It was the mid-1980s. The ‘right to buy,’ introduced by the Conservative government in 1980, was at the zenith of its popularity. As a relatively young student from a white, male and (relatively) privileged background, I remember writing an essay (in Practical Theology). In it I sought, I am sure very inadequately, to articulate the belief that how we treated those who could not afford to buy their own home was a litmus test of the morality of government and nation.
Although I have (thankfully) long since forgotten the details, that moral question (or, to put it another way, the question of what makes for a civilised society) has continued to burn brightly. At its core, the response is about the commitment to equality for all, and justice for those most excluded from the decisions that shape all our lives.
In the intervening four decades, I have been fortunate to learn at the feet of some utterly remarkable people in the UK, and in other parts of the world. People whose life, experience and friendship have shaped me, and continue to shape me. People who have names and are not just numbers.
Some have been people who have chosen to move from places of power to being alongside people experiencing powerlessness. For many others it has been people for whom poverty has been etched into their everyday lives, impacting unjustly their past, present and future. I have come to understand the power of the mantra of civil rights and disabilities movements that ‘Nothing About Us Without Us Is For Us’. Put simply, real change only happens when those whose lives are blighted by what’s wrong get to be in the driving seat of bringing about the change that is needed.
I have seen glimpses of this new order in processes like Participatory Budgeting, and in social movements such as the Poor People’s Campaign in the United States, gatherings of Popular Movements in the Vatican, those challenging the caste system in India, and the growth of Poverty Truth Commissions in the UK. None of these are perfect, but each of them offers a trajectory – part of Martin Luther King’s long arc towards justice – which it feels essential to continue to glimpse in days preoccupied with short-termism, populism and fake truth.
Amidst the many injustices, the injustice being imposed on generations not yet born is surely amongst the most challenging, complex and life-threatening. Put simply, as the planet continues to heat, we are living in ways that make the survival of others less and less likely. The impact of climate change is not just about the future; it is impacting millions now but its exponential damage continues to grow with each day that we fail to face up to the scale of change now required. The need for action is particularly true of those who would, historically, have thought of themselves as part of the so-called ‘civilised’ world!
So, in response to the question about what makes for a civilised society, I would repeat my exam hall answer of 1987. It is about how we choose to treat those who cannot afford to buy their own home. However, I would also say it is about what sort of home (as in Mother Earth) we are choosing to pass to future generations. And it has to be about building that civilised society with people whose past, current, and future exclusion is what makes change so vital and necessary.