Many people on both sides of the debate have been shocked and alarmed at the rise in abuse towards people from other countries since the result of the referendum. Tanya Marlow is a writer who often explores questions of disability and faith, and she offers here a framework for making sense of what is happening—and offers suggestions for practical action that Christians can take in response.
In a wave of hate crime, Polish people have had cards posted to them calling them ‘vermin’ and telling them to ‘go home’; an Italian man was punched to the ground; a Halal butcher has been firebombed. My British friends abroad have phoned me in a state of confusion. In the light of the racist attacks, they all ask one question, “What has happened to our country?” I reply, “The same thing that’s been happening to disabled people for the last six years.”
There have been six stages to this process:
- Recession. When eight jobs were advertised at Costa Coffee they received 1700 applicants. For the long-term unemployed, zero-hour contracts are the only solution, with low pay, bad hours, and job security. It’s scary.
- Fear leads to anger. We don’t like fear, so we cover it over with anger. We nurse our anger until it’s ready to boil over—then we need somewhere to direct it. The natural place is at the politicians and/or bankers. But the politicians don’t want this, so…
- Politicians decide on a scapegoat to direct the anger away from themselves. For the past six years, that scapegoat has largely been disabled people. Disabled people, dependent on benefits to live a normal life, have been hit by austerity cuts disproportionately hard—disabled people were hit by the cuts nine times more than the average person. The most severely disabled were hit even harder—nineteen times more than the average person.
- Politicians use propaganda to persuade the public to blame the scapegoat. For disabled people, it was ‘skivers versus strivers’, and even ‘scroungers’ in the press. The problem with fraudulent claims was whipped up so much that the public ended up believing the rate of fraud was 27% rather than the actual figure of 0.7%.
- The public direct their anger at the scapegoat instead of politicians, and the cut/change in law passes without protest. Iain Duncan Smith says these cuts for disability benefits will help people get into work, even though the research says the opposite. Most of the public go with the sound bite rather than the facts.
- The anger is still there, and hate crime against the scapegoat soars. Disabled people have been threatened in public, attacked on the streets. Hate crime against disabled people is at its highest level since records began, and continues to rise.
Why? Disability hate crime has always been a problem, but now there is ‘social permission’ to insult and attack disabled people. They are not people: they are ‘fakers’, ‘scroungers’, ‘benefit cheats’, the ones responsible for the economic downfall of the country. As a result, disabled people are afraid to go out, and some turn suicidal. We’ve seen that same pattern with people living in poverty as the scapegoat. People on income-related benefits have been dismissed as alcoholic and drug addicts , lazy, endlessly breeding so they can live off benefits.
But when the cuts to tax credits came, even the omnipresent Benefit Street episodes couldn’t stop the general public—and the church—from protesting that it was wrong to target the working poor. George Osborne did a U-turn and cancelled the cut. Then, in the Spring budget, George Osborne did a U-turn over PIP disability benefit cuts, because of the outcry from the public. It was even a cut too far for Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who dramatically resigned.
So the British public were ripe for a new scapegoat: immigrants.
When the refugee crisis started to emerge, David Cameron kicked off step 4, describing refugees as a ‘swarm’; the Leave Campaign finished the job (consider Nigel Farage’s infamous ‘breaking point’ poster, resembling Nazi propaganda.)
Step 5 (voting Brexit) was a bit of a shock to many, but Step 6—the unleashing of hate crime and racist attacks—should perhaps not be a surprise, given our recent history. Reported hate crimes have apparently increased by 57% in one week, (but there are many more reported only to friends rather than the police): immigrants threatened in the streets; an Italian man punched to the ground; a Halal (Muslim-owned) butcher firebombed. As Aditya Chakrabortty said, now it is seen as ‘OK to be a racist’.
The pattern? Fear; anger; scapegoat; propaganda; law change; violence. The scapegoats? Disabled, LGBT, BAME or elderly people. Anyone who is seen as ‘other’. This same pattern seems to occur in other countries in other times, during an economic depression.
So, what should Christians do about it? It’s hard to know where to start, but here are five things every Christian can be doing to break that cycle.
- Watch our own inner anger. With whom are we angry? Whom are we tempted to scapegoat? Don’t succumb to the politics of hatred.
- Affirm the humanity of all. We are all made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27, 9:6), precious in the sight of God. We need to speak out against racist language, jokes about disabled people, snarky remarks about people living in poverty. When the next scapegoat comes (perhaps the elderly?) we’ll need to speak out again.
- Protect the vulnerable. Start by praying, but follow in action. The Old Testament commanded Israel to look after the poor, the orphan, the widow (e.g. Deut 10:18); Jesus lambasts the Pharisees for not having done this (Matt 23:14,23). There is a clear Christian obligation to care for the vulnerable. When the leadership vacuum has been filled, write to your MP and PM to stop welfare cuts or laws damaging disabled people, those living in poverty, immigrants.
- Tell a better story. Words are powerful. Choose to combat the propaganda by speaking positively about vulnerable people groups.
- Join with initiatives that seek peace and healing.
What has happened to our country? It’s been happening for a while. We’ve got a lot of work to do. My hope is that Christians will play a major part in building a more hopeful future.
Tanya Marlow is an author, blogger, broadcaster and campaigner. She founded Compassionate Britain, a grass-roots campaign against cuts to disability benefits. She has contributed to Soul Bare, stories of authenticity and vulnerability (IVP USA, releasing soon—8th July 2016). Her latest project follows four Bible characters in a season of waiting and doubt (releasing Autumn/Winter 2016). She blogs at Thorns and Gold, where she writes honestly about the Bible, suffering and the messy edges of life. You can get her first book, Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, for free here.