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22 December 2011

Searching for a biblical perspective on striking

by Paul Meneely

This article is published in accordance with the Alliance's Basis of Faith; however, this is a comment piece and therefore is unable to reflect every detail and nuance of belief held by Alliance members. Comment pieces may express views on which there is a divergence of opinion or understanding among evangelicals

Parts of the UK came to a winter standstill once again on 30 November. In Northern Ireland all Translink services were cancelled and around two thirds of the schools were closed. Belfast city centre, however, was alive with action. This was no freak snow storm leaving us huddled around fires in our homes, but rather thousands of public sector workers demonstrating their anger over government proposals to the future of their pensions. The affected group included employees at hospitals, schools and local councils, with the proposals including increasing the amount these workers pay into their pensions, raising the retirement age and introducing career-average pensions.

As a person in my 20s I have never even had to think about industrial action, let alone engage in it myself. At first glance these seemed like justifiable grievances. However, having done some research on the issue and searched for a biblical perspective, these objections may not be as black and white as I once thought. The hope of this article is to act as a starting point for thought for Christians affected by striking, as it, or other forms of industrial action, may become a more regular occurrence. Obviously, it is now reflecting upon the matter, and is in no way to condemn any action already taken, but to encourage thoughtful consideration about the issue for the future.

From a biblical perspective it is possible to adopt a dual approach; based on the command to work, and the desire to fight injustice? From the creation account it is clear that where possible we are made to work: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15). Work is clearly a part of God's desire for our lives and this theme is continued throughout the Old and New Testaments. Going alongside this, with a more specific focus on the issue of striking and pension rows we can recall Peter's challenging belief of being "subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful, of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly". There is also Jesus' specific command: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21).

However, we have also been created to fight injustice and represent the marginalised. We can see this in Isaiah, which calls us to "seek justice, [and] correct oppression". In the current pension rows many workers claim the proposals would do them an injustice. There is a very strong and continued biblical demand upon Christians to love justice and pursue it. In the light of these strikes we should be asking ourselves where pension reform would lie on a scale of injustices? It is appropriate that we consider issues such as pension reform where they affect us but we cannot afford to lose sight of other problems in our world. To name one locally, homelessness is still a prevalent problem in Northern Ireland. In fact, the number of people it affects has risen to nearly 30,000. And this is just one specific example. There are many other issues affecting Northern Ireland today which arguably should be far higher on our list of injustices. This is a view echoed by Alison Elliot, a physical therapist who did not engage in the strikes. She believes we need to give consideration to the battles we choose. She asks: "If we strike under the banner of justice then why are we not taking as big a stand against poverty or lack of clean water?"

This is not to say that in all circumstances striking should be out of the question. There may be situations where industrial action is necessary, but it is essential to ensure we have considered all the information and all other possible forms of negotiation have been exhausted. Industrial action, if it's to be taken, should be with careful and prayerful consideration. With the most recent strikes in mind it is also important to remember the reasons behind the pension reform proposals: life expectancy has greatly increased, with Northern Ireland's average sitting at 78 years. This has resulted in the cost of public sector pensions already going up by a third. Combine this with the much publicised need to reduce the budget deficit and it becomes clear why reforms are needed.

In the coming years industrial action may become a more prevalent issue and as Christians we need to be prepared now about how to respond. It is important that we proactively engage in debate and think seriously about such issues and have a biblical perspective informing our decisions.