‘A spoke in the wheel of injustice’: faith and well-being in the superdiverse city

Chris ShannahanChris Shannahan

This article is part of Public Spirit series on Faith and wellbeing.

Politicians find it easy to offer their support to the idea of promoting national wellbeing. However, examining the political narratives that stand behind political leaders’ claims on this subject reveals a serious neglect of poverty and inequality.  In this article, Chris Shannahan argues that a sustained theological critique of current thinking around wellbeing can help bring to light the ways in which past governments have ignored the concerns of the poor and undermined the ability of faith-based organisations to provide prophetic witness.

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‘Well-being’ is like ‘motherhood and apple pie’! Everybody thinks it’s a good idea but nobody quite knows what it means. However, faith-based reflections can sharpen and critique this imprecise term. A generation ago this suggestion might have been dismissed as a throwback to a pre-‘secular’ past or with the clichéd, ‘religion and politics don’t mix’. Times have changed. The last twelve months has witnessed the public condemnation of pay-day loan companies like ‘Wonga’ by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the searing critique of the government’s benefit cuts as a ‘disgrace’ by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nicholls.[1] In the face of systemic injustice are faith-groups called to bind up the wounds of the broken or, as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in the 1930s, to ram a ‘spoke into the wheel of injustice’?

What is ‘well-being’?

Analyses of ‘well-being’ are increasingly used to judge the ‘state of the nation’. The ‘UK Faculty for Public Health’ suggests that social well-being relates to the quality of our supportive relationships, economic inclusion, cultural belonging and social mobility.[2] Following the political turn towards civil society during the 1990s social well-being has largely been forged beyond the constraints of the political establishment. Three political narratives provide a lens through which we can examine social well-being – community cohesion, the ‘good’ society and the ‘big society’.


“The identification of faith groups as the most effective means of facilitating community cohesion as a result of their localised social capital runs the risk of sapping their prophetic impulse.”


Over the last decade community cohesion advocates have plotted a pathway to social well-being that is characterised by a shared cosmopolitan identity. Community cohesion thinking arises from the report of the ‘Community Cohesion Review Team’ tasked by the ‘New’ Labour government to explore possible responses to the street violence in some majority Muslim communities in the north of England in 2001.[3] The tenor of the resulting focus on British identity and integration arguably paved the way for the 2011 speech in which Prime Minister David Cameron proclaimed that ‘multiculturalism has failed’.[4] It is difficult to argue against community cohesion but the vision of social well-being it exemplifies is troubling for four reasons. First, such debates essentialise identity and reify dynamic communities. Second, community cohesion thinking can smother distinctiveness leading to an impoverished model of ‘Britishness’. Third, community cohesion advocates overplay the extent of segregation in British cities and underplay the importance of a dynamic multiculturalism characterised by what Cornel West (in a U.S context) has called the ‘cultural politics of difference’.[5] Fourth, the identification of faith groups as the most effective means of facilitating community cohesion as a result of their localised social capital runs the risk of sapping their prophetic impulse and reducing them to co-opted community cohesion units.

Vincent Nich
Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, has described recent benefit cuts as a ‘disgrace’

The second influence on social well-being thinking is found in reflections on the character of the ‘good’ society. Michael Edwards suggests that, ‘tolerance, non-discrimination, non-violence, trust and cooperation…’ represent the building blocks of a ‘good’ society.[6] Joan Rutherhood and Hetan Shah of the centre-left ‘Compass’ think tank suggest that a ‘good’ society is characterised by equality of opportunity, economic equality, the eradication of child poverty, the celebration of diversity, a commitment to racial justice and an ethic of caring for those who are socially excluded.[7]


“Big society’ thinking assumes significant levels of ‘bridging’ social capital – the networks and empowered communities that have been savaged by coalition cuts.”


David Cameron’s speeches about the ‘big society’ arise from his conception of social well-being. In 2011 Cameron suggested that, ‘We need a social recovery to mend the broken society…. [T]hat’s what the Big Society is all about’.[8] Two dilemmas raise serious questions about the capacity of the ‘big society’ to generate inclusive social well-being. First, ‘big society’ thinking assumes significant levels of ‘bridging’ social capital – the networks and empowered communities needed to resource active citizenship that have been savaged by coalition government spending cuts. Second, there is a theological challenge. Imagine you are the Minister of a Church on a multiply deprived housing estate, which provides the base for a range of projects serving vulnerable groups. You rely on grants from the council but they are planning to ban groups from taking hot food out to the homeless because they say it encourages rough sleeping and inconveniences local businesses (something that the London Borough of Westminster considered doing in 2011).[9] You fundamentally disagree but are worried that you might lose your grant if you publicly oppose the council’s plans thereby damaging the social well-being of vulnerable people on the estate. However if you fail to speak out do you turn your back on the prophetic calling of the church to denounce injustice? Do you allow yourself, as Robert Beckford argues, to be ‘bought out’?[10]

Faith and social well-being

Are faith groups the conduits of government social policy or do they have specific counter-cultural contributions to make that can critique dominant understandings of social well-being? Three theological themes can help us to respond to this question.

In 1891 Pope Leo XII asserted that, ‘It is neither just nor humane so to grind men down with excessive labour as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies’.[11] The 1996 Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales re-asserted this theology of the ‘common good’: ‘Catholic Social Teaching sees an intimate relationship between social and political liberation on the one hand, and on the other, the salvation to which the Church calls us in the name of Jesus Christ’.[12] Can a theology of the common good provide political commitments to social well-being with a yardstick against which ‘community cohesion’, ‘good society’ and ‘big society’ practice can be measured? Alternatively, could it be that systemic social exclusion makes it impossible to realise the theological vision of the ‘common good’?


“The liberation theologian Elsa Tamez argues that the Bible reveals a God who ‘takes sides … as one who favours the poor’.”


Within the Hebrew Scriptures the term ‘shalom’ denotes holistic well-being. A shalom ethic emphasises human interconnectedness – internal and external well-being, an emphasis on welcoming the ‘stranger’ and the well-being of whole communities. Shalom spirituality emphasises existential as well as material well-being and can resource a more holistic ‘common good’ theology capable of animating credible social well-being activism that emphasises existential as well economic inclusion.

Sura 49:13 in the Qur’an reads, ‘People, we created you all from a single man and a single woman and made you into tribes and races so that you should get to know one another’.[13] Consequently the exclusion of one person diminishes the social well-being of us all. Within Sikhism the innate worth of all people forms the spiritual foundation of the community kitchen, or langar, where all people, regardless of gender, class/caste or ethnicity eat together on the floor, implicitly echoing the advice of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews in the Christian scriptures, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it…’ (Hebrews 13:2). Where faith groups assert an unconditional ethic of hospitality and a conscious bias to the ‘stranger’ assimilationist models of community cohesion are subverted and work alongside the demonised ‘other’ becomes an enacted parable of our common humanity, perhaps reminding us of the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:43 – ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’.

When ‘well-being’ and the ‘common good’ are just not enough

On the back of the financial crisis of 2009-10 the government promoted its ‘austerity’ programme as the ‘only answer’. Over the last three years we have witnessed the return of levels of poverty not seen in the UK for half a century. Since 2010 the number of people being treated in UK hospitals for rickets (the disease of the poor) has doubled and as many as 500,000 people now rely on food-banks to feed their families (up threefold between 2012-2013).[14] The liberation theologian Elsa Tamez argues that the Bible reveals a God who ‘takes sides … as one who favours the poor’.[15] Within the ministry of Jesus it is those who are considered worthless outsiders who assume a central place in the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ ministry is not characterised by a carefully calibrated enunciation of the common good but by the active prioritising of insignificance and the practice of liberative reversals. A faith-based commitment to social well-being that is premised on such an ethic necessarily critiques models of social policy, depictions of civil society and theological analyses that fail to address systemic inequality, the demonizing of difference or ‘top-down’ theological models that have been constructed by the socially included in isolation from the realities of social exclusion. In order to facilitate the development of inclusive social well-being faith-based activists need to heed the words of Gutierrez and forge ‘a theology done primarily by history’s nameless ones…’ within which the asylum seeker, the unemployed young man on a housing estate, the redundant car worker and the Muslim woman who has chosen to wear the niqab become the blessed ones – those whom God favours.[16]

Chris Shannahan is a Lecturer in Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester and has been engaged in grassroots faith-based political activism for twenty years. He has published and spoken widely about urban theology and social exclusion and political theology. His most recent book A Theology of Community Organizing was published in 2013. Chris blogs at Finding Faith in an Urban World and Faith in an Urban World.



[1] Andrew Grice, ‘War on Wonga’, The Independent, 25 July 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/war-on-wonga-were-putting-you-out-of-business-archbishop-of-canterbury-justin-welby-tells-payday-loans-company-8730839.html (accessed 23/03/2014); John Bingham, ‘Welfare cuts frankly a disgrace’, The Telegraph, 14 February 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10639015/New-Cardinal-Vincent-Nichols-welfare-cuts-frankly-a-disgrace.html (accessed 23/03/2014)

[2] ‘Concepts of Mental and Social Well-Being’, http://www.fph.org.uk/concepts_of_mental_and_social_wellbeing (accessed 18/03/2014).

[3] Independent Review Team, Chaired by Ted Cantle. Community Cohesion, London: Home Office, UK Government, 2001.

[4] Oliver Wright and Jerome Taylor, ‘Cameron – My War on Multiculturalism’, The Independent, 5 February 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/cameron-my-war-on-multiculturalism-2205074.html (accessed 19/03/2014).

[5] Cornel West, ‘The New Cultural Politics of Difference’ in The Humanities as Social Technology, Vol 53, 1990, pp93-109.

[6] Michael Edwards, Civil Society (Cambridge: Polity, 2009), 47.

[7] Joan Rutherford and Hetan Shah, [Eds]. The Good Society – Compass Programme for Renewal. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2006), 15

[8] BBC News Politics, ‘Big Society is my mission, says David Cameron’, 14 February 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12443396 (accessed 05/03/2011).

[9] BBC News London, ‘Plans to ban soup runs near Westminster Cathedral’, 28 February 2011, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-12594397 (accessed 13/05/2014).

[10] Robert Beckford, God and the Gangs. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004), 8.

[11] Web Site http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum_en.html, Pope Leo XII, Rerum Novarum, 1891, paragraph 42 (accessed 23/03/2014)

[12] Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching 1996, Paragraph 39-40.

[13] The Qur’an, translated by M.A.S Abdel Haleem. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p518.

[14] Charlie Cooper and Kunal Dutta, ’Malnutrition Cases Almost Double in Five Years’ The Independent, 17 November 2013), http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/malnutrition-cases-in-english-hospitals-almost-double-in-five-years-8945631.html (accessed 13/05/2014).

[15] Tamez, Bible of the Oppressed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982), 72.

[16] Gustavo Gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History (London: SCM, 1983), 204.

The image of Vincent Nichols is included courtesy of James Bradley and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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