Straight talking on social justice

Religious commitment is a powerful inspiration to act for social justice, writes Andrew Bradstock, of Dunedin. Today, the Salvation Army releases its 2012 "state of the nation" report.

Called The Growing Divide, the report will be launched in four locations, with the Dunedin event hosted by the University of Otago Centre for Theology and Public Issues. Last year, the university signed a "memorandum of understanding" with the Salvation Army, and today's event demonstrates the developing relationship between the two bodies.

Now in their fifth year, these Salvation Army reports present an overview of New Zealand society, focusing on children's health and wellbeing; work and income; housing; crime and punishment; and "social hazards" like alcohol, drug use and gambling. This year's report examines the key indicators of the growing inequality in our nation.

Drawing upon professional research, and the Salvation Army's experience of working at the "chalk face" on the issues they cover, these "state of the nation" reports pull no punches when it comes to telling how things are.

Because it is non-party political, the Salvation Army engages in straight-talking, regardless of who is in power. Its first report in 2008, the last year Labour was in office, noted a lack of progress with respect to key areas like crime, imprisonment and the number of children living at risk of harm. Subsequent reports have noted a lack of focus on young and disadvantaged people under National. A recurring feature of these reports is a call to refocus our social priorities. Last year's report noted that we had "stalled" in terms of tackling problems such as "unaffordable housing, alcohol-fuelled family violence, child poverty and youth disaffection", yet argued that we could, as a country, do something about them. It is all about what we consider important and what we do not, the report said.

As the director of the Army's Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit, Major Campbell Roberts, said at the launch of last year's report, "There has been sufficient money to bail out the investors of failed finance companies, provide tax relief for the highest earners and fund new prisons, but the message seems to be that we don't have the funds or the will to solve or at least mitigate our most pressing social problems." Of course governments needed to be "fiscally responsible" in the wake of the recession, Major Roberts said, but that did not mean ignoring "the long-term social and financial costs of letting a large proportion of the nation languish and suffer".

The striking thing about the Salvation Army's approach, evident in these reports and other material it produces on specific issues, is a willingness to look beyond the symptoms of social problems to their causes.

Like a number of other religious and non-religious organisations, they are the embodiment of Martin Luther King's observation that, while we are called to be Good Samaritans, after we lift so many people out of the ditch we start to wonder whether the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved.

So, in its 2011 report, the Army criticised both Labour and National for simply "deal[ing] pragmatically with the problems of the day without really ever addressing the underlying causes of these problems".

It is often said that religious faith is irrelevant in the 21st century, but the commitment of groups like the Salvation Army to speak from their grass-roots engagement with communities, backing up their claims with statistical evidence, puts the lie to that. The Salvation Army may be the best-known "faith-based" organisation committed to a more just society, but it is hardly the only one.

Not that religious commitment is the only inspiration to act for social justice, of course, but it is a powerful one. For Christians, the call in the Bible for communities to practise justice, with a particular focus on the most vulnerable and marginalised, has proved a compelling trigger for selfless action and commitment.

A desire to take seriously the injunction to "love your neighbour", to make real the practical commitment of Jesus that all should enjoy "life to the full" (John 10.10), has inspired countless Christians to seek the material, economic and spiritual wellbeing of people through the centuries.

And many have discovered that doing that effectively involves not just fishing people out of the river, but going upstream to find out who is pushing them in. It will always be for democratically elected politicians to decide social policy, but when their decisions have a detrimental effect on people and communities, those trying to pick up the pieces have a responsibility to challenge those decisions and call for fresh thinking and new vision. And the reputation it has built up over more than 100 years means that the Salvation Army is listened to.

That is why the release of its "state of the nation" report today is so important. I hope it will be read by all with the responsibility to lead us at this time, facing as we do such serious challenges in areas like child poverty, family violence and drug and alcohol abuse.

More importantly, I hope it will lead to some serious "repaving work" on our equivalents here of the Jericho road.

Andrew Bradstock is Howard Paterson professor of theology and public issues at the University of Otago and director of the University's Centre for Theology and Public Issues.


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