As you read this, the twelve days of Christmas are drawing to an end and the feast is over for another year. I imagine many of us would quite happily not see another turkey sandwich or mince pie for about another eleven months - but the shocking truth is that this is not the case for everyone in our nation at this time.
The Feeding Britain report, released just before Christmas, makes uncomfortable reading because, as the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed out, we are used to seeing this level of deprivation in other countries, not among our own compatriots and neighbours.
A contributor to Radio Four’s Thought for the Day similarly alluded to the unsettling mix of emotions that come over us when we encounter a homeless person begging on the street. The questions abound: Can what I give ever be enough? Is what I give really going to change anything or rather just sustain a far-from-perfect existence? Isn’t this the same man who was sitting here last week, last month, last year? But equally: who am I to deny a moment’s comfort or warmth at the point of need? How easily could that be me sitting there?
I have no easy answers to these questions; we each have to come to our own conclusions about how to respond. But I hope we can at least agree that this is not how we want our society to be.
I’m proud that my students, like many others up and down the land, engage enthusiastically and passionately with charitable causes of all sorts, not least those in support of the homeless and hungry. The money raised as a result is fantastic, of course, and vital, but what I really hope we can encourage in our schools is a sense in which an emotional engagement with the issues lying behind the suffering, and with the human beings affected by it, is just as important as the handing over of cash, however generously.
There seems to me to be a risk that in responding with a purely rational solution we generate little more than a remote transaction involving no emotional sacrifice on the part of the giver and reducing the prospect of lasting structural change.
In launching his report on food banks, the Archbishop of Canterbury was quoted as saying that ‘the gift of food, delivered with compassion and a listening ear, can begin a remarkable process. It helps to forge a connection...’ He’s right: we know that the true value of ‘breaking bread’ together is not so much the food but the inescapable element of relationship that is inherent in the act. It’s costly and perhaps frightening because we can no longer keep the issues at arm’s length nor shed a few coins whilst walking on without making eye contact. But it needs to be part of the process.
My hope for our schools is that we can promote the message that knowing facts is invaluable but that rational knowledge can never exist in isolation from understanding the complexity of human existence, and then being prepared to wrestle with the issues it throws up and to act to change it.