Guest blogger Ruth Wilde works as Faith in Action Project Worker for the Student Christian Movement, as well as working freelance for Christian Peacemaker Teams UK. In her spare time, Ruth studies Theology at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. This post originally appeared on the blog of the William Temple Foundation.
Director Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake has already won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival and is causing waves in the media. The film is a fictional account of a carpenter who is unable to work due to an accident and follows his struggles with the benefits system, which eventually leads to the humiliation of his family needing to use a local foodbank.
It has caused certain parts of the right-wing press to claim that the film is ‘misery porn for smug Londoners’ and that it ‘doesn’t ring true’, but the facts and figures, and the stories from countless disabled people and their families, say otherwise. I, Daniel Blake has hit a nerve, precisely because it is so close to the truth, and some people prefer to close their eyes to that truth. It is a human response: if we deny that a problem exists, we don’t have to feel guilty or do anything about it.
But it does exist. The number of people living in poverty in this country has increased massively in the past decade. There are now 500,000 people a year dependent on foodbanks, and one of the most common reasons for foodbank use is benefit sanctions, often for the smallest of infractions. There are two million people in the UK who are considered to be malnourished and a further three million are close to being so. The hunger situation is spiralling out of control and the government desperately needs to stop ignoring the issue.
This is why a coalition of large and not so large charities – the Trussell Trust, Oxfam, FareShare, Sustain, the Student Christian Movement and others – have joined the End Hunger UK campaignspearheaded by Church Action on Poverty encouraging people to ask the government to sit up and listen, admit that there is a problem and take concrete action to resolve it. The first task of End Hunger UK is to conduct a ‘Big Conversation’ throughout the country. You can get involved by writing your answer to the question ‘What does our government need to do to End Hunger in the UK?’ on a paper plate, tweeting a photo of your plate with the hashtag #EndHungerUK and sending the plate to your MP. You can also do this on a larger scale by hosting a Big Conversation in your church. Click here for more information and to download everything you need.
Having volunteered at a food bank I fully understand why Church Action on Poverty is mobilising the network of thousands of volunteers in food banks across the country: if you aren’t politically engaged when you start volunteering, after speaking to even a few people coming into the foodbank to collect a parcel, you become so.
Any person of goodwill cannot fail to be moved by the stories of people who use foodbanks and struggle with debts and endless bills, often working full-time but on such a low wage that they can’t make ends meet. Our country is the seventh richest in the world, and we signed ‘a binding commitment under international human rights law’ in 1976 ‘to secure the human right to adequate food for everyone’. There is no excuse for the number of people who are homeless, malnourished and in precarious financial situations in this country.
As a Christian, I am compelled by my faith to care about those living on the margins of society, with no way of knowing whether they will be able to eat from one day to the next. The injustice of the divide between rich and poor is a topic which is brought up throughout the Bible. Money is mentioned 800 times; more than anything else. Unlike other issues which the church often fixates on (marriage and gay relationships come to mind), poverty is a major thread in the Bible: we cannot ignore it and pretend it doesn’t matter.
I have recently been studying John’s Gospel as part of my Graduate Diploma in Theology at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. In chapter 21 (vv. 16-17), Jesus asks Simon Peter three times over if he loves him, and an increasingly exasperated Peter replies that of course he does. Jesus’ command in response to this is ‘Feed my sheep’. When something is repeated three times in the gospels, it is significant: we need to pay attention. Other important moments where the number is meaningful are the cock crowing three times as Peter disowns Jesus and Jesus rising on the third day.
When Jesus says ‘Feed my sheep’, he is not only saying this to Peter; he is saying it to all of his disciples, and this means us too. If we love Jesus, we must feed his sheep spiritually, emotionally and physically. In practical terms, living in the UK now, this means not only feeding people by handing out food parcels: it means looking into the reasons why people are forced to come ‘begging’ (as they see it) for food parcels in the first place, and trying to change the way things are. It means speaking out and demanding that the government acts. This is why I urge you to back the End Hunger UK campaign and come out in solidarity with the one in five people who now live below the UK’s official poverty line. As the activist Chris Rose says, ‘Normal politics is the art of the possible. Campaigning is the art of the impossible’.