If we don’t understand how people actually live, our solutions won’t really appeal

With bills continuing to rise and projected prices now being tipped to exceed many people’s mortgage payments, Nadhim Zahawi – Chancellor of the Exchequer – has become the first senior minister to suggest households should cut back on their energy usage. In an article in The Times, he is quoted as saying the following:

“The reality is that we should all look at our energy consumption. It is a difficult time. There is war on our continent,” he said.

“Very few people anticipated war. Wars happen in far-flung places. It is now here with us. We have to remain resilient. My responsibility is to deliver that help.”

Such comments come of the back of weeks of proposals from the two Conservative Party leadership hopefuls that will do very little to address the problem. The frontrunner, Liz Truss, has only committed thus far to removing a National Insurance rise, which has been widely reported to barely amount to a drop in the ocean. As I noted in this tweet thread:

For many, this smacks of the old Tory Party. A set of people who simply do not understand, nor seem to have any interest in coming to understand, how the average person lives and an apparent unwillingness to do very much to help them. Just like Norman Tebbit’s ‘get on your bike and look for work’ when there was no work to be had, or Cameron’s raising of the basic rate of income tax despite people on benefits not paying income tax, we now have suggestions of minimal support that will achieve nothing and ministers suggesting people just rein in their energy usage.

Telling people to just use less energy isn’t that helpful when you’re talking to elderly folk who are at high risk of death if they turn the heating off. Suggesting we use less energy when folks have young babies who are particularly vulnerable to the cold doesn’t help either. For the overwhelming majority of people, the heating is not turned on for a lark. We cannot, in the end, control the weather. The most wealthy may feel the pinch and reduce what they might otherwise spend on – which might be a necessary but hardly invidious choice for them – but lower-middle and low-income families may find they are choosing between heating their homes, paying their mortgage or rent and eating. One of these, we are being told, amounts to a luxury now.

We can sometimes fall into this kind of thinking in the church. Why don’t people just believe? Why don’t people accept what we have clearly presented to them? If people were really serious, they would just read the Bible and believe it because it obviously makes sense. But this sort of thinking doesn’t speak to how people really live and think.

In Muslims communities, we may present the gospel to clearly to them. They may even find it logically compelling. But what we are asking them to give up is often far better community and family than we are prepared to offer in return. Nor do we contend with the very real blowback they may face. I don’t downplay for one minute the seriousness and importance of our eternal destiny, but we can end up in light of that, ignoring the reality of people’s everyday lives in the here and now. Essentially, we resolve people’s eternal destiny without recognising the problems we might be creating for them through our solution.

Don’t get me wrong, the gospel is what it is. It’s not a “solution” that we get to play around with. And of course, there will be costs to the gospel. That much is true. But very often, we don’t take proper account of those costs. Because the gospel is true and we believe it, and it also happens to work for us in our culture and community, we don’t really pay much attention to what it means for others. Why would they not just get themselves right with God? What’s their problem? Jesus holds out eternal life and they don’t seem to want it.

The issue, much like what we are seeing with energy prices at the moment, is that we don’t really understand how other people live. We don’t recognise that though our solution might work in some respect, it doesn’t actually appear to help in every respect. In fact, in many ways, it would appear to make life even harder. And our solution in the church – much like risible £20 back on your £5000 energy bill – is to offer people a meeting once per week. That will resolve your ostracization issue, the loss of your family, the turning upside down of everything you have grown up believing. It is a solution that doesn’t really address the actual problem nor understands how many people live.

The same is true for other people in our community too. It doesn’t only apply to Muslims, but anybody whom we are asking to leave everything they know, understand, believe and do and give it up for a meeting once a week and a cursory handshake on the door. Would you leave behind your friends and family, whom you know will forsake you, and possibly move areas altogether because of the difficulties you will face if you don’t, if somebody offered that to you? I can see why many don’t find it very appealing.

Unless we actually understand how people live, and the real issues they face day by day, we aren’t going to offer them credible answers. Unless we properly grasp what we are asking them to give up, we aren’t going to offer them anything credible that might fill the gap. Just as it helps for government’s to know how people live if they are to provide credible solutions, so we need to understand how people live if the church is to offer real answers and helpful responses to the realities they face too.