The Widow’s Mite – an open letter to the British Prime Minister, Mr Cameron

Scene from the film "WInstanley"
Here, Mr Prime Minister, I want to take seriously something you said at a reception in Downing Street over Easter.  You quoted from the Gospel of Luke and spoke of “we” Christians saying:

“This is the time when, as Christians, we remember the life, sacrifice and living legacy of Christ. The New Testament tells us so much about the character of Jesus; a man of incomparable compassion, generosity, grace, humility and love. These are the values that Jesus embraced, and I believe these are values people of any faith, or no faith, can also share in, and admire. [. . .] It is values like these that make our country what it is – a place which is tolerant, generous and caring. A nation which has an established faith, that together is most content when we are defined by what we are for, rather than defined by what we are against. In the book of Luke, we are told that Jesus said, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ – advice that when followed makes for a happier, and better society for everyone.’“ 

With regard to the claimed marginalisation of Christianity in our contemporary culture you went on to add:

“I think there’s something of a fight-back going on, and we should welcome that. The values of the Bible, the values of Christianity, are the values that we need.”

I want to send your words back to you with a few thoughts about what you have just suggested might really mean because, make no mistake about it, any serious re-engagement with religion has serious consequences for you and for us, consequences that are both good and bad, positive and negative.

Let’s start with Bible from which you so freely quoted. It’s worth remembering here with some words of Ernst Bloch found in his powerful book Atheism in Christianity that:

‘There is only this point: that the Church and the Bible are not one and the same. The Bible has always been the Church’s bad conscience.’ [And although the Bible has often been used as a cattle prod to by the powerful] ‘the counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too, and that is why [the Bible] has always been suppressed or distorted, from the serpent on’ (Bloch, Ernst: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press, London 2009, p. 13).

With this unsettling thought in mind let’s turn to one of the readings set for this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary and which will be used in any of the churches you may choose to attend today (i.e. Sunday 15 April 2012):

“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. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).

And, from my own reading this week – I just happen to be reading Luke myself at the moment – there is the story of the widow’s mite:

“[Jesus] looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said [to the disciples], ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on’” (Luke 2:1-4 and Mark 12:41-44).

So, Mr Prime Minister, what are we to make of these values expressed by the Bible, these the values of Christianity? Are these really the values that you think we need? If so I rejoice for after the first Easter the Apostles speak of enlarging common ownership and they do not speak of privatising the things that we already own in common, things designed to contribute to the common good or to the common wealth. The Apostles are not recorded as looking around and saying to each other let’s take these things into our own hands and turn them to our own profit. They did not because the resurrection was for them in part about understanding the whole community as the risen body of Christ (see my sermon for last Sunday - Easter Sunday) in which, as Paul said, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28) and this pluralistic, multi-cultural, multi-faith and inclusive body was, naturally, to hold all things in common ownership for the good of all. Luke, also the author of Acts, tells us this meant that there “was not a needy person among them”. Now I do not doubt that this may not always have been one-hundred percent true to the facts on the ground but neither do I doubt the idealistic intention, passion, vision, values that were calling the Apostles to this new Easter way of being together in the world.

My own great hero in this nation’s struggle to live out such a Biblical and Christian vision is Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676). He was the leader of a radical religious movement during the English Revolution known as the Diggers who felt that the earth and its fruits were a “Common Treasury” for all.  In 1649, in protest at their poverty, they began to live and dig upon the common land of George’s Hill in Surrey. Today, this hill is a 964-acre private estate consisting of about 420 large houses, a golf course and a tennis club. It has become a very popular residential location for the wealthy where, as a cursory glance at any Estate Agent's website will reveal, houses nearly always go for over £3,000,000. Anyway, on that former piece of common ground Winstanley memorably asked:

“Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?” (Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness, 1649)

So, your words suggest to me that you are filled with the Biblical and Christian intent, passion and values of the Apostles and are, therefore, against the values of all covetous proud men and women who, then as now, live at ease whilst barning and bagging up treasures for themselves at the expense of the poor. If so then I applaud your words.

And what about the widow? When we read the text carefully we see something very, very telling. Luke tells us that Jesus noticed the rich gave out of their abundance (i.e. their excess) whilst the widow gave out of her poverty (i.e. her very substance). As the Good News Bible (the Bible of my Primary and Sunday School days) more clearly puts it: “the [rich] put in what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, put in all she had – she gave all she had to live on.”

And here I must turn to the phrase we hear you say often, namely, that “we are all in this together” and that, together, we must all help to refill the nation’s coffers.

You tell us that we must all do our bit and that’s fair enough – in a genuine commonwealth I would expect nothing else. But is this really a commonwealth and is this really happening? We are told, for example, that the rich will be able best to contribute to the common wealth by being given top rate tax breaks. The money they will gain from this will then be used to encourage entrepreneurship. Perhaps this is true and it will create much new work and wealth. I have my doubts but I will, today, take you at your word and that the wealthy will, thereby, contribute more to the national coffers. But notice, and notice well, that this is a contribution being made by the wealthy only out of their already considerable abundance and excess, an abundance and excess that is in many cases increasing even as the downturn continues.

The poor and not so poor, on the other hand, are being asked to do something quite different. They must contribute to the national coffers out of their substance and not out of their excess. Their contribution is being taken directly from their weekly wages – already in many cases less than a living wage – and also through tax increases such as VAT or the extra 20% on their hot pasty at lunch which was already for them a budget meal. Make no mistake about it, the poor’s giving is not coming from out of their abundance but from their poverty, their very substance. A poverty that is in so many cases increasing as the downturn continues.

The point I am making is not that the rich person, merely by dint of being rich, is bad, or that the poor person, merely by dint of being poor, is good but something far more structurally disturbing about our society which was expressed succinctly by the writer of 1 Timothy (6:7-11). He reminded us all that:

“. . . we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.”

You see it is the love of money that I see growing all around me that worries me so much. It is a love that all too easily distorts or suppresses what following Biblical and Christian values really entails and this encourages many, but I hope not you, to begin to turn the Biblical text and Christian values into a cattle prod to be used against the common people.

To be sure even the distorted form of love that is the love of money is one that believes in giving, and perhaps it does give a little, but it is never enough and, worst of all, it is a giving made within an economic system which ensures that the substance of the poor and vulnerable in our society continues slowly and painfully to be eaten away while the abundance and excess of the few continues to grow. Surely here we must not forget another Biblical and Christian claim, namely, that it is the poor who are blessed and it is they who will inherit the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20) . . .

So, you have told us that the values of the Bible, the values of Christianity, are the values that we need and, today, I will take you at your word. I will assume that you do wish to be a man of God and to shun all this greed and love of money and wish genuinely to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness so as to bless the poor.

I try to say all of this today without irony because we must always be ready to allow people the opportunity to repent and to turn around their lives, but today is not tomorrow and, as Luke also tells us Jesus said: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:43-44). Please remember, Mr Prime Minister, that our political and religious systems will be known by their fruits.