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26 July 2013

Welby vs Wonga

Welby vs Wonga

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, didn’t make the headlines yesterday because he spoke out against the payday loan companies; it was his unexpected approach that captured people’s attention. I hope it captures our imaginations too; not just when it comes to the big issues of the day, but for each of us as we go about our day-to-day life.
 
There is growing pressure for something to be done about companies like Wonga, and rightly so. It is a scandal that they can prey on the vulnerable in the way they do. It’s shocking that legislation has been so slow to catch up. It’s heartbreaking to see the impact – thousands more people becoming trapped by poverty.
 
Welby’s war against Wonga had a surprising twist. His plan is for the Church to become a more central player in the money lending business by expanding the Church of England’s credit unions. He told the boss of Wonga, “We’re not in the business of trying to legislate you out of existence; we’re trying to compete you out of existence.” Fighting talk. But this isn’t about waving fists, this is about offering solutions.
 
But hang on a minute. What does the Bible have to say about this? In the Old Testament money lending – if interest is charged – is frowned upon (e.g. Exodus 22:25). In the New Testament, we read that Jesus goes further, don’t expect loans to be repaid, give freely (Luke 6: 30-35). And doesn’t the whole idea of churches running loan schemes get a little too close to the well-known ‘angry Jesus’ story where he overturned the tables of the temple money changers (Matthew 21:12,13)?
 
Citing ‘proof-texts’ is always a dangerous business. We need to zoom-out and as we do this we see that this is an idea that has Jesus written all over it. It’s about working within the economic system of the day in a way that benefits the vulnerable. It’s about taking sides with those trapped in poverty. It’s about being “as shrewd as snakes and as innocents as doves” (Matthew 10:16). After all, this idea is not about generating income for the Church; credit unions are owned by their members – this is about ensuring that people don’t get rich by exploiting the poor.
 
There’s a lot we can learn from this approach – it’s not about standing on the side lines waving our fists and criticising, it’s about entering the playing field and being the change we want to see. (That’s not to say that there isn’t a time for fist waving; take, for example, Andy Walton’s successful Twitter campaign that persuaded Bolton Wanderers Football Club to turn their back on a sponsorship deal with another payday loan company, QuickQuid.)
 
When Daniel found himself exiled in Babylon, he found himself in a society where many of the values, beliefs and behaviours were not only unfamiliar, but stood against what he believed acceptable. Sound familiar? In exile, Daniel didn’t stand on the sidelines, he entered the playing field and he sought to make a positive difference. But there were times he knew, that as a follower of God, he had to stand his ground. For example, he refused to eat the food and wine from the king’s table (probably because it wasn’t kosher). We can learn a lot from how Daniel made his stand – he did so respectfully and he didn’t force others to conform to his ideals. The result was that people saw that living God’s way was the best way to live.
 
In a society that is increasingly disconnecting from its biblical roots, we’ll all find ourselves confronted with situations that, as a follower of God, make us angry. But perhaps we would do well to follow the example of Daniel and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
 
Instead of standing on the sidelines waving our fists we should enter the fray and shine like lights. It’s less about forcing change, and more about offering a better way, providing evidence that God’s way might just be the best way after all.
 
Postscript:
No sooner had I sent this FNT to the editor, the news broke that the Church of England had indirectly invested in Wonga. This unfortunate revelation does not change anything that I have written. This morning the Archbishop has been responding comprehensively.  But it does go to show how we must be on our guard so we don't get so caught up in the systems around us that we loose our distinctiveness and become part of the problem.
 
Phil Green is programmes manager at the Evangelical Alliance. 


Previous article by David Barclay about Wonga in December 2012