Peace on earth?

Heather Buckingham

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When buying Christmas cards, I am sometimes tempted to go for the ones that say ‘Peace’. Why? Perhaps it is because I feel they strike a balance between being slightly less offensive to those for whom this is a period of celebration – but not of the birth of Christ – whilst still offering something more than a ‘greeting’ associated simply with the time of year.

On reflection though, peace is far from inoffensive. The peace that’s associated with Jesus in the New Testament of the Bible is not simply about the absence of conflict or loud noise: its meaning reflects that of the Hebrew word ‘shalom’. One translation describes shalom as ‘social harmony, peace, prosperity, security and well-being’. In the book Generous Justice, Tim Keller describes it as:

‘complete reconciliation, a state of the fullest flourishing in every dimension – physical, emotional, social, and spiritual – because all relationships are right, perfect and filled with joy’.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound too controversial: some would dismiss it on the grounds of being too idealistic, but few would dispute that it’s an attractive vision. The offensiveness though, comes in the fact that it is relational. The prosperity it describes is about everybody having enough – maybe a bit more than enough – not some having plenty while others go hungry. The right relationships it describes may involve engaging with people some would rather neglect. It’s a demanding and costly vision.

What has this got to do with the third sector? Well quite a lot I think. Frequently, voluntary organisations are put in a box: they’re asked to do the bits of work that the government can’t or won’t; to provide the ‘glue’ in communities where that is lacking; to address the problems that families are unable to; to house those who are priced out by the markets; to feed those who are missed out by the benefits system. There is sometimes a sense in which these organisations are tasked with exercising compassion on behalf of the rest of society: making up for the lack of it in other sectors.

We might be able to get away with this if the problems in other parts of society weren’t so great. If the disparity between rich and poor was not so great, voluntary efforts might well be able to restore dignity and opportunities to a few who lacked them; if the benefits system were closer to being just, charities might well be able to pick up the few who fell through the gaps. But the reality is that the problems in our society are extensive. Expecting voluntary organisations to act as peacemakers between macro- economic, social and political systems and individuals suffering hardship is likely to be unrealistic unless both parties are willing and able to move towards each other. Voluntary organisations in deprived areas are struggling under huge burdens as demand rises and funding is cut ever more deeply. Even if volunteers and donors can summon up the strength, time and resources to keep everyone adequately fed and housed until the storm – we hope – passes, this will not be sufficient.

Wellbeing is relational in nature. That doesn’t just mean that we all need good relationships in our lives in order to be happy; it means that across every ‘sector’ of our lives and the economy, what we do affects other people. Much of our culture is orientated around individualism. Many organisations operate systems of targets, which – if achieved – denote success, regardless of their impacts beyond the immediate team or company. But the problem is that such a compartmentalised view is a wrong view, both of how things are, and of how they should be.

Institutions and organisations don’t work well if they don’t exercise care both for their clients and those that work within them: if employees and service users aren’t also understood to be parents, children, friends, and individuals. They also don’t work well if they are devoid of purpose beyond making money or meeting targets, or if there is a lack of public trust in them. These are amongst the reasons that politicians of all parties have given for turning to the third sector as a means of resolving the perceived crisis of the welfare state. However, the problem is that all sectors of the economy are inter-dependent. If more and more people become dependent on volunteers to feed and house them, more and more people will have to give up their jobs to do so. Then there will be fewer people paying taxes, and so on. Eventually, the people giving won’t have anything left to give… you see where I’m going.

We need to be willing to seek justice as well as wellbeing. At a time when millions are celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela and grieving his death, his story speaks poignantly of the costliness of forgiveness, reconciliation, and freedom. Making things right usually involves change in how things currently are. And change is often painful and uncomfortable: it upsets the status quo which, for many of us, is quite comfortable.

Let’s not be deceived that nice people who volunteer can sort it all out by themselves: they have jobs, families to care for and washing to do just like everyone else. There are people across all sectors of the economy who have the desire and potential – through different means – to make the world a better place. It is not that we need to delegate more and more responsibility for social needs to the third sector, but rather to ask what needs to change in the institutions of the state, markets, media, family and community life to reduce the incidence of these problems. Indeed, a key role for the voluntary sector could be in informing and supporting the processes of reflection, reconciliation and rebalancing that are needed. But if we want there to be peace on earth – or even just in the UK – attention will also need to be given to justice and mercy.

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