縮沙:以色列人流浪曠野的教訓

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當年,以色列人從埃及的奴隸生活被拯救出來,在曠野中待了兩年多,與上帝立約,也受了上帝所頒的法律,終於到了迦南應許之地,只需要過河攻打便可以。以色列的探子去窺探迦南,回來時向民眾宣告,那地的確是好地,上帝沒有說謊。然而,他們眼前看見了那地的居民強大,竟然縮沙,嚷著要回到埃及去。上帝大發烈怒,懲罰以色列人要在曠野流浪四十年。

祝福明明已擺在眼前,怎麼在臨門一腳時半途而廢?更不可思議的是,以色列人竟然想回到埃及去過做奴隸的日子。他們不是才嚷著要上帝拯救嗎?人總是覺得隔離飯香,面對極美好的救恩時,原來也是這樣。

「埃及」是代表罪惡,人在「埃及」只會被奴役。上帝以重價將人從籠牢中救出來,並與他建立關係,提升他的地位到子嗣。但來到永生以前,人在世要緊緊跟隨上帝,可能要在「曠野」中煎熬,也要面對「攻克迦南」前的不安、恐懼、甚至痛苦。人不想入美地也就算了,但他怎能埋怨上帝從罪惡中把他救出來呢?對不明朗的前境恐懼也許是正常的,但忘恩負義卻難以赦免。難怪上帝會如此「絕」,要以色列人流浪多年才進入安息。

要怎樣怕都好,請不要埋怨上帝將你帶到今日的境況裡。昨天的境況一定不被今天好。祂的應許已擺在眼前,請不要縮沙,要勇敢爭取。只有在順境中順服上帝,在逆境中卻多多埋怨,又不按祂的旨意行,倒不如去拜黃大仙,尋求「有求必應」算了。

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Rethinking the welfare state

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Jobseekers outside a Jobcentre Plus

"Will work for food? As you should!"

In 1948, Clement Attlee’s acceptance of the Beveridge report paved the way for Britain’s transformation into a “welfare state”. Sixty years later, after piecemeal additions and amendments by successive Governments, Britain’s welfare system has grown into a complex and expensive behemoth, with nearly 50 types of payments available, administered by many different agencies, and the welfare budget gobbling up more than a quarter of Britain’s public expenditure, while costing more than what the Government receives in income tax.

It is blindingly obvious that the system needs a massive overhaul. Not only does it need simplification, but the gaping hole in the nation’s public finances means that welfare reform must reduce the burden on the public purse. Those aims were the two key motivators of the reform package formally announced this week by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith. His aim is to ensure that people are not given the illusion that a life on benefits pays better than a life in employment, and the flagship proposal is to condense dozens of work-related benefits into a single “Universal Credit”, topped up any extra circumstances such as disability. Meanwhile, other benefits will be reduced in value and eligibility, or scrapped altogether. At the heart of it, the current phase of welfare reform is not just about simplification or cost-cutting, but fundamentally changing the relationship between the British state and citizen forever.

There is no doubt that a good welfare system is essential for modern society. It is right that society rewards those who have contributed (e.g. with pensions), supports those who are in difficulty because of circumstances beyond their control (e.g. with unemployment and disability benefit), or invests in actions that will generate positive economic and/or social externalities (e.g. child benefit). But there are strong cases for root-and-branch review of the benefits provided under the system, particularly given changes in social circumstances, disincentives created by benefits, the poor direction of certain benefits, and the negative consequences of undue Government influence in the market.

An example of a benefit that needs reform because of changing social circumstances is the state pension. It is widely recognised that the age when people can begin to claim state pension should rise. Under the Government’s plans, such changes have only been sped up; the fundamental argument is not contested.

The case for disincentives created by benefits is also well-proven. The current system is rigged in a way so that people are discouraged from taking low-paid jobs. Slowing down the speed with which unemployment benefits are withdrawn when someone finds work is sensible, and although there must be penalties for abusing the system, the Government’s plans are, in some cases, overzealous, such as taking away job-hunting time by requiring certain categories of the unemployed to undertake menial tasks.

Thirdly, some existing benefits are so poorly directed that they might as well just be giveaways. Take, for example, the health in pregnancy grant, which is about to be abolished. All a woman has to do to receive a no-questions-asked £190 from the taxpayer is to be 25 weeks pregnant. Not only is this almost duplicated by the Sure Start maternity grant, which pays a mother £500 for having a baby, there is no control over how the money will be spent. Much more effective in terms of investing in our nation’s children is the Healthy Start scheme, which provides expectant mothers with vouchers to buy milk and other recognsied essentials to a healthy baby.

The final problem with some of today’s benefits is perhaps the most controversial—Government interference in the market. One of the most hotly debated benefits to be reformed is housing benefit. Currently, it means that the Government pays low-income households to live where they would normally be unable to afford. There are no criteria for recipients to be in employment. I find the principle of this benefit to extremely unsettling—bordering on bonkers.

Simply put, the benefit is gravely unfair to those who are taxed to pay for it. Why should a working person who cannot afford to live in a desirable area subsidise someone who does not work to live in that same area? Government subsidies to landlords are also inefficient. Not only are such transfers not directly economically productive, they have the effect of driving up rent in desirable areas, adding to the injustice suffered by tax-paying workers who are priced out from desirable areas even more.

Critics say that reducing housing benefit will drive poor people out of areas that they currently live in. This, they argue, will destroy social fabric and cause the ghettoisation of cities, where the poor are hemmed into undesirable parts of town where jobs may be lacking. Yet this argument is deeply flawed. First, community is fluid. People have always migrated in and out of different areas, changing the community with such movements. The argument for paying people to stay put in order to retain community bonds is, in the long run, a poor one.

Secondly, “ghettoisation”, if carefully managed, can have benefits. No longer are certain parts of town naturally geographically undesirable, as they used to be in the industrial revolution. Undesirable city districts are so because of a historical lack of investment. By allowing people to naturally move into parts of town that they can afford themselves, the Government will find it easier to concentrate on improving infrastructure and life chances for the whole area’s residents, rather than leave different authorities to deal with scattered pockets of poverty within their areas. The Government can also subsidise transport for poor people, so that they can still travel to where jobs are. The subsidy can be considered as an indirect investment in infrastructure, which is infinitely better than subsidising private landlords, who may not recycle the money back into the economy.

For the past sixty years Britain’s welfare system has served the country extremely well, but to continue to be fit for purpose it requires fundamental changes to how it functions. The Government’s plans are bold, and they are the right steps towards ensuring that society continues to reward those who work hard, and protect those who are vulnerable.

Greater than life: a reflection on Remembrance

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"We will remember."

At 11 am yesterday, Britain stood still for two minutes to commemorate the lives lost during the First World War and subsequent conflicts. The annual ceremony demonstrates the respect that the nation still has for the members of the armed forces, despite their now decade-long engagement in an increasingly unpopular war.

It is perhaps easy to account for the reasons why people join the military—the chance of adventure, the provision of a structured lifestyle, or simply the prospect of a stable job. But that does not explain why someone who has joined may later, under enemy fire, run into the open to drag a wounded civilian to safety, or jump on to a nearby live grenade to shield his comrades from the blast.

This type of selfless commitment helps explain why there is still so much respect for our armed forces, even though many of us have moral qualms about what they are trained to do. Some may say that that those selfless acts are brave; others may say that they are foolish. Yet I believe that it is neither bravery nor foolishness that drives people to commit these selfless acts, but passion—specifically, passion for something that is greater than one’s own life. Whether that passion is for God, country, duty, a mate, or even a random stranger, soldiers have often done things on the battlefield that contradict the natural instinct of self-preservation. In the heat of battle, the soldier displaying selflessness often put their own lives under great risk.

The ideal of living—and dying—for passion in something greater than oneself is cherished in the Bible. David claims in Psalm 63:3 that God’s love is greater than life. Jesus says in John 15:13 that greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jesus’ own life was about denying the self in the service of others). Other religions, in their own ways, also preach the virtues of self-denial. There are, of course, limits to the benefits of a self-denying act, especially if the same act denies others of certain rights, as a suicide bomber would be doing. But the mentality of self-denial is still a laudable and attractive one. This simultaneously explains why the nation is happy to take two minutes out of its busy life each year to commemorate its fallen, and why there seems to be a limitless supply of suicide bombers to create more fallen for the nation to commemorate.

Talking about dying for others may be a bit morbid, but the other side of the same coin is talking about the living for others. While we are alive, are we passionate in living for something greater than ourselves? It doesn’t have to be grand; it just means that whatever we are doing, we are doing it for more than just ourselves—for our partners, friends, family, employers, employees… Selfless commitment has always been a difficult lesson for humans, a self-preserving race, to learn. But on the occasion of Remembrance week, let us not only remember those who have paid the ultimate price for us, but reflect upon what we can do for something that is greater than ourselves, even our lives.

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