March 2000

Lutheran bishops in defence of the Nordic welfare State

From Trade Union News from Finland, 24 February 2000

By Juhani Artto

"International organisations must increase the pressure against States which approve of unethical acts such as child labour, environmental destruction or repression of the trade union movement."

Asked to guess, who published this demand last year, few Finns would immediately consider the bishops of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland. This, however, is the right answer. The statement is part of the booklet "Towards the Common Good", in which the bishops express their worries about current antisocial trends in the world - Finland included.

The booklet is a direct attack against the antisocial character of the neo-liberal policies determining the present model of globalisation. The text strongly defends the welfare State created in the Nordic countries in the latter half of the 20th century and warns of the threats which this system nowadays faces.

Finns have learnt not to expect such criticism and forthright statements from the church's traditionally conservative upper hierarchy.

About 85 per cent of the Finnish population are members of the Evangelical-Lutheran church. Despite its large representation, on the political scene the church has principally been viewed as right-wing and the bourgeois political parties have emphasised church values in their campaigns. The left and the trade union movement, on the other hand, have long had a cordial but low-profile relationship with the church.

While this is still the case, the latest developments give new nuances to the old relationship.

The church adopts hunger and debt issues

In Finland, as in many other countries, the church has played an active and visible role in the Jubilee 2000 campaign demanding cancelling of the foreign debt of poor countries. One domestic reason for the new solidarity is the increasing gap between the rich and the poor and the growing pressure to undermine the Nordic welfare State.

The Bishop of Helsinki, Eero Huovinen, heads the team known as the Hunger Group, which has appealed to decision-makers to stop the growing marginalisation of the long-time unemployed, less well-educated young people, the mentally handicapped and certain other social groups. In a recent interview for Palkkatyöläinen, the monthly SAK magazine, Bishop Huovinen speaks for the role of States as defenders of their weakest citizens.

In the mid 1990s more than 200 parishes established registered food banks to support thousands of people who could no longer afford to feed themselves adequately. The need for the banks still remains and many of them are continuing their work, even though the Finnish economy is performing at a higher level and more competitively than ever before.

The anger and concern of church activists is well reflected on the joint website of the parish food banks: "The cold truth in Finland is that as the year 2000 dawns some people are still suffering from hunger".

"Over the last few years there has been a glaring increase in inequality. Many of our neighbours are forced to save in their food purchases, having no alternative. Parishes and assistance organisations have had to assume society's responsibilities and respond to growing distress by distributing food packages", the text continues.

Cooperation with the unemployed

The parish church food banks and organisations of the unemployed work closely together in many cities.

One of the groups also identified by the authorities as being at risk of marginalisation is the long-term unemployed. In the early years of the 1990-1994 recession hardly anybody had been out of work for longer than two years. By 1996, however, the number of such unemployed workers peaked at 59,000. Since then the economy has grown and unemployment has fallen but there still are 47,000 people who have been out of work for more than two years.

Eero Huovinen and the other bishops are not only concerned about the weakest groups in Finland and elsewhere but also about how the free movement of capital even makes stronger market players vulnerable. The bishops speak clearly in favour of a State with the means to work for the common good and in favour of more international regulation of capital movements.

It is no wonder that the bishops won applause from circles not so accustomed to this role, and criticism for their "lack of expertise" from representatives of the business community.

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