Giles Fraser challenges Church Action on Poverty conference: break your chains

At our conference in Manchester in November, local young people performed a dance based on the story of the burning bush and the Exodus, in which they broke apart chains made of paper . Our speaker, Revd Dr Giles Fraser (former Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral), responded with this powerful sermon.

Whose chains are these? They’re the chains of the Israelite slaves. That’s true. But it’s more difficult than that, because these are our chains too. They’re not just the chains of other people out there, who we call ‘poor’. These are our chains too.

If we sit here very quietly, we might just be able to hear another form of worship going on around us. Around us, as we sit in stillness here, tens of thousands of people are worshipping in these big temples, the shopping centres. I spent two hours this afternoon in the shopping centres of Manchester. It was hell. Surrounded by people buying things they don’t want, for people they don’t like, from places they don’t really want to go. Stuff they don’t need, stuff that won’t last. But why are they buying it?

The other day I was having an afternoon at home, playing football with my boy in the garden. It was an OK day, it wasn’t the best day I’ve ever had, it wasn’t the worst day I’ve ever had. I came in and sat down on the sofa and I turned on the telly, and there were the adverts. And they suddenly made me really angry, because I realised the adverts were telling me: “You know this life that you’ve got now? You, Giles Fraser – this life you’ve got now? It’s not that good! Because you could have this life. You could be thinner, or richer. You could have a better car, you could have all these fantastic things.” And it starts by saying, “Your life now is rubbish, because you haven’t got all this stuff.”  It works by making us feel dissatisfied, making us feel fat, or poor, that we haven’t got a great car, or the latest this or that. And then we’ve got to go out there and worship in the shopping centres.

These chains are ours too, and we don’t like taking them off because it means taking off all this stuff too – our clothes, our fancy cars. If we take all that off, it’s just us, God, the people we love: our vulnerability. And it’s tough, because they make us greedy. They make us want to keep stuff for ourselves. It’s all about me; that’s what fear does. Fear is what makes us greedy. The most important thing Christianity requires of us, I believe, is to be courageous. Give things up. Be dependent upon God, and then you are so strong that you can change the world. And the world needs changing.

I’ve just taken over a job in the East End of London, in Tower Hamlets, with the Fairness Commission. I want to tell you two things about my area of the East End, which I love very much. One is that it has the highest child poverty in the country: 50% of children in Tower Hamlets are classed as being poor, one of the poorest areas in Europe, the highest rate of child poverty in the whole country. The second thing is that the average income in Tower Hamlets is £58,000. Why? Because it includes Canary Wharf. Because it includes those great glass towers, this little borough has the income of Monaco or Malta. And yet, hundreds of yards away from those towers, there are small bedrooms with six or eight kids sharing, who can’t do their homework, living in the most awful conditions. And next year, when the benefit caps get put in, thousands of people in Tower Hamlets will be made homeless. Wealth does not ‘trickle down’; wealth is sucked upwards into those great glass towers.

This is our society. This is the society that we must, as Christians, transform. But we will not transform it by being generous. Not with just another quid out of our pocket. We will transform it by being Christians, by being unafraid, and by saying that we know the love of God will transform the world. We must cry against injustice and light candles against the darkness. And we will do that, and we will be so much more powerful, if we have broken our own chains too.

In the story of the burning bush, the people of Israel are released, they go into the desert looking for the promised land, and God teaches them a lesson in economics. Bread comes down from heaven because of grace. You collect bread for your need. But if people take too much, it turns to worms by the morning; it’s useless. The economic message is that there is such a thing as having too much.

We live in a society where some have too much, and some have nothing at all.  It’s our job to break chains, to take light into the darkness, but first of all, we must break our own chains too.

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