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Natan Mladin reflects on the collapse of Wonga, the new IPPR report, and the role of justice in today’s economy. 11/09/2018
Wonga has collapsed. The behemoth payday lender is languishing in administration. It’s been toppled over not by its infamous interest rates and fees, at least not directly, but by the boulder of complaints lodged in the context of the tighter regulations introduced in 2015. For those directly affected, and for the campaigners who tirelessly spoke against Wonga, many of whom were within the church (most famously the Archbishop of Canterbury), this is indeed a moment of justice. The wrongdoer gets its just desserts. While plenty of injustices remain, Wonga’s collapse is a telling story of how knowingly trapping people in spiraling debt is evil and will eventually – though, alas, not always – attract a just penalty.
As others have shown, however, this is no time for rubbing one’s hands with glee. Wonga will likely vanish – not so the problems which made Wonga possible. The need for short–term credit of those who can’t simply rock up to the high street bank because their ‘credit score’ isn’t up to scratch, remains. Deeper, structural problems within the economy (low wage growth, precarious work arrangements etc.) mean that many people will struggle to make ends meet and will likely still reach for short–term, high–cost credit. The proverbial nature abhors a vacuum, so there are legitimate fears that the vacuum left by Wonga is being filled by equally rapacious lenders.
This is why we need, as the new IPPR report puts it, urgent economic reform to ‘hard–wire’ justice into our economy and recover a moral foundation for our economic life. If the collapse of Wonga illustrated (imperfectly) a narrow form of justice, where the wrongdoers simply get punished, the justice that the new report and the Archbishop of Canterbury, its main spokesperson, invoke is a richer and more expansive notion.
While there is more than one word for justice in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, the most encompassing term is shalom – imperfectly translated as peace and simplistically understood as the mere absence of conflict (or the punishment of the wrongdoer). Shalom refers to restored relationships and to the condition in which all can flourish and meaningfully participate in a common life. Shalom also suggests a wholeness where parts aren’t working against each other but, harmoniously, in concert. This applies both to the level of the individual – a harmony between, mind, body, and soul – and to the level of society – the different groups and sectors therein.
It’s towards this expansive notion of justice that the IPPR report published last week helpfully gestures. It’s a bold and comprehensive proposal for a radical reform of the British economy that puts justice and the dignity of all at the forefront rather treating them as an afterthought or assuming they naturally arise from unconstrained freedom. It aims to redress some of the stark power imbalances in our economy, between the capital and the other regions of the country, between corporate management and workers, between big business dominating the market and market entrants and entrepreneurs, between finance and the other sectors of the economy. You don’t have to agree with all of the 73 recommendations. Some of them, including raising corporate tax when Brexit is just around the corner, seem at least ill–timed if not ill–advised. But the broad thrust of the report, which covers much more than just the perennially controversial tax policy, is sound: prosperity and justice are to be held and pursued together.
So Wonga is finished. Justice has been served, but the work of economic shalom–like justice just begins. Hopefully the new IPPR report, Prosperity and Justice: A Plan for the New Economy, is only the first intervention in a debate which better recognises a vision of the economy where prosperity isn’t achieved at the expense of, but precisely through the intentional pursuit of justice.
Nathan joined Theos in 2016. He holds an MTh and PhD in Systematic Theology from Queen’s University Belfast. He is the author of several Theos publications, including “Forgive Us Our Debts: lending and borrowing as if relationships matter”, a report on the ethics of debt (with Barbara Ridpath), and the chapter on ‘Václav Havel’ in “The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders do God” (Biteback, 2017).
Posted 11 September 2018
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.