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February 2009 Your concerns

How far should we go when we believe the authorities are wrong?

Should Christians protest?

How far should we go when we believe those in authority are acting in ways which are against God’s laws? Caroline Masom talks to two women who have taken different courses of action and raises some questions

‘I want to speak out for those who have no voice’

Marjorie Dowling is a vicar’s wife, charity administrator and mother of two grown-up children. She has been on two major marches, visited London to take part in a mass lobby of MPs and belongs to TIDAL, a Leeds-based group campaigning for the end of global poverty.

Debt and trade justice issues are the ones that really motivate me. I remember one hot day when the kids at school came in from outside and all had a drink of cool water. It really struck me that millions of people in the world don’t have that - they don’t have access to even the most basic facilities. We in the wealthy West should help others, not keep clutching hold of everything for ourselves. As a Christian, I want to use my voice to speak up on behalf of individuals who are unable to help themselves.

In 1998, I went with a friend to the march organised by Jubilee 2000 in Birmingham. It was manageable in a day by train from where I live and it was the first big rally I could practically get to, on the issues I feel most strongly about. There was a fantastic atmosphere and it was a lovely sunny day. I joined the human chain round Birmingham city centre and went to several of the seminars. The organisers were pleased with the numbers of people who came along – 35,000 were expected, but up to 70,000 arrived – and it gave a great impetus to the Jubilee 2000 initiative.

After Birmingham there was a slow, steady build up to the Make Poverty History march in Edinburgh in July 2005, which was a much bigger event with a huge stage and well-known speakers. My local group, TIDAL, organised a special train and we all wore white. We were aware that there was some opposition to the march, and some concern about possible disruption by anarchists, but everyone was polite and well-behaved, and followed the stewards’ instructions, and again the atmosphere was really good.

I’ll certainly go on another march if I’m happy with its aims and organisation. It’s a great way for ordinary people of all ages and descriptions, not just Christians, to come together and directly influence the global policy-makers, who are the people with the power to bring about change.

The Make Poverty History march in particular was a real turning-point, catapulting the issue of debt to the top of the G8 agenda and focusing the attention of financial leaders on the need for justice, rather than charity, for the world’s poor.

There’s definitely a ‘day out’ element to going on a march, and it is tiring, but it’s well worth doing. It’s only a small effort for each individual, but it does make a difference in terms of raising awareness. I found it very humbling to be a part of such a large, diverse group of people united in doing something really significant.

‘I wanted to give something back’

Lesley Dixon has a strong sense of justice, which stems from her Christian faith and is a long-serving Trades Union representative within the NHS.

I was a nursing auxiliary back in the 1970s when my department proposed a change to our work structure which I felt was unfair. I went along to a meeting of COHSE (the Confederation of Health Service Employees) and decided to become a member. They were helpful in the dispute and I wanted to give something back, so I became a representative.

I’ve been a rep ever since, first with COHSE, then with UNISON (now the biggest public sector union, with over 1.3 million members). As a Christian, I believe in fairness in the workplace - and that we should go out and get it. According to the Bible, a worker is worthy of his or her wages and I think that that implies that we shouldn’t have to put up with detrimental terms and conditions.

I’m also a welfare officer for UNISON’s charity, which supports people in need, for instance by offering help with debt problems, or funding a holiday for a single parent. Being a rep is also a way of reaching out and sharing my faith – people do notice that I’m different and ask me why.

As a rep, I have to represent the views of my members, and that can be difficult at times if I happen to have different views myself. However, the rules are that everyone must be respected and treated with fairness and equality, which means listening very carefully to one another.

Part of what I do is supporting people when they’re involved in consultations about different ways of working, making sure that they’re treated fairly and that their concerns are properly addressed.
As part of the Education and Training team, I make sure that there are training opportunities for Union members and support them in their learning, for instance by trying to get an ‘English As A Second Language’ course up and running in the hospital. We recently had a ‘Celebrate Learning’ event, when the hospital and the union signed an agreement and a skills pledge which gives people in the lower pay bands an opportunity to sign up for courses.

We work well with the other unions and the hospital management are very supportive and open with us. I’ve definitely found that things run more smoothly when we’re able to deal with issues early on, sometimes by clarifying matters when there are rumours flying about, or by entering into negotiations in the early stages of potential disputes.

There was a big dispute with some contractors back in the 1990s and some of our members were on strike for four years, picketing outside the hospital. Others chose not to strike and to carry on working, which led to various issues within the local branch which were aggravated by members from elsewhere.

I was able to support both sections, the strikers and the non-strikers, and ended up speaking at the UNISON National Conference in front of 5,000 delegates. The dispute ended with our members winning at an Industrial Tribunal and the laws regulating the transfer of employees from one company to another were changed, so the outcome was positive.

I visited the picket lines during the dispute, but I haven’t been on strike myself. I’d find that difficult. I’m paid by my employer to work, after all, and I’m not sure that I’d feel happy about withdrawing my labour. If it was a really serious case of injustice, I’d have to weigh it and pray about it very seriously at the time.

Questions to consider

* Taking to the streets can be an effective way of gaining publicity for a cause. But are there limits to the action that we as Christians should consider taking? Joining a peaceful march against poverty may be one thing, but is it also OK for Christians go out on strike?
* Does taking to the streets really work in terms of bringing about significant changes in policy? Or is it best to campaign behind the scenes, writing letters, speaking and negotiating on behalf of those who are suffering from the effects of injustice?
* Legally, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association in the UK are enshrined in the Human Rights Act. Biblically, although we are told to submit to those in authority (Romans 13: 1-7), Peter’s teaching in Acts 4: 18-20 indicates that where God’s commands and man’s commands conflict, God’s are to be obeyed. When we see practices which are clearly against God’s laws, we have a mandate for action, even if we find ourselves in conflict with the authorities as a result.

Take it further

You can find out more about some of these issues from the following organisations:

* Christians at Work Tel: 01788 579 738
* Evangelical Alliance Tel: 020 7207 2100 Faith And Nation report, section on Christians and civil disobedience
* Jubilee Debt Campaign Tel: 020 7324 4722
* Make Poverty History c/o BOND, Regent’s Wharf, 8 All Saints St, London N1 9RL
* UNISON Tel: 0845 355 0845

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