Friday, 4 April 2014


Today I am hungry. I am hungry by choice.

Around me, thousands have not made that choice. But they are hungry too. And probably not just today.

The statistics are, in one of the richest countries in the world, quite frankly, shameful. Half a million people visited foodbanks last year and all the indicators suggest the figures are continuing to rise. Over 5000 people were admitted to hospital last year suffering from malnutrition and 17% of British children live in poverty.

Since the beginning of Lent, and a bit before, I have been involved in the End Hunger Fast campaign. At its heart is a call to take seriously the faithful spiritual discipline of fasting; and to link it to a political campaign for change. To fast as a prayer, yes, but also to fast as an act of non-violent direct action against a system which has abandoned some of the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable in society.

One of the things I have become acutely aware of through my involvement in this campaign, even more so than I was before, is just how insidious is the temptation to blame those at the bottom of the heap. In a society that has become obsessed with personal, individual gain: we are taught to assume that our personal gain is being hampered by whoever is standing on the next rung down of the ladder. The rhetoric from both our media and our government is designed to keep us believing that it is the poor, the sick, the foreigners who are keeping us trapped in poverty and debt.

Huge resources are poured into recouping the estimated £2 billion lost through benefit fraud (which includes the inadverted fraud of dealing with a complicated system). And of course making sure we know all about the small number of cases of deliberate abuse. Far more than the resources directed towards clawing back the estimated £32 billion lost through tax avoidance and evasion (the government's own figures - many campaigners would put the figure far higher)

It is very easy to demonise the poor: they are the least likely to have the resources or skills or opportunities to express a different version of their story. "It is all their own fault", "they could just work harder", "they're all playing the system anyway", "well they don't exactly look like they're hungry", "I managed to pull myself up by my bootstraps so they should too", "if you help it will just make them dependent"...

And why is this myth not robustly and routinely dispelled? Because while we are busy looking down at how much it costs to support those below us, we are not turning round and looking up. And because we are looking the wrong way we some how carry on believing, even though it doesn't make any sense, that we are oppressed by those from below. Oppression never works like that. We are never oppressed by the poor, the weak, the vulnerable.

Yet while it is easy to find those ready to quickly repeat half-truths to condemn those beneath them, the End Hunger Fast campaign has proved how challenging it is to build a mass movement of people willing to start turning their gaze and looking upwards instead. I fear for a society so downtrodden, that it cannot raise its eyes to see that poverty, injustice and inequality in one of the world's richest nations are not caused by those at the bottom, but by those clinging determinedly to their place at the top of the pile.

It is time to start looking up. Looking up at a system, not to idolise it, but to recognise its flaws and the oppression inherent within it. Looking up at those with power and influence and wealth, not with a desire to emulate what they are and have, but in order to challenge an injustice which doesn't not have to endure.

We need to end the scandal of hunger. But probably even more, we need to speak as prophets of justice to end the stranglehold which keeps our eyes turned to the dust, as messengers of hope to encourage those around us to start looking up, inspired and believing that we can change our world for the better. I hope this campaign is doing a little bit of both.

1 comment: