Lesslie Newbigin: Church & Welfare State

Lesslie Newbigin's story is legendary to missionaries, ecumenists, theologians, and other Christians worldwide.

Lesslie Newbigin

Sent out from the Edinburgh Presbytery as a missionary to India in 1936, he became a leader of the World Council of Churches in the 1960s. After retiring to England in the mid-1970s, he launched a sustained theological investigation into the idols of secularism and began to stir the western churches to see their post-Christendom context as a mission field. Newbigin is not known as a political figure, but at a CTPI conference on “The Renewal of Social Vision” in 1989, he spoke out both against those who abuse the welfare state in the name of their individual “rights” and against the “Thatcherites” who would dismantle the welfare state in the name of individual “responsibility.” For Newbigin, rights without responsibility are facile, and responsibility without substantive community is meaningless. The welfare state can serve human rights, but only if its citizens are engaged in small-scale communities in which they learn concretely the meaning of responsible living. In this context, the churches–small ones, at least–are vital training centres for democratic citizenship. Now more than twenty-years old, Newbigin’s short paper is perhaps more relevant than ever. He takes aim at individualism, the take-over of the state by corporations, and the megachurch phenomenon. He offers a vision of society rooted in strong local associations, yet protected by the welfare state. Above all, he urges the church to practice what it preaches before it calls others to account. We invite you to read Newbigin’s paper, reproduced below, and respond to it in the comments section.

Vision for the City

I asked permission to attend this conference not because I had anything to contribute, but because I wanted to listen and learn. The thoughts I can share with you, for what they may be worth, arise from the experience of the last nine years during which I have been in pastoral charge of a small and struggling congregation of the United Reformed Church in the area of Winson Green, Birmingham–an area of multiple deprivation. In visiting from house to house I have been struck by the difference in attitude between those whose outlook was formed before 1940, and those who have been shaped by the Welfare State. The former have a strong sense of independence, a horror of getting into debt, a determination to ‘stand on their own feet’. The latter tend to take it for granted that the powers that be have the responsibility for looking after them. They speak of rights, rarely of responsibilities. I think that, on a very small scale, we are here in touch with one of the fundamental problems facing us. ‘Rights’ are mere myths unless you can identify the person or persons who are responsible for meeting the claim of right. Your rights are my responsibility, but who am I and who are you? If the responsibility rests only on ‘them’, the rights are myths. The prophetic writers who inspired the vision of a welfare state had a deep sense of responsibility for the deprived. Their writings are filled with strong moral passion. Without that, the welfare state cannot stand. I am tempted to become judgmental by two kinds of experience that I have had in recent years. One is the experience of talking with people who have become clever in working the system; the boy and girl who are co-habiting and occupy two council houses because it is financially advantageous. When I say: ‘Is it fair, when there are people sleeping in the streets?’, the answer is: ‘That’s not my responsibility’. The other is the experience of canvassing at election time in one of the leafier suburbs of Birmingham, and being told that the people in Winson Green are to blame for their own troubles; they are just a bunch of layabouts. Here, of course, we touch upon one of the roots of Mrs Thatcher’s appeal, the negative image of the ‘dependent society’, set in contrast with the image of a society of responsible individuals who take responsibility for their own lives. It is futile to deny the element of strength in this appeal. But, of course, it has large potential elements of evil. It leads very easily, as we are seeing, to a selfish society in which words like ‘caring’ and ‘compassion’ have almost become dirty words in politics. They are, quite simply, ‘wet’. But we shall not successfully tackle the evil in this ideology if we do not recognise its elements of strength. Rights without responsibility are myths. Chanting myths does not make them true. How do we tackle this falling apart of rights and responsibilities? In a small community, in the family for example, their mutual connection is obvious. We know at once when someone is claiming rights without taking responsibility. In a good family, children are  trained both in a proper independence and in a proper inter-dependence. In a good family, responsibility for one another is taken for granted. (It is one of the oddities of Thatcherism that it advocates the value of the family, precisely the community in which Thatcherite values do not operate). How has it become possible for the Prime Minister to make such an astonishing statement as ‘There is no such thing as society’? Is this not clearly a product of the Enlightenment’s exaltation of the autonomous individual with his autonomous reason and conscience, as the centrepiece of our thinking? The corollary of this vision of the human person is the ‘collective’, the totality of these individuals. There is nothing between the individual and the collective. And the collective is not a moral subject, not an entity that can take responsibility. If we go down that road there’s no society. It is the vacuum between the individual and the collective which has to be filled for human flourishing. In a healthy society there is a great network of smaller communities, beginning with the family but extending to larger communities of neighbourhood and of common interest, through which we become truly persons in the image of the triune God whose being is in inter-relationship. It is in such communities of face-to-face meeting that the mutual linkage of rights and responsibilities is learned in practice. Here, I think, is where we must be aware of the enormous potential damage that is being done to our society by the increasing centralisation of power in the state and in very large corporate bodies. But here also is the place where, as it seems to me, the role of the Church can be of crucial importance. I am thinking here of actual experience with a small congregation in Winson Green and the part it plays in developing this kind of living community. In the small group which worked on the theological chapter of  ‘Faith in the City of Birmingham’, one of the members remarked: ‘It is not the primary business of the Church to advocate a new social order; it is our primary business to be a new social order’. I think he was right. If one looks at the pronouncements of ecclesiastical bodies in the area of ‘Church and Society’, the dominant impression is that the Church is telling the State what to do, advising, exhorting, scolding. I do not deny that there is a proper place for this. But I think this ought not to be primary. It is law, not gospel. The Church’s primary role is to be a sign and foretaste of a new order, and therefore to be able to point society towards that new order. A vision for society must be a matter not only of words but of illustrations. It is those who have tasted it who can be its advocates. I am still thinking of Winson Green and its neighbourhood. Here let me speak not so much of the little flock with which I was connected, but of those Christian congregations which are among the most vibrant and effective in the inner cities. I mean the black-led churches. Their effectiveness stems from the fact that they are living a different story from that of the people among whom they live. They live the liberating story of the Bible. ‘We crossed the Red Sea with Moses and saw the armies of Egypt drowned. We were led through the desert by a pillar of cloud and fire. We were fed with manna in the wilderness. We were there when they crucified the Lord and we saw him when he rose from the tomb. This is our story, and it is the true story. In the end you will all know that it is the true story’. When you live in that story you become a community of hope where there is no hope. You become a community of praise, with love to spare for others (and no welfare state can survive unless there are people in it with love to spare for others). You become a community of mutual acceptance, where each one is given the dignity of a member of the family. And so you become a community of mutual responsibility where rights do not have to be claimed because responsibilities are understood. And such a community is a place where the vision of a new society can become credible. If you believe that the real future is neither Brave New World, not 1984, nor nuclear disaster, but the holy city promised by God, lovely as a bride adorned for her husband, then you act now in ways which correspond to the real future. The community becomes the sign of a new order. Before it begins to talk about it, it is already a foretaste of it. If I am right in thinking that the root of our sickness is the falling apart of rights and responsibilities, then I think that the place where we can learn in practice the right way of re-uniting them is in the experience of small communities and that in this respect churches can play a vital role. Please note that I am talking about small congregations. Jesus promised to be present where two or three are gathered in his name, and we have abundant proof of this faithfulness to that promise. I am not sure whether the promise applies when two or three thousand are gathered. The language of the New Testament addressed to the churches clearly envisages small communities where people can take real responsibility for one another. I am saying that it is when people are learning to enjoy the experience of life in real mutual responsibility on a small scale that they can speak with confidence and with effect to the wider society about rights and responsibilities. But all of this also presupposes that the Church as a whole is willing to challenge the public doctrine about the nature and destiny of the human person which has ruled our intellectual and practical life for the past three centuries. I realise that I am not offering any recipe for a quick turn-round in national policy at the next general election. But I believe that it is as people are nurtured in local communities which experience and enjoy the life of caring and responsible relationships, and learn to sponsor and sustain all kinds of programmes for the development of their neighbourhoods, the way will be prepared for the extension of this experience to the life of the nation. And I am saying that the primary responsibility of the Church in relation to the renewal of vision for society is to be itself the sign and first fruit of a new order, to offer the good news that a different kind of life is possible before it offers advice about how it is to be achieved. The Church is in the business of communicating good news before it undertakes to give good advice. Of course the good news is incredible in terms of our contemporary ‘plausibility structure’. Who can believe that a crucified man is the lord of all? The only plausible hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation that believes it and lives by it. When that hermeneutic is available, people find it possible to have a new vision for society and to know that the vision is more than a dream.