The UK government have been warned that their economic policy favours the rich. The IMF are not divine, says George Pitcher, but their words witness to gospel values
It’s a tempting notion to think that prime minister Liz Truss and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, are deliberately throwing it: they know the next general election is lost, and they’ve decided it’s better to go into opposition with an ‘authentic’ version of radical Conservatism than fight and lose on compromise.
Honestly, how else do we explain the electoral suicide of tax cuts for the richest at a moment of the most serious economic crisis? Not only does it seem to have incited the resurgence of Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party, but the censure of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which isn’t usually given to officious intervention in the economies of developed nations.
A hill to die on
On this reading, ‘Trussonomics’ could be understood as a form of religious fundamentalism. In The Battle for God (Ballantine Books), religious intellectual and former nun, Karen Armstrong, traces the history of fundamentalism in the three Abramic faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Her conclusion? They grow when their established cultures are threatened.
God isn’t much interested in money but he cares what we do with it
Turning in on themselves, they radicalise the central tenets of their faith and weaponise them in resistance to those they perceive to be threatening it. Fundamentalism develops into an act of self-destruction. And we’ve seen often enough how it can, literally and violently, be suicidal in a theocratic context.
So, in this metaphorical comparison, this is the path on which today’s Conservative party has set itself. Better to die in an ideological fight for what you think you fundamentally stand for, than be overrun by an alien culture that acts differently, with alternative customs and rituals.
This defence-to-the-death of a hopeless, historical ideological line is tragic - not only for those who culturally refuse to evolve but also for those they harm in doing so. In this context, Cat Jenkins, of Church Action for Tax Justice, writes for Premier Christianity that fiscal policy which serves the rich at the cost of the poor is (in my word) sinful. She argues this through the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The latter suffers terribly in this life at the expense of the former, positions which are reversed by God in the kingdom of heaven.
Jenkins essentially leads us, I believe, to this Christological question: Who does our wealth enrich? If the answer is the already wealthy, then that isn’t good enough; we’re called by Gospel imperative to serve the poor. I respect and enjoy that exegesis, though it prompts me to explore it a little further.
The first thing I’d want to contribute, which is entirely consistent with Jenkins, is that the rich man has cause to regret how he failed Lazarus in mortal life. But, once dead, it’s too late to do anything about it. The lesson? We need to start to build the kingdom of heaven in this life, not view it as a perfect destination in the hereafter.
Truss is a signed-up Anglican, but it is harder to recognise the kind of faith-informed mission that accompanied the premierships of Theresa May or Tony Blair in her economic policy. And it’s in this disparity of vision that the gospel’s challenge becomes more complicated – and where perhaps I depart from Jenkins.
Luke’s Gospel is, in summary, principally concerned with the plight of the poor – and not just the economically poor, but the dispossessed and marginalised too. And in Acts, he continues to develop such themes.
In that context, it’s worth noting that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is immediately preceded by the parable of the unjust steward (v1-14). Here, another rich man decides to fire his incompetent financial manager who, out of pride and self-preservation, tells his boss’s debtors to mark down their bills so he has friends who will take him in when he’s destitute.
But instead of condemning his corrupt steward for defrauding him, the rich man commends him for his shrewdness: “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth,” he says in v16 (ESV). This story, which seems to give Trussonomics the green light, causes huge problems for Christian apologists, not least because it appears to condone corruption and fraud.
We should be careful about holding up one institution as more pious than another. But we’re entitled to identify holiness where we can glimpse it
There are two points relevant here. The first is that God isn’t much interested in money but he cares what we do with it. So far, so consistent with criticism of our government. But the second point is that, surely, Truss and Kwarteng aren’t analogous with the boss so much as with the corrupt steward. They are looking after their wealthy friends, perhaps with an eye to being looked after by them when they’re out of a job - which may be sooner rather than later.
And as to who plays the role of their boss? Step forward the IMF. The rich man in this parable concludes in v13: “No one can serve two masters.” While the IMF isn’t divine, it did clearly say that, in disproportionately favouring high earners, UK government policy “will likely increase inequality”, which arguably witnesses to gospel values.
We should be careful about holding up one worldly institution as more pious than another, but we’re entitled to identify holiness where we can glimpse it. So is the IMF on the side of the angels in this case? In my view, yes. Should we affirm and follow it as serving the gospel? Ah, that would be fundamentalism.