Eurogoblin today reported that the three Presidents of the EU – Council President Van Rompuy, Commission President Barroso and Parliament President Buzek met with religious leaders from across Europe to discuss poverty and social inclusion.
What’s faith got to do with poverty and social exclusion?
While it is possible to argue that it should be the duty of all to mitigate against poverty and social exclusion, we have a choice.
Either, we say that the state should provide and by means of “fairer” or “progressive” taxation that can be spent for the good of all.
Or we say that the Big Society will provide, because as responsible citizens we should rail against and commit ourselves to the fight against poverty and social exclusion.
In most Member States the reality is somewhere between the two – the state takes some tax from us in the name of that purpose, but as it is not hypothecated we’ve no idea what percentage actually goes on these projects locally, regionally, nationally. All we do know is that a huge number of people are homeless or do not feel themselves to be part of the wider community.
And the reality is that it is often faith groups that step into the breech.
Let me give you a small and very parochial example.
I’ve spent today at the Rare Breeds Centre – a kind of farm zoo and current home of the Tamworth Two.
This was the Ashford Baptist Church toddler group outing. Some anonymous donations via the church and lift-sharing arranged by the ladies from the church who run the toddler group made it possible for a big group of us to go out for the day, with our packed lunches and have fun playing at the farm without having to pay for anything.
Now this may not sound like much, but the majority of people there don’t have holidays, don’t go for days out because incomes are low and costs when several children are involved just aren’t compatible.
In fact, most of the toddler groups in Ashford town centre are run by faith groups – not religious, in that we don’t require membership of a church to attend and we don’t “spout religion” at people who come.
But we do use the church hall, the organisers tend to be from one church or another and the children’s holiday club which is based around bible stories is advertised. There’s no obligation to attend that either. I don’t actually attend the church that runs this toddler group but I do approve of its open, inclusive approach and that it genuinely welcomes everyone, of all faiths and none.
There is a non-religious Sure Start centre, and a toddler group was started that declared that it was “an alternative to all the church-based play groups” but I can no longer find any details about it online. The situation is a little different for play schools for pre-schoolers, not least because 12-15 hours worth of state funding is available.
That’s not to mention the soup kitchens, the event organisation, the small but helpful charitable efforts that almost go unnoticed generally but help to keep heads above water.
So in these ways, we try to help with the physical needs of those around us. Jesus commands us to this - give him that asks of us our coats our shirts also. There’s no sin in being poor – although the comments about workhouses etc. on the government’s spending cuts website suggests that some people today feel there should be.
Jesus also spends a lot of the sermon on the mount talking about the poor being blessed, the meek inheriting the Earth, everybody selling their possessions, and rich men having less than a camel-through-a-needle’s chance of entering Heaven… Oh and for more on “the poor will always be with you”, see this link.
But surely it’s not just Christians that do this?
Of course not. It is just noticably Christian-dominated around here – one of the things we noticed on moving here was the huge number of churches. I’m sure in other areas of the country there are thriving synagogue toddler groups, muslim women’s get-togethers and more.
I know that charitable works are a requirement of some faiths, and that performing them is not only good for the individual but also good for the community.
But please don’t think that Christians do these things in some kind of effort to earn their place in heaven. If you read the Bible, we don’t have seven things we have to do to (nor do we have to follow the rules of the old covenant in Leviticus), that just not the Christian position.
While some parts of the church have attempted to create structures and rules to make it easier to understand actually reading the New Testament shows how hard Jesus and the early Christians worked to say – no, that’s not ever going to be enough, God forgives you, accept it and that’s it.
And so when it comes to charity, we do these things because God himself has paid the price for the sins we have commited and we want to praise him and make his world a bit better. going to church reminds us of this, because just like everyone else we find it hard to find time and hard to feel motivated all the time.
But you don’t have to be a person of faith to do this?
Of course not. Humanism is after all placing the human at the centre where others place God. But it is humankind and not the self that needs to be the centre.
And if it is hard to feel motivated without external help as a person of faith, imagine the sheer bloody self-motivation required to do it without and keep it on track and not self-serving. It would take a stronger person than me to do that.
Is there a place for faith in the EU?
But I digress.
Does religion have a place in the EU? Indubitably.
Look at the fuss about the Constitutional Treaty and whether there should be a reference to religion within it.
One religion? It is indisputable that the present Europe was shaped by the Christian faith, Catholic and Protestant, and also by the enlightenment and the freedom to question (itself part of the true nature of protestantism) from which modern atheism takes its roots.
But even as a practicing Christian I’m still not sure that the Constitutional Treaty should have had a reference to this (and at the end, the Lisbon Treaty doesn’t).
I don’t think that we can always claim that all decisions taken in a state can truly reflect the ethos on which the state evolved. To claim that we do everything in the EU on the basis of our faith/ faiths is to deny the nature of compromise by which decision-making to cover many conflicting and competing interests take place. While it’d be great to think that all the politicians and policymakers were doing as Mark Greene suggests and remembering in their work that they are a “might policymaker for God”, I’m pretty clear that the UK expenses scandal shows that it is all too easy to forget how to do the right thing.
But the future of Europe looks multifaith rather than secular.
For all that we might try to draft rules of public engagement that exclude religion, that we might ban people in public office from actually mentioning the thing that shapes, inspires and drives them, most people across the EU have some sort of belief.
This may be in something ranging from “spirituality” and the supernatural, through humanism to the deification of science or money, to agnosticism, deism, right through to following an established faith.
Human beings bend at the knee. This is not a design flaw.
How on earth can we expect decent policymaking if asking people to deny their fundamental belief systems?
And that brings me to the burka question…
Should women in the EU wear the niqab or the burka?
This is a European question in the sense that it is currently being asked all over Europe.
As Eurogoblin pointed out, the recent burqa ban overwhelmingly passed by the French parliament last week (335 votes to 1).
The Belgian lower house voted on a ban in April 2010 (note the handy BBC guide to different veils.
The Dutch were debating this as far back as 2006.
The Spanish parliament is also likely to start debating their own burqa ban this week.
And the UK? Immigration Minister Damian Green has said that any ban on religious clothing would be awfully “un-British”. And he’s right.
Freedom of the individual is a very British concept and the idea that a woman might be fined as in the Netherlands for wearing something expressing their religion is distasteful.
I’m not sure I’d want to live in a UK that imposed on me whether or not I could wear a sign of my faith outwardly, and if this is a move away from the mealy mouthed illiberalism that clamped down on it through uniform policy, sudden changes to health and safety policy and statements from the NSS.
Besides, have you been to the West End in London? This particular Nation of Shopkeepers could find itself hit in the profits if rich middle eatern visitors could not dress as the wish to shop.
So there’s no common approach.
Is the burka ban a European issue? It seems Vivianne Reding thinks not – I hear that when asked about it, she said that this was an issue for national governments and not something that she would touch with a bargepole.
But as the Commissioner for women and equality (and fundamental rights, and justice), Commissioner Reding also needs to think about the burka as a feminist issue.
And that’s a dilemma.
On the one hand, equal rights means the right not to be subjected to men’s control, nor objectified. Women should be able to work – or not to work – as much as they like, and so should men. They should be able to dress as they want to dress…
Because what if a woman want to celebrate her faith and her devotion to her God by wearing a headscarf, a veil, a chador, burka, hijab, niqab etc. ?
What if she’s not being oppressed into it by bullying male members of her family or her husband but has chosen freely and in full knowledge of the implications of what she is doing both religious and worldly to separate herself from the world?
Surely fighting for a woman’s right to self-determinism extends to her right to cover up if she wishes too?
So these are hugely tricky issues. But we don’t live in the lyrics of “Imagine”, we live in the real world in all its messy, diverse glory.
God inspired, uplifts and makes us more than we can be by ourselves. Europe needs that to flourish, no matter what flavour that inspiration is.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.