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19 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher and Solomon

Margaret Thatcher and Solomon

“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” So reads the old Native American proverb. If we accept those criteria then Margaret Thatcher's life was a great success and a great failure, all at the same time.

Very few people have polarised public opinion as massively as Margaret Thatcher. Even in death, she displayed her ability to excite both admiration and contempt in equal measure. By attending her funeral this week, Queen Elizabeth II effectively raised its status to that of a state funeral. By sending Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead to number two in the charts, thousands of other people expressed a very different assessment of her legacy.

What I find interesting is that my Christian friends are just as divided over Margaret Thatcher's legacy. Within minutes of news breaking of her death, one of my friends who leads a church in London had tweeted that she was a fine Christian woman whose politics saved Britain. A few minutes later, two other friends who are also church leaders posted on Facebook that she did more to promote evil and social injustice than any British leader since the second world war. It made me wonder what Solomon, the wisest ruler of the Old Testament, would want to tell us about her legacy. We aren't left guessing because he uses three different words for "the poor" throughout the book of Proverbs which shed great light on the true legacy of Britain's longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century.

The first word Solomon uses is "atsel", which means "sluggard". It supports Thatcher's view that some people are poor because they refuse to do all they can to help themselves. The Bible won't indulge naivety and over-simplistic answers to the issue of poverty. Thatcher opposed the view that big business is always bad and that state handouts are always good, claiming in her 1979 election campaign that this was why "Labour Isn't Working". She won the election because people agreed with her. So did Solomon, when he writes that "the labourer's appetite works for him; his hunger drives him on" (16:26) and that "one who is slack in his work is brother to the one who destroys" (18:9). Part of Margaret Thatcher's legacy is a recognition that the poor need more than unquestioning welfare and unthinking charity.

But this isn't the complete story. The second word Solomon uses is "ani", which means "oppressed" or "ravaged". He uses it to make it clear that many of those who are in poverty are poor because of the actions of others - through unfair wages, high-interest loans, and an economic system that favours the rich at the expense of the poor. They need to be offered something more than the free market which accentuates their problems. Solomon doesn't just call helping the poor an act of “mercy” (something magnanimous which we might choose to do). He calls it an act of “justice” (something we owe to the poor because they have been made in God's image). Some of the northern towns that celebrated Thatcher's death did so because they felt she forgot this. We haven't grasped her legacy fully unless we recognise that we can all forget it too.

But by far the most common Hebrew word Solomon uses for the poor is the neutral word "rush". It is a word which doesn't tell us whether they are deserving or undeserving. It doesn't have to because God's call for us to help the poor doesn't depend on whether they deserve it but on whether HE deserves it. Solomon tells us that: "Whoever oppresses the poor insults their Maker, but whoever is generous to the needy honours Him" (14:31). When we help the poor regardless of whether we consider them deserving or undeserving, we express the same gospel Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 8:9: "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich." Jesus didn't make distinctions when he shed his blood for the world. He died for all of us, even though none of us were truly deserving, and now he sends us into the world to demonstrate that belief in him is always "good news for the poor".

So we can learn from Margaret Thatcher’s view that some people's poverty is caused by the fact that they are sluggards and that their greatest need is a firm hand. We can also learn from her failure to do enough to help the oppressed, assuming that they could pull themselves up by their own boot straps. And we should be challenged that the poor are still with us today. Margaret Thatcher has now stood before her Maker. For those of us who live on, it is time to consider what our own life's legacy will be.

Phil Moore leads Everyday Church in London (@philmoorelondon). Phil's latest book Straight to the Heart of Solomon was published this week by Monarch Books.