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Reform Magazine | May 23, 2024

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A good question: How divided is our society? - Reform Magazine

A good question: How divided is our society?

One question, four answers

‘The Church has a better story’

The causes of our divisions and fractures are longstanding. The story of the modern west is built around the idea of radical individualism as the dominant operating system. This is a system that inevitably leads to tribalism. We are seeing the failure of a culture which has infected our way of living. It has found its way into political ideologies of both the right and the left: in neoliberal economic policy in terms of globalisation, and in the activism of hyper-liberal identity politics. Both undermine our common humanity.

The symptoms are increasingly clear: we see the evisceration of civic life, social isolation and loneliness, the breakdown of trust, contempt for different views, the commodification of human beings and nature, and so on. These trends long pre-existed coronavirus and are accelerated by the crisis. Despite hopeful signs of neighbourliness during lockdown, it is going to take more than a public health campaign to build the resilience needed.

But there is within the memory of the Church a better story, an alternative imagination. Expressed in Scripture through the language of covenant, it has an expansive meaning which can have a transformational effect on our relationships and our communities…

Jenny Sinclair is Founder Director of Together for the Common Good, helping people across the churches play their part to strengthen the bonds of social trust.


‘Differences need not divide us’

The events of 2020 have drawn attention to – and deepened – some significant inequalities in British society. Mortality rates from Covid-19 have been much higher in deprived areas and among people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, who are more likely to live in overcrowded housing and work in frontline roles with higher risks of exposure.

The economic impacts of the lockdown have also been unevenly distributed, exacerbating poverty. Lower paid workers are more likely to have lost their jobs, with those on insecure temporary or agency contracts being at particularly high risk. Younger workers, those from BAME communities and those with caring responsibilities have been disproportionately affected. In May, around a quarter of the lowest paid workers in the UK had been placed on furlough, while only 6% of the top fifth of earners had been furloughed.

This loss of income means families living in poverty have been under increasing pressure, with foodbanks telling us more children are going hungry, and research showing that parents of young children have experienced the biggest impact on their mental health…

Simeon Mitchell is the United Reformed Church’s Secretary for Church and Society, and Deputy Team Leader of the Joint Public Issues Team

‘Great politicians reach out across the divides’

It is a common concern that our country is becoming more divided than ever before in its political views. The binary choice in the 2016 EU referendum divided us, almost equally, into leavers and remainers. Four years later, the division is as stark today as it was then, with opinion polling suggesting that few people have shifted in their view of EU membership in the intervening period.

The problem is arguably even more acute in Scotland, with a split between unionists and nationalists, again both representing roughly equal numbers of the population. Six years on from a bitter and divisive referendum in 2014, there is little sign of a healing or coming together of those with diametrically opposing views as to the future of the country. It is a constant source of frustration that debates about the need to build a stronger, fairer economy, to tackle the climate crisis, or to improve public services, are crowded out because of our continuing focus on divisive constitutional debates.

Too often, political leaders thrive on division. We only have to look across the Atlantic to see a US President who, at every turn, seeks to divide rather than bring together, and who sees opportunity in building walls rather than tearing them down…

Murdo Fraser is MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, and patron of the Conservative Christian Fellowship


‘Hairline cracks begin to gape’

On the surface, our society appears to be pretty together. Many people point to the ‘multicultural, inclusive and tolerant’ society we enjoy. ‘We don’t all agree on everything,’ they say, ‘but everyone has the freedom to be.’ Is that true? Scratch the surface and you soon find people living below the breadline; people whose default experience is negotiating sexism, classism, racism, homophobia; people who face exclusion due to physical or mental impairments. People whose situations frequently go unnoticed or ignored.

So long as everyone quietly ‘knows their place’ and toes the line, the system appears to work and life goes on smoothly. When people start to shout too loudly, however, the hairline cracks begin to gape. No one wants to hear or accept that they are unjustly privileged, that they contribute to another’s misfortune. Hearing evidence to the contrary is an uncomfortable – even painful – experience. Some people will risk hearing and trying to redress the uncomfortable truths. Some will go into denial, get angry, make excuses, and even blame those at the bottom of life’s pile for the situation in which they find themselves…

Karen Campbell is United Reformed Church Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries


These are extracts from an article published in the October 2020 edition of Reform

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