Malcolm Torry, Citizen’s Basic Income: A Christian social policy

Malcolm Torry, Citizen’s Basic Income: A Christian Social Policy, Darton, Longman and Todd, 0 232 53260-9, xvi + 178 pp, pbk, £9.99

The publisher’s description of this book describes a Citizen’s Basic Income as, ‘an act of grace’, and the whole book is a justification of this fundamental idea. The author’s approach, based on his experiences as an Anglican priest, director of the Citizen’s Income Trust, a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics, and an accepted authority on the reform of the benefits system, is to harmonise the concept of Citizen’s Basic Income with the events, teachings and happenings within the life of Jesus Christ and the Christian apostles.

Right from the very beginning of the book, the reader can get an idea of the range and scope of his thinking, as well as the scholarship of his research and knowledge. Following a clear definition of the nature of a Citizen’s Basic Income (including what a basic income is not and can never be), each of the main twenty chapters of the book, as listed in the contents pages, elaborates on one aspect of the teaching of Christ. The whole is a celebration of the biblical idea that a Citizen’s Basic Income should be seen as a celebration of the Biblical teaching that ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”, and Jesus’ teaching that ‘It is the Father’s (God’s) good pleasure to give you the Kingdom’. The twenty chapters encourage the reader to view a basic income as ‘an act of grace’; to celebrate our equality as children of God; to explore the real meaning of the labourer being worthy of his (and her) hire; and to focus on forgiveness and non-judgemental recognition of our mutual dependency and equality as children of the One Father as Jesus taught.

Of course, there is a problem. If these theological reasonings are justified, and we recognise that a Citizen’s Basic Income would help to bring the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, the critic may well ask why the Christian Church did not implement such a scheme centuries ago, rather than focussing on accumulating great wealth, and spending vast sums of money on the building of churches, cathedrals and temples, all for ‘the glory of God’. Of course, Christians are by no means alone in this; all of our earthly religions have done more than their fair share to keep alive the idea that there is a ‘God’ who demands to be worshipped in this extravagant manner, even when his messengers (Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi etc) have told us that He takes no joy in the misuse of power, and recognises true worship as being found in the relief of poverty and the ending of war and suffering. ‘Thy Kingdom come on earth, as it IS in heaven’.

Putting such negative criticism on one side, this book challenges the Christian Church to look again at the whole question of poverty and inequality (deliberately seen as one problem) and the shocking way in which these have increased in recent years. When the Church produced, some years ago, a report entitled Faith in the City, it was thought that it would provide a springboard for a change in attitude and activity. But although, in the year or so following, it seemed that this might be the case, the spiritual imperative that had inspired David Sheppard and others got lost in a welter of committees and words. Consideration of the plight of poor people was forced to give way to discussion of the theology of women as priests and bishops, and of same-sex relationships.

As I write this, I look at the poster on the wall of my little office, which shows a group of irate people gathered round a table, with the caption, ‘God so loved the world that He didn’t send a committee’.

A few days ago, as I was finishing this review, I was horrified to hear the broadcast of ‘Any Questions’ and ‘Any Answers’ in which the experience of people involved in the trialling of the government’s ‘Universal Credit’ was described. What was horrifying was the number of people on both programmes who seemed to deny that there was a problem, this in the face of all the evidence presented by claimants who had, for some reason beyond their control, fallen through the safety net, and were either starving or being made homeless. Particularly shocking was the revelation that the Help Phone Line was a premium rate number costing 50p a minute!

Jesus was absolutely clear. In response to the question, ‘When did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked; a stranger (lonely), sick or imprisoned?’ He clearly instructs us in words as relevant as they were two thousand years ago: ‘As often as you do something for even the least member of my family, you do it unto me!’ If the question is asked today, it will include homeless people, addicts, users of food banks, disabled people and all those whose benefits are cut for whatever reason. It even includes those who seek to defraud the system. This – and much more – is what the followers of Jesus are called upon to do, and this book not only emphasises this requirement, but gives the reasons in the Christian theological language that the Church cannot ignore.

If I have two small criticisms they would be firstly that the quotes in Jesus’ own voice are slightly outweighed by the number of quotes from Old Testament and other sources. Secondly (and the author gives his reasons for this) the arguments are limited to mainstream Christianity and do not include ‘fringe’ churches and interfaith considerations (except, peripherally, Judaism). I hope that this book will inspire someone who knows to produce complementary writings which include Muslim ideas about finance, and (though perhaps not together) Buddhist Economics.

However, none of this devalues the worth of this book for anyone who, a) calls themselves a Christian – of whatever persuasion, and b) needs to have clearly stated the value of a Citizen’s Basic Income for a compassionate and more equal society, and the ways in which this can be achieved.