Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Friday, 28 March 2014

How Christians should be tackling poverty in the UK.

If as we have argued in the previous blog poverty in the UK is absolute, and best described in terms of destitution, gross inequality and oppression, what is to be done? How should Christians, working through their local churches and alongside other people of goodwill in their communities be striving to make a difference?

First of all we have to admit that it is not going to be possible, this side of the return of Christ to abolish poverty and injustice altogether. This is not so much that as Jesus put it, "the poor you will always have with you" for it is possible to read these words as an ironic commentary on Deuteronomy 15;11…. addressed to a disobedient people... In John's gospel (12;4-6) he was in fact responding to Judas the crooked banker in the midst of the disciples. Indeed as he earlier verse in Deuteronomy (15.4) has it .. there need be no poor among you for God has given you a rich and fertile land. And with the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 4 the church in Jerusalem demonstrated how it was possible to abolish poverty within a community.

The difficulty rather is that there are huge social, economic and ideological forces ranged against the poor in the contemporary world..It is these, whether understood in terms of secular politics, or as structural sin "embodied" in the "powers and principalities" that rule in the heavenly realms that will obstruct and hinder in our struggles. But that does not mean that nothing can be done or that we are always doomed to impotence and defeat.

There are three main levels at which we should be working, which are in Boff's terms the personal, the pastoral and the political.

At the personal level it is morally impossible for a Christian or any human being, who having food and other resources to pass by on the other side when we see a brother or sister who is destitute and starving. We are bound to share what we have and to give generously following the example of God who has graciously given us all things. There is in this sad world a place for food banks, soup kitchens and furniture stores and the churches and communities of Britain have recognized this and responded. Many of us already give food, money and unpaid labour in such projects. However, charity is not enough – even at the individual and household level. We can go one step further by helping people with signposting and advice, advocacy in face of bureaucracy, in offering money management courses and credit unions, programmes to address addictions, job clubs, mentoring and job creation enterprises that may make people self-sufficient economically, and new hope in Christ whereby individuals may see their personal lives turned around.

Yet still this is merely doing to and working for, or serving the poor. At the pastoral level it is better by far in terms of humanity and empowerment, and in following the example of Jesus if we can walk alongside the poor, in solidarity with them, in listening to and amplifying their voices and the stories of their experience, and in learning from them something of the depth of faith that keeps them going, and the blessedness they have been promised. Some of us may be called to be involved in radical new Christian communities such as the Comfort Zone in Blackpool, others to move in and live deep (as the Eden Network puts it) in deprived urban neighbourhoods, if we are not there already either as a lifestyle choice or constrained through our own lack of wealth.

At the political level the challenge is even greater. We can of course use our votes, write to our MPs and Councillors or lobby the government. We may advocate for specific reforms, such as the end of benefit sanctions and the bedroom tax, for curbs on legal loan sharks and a capping of interest rates, for fair fuel tariffs, for the introduction of the living wage. We can join and support campaigning groups such as Church action on Poverty and CPAG. We can even join a political party, and stand for election, or infiltrate local political structures such as community forums and health boards and seek to make a constructive difference there. People supporting and advocating justice persistently in democratic societies do sometimes win small victories and bring in worthwhile reforms – the names of Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury easily come to evangelicals' minds.

However, history seems to teach us that long term and deep rooted political and social change comes through the struggles of organised social movements. The trade unions, the Indian Independence movement inspired by Gandhi, the Civil Rights movement led my Martin Luther King are the most obvious examples. Christians are often far too reluctant to take part in organized resistance and the struggles of the dispossessed. In today's society we need to engage in new forms of organising, using electronic social media, subverting the stories of the mass media and mass lobbies and demonstrations. Make Poverty History in 2005 showed that the churches in Britain could mobilise for international justice. Why can't we do it for economic and social justice in our own land?

But even this is not enough. Increasingly politics is about narratives and the powerful forces linked with neo-liberal economics seem to have persuaded all the parties that they can only win elections by persuading voters in the "squeezed middle" that they support the interests of hard working people. The rhetoric is about "the strivers" against the non working "scroungers". Of course here they intend us to understand the reference to the poor, the unemployed and the welfare dependent, rather than the non – working scroungers who make fortunes by gambling with vast sums of capital, and find ways of dodging taxation on their ill gotten gains. As Christians committed to the equal value of all human beings before God, and to greater generosity and equality in society, we need tell convincingly a counter narrative. We will need the best of our Christian and progressive economists to bring forward sound alternatives to neo-liberal dogma. And we will need to find powerful communicators with access to the media to publicly and prophetically declare a different truth.

Though we may not succeed in abolishing poverty until kingdom come, we can at least make some difference if we can work together in the Spirit of Jesus at all these different levels.

There is an interesting Catholic take on Matt 24;11 here http://www.catholiccincinnati.org/56108/the-poor-you-will-always-have-its-not-a-prediction/

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