Deluded, dangerous do-gooders

In this week's Faith Column, we look at faith in practice and the work of volunteers. In our first b

As a Salvation Army Officer for the past ten years, I have heard people make these claims against the Christian church and particularly about our own organisation.

These accusations are rarely said in an aggressive tone but rather in a way that suggests we only do what we do because we have a hidden agenda.

I have to confess, we do have an agenda but I pray we will never be so ashamed of it that it actually becomes hidden. For our motivation comes from our love of God and our belief that every human being has intrinsic value and the potential to be the person God wants them to be. But we offer help unconditionally to all people in need, regardless of whether they recognise ‘God’ or not.

The Salvation Army has a form of practical Christianity that has seen it grow from the streets of the east end of London to a worldwide organisation spanning 113 countries. In the United Kingdom, The Salvation Army has become one of the largest providers of social care after the government – a fact which surprises many people. You could not reach this level without being professional, well trained and organised. No do-gooders here.

Before being called into ministry, I used to be an office manager for a small shipping company. Despite having no background or experience in social care or theology, I gave up everything that I held dear to do what I felt God wanted.

After two years of specialist training, I was sent to Ireland still feeling totally inadequate for the task ahead. Since that time I have worked in different settings alongside the homeless, street children, the elderly, those with severe mental health issues, drug addicts, alcoholics, sex offenders, asylum seekers and refugees. Not bad for an office manager!

I have rescued people from paramilitaries and cried with people who could not see any future beyond a bottle of spirits or the end of a syringe. I have felt gut wrenchingly sick when I listened to children speaking about selling their bodies in the same matter of fact way as they would buy a bag of sweets. I have sat on walls trying to convince people not to commit suicide and sat on hospital beds praying and holding the hands of people moments before they died.

I have also witnessed people freed from the power of addiction, people given a sense of hope and purpose and moving on to do incredible things they didn’t believe possible, people finding release through forgiveness, people discovering a plan and a purpose for their life.

Deluded and dangerous? I don’t think so.

I currently manage a large centre for 150 former rough sleepers in the heart of the east end of London. For many, English is a second language and religious belief swings between apathy and strict Islam. For me it makes little difference, for I do not see people’s faith, or language or circumstances. I simply see 150 precious lives.

I am not a trumpet playing, Bible bashing evangelist but rather a living example of what God can do in ordinary people and passionately believe he can do the same in others as well.

So yes, I have an agenda and I see no reason not to shout it from the rooftops.

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How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.