This blog is in memory of Father Jim Fanning MHM RIP. Yesterday I attended his memorial mass at The Sacred Heart Church in Mill Hill. Jim spent 38 years as a Missionary in Africa. Jim was an exceptional character. His career as a missionary took him to Zaire/Congo, Uganda and Kenya. In the course of his mission, he learned the local languages and dialects, believing that it was a vital part of his mission. His final African parish in the Congo was literally in the middle of nowhere. He installed solar panels for electricity and for a man in his 60's it all proved a bit too much and his health gave out. Jim believed that his mission was to bring hope and solace to the worlds poorest people. He started many educational projects, believing this was the best way out of poverty for the people he was ministering to.
Listening to the fine words spoken at his service, I realised that in some ways, Jim had got it wrong. Of course, it is a good thing to seek to work with the worlds poor. But I don't believe that any amount of aid, any amount of educational projects or any amount of ministry will solve their problems. In the short term, such things alleviate plagues and famine and any decent person should support them. As a missionary, a man like Jim also believes that the poor need faith to find redemption. However as I sat listening to the fine words, in Jims memory, it occurred to me that perhaps we've got it all wrong. We have red nose days for Africa, we have mission appeals for the poor. We have charity shops raising money to help "those in need". We have priests such as my cousing telling us of the struggle of the poor. But in a blinding flash of inspiration, I saw the light. Right there before me.
It isn't the poor who need to get religion at all. It is not charity they need. Red nose day is like buying a starving man a trouser press, hoping that pleated trousers will get him a job, whilst failing to realise he's dying of starvation. It is completely missing the point. The Priests and the Preachers need to reboot their thinking. At some point in the last century, Hellfire and Brimstone went out of fashion. These days it doesn't even seem to be a prerequiste that you believe in God to be a Priest in some quarters. The sad truth is that both old school priests and new style priests have failed the poor. Not because they haven't worked hard with their missions etc. They have failed because they've been preaching the wrong message, brimstone or not. It is not the poor who should be on the receiving end of the message. It is the rich, those with the power and money. Those who exploit those who are not in a position to argue. The sickening thing is that many of the rich and powerful claim to have religious affiliation. But they either have not listened to the message or they don't care. the sad truth about planet earth is that there is enough to go around, but the wealth is not spread in an equitable fashion. In the 19th century the likes of Karl Marx recognised this inequality, but his solution did not really grasp the nettle that humans are by nature greedy. Communism is a splendid idea, but having visited China and the USSR in the heyday of communism, it was clear that the system was hopelessly corrupt and society was just as unequal, if not more so than the UK.
Reading history tells me that the few times when the lot of the poor has been improved is when the mega rich get a sense of morality and make a few sacrifices to help those lower down the tree. Perhaps the best example of this was when the likes of William Wilberforce lead a moral crusade, steeped in his strong Christian faith, to abolish slavery. This week we saw the leaders of the main faiths in the UK get together to condemn terrorism. Terrorism is a terrible scourge, but poverty and inequality will kill tens of millions this year, far more than terrorists. This inequality is the seed that feeds the anger that breeds the angry young men. The global arms trade fuels the conflicts. The international banking system favours the rich and powerful. Corruption is rife, subverting elections and corrupting the decent. The leaders of all of the faiths know this. But they have positions of privelige in the establishment. Many ordinary people are turned off religion as they see religious people as two faced, telling us what we do wrong, whilst dressing in ermine and living in guilded palaces. Honest, decent and straightforward priests have been failed for centuries by those at the top. In my faith, the Roman Catholic church, a truly scandalous level of paedophile abuse was systematically hushed up. I've never been able to understand how this happened or even why. But the Jimmy Savile case perhaps gives a window into that murky world. You see it is rather convenient for the powerful. Having compromised priests means that they have useful patsies in the pulpit, keeping their flocks quiet and obedient. Do the powerful have any creed other than a lust for power and money? I do wonder. Maybe they have no sense of morality at all? But just suppose they have a sliver of faith and humanity in their soul. Do pliant clergy really serve them? Telling people what they want to hear, rather than the truth is perhaps the greatest evil of all. Maybe the rich and powerful need some wise counsel from the faith leaders. Of course some, maybe many have no faith at all. But some do. You simply don't know if a door will open until you knock on it. Of course, as many of us have seen, there are fundamentalists (in all faiths) who are seemingly hell bent (forgive the pun) on spreading division and sucking up to the powerful vested interests. But by and large, these are marginal figures.
I think we need a massive realignment in the worlds faithful. There are people of goodwill, humility and decency in all faiths. They need to put their differences to one side and start demanding that the leaders, the high profile figures, use their influence to make a better world for the poorest and weakest. Some people will have read this and say "what about atheists?". To me, we are all part of the same family, statistically atheists are no different to people of faith in terms of basic decency, so it is logical that they would have the same concerns for their less well off brothers and sisters. A fair and equitable world is surely one that any person would want to live in. I simply refuse to believe that anyone wants to see their fellow man suffer. No decent person wants to see human misery afflicting other people.
What I am trying to say is that it is time to change the way we think about the worlds poor. We should see inequality and injustice as a solvable problem. We should not tolerate leaders of nations or faiths who say that it is something we can't deal with. The argument that the religious right use to justify the unjustifiable is that Jesus said "The poor will always be with us". There will always be people with less, there is no way we can all have the same share. There will always be people with problems. But this is no excuse for allowing people to starve, people to be poisoned by bad water, there is no excuse for denying people medical care, there is no excuse for denying people education and opportunity. The planet is rich enough to give this to everyone. I don't think that is too much to ask. That will only happen when it is the rich and powerful that get the lectures, the rich and powerful who get missionaries despatched to get them to mend their ways and the rich and powerful get the message that living it up at the expense of the very existence of a billion poor people is simply not acceptable by any measure. It is time that the United Nations came up with a basic set of rights that every citizen of planet earth should be entitled to. This means enough food to eat. Clean water, basic medical welfare, shelter, education and freedom from persecution. Is that really such a radical thing to hope and pray for? Wouldn't it be nice if that was a message our faith leaders started preaching from the pulpit, especially at the rich, corrupt and greedy?