Book Review: From Generation to Generation (by Julia Burton) edited by Hannah Petra

FG2G coverThis is a transcript of the address given at the start of Pramacare’s conference on 17 May, 2012, celebrating their 30th anniversary. Pramacare generously funded the work on the fully revised and updated edition of From Generation 2 Generation. The book was completed thanks to the involvement of Jonathan Martin, who brought together the Jubilee Centre, the writing team and Pramacare through his organisation No Boundaries.

Reviewed by Guy Brandon 

Good morning, and thank you to John and Pramacare for inviting me to this celebration of 30 years of the wonderful work you do to support and care for people at home. I’ve been asked on behalf of the Jubilee Centre to say a few words about why a Christian perspective on this subject is so important, and what a biblical worldview uniquely contributes to how we understand care. To do that, I’d like to draw on some of the thinking that’s come out of the Jubilee Centre over the last 30 years.

The human mind is endlessly creative in coming up with ways to avoid dealing with things it really ought to address. We deny, we delay, we deflect… But I think that one of our most effective tricks is to depersonalise troublesome issues. In the worst cases, whether it’s in our own care system or Iraqi jails, that can lead to the appalling abuses we occasionally hear about in the news. But far more routinely than those extremes, we learn to use a different language to talk about the things we don’t want to take responsibility for.

So, for example, climate change, one of the biggest issues currently facing the world, is all too easy to dismiss as a matter of carbon trading, flight tax, degrees Centigrade per century, millimetres of sea-level, parts per million of CO2. These are questions of technology and politics, something for clever people in white coats and in Westminster to sort out. And that means it has nothing to do with my full kettle, my drive to work, my two annual foreign holidays.

Similarly, a topic of increasing national visibility and concern, as well as being the work of Pramacare and the subject of From Generation 2 Generation: the care of older people. It’s so easy to reduce the looming shortfall in care provision to a matter of our unusual circumstances; the fact that the pig of post-war population explosion has slowly been working its way through the python of statistical age distribution for the last 65 years. Now, the Baby Boomers are retiring and a vast tranche of people who used to be good taxpayers are switching sides of the ledger and instead becoming net recipients from the State. It’s a problem of demographics, and we can only fix it with clever accounting, maybe some strategic borrowing, the right pension and benefits policies. And of course, that’s true – up to a point. The increase in the number and proportion of older people is going to bring a significant shortfall in care provision. But equally, demographic changes only really highlight a problem that was already there.

There’s a quote that is (almost certainly apocryphally) attributed to Einstein that you don’t solve a problem by using the same thinking that got you into it. And I think this is the real significance of the biblical vision of society that is at the heart of the work that Pramacare have very generously enabled to be carried out in this book. Properly applied, a biblical worldview gives us a completely different framework for understanding care – and much else besides – that is absolutely opposed to our tendency to depersonalise and disengage.

There are obvious problems when it comes to applying the Bible to modern-day issues, especially when they’re – ostensibly – issues like the economy and budget shortfalls. One is that if we want principles about how to engage with a problem on a society-wide level, as we do in this case, it makes sense to look to the Old Testament first. The Old Testament has far more detail than the New Testament on the way God’s people were to be structured as a nation; the New Testament is more concerned with the conduct of Christians and churches living in a pagan world.

But the Ancient Israel of the Old Testament was an agrarian society with a fairly stable, rooted population living mainly in small communities. Ours is a hyper-mobile, technologically-advanced and urbanised economy. Our circumstances are very different and, as a result, it can be tempting to dismiss the Old Testament’s laws as hopelessly irrelevant to our time. If we want a ‘biblical’ perspective, we tend to focus more on the New Testament, where we instinctively feel more at home as Christians. We can also often end up proof-texting – picking and choosing verses that seem to have something useful to say and missing the big picture. We can end up drawing out broad ideals like dignity, respect and compassion – which is fine, but that’s often where we leave it.

The really unique contribution that the Bible brings to the question of care can’t be reduced to those broad ideals that it displays, for two reasons. The first is that they ought to be pretty much entry-level values for any caring profession, and no one of any faith or none would argue with them as general principles.

The second is that without an overall understanding of the kind of society we want – what we really value – ideals like dignity and compassion risk being, at best, correctives for a culture in which they sit uneasily, or at worst, bolt-on extras that don’t belong in it at all. What does it say about us if we take care of someone’s immediate financial and physical needs, but do so at the expense of their relationships, their emotional health, everything that made life worth living when they did have their health and financial means?

The very simple but very profound insight that the Bible offers is that, ultimately, everything that really affects us, that matters to us as humans and that matters to God, is a question of one or other relationship. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was in Matthew 22, he said, ‘”Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets – that is, everything in the Old Testament (the only Bible Jesus had) – hang on these two commandments.’ This is the real contribution that the Bible can make to the difficult questions of care. Despite the vast differences of time and culture, the biblical model of society has lessons of permanent relevance to our own. Right relationships – with God and with other people – weren’t something that were superimposed onto biblical law, like a kind of overlay after the really important subjects like the economy and immigration were taken care of. They were biblical law, built into the structures of society: every area in the life of Israel from the ground up.

So, for example, employment was extremely important, and there were measures in the Torah to ensure that no one was permanently denied the opportunity of economic productivity. But equally, there was a recognition that economic productivity in itself wasn’t the sole or even the primary purpose of life. So there were also measures in place to make sure that it didn’t come at the expense of the family, which it was supposed to serve. In the Old Testament model the extended, three-generational family was the basic unit of society and the setting in which most people’s needs for provision and care were met throughout their lives. The extended family also formed the basis of a safety net for those who didn’t have a family of their own, so its strength was critical to the health of society as a whole. Work and prosperity were vitally important in that, and still are, but if they start to undermine family life, perhaps through long hours or high mobility – both problems the Bible addresses in some detail – you begin to collect collateral damage that isn’t immediately noticeable but has a hidden price tag attached. One example: unpaid carers provide the equivalent of at least £119 billion of care every year, more than the entire NHS budget; people over 60 alone provide more than £50 billion of that. A large proportion of those are family members, so it’s a huge cost that will either increase or reduce depending on the effect that different public policies and cultural changes have on the stability and cohesion of extended families.

To put it in economist-speak, the biblical vision of society recognises negative externalities that our market doesn’t always factor in. Biblical public policy was organised such that its different themes were integrated and in harmony, rather than in competition.

Amongst other things, that also meant that the state’s role was carefully scrutinised. The Bible recognises that there is a role for the state, but that it’s not its place to jump in if individuals, families and local groups can do a better job – as they often can. In that respect, the state’s role wasn’t to step out of the picture entirely, but to enable the different groups that made up society to do what they needed to, and generally wanted to, as effectively as possible. The idea of subsidiarity in Catholic Social Teaching is based on that principle: that power should be devolved to the lowest appropriate level, because that’s how people become more engaged and interested in their communities, rather than disenfranchised and apathetic because all the decision-making is carried out at such a distance. It’s no coincidence that some of that language has found its way into the Big Society narrative that the title of today’s programme – ‘Broken Society? Big Church?’ – alludes to. For all that Big Society has been interpreted – rightly or wrongly – as ‘rolling back the state’ or ‘public services on the cheap’, that core idea of enabling people to participate more fully in their own lives, families and communities is a thoroughly biblical one. Ultimately, if relationships are so important, if that’s what gives us our sense of meaning and place in the world and makes life worth living, then we ignore that reality at our peril.

This is one of the things that is so encouraging about Pramacare’s work. There are always going to be circumstances where it’s not possible to care for someone at home, and it’s right that we have a range of solutions and that the state does play a part in providing some of those where necessary. But equally, enabling people to stay within their own homes and families, a part of their communities and networks of friendships for as long as possible, is something that is very much in line with the biblical vision for care.

As we find ways to fill the gap in care provision we need to remember that Jesus showed care and love in intensely practical ways, but that this very often took the form of restoring relationships as well as healing physical and mental illness – allowing those on the margins of society to be reintegrated into families and communities. Over the next twenty years the work of Pramacare and other organisations like it are going to become more and more important. I’m very glad that the Jubilee Centre, along with No Boundaries and the writing team who produced From Generation 2 Generation, have been able to make a small contribution to that work.


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Category: News and Reviews

May, 2012

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