On 9th January this year the Prime Minister, Theresa May, launched her ambitious plan to create a ‘Shared Society’. She spoke of ‘fairness and solidarity’, ‘overcoming division’ and creating a ‘society that works for everyone.’ This isn’t a new concept however, back in 2010 David Cameron put forward the idea of a ‘Big Society’ and in 1997 Tony Blair spoke of wanting to create a ‘classless society.’ So why are we, seemingly constantly, struggling for a society which works better for the sake of it citizens but failing to bring it to fruition? As Theresa May so pointedly said in her speech on 9th January “There is more to life than individual self-interest.”
We live in a paradoxical time where many want the world to work for them, yet are not seemingly willing to work for the world. Society around us tells us we are worth it, we can have it now, or we can be whoever we want to be, not to mention the rhetoric which says ‘if it feels good do it’. With this being pushed at us every day shared society, a big society, a classless society might all seem to be pie in the sky thinking, but if we look back to how the early Christians came together to live we have an amazing example of how we can live to work for each other.
The book of Acts shows how a ‘shared society’ can work, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common … There was not a needy person among them.” Acts 4:32-34 (look up the All Saints Acts 435 initiative)
This is a bold approach to life, and I am not suggesting such a drastic move in property ownership should be rolled out in 21st century Britain, but we need to switch our thinking from ‘What can I get out of it?’ to ‘What can I put into it?’ When we live in a world of ‘individual self-interest’, asking how society is going to work for us without considering how we are going to work for society, we run the risk of elevating oneself to more important than the next person.
Yet if we are to believe the words of Jesus, he came to save the world. Jesus loves you, whether you realise that yet or not, but he also loves the whole world too. He loves you and wants you to prosper (in the fullness that can be) but he also loves the person down the street, the person in the big house with the ‘important big job’ and the lady on the street asking for food.
As Paul the Apostle wrote “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus came to level the playing field, to create the ‘Shared Society’, ‘Big Society’, ‘Classless Society’ yet 2000 years on we have still not got it right. There is still division, there is still injustice, there are still poor on our streets and people fleeing from war, because still we look at what we can get from life, society, the world rather than what we can give to it.
Adapting the words of 35th President of the United States of America I would encourage you,
“My fellow citizens of this world, ask not what your country/society/world can do for you, but what you can do for your country/society/world.”
Regarding Cornwall’s response to the growing concerns of rough sleepers and the homeless, here are my 10 conclusions.
1. Each person is a person.
Although terms like ‘the homeless’ are ok to use (within reason), it doesn’t mean that homeless people are a group. One encounter with a homeless person or rough sleeper will be very different from another; and for those people who need support, one solution will be appropriate for one and not another. The most compassionate response to any person in any kind of need is to relate to them as an individual, not as a project, group, label, or even, as a community outside of our own.
2. Out of sight, not out of mind.
Just because a rough sleeper is no longer seen under a blanket in front of Natwest Bank doesn’t mean that the problem for them has gone away. We may not see them, but the pain and the discomfort they experience may still be very present.
3. Don’t be motivated to help because you want an ‘in bloom’ award.
Your desire to help a rough sleeper shouldn’t be motivated by wanting to clean up your City’s image. Cleaning up your city or town starts with attitudes, not with more wheelie bins, and road sweepers. Don’t sweep anything under the carpet, you won’t build trust with anyone unless you engage with the cause of the issue.
4. Grace and compassion transforms lives.
Abuse and intimidation, antisocial and violent behaviour are never justified and should always be confronted; however, judgement without grace is useless, and punishment is never enough without compassion. Looking beyond the person’s actions to see what provokes and motivates is the first step of seeing real change – anything else is just a plaster on a wound.
5. Complexity is your friend.
Each case of homelessness is a complex blend of matters, given that each case is indeed a person, and people are… that’s right, complex! But this is a gift, not a hindrance. It means that we don’t make the mistake of thinking one size fits all, and it forces us to put ourselves in the shoes of the victim in any situation.
6. Listen, and then listen some more.
Remember that the map is not the territory. How you see a problem is not actually how it is – we learn what is needed by listening to those that we seek to help. Even if we have the emotional intelligence of Mother Teresa we still need to place ourselves in the shoes of the other, by really listening.
7. What problem?
It may be true that the problem you perceive, is not the problem that needs fixing, in fact it may not even be a problem. The issue with the word homeless is that it presupposes the idea that these people need homes. They do need homes but not in the way some might think.
8. Home is where the heart is.
Home might simply mean somewhere not wet and not cold, or where the people around them talk to them as human beings, instead of looking down on them, or even worse pity them. Home may well be more to do with the faces they see around them rather than the fabric that protects them.
9. The equivalent of a patronising tilt of the head.
Go beyond the frown or side head tilt, and smile. Instead of buying one copy of the Big Issue, buy 10. Instead of giving coins, buy a meal and sit on a park bench and eat together. Be over generous, rather than tokenistic. When you choose to respond, make it a surprise and a symbol of real generosity. Remember generosity is far more likely to change a situation than correcting, reproving or punishing will.
10. Find out for yourself.
Take everything I have said and then forget it. It may not be true – it is only what I think, and I am no expert. Find out for yourself, and listen to others who have opinions too. Especially those who are committed to resolving the issues you care about i.e. Councillors, Mayors, the Police, your MP, THAG, St Petroc’s, your church leader and anyone else who cares for that matter. These people are the best people to talk to because, like you, they do care.
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.