Saturday, 14 September 2013

The UN looks askance at a 'Christian' country

When even the United Nations, that accommodating organisation, starts to wonder about the inhumanity of Britain’s behaviour towards its own people, you might think it was time to get worried.

Raquel Rolnik: speaking with the authority of the UN
about the seamier side of the UK
Not, it appears, if you are a member of David Cameron’s government. It has reacted with fury to the suggestion by UN special rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik, that the government’s ‘bedroom tax’ might be an abuse of human rights. One cause of the government’s anger is the use of the expression ‘bedroom tax’: it prefers ‘spare room subsidy.’ 

It applies to people who are living in accommodation funded by benefit. If they are deemed to have a room more than they need, they are now being ordered to leave the accommodation they are in or accept a cut in their benefit. At a time when there is a dearth of single-bedroom accommodation, very few can move.

So instead they have to see their benefit cut, and therefore either reduce their expenditure on luxury items such as food, or incur rent arrears which will eventually gets them evicted and made homeless.

It’s no wonder the government has reacted so harshly to criticism from such an authoritative source. Deep in what passes for its heart even it must know that, among many callous policies it has inflicted, this is one of the cruellest.

In a Twitter argument on the subject, a supporter of the government retorted to me ‘she [Rolnik] made up crap and blabbed on about Human rights while ignoring the rights of taxpayers.’ I don’t believe that many could honestly believe that a few pounds a year of extra tax can be weighed against the suffering that imposed homelessness will cause among people already poor, many of them disabled.

This should be particularly true in a country of which the Prime Minister David Cameron himself said ‘we are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so.’ The debate has been lively down the ages about just what makes a Christian, but to throw the poor onto the street to save the wealthy small change, would probably be regarded by most as not fitting fully into the gospel of love.

Curiously, one of the great debates about the nature of Christianity took place with a Jewish scholar of whom, to my shame, I knew nothing until recently. A leading rabbi from Barcelona, Moses Nahmanides, known as Ramban, took part in a public ‘disputation’ in which the central question was whether the Christians were right to believe that the Messiah had already arrived, in the form of Jesus, or whether the event was still to come, as claimed by the Jews.

'Ramban', Moses Nahmanides, honoured in Israel today
He came up with what surely must be the killer argument. 

The arrival of the Messiah was to usher in a time of peace and prosperity. And, well, frankly, there hadn’t been much sign of any such thing since the birth of Christ. Indeed, Nahmanides argued, it was the Christians themselves who seemed the most bloodthirsty of all the peoples.

He said all this in 1263. We hadn’t yet had the great persecutions, not just of Jews but of fellow-Christians, in the middles ages and renaissance. We hadn’t seen the great battles over enslavement of African peoples, and the great, bitter, cruel civil war to which it led in the United States. We hadn’t seen the monumental butcheries of two World Wars and the horror of the holocaust.

In all these terrible events, Christians have often played a central role, as perpetrators and often as victims.

Why, even at a reduced level today, around the world, who seems to be the first to reach for the gun or the bomb? Isn’t that just what the most recent debate about Syria has been about? Nahmanides would surely have recognised the bloodthirstiness, the unwillingness to practice self-restraint of so-called Christians today, so little different from what happened in his day.

He would also have recognised Rolnik’s case. She has spoken out for the weak and suffering; the mighty have replied with contempt and bitterness. She spoke against the driving of vulnerable people from shelter; Nahmanides paid for his courage and the strength of his arguments by being driven away from home and family and having to run to Jerusalem and the protection, ironically, of the then Muslim rulers of the holy land to live out his last few years.

Britain ‘basically Christian’? Well, perhaps Cameron and his friends are indeed what Christians have all too often been, and still are. What Rolnik has shown is that they are very far from what Christian doctrines of love might have taught them to be.

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