network Housing Justice. There was over 130 others, largely from church-based night shelters and faith-based charities, passionately debating the future of the emergency accommodation they run.
And its not just homelessness and night shelters. Food banks, youth centres, debt advice, rehab services, lunch clubs and befriending schemes all continue to emerge from the church. I remember an local atheist friend complaining to me a few years ago:
‘It does my head in that all the best things around here are run by churches’
No one sensible would claim that people of faith have any monopoly on good work. And actually many of the volunteers and staff of church-based and Christian projects often come from a wide range of perspectives.
Also we cannot ignore the negative ways that faith has been expressed throughout time.
An illustration of this is in the musical Oliver! where the orphans are treated appallingly and half-starved while the Governors of the workhouse feast on lavish food. But all the while a big sign on the wall proclaims ‘God is Love’.
Being honest about the role of faith also means facing up to the hypocrisies of religion.
Attending these events this week got me thinking about the specific factors why faith in God has led to the foundation of so much work for social welfare and justice?
These are 4 reasons:
Faith provides conviction about human worth. Christians believe that each and every person is made in God’s image and that redemption is available for all. This is the rich soil of conviction in which the seeds of social activism grow.
Faith provides a catalyst for action. Authentic faith is never just cerebral, it demands to be put into practice. ‘Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Put it into practice.’ (James 1:22)
Faith provides a community of volunteers. The Christian faith is not a solo activity, it involves forming communities of public worship and collective action. The church has buildings, people and funds which are able to resource activity.
Faith provides a commitment which underpins the work. Belief in God’s grace has power to motivate people off their sofas, out of their houses and giving their time for free. This is the engine which drives Christian community projects.
But having said all that, there are countless organisations who have abandoned their Christian ethos, or who teeter on the brink of doing so.
In many social action projects there is a nervousness about faith. Senior staff and trustees worry about ‘sounding judgemental’ or worry that funders ‘would not like us being too overt’.
Fruits and roots
The fruits of social action are attractive. They are seen by most people as tangible, generous and inclusive.
But the roots of belief, from which these fruits grow, are far less popular. The beliefs are often seen as inexplicable, restrictive and exclusive.
The necessary and organic link between the fruit and the roots are frequently overlooked. Faith easily becomes an awkward ‘elephant in the room’: influential but unnamed. And it leads to many organisations quietly discarding their Christian ethos like clothes that don’t quite fit anymore.
Two further ‘C’s
Therefore, I belief two further C’s are needed in faith-based social action:
Firstly, social action projects need creativity in how faith is applied and communicated. A Christian ethos will not survive if staff and trustees are complacent or lazy. It requires new and innovative thinking so it can dovetail with the frontline work in non-coercive and appropriate ways.
Secondly, Christian projects need confidence in the relevance of the gospel message. The ‘good news’ at the core of the Christian faith is more than motivational fuel for activism, it is incredibly relevant to those who lack hope. We need to renew our confidence in its relevance and explore ways for it to connect meaningfully to those we serve.