Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Tuesday, 6 June 2023

Is there still Faith in the City?

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

A theology of charity moving beyond naive grace

A PDF version of this piece can be downloaded HERE

Greg Smith February 2023

I am writing this article in response to a series of pieces (one by myself) in Jon Kurht's Grace and Truth blog. The articles there are reflections on the motives, methods and theology of Christian social action, charity and community work.

I am also aware of an excellent recent academic paper by Shannahan and Denny based on research for the Life on The Breadline Project. Interviewing a wide range of church leaders and activists who are engaged in work addressing poverty, austerity policies and the cost of living crisis they identify four main (sometimes overlapping) approaches; caring, advocacy, enterprise, community building. Exploring underlying theological frameworks the authors advocate contextually appropriate methods based on liberation theology. While I am sympathetic to their analysis and conclusions I am concerned that the reflections of church leaders framed in an academic article may not connect well to the experience of ordinary Christian believers who are usually the volunteers on whom such activity and projects depend. So I am aiming at teasing out a more ordinary theology, drawing on what I have heard from Christians over 40 years in particular understandings and consequences of the bible verses, hymns and songs they refer to when talking about their attempts to ameliorate poverty.

It's their own Fault

First of all it is important to recognise that there remains a significant group of UK Christians who have little or no concern for poverty, or even deny its existence. I think of this group as the "contras" and perceive them as upper or middle class traditionalists, who are likely to vote Tory and support austerity measures and free market policies. They often argue that religion and politics should not mix, the church should not express political concerns, that faith and belief are a purely private matter. If arguing theologically they might foreground Bible verses such as "blessed are the poor in Spirit", and Jesus quoting from Deuteronomy when he said "the poor you will always have with you". 1 They may point out that when Peter and John met the beggar in the temple they sang "silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee" and the priority is the good news of Jesus which brings miraculous healing, and eternal salvation through trusting in what he did by dying on the cross.

In the 1980's Margaret Thatcher's comments that St Paul insisted that a person who will not work shall not eat, and that the Good Samaritan was clearly a successful enough businessman to have money to pay the innkeeper, resonated deeply with this group.They locate the causes of poverty firmly in personal behaviour and attitudes rather than in structural disadvantage. A survey for The Evangelical Alliance in 2015 (p14-15) demonstrated that this interpretation on UK poverty is almost universal among Christians. Blaming people facing poverty is misguided . Jesus did not blame either the blind man or his parents and their sins for his disability, but he did tell a paralytic to take up his bed and walk (rather than to continue to beg, and directly addressed and forgave the sins of the man let down through the roof. So understanding the social structures that lead to poverty does not mean we can deny individual agency and personal responsibility as I argued in my previous blog 2

Loving your neighbour.. When I needed a neighbour

On the other hand the large majority of active Christians seem to have a kinder and more generous spirit. They readily give to and serve in Food banks, Soup Kitchens, and appeals to assist refugees and asylum seekers, or victims of domestic violence. They often refer to the second great command "love your neighbour as yourself" or the ending of the parable of the sheep and the goats, "in as much as you did it onto the least of these you did it to me"3. They might think of Sydney Carter's hymn "when I needed a neighbour"

The question of "who is my neighbour" may come to mind. Not surprising then that, another favourite reference is the parable of the Good Samaritan. People in poverty can be seen as "the man who fell among thieves" and it is a Christian's duty to offer first aid and provide a bed for the night, This may be missing a key theme of the Story that it was the despised "other" rather than the religious people who showed kindness and was a good neighbour. It is probably not enough; as more are coming to realise we need to go up the road (upstream) to investigate and deal with the bandits who are mugging passing travellers. Indeed Anne Morissey wrote a significant book on the call to go Beyond the Good Samaritan.

Generosity and grace with no limits

Another key motivating theme is the boundless love of Jesus, and the call to imitate his life. People still ask the question: "What would (or did) Jesus do?" The greatest love was that he laid down his life for his friends. The famous memory verse John 3'16 God so loved the world …. and sent his son not to condemn the world, can be interpreted exclusively as applying to evangelism but also transfers to charitable works. Even the rich young ruler comes to mind whom Jesus told sell all you have and give to the poor. St Francis of Assisi took it literally and continues to inspire thousands. So for Christians the idea of putting any boundaries or limits on our loving response to people in need tugs at our heartstrings, and stretches our deeply rooted theology. For we live and are saved by the unmerited grace of God, who in the words of the old gospel song "giveth and giveth and giveth again". We can't help wonder sometimes if God was naïve in loving me, and so sometimes it must be OK if we are naïve in giving to others.

Moving beyond Charity.

So far we have been dealing with a simple theology that motivates people to be kind and compassionate and to offer help to people in need. The problems with staying at this point include:

  • Giving unconditional help may not address underlying problems faced by the recipient

  • It may lead to long term dependency

  • It places the donor at the centre, giving them arbitrary control of the transaction, a warm feeling about doing good, and a Saviour complex

  • It can become a substitute for presenting the gift and challenge of the Good News about Jesus

  • It fails to recognise systemic patterns, and social and economic which explain the struggle against poverty and disadvantage

  • It focuses on individuals and families as helpless victims

  • Donors can be naive in accepting incomplete or false stories told by people who "game the system".

We move on now to consider Bible passages which may be used to develop a more wholistic approach to social action. For many of these insights I remain indebted to Jim Punton and Roger Dowley who in the 1980s gave me the key to a radical and deeper way of approaching Scripture.

Personal empowerment and transformation

There is much in the OT that suggests that God will bless and bring prosperity to people who follow his commandments (Deuteronomy speaks of a land flowing with milk and honey) and the opposite will apply, and historically does when his people do the opposite.. But note it is usually for the nation or wider community, rather than for individuals..and involves living and working together in building a society of justice, equality and solidarity.. The book of Nehemiah relates how returning exiles built together a new Jerusalem, and has been referred to as a manual for community development.

The NT also speaks of blessing, and testifies to the power of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit bringing, healing, salvation and transformation to individuals who are among the poor and oppressed. But it never promises a life totally without suffering in this age, if anything the opposite if disciples remain faithful. And the blessings listed by Jesus in Matthew 5 are a mirror image of what most people think of as blessings. There is no basis for a prosperity gospel as the solution to poverty. So while we may pray and work for the transformation of individuals and communities, and encourage people in need to trust in God, or as Alcholics and other "Anonymous" groups do, to draw on "a higher power", we can never "command" a blessing.

Prophecy and Justice

A concern with social justice drawing on the writings of the Hebrew prophets is not a new invention, for it was found in the early church, in the reformers and Puritans, and the 19thC abolitionists. Among Western evangelicals it re-emerged following the Lausanne congress from the mid 1970s Micah 6 8 about acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God, and Isaiah 58;6 on the fast God desires are often cited.. Another key text is Amos 5; 24 which Graham Kendrick -referenced in his song O Lord the clouds are gathering)

There are challenges about the interpretation and application of such texts. In a western Protestant worldview it is easy to limit thinking and action to cases of injustice affecting individuals, and to respond mainly with attempts at rescue, care and advocacy of persons and particular cases. Yet when taken up by protestors and reformers in the church. It can lead to political lobbying as in Make Poverty History, and initiatives such as Fair Trade, anti trafficking groups, and climate justice action. It's not so clear that movements concentrating on the UK such as Housing Justice, or Evangelical Christians for Racial Justice have taken off well enough to change policies. This is mainly because of the hegemony of right wing governments, but partly because many conservative Christians don't accept structural analysis, and are uncomfortable with alliances with secular and other faith radicals who they suspect of"wokery".

The poor and oppressed in Scripture.. God is on their case

The OT law emphasises compassion for the widow, the orphan and the refugee with many detailed commands and provisions for their welfare. God's people were called to be a community of shalom, that would be a light to the Gentiles, but sadly failed, time and time again.

The Bible has hundreds of verses that refer to poverty and oppression and generally indicates that God has a special concern for people in poverty. Here is a starter list drawn up by World Vision

An old hymn written by Isaac Watts sums this up in a paraphrase of Psalm 146

He saves the oppressed, He feeds the poor…..

Verse 3 The Lord gives eyesight to the blind,

he calms and heals the troubled mind,

he sends the wounded conscience peace;

he helps the stranger in distress,

the widow and the fatherless,

and grants the prisoner sweet release

Catholic social teaching and Liberation theology frames this as the preferential option for the poor Disciples of Jesus are challenged to move beyond almsgiving to identification and solidarity with the "least of these".

Towards equality

Old school Christian socialists and new generations of radicals can draw on Bible passages that argue for equality. Some would like to turn these into a national or international political programme or redistribution, others towards intentional Christian communities based on common property. The law of jubilee (Lev.25) is often cited, along with the Nazareth manifesto Luke 4; 16-19 announcing good news to the poor, and proclaiming the acceptable (jubilee) year of the Lord.

The coming in power of the Holy Spirit led to a community in Jerusalem, which was marked by radical economics, a sharing of resources in which there were no needy people among them. Acts 4; 22-36 Even though this model may not have been universally sustainable as the church grew and spread, the ideal remained powerful. As Paul organised a relief fund for the people affected by famine in Jerusalem he argued in favour of equality 2 Cor 8; 13-14 The example has inspired Christians throughout the ages for example in monastic orders, and Anabaptist communities. Perhaps it is the suburban and middle class captivity of the western church, which segregates our life from communities facing deprivation, that limits consideration of this model today.

Exodus and liberation..

Liberation theologies and Black theologies (right back to the old "Negro Spirituals". (e.g. Paul Robeson sang "let my people go" ) constantly emphasize the story of the Exodus, and the miraculous intervention of God to free his people from captivity and bring them to freedom in the Promised Land. The New Testament proclaims that the finished work of Christ amounts to a new exodus, and Jesus as a new Moses.

Mainstream western Christianity tends to interpret this spiritually, the exodus being seen as salvation from the slavery of sin, and a journey across a spiritual Jordan to heaven. At best the kingdom/regime of God, inaugurated by Jesus, involves a redeemed community experiencing life "in the meantime" , here but not yet in fullness. We await in hope the redemption of creation, a new heaven and a new earth, in the age to come, when the dead are raised to life and Christ returns. There will then be no tears, no dying, no poverty. Rev 21;4. It will says Peter be the home of righteousness/justice. This hope should inspire believers (according to NT Wright) to practical and political action in the current age which is not in vain There is more dispute among Christians as to whether God is already at work, progressively improving life on earth, or whether everything is going downhill until redemption comes from heaven. The latter view would tend to discourage Christians from engaging in any form of political action.

Turning things upside down

In English Cathedrals and St Georges Chapel Windsor daily services often include choral settings of the Magnificat…The irony is that the words are quite revolutionary. They might be better sung to the tune of the Red Flag and paraphrased thus:

MARY'S SONG Luke 1 verse 51 5 cf 1 Samuel 2

Join Mary's song! Sing loud and clear of anger God is feeling

that selfish men make others poor and legalise the stealing!

With her sing praise that he should care,

and with the wronged their burden share;

from seats of power the proud he'll tear, and send the mighty reeling.

That God's with those who are oppressed there can be no denying.

With those who're poor or dispossessed, his heart has long been sighing.

But they shall have what's just and right,when God shall break the men of might;

he'll lift the hungry to the heights and send the selfish crying

Strangely enough in 50 years as a Christian, I have only sung these words once! It's an important question as to whether or not this gospel passage permits or encourages Christians to ever be involved in (violent) revolution. But if not, How and when is God going to turn the established order upside down?

Through whose eyes?

As we move from the simple Bible verses that commend love of neighbour, charity and selfless love, towards the more challenging Scriptures that speak of justice, equality, politics and revolutionary social change the fundamental question is how do we read them. If we don't recognize that most mainstream British Christians are in a position of privilege (the more so if they are male, white, old and upper class) we will tend to interpret them with conservative or purely spiritual assumptions.

However, when read from the underside, in the context of poverty, oppression or discrimination they are more likely to strike us as having a practical, earthy, social and political application. It will become clear that the Bible is not just about individual and spiritual salvation, with a bit of ethics thrown. Rather it is about God's engagement with the whole of society and the whole of creation. It should become clear that the word of God is like a two edged sword, bringing judgement to those who fail to remember the poor, become complicit in oppression and fail to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with God in every area and sphere of life.

Questions to ponder

Is charity always a good thing? If not, why?

Why do many Christians think the Bible only or mainly refers to spiritual things?

Why do you think people in the UK often struggle with poverty and destitution? Does the Bible help us to develop a clear understanding of this?

Does God tend to bless those who trust and serve Him faithfully?

Which Bible passages about justice do you know and get inspired by?

What does the Bible teach about equality? And how can society best move towards it?

How does God Liberate and transform individuals and communities?

If God is bringing down the mighty and raising up the humble, what roles do Christians have to play in this?

What can the Bible teach us about how we should undertake social action in our churches and communities?

1 Rather out of context and without balancing the other verse in Deuteronomy

2 ….., for that is central to the human condition. People created by God and placed in society are moral beings. It is often right to challenge people with a word of 'tough love'. Darren McGarvey, an expert in the field by lived experience has explored this brilliantly in his books such as Poverty Safari and his recent Reith Lecture.

3 Although some have argued that the least of these is restricted to Christian brothers and sisters,

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

The 2021 Census Data on Religion

Yesterday the census data on religion, (and other topics) were released. I've been engaging in various Facebook groups on this and finding it frustrating how the media are covering it and how people, especially in the churches are responding. This blog is an attempt to put together some of my thoughts and some important links.

The headline Findings as reported in the Media and Online

The Official Release from the Office of National Statistics and their wonderful online mapping tool for looking more locally

On the BBC Website

In Law and Religion

In Christian Today

The Guardian has a random selection of fun facts from the census that don't have much strategic relevance. But at the local level, as for example in our local parish, we need to work out how to relate to particular clustered communities, such as Romanians, Polish and third generation Gujeratis..

The Evangelical Alliance has an optimistic take

My Comments

The Census tells us nothing about religious beliefs. It is a simple tick box question aimed to count faith identity.

There are no surprises in the data. A simple tick box religious identity question is a very poor way of assessing religiosity, vitality of faith communities, or the number of faithful followers of Jesus.

the multicultural cities like London and Birmingham the ones where Christianity is relatively thriving and vibrant, while it is in rural and coastal 95% White Brit places that the church is in decline. There is a strong case that multi faith competition strengthens the life and health of followers of Jesus.

The data from census shows cultural / nominal / Christian identity is declining. It is no longer the default for (white) English people to say they are CofE. And the identity statements of those who are counted as Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish are about ethnoreligious identity rather than religious practice. On the other the mainstream denominational churches are certainly in trouble.. but the data that shows that is around declining attendance / membership and the ageing demographic profile of those who do attend. The data around that is harder to collect and less reliable but the broad trends there are clear. I think though it is right to be hopeful that in a situation where Christianity is a minority faith among many and none, this in itself tends to strengthen the core active, strongly believing faithful people who drive the mission of the kingdom forward, and eventually growth and renewal will follow.

Some Random Comments from others that I like and agree with

Christians still make up a plurality if not a majority which is better than nothing and B: I don't think the number of Christians has actually fallen. What has is the number of people using Christian/Church of England as a cultural identifier when what they mean is agnostic.

I'd be more interested in church attendance. People used to tick c of e because they knew they weren't Hindu or Muslim. Now they tick no religion.

it's not surprise really is it? Probably just more honest. When you look at Talking Jesus type research, active Christians make up less than 10% I believe

The number ticking "Christian" has never been a measure of the number of Christians. All we are seeing is the end of Christendom. This is no bad thing

I would rather see the real numbers of active Christians than some one who just thinks they are born a Christian because of our heritage.

On the Nones https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/.../the-nones-who-are...This is an interesting and helpful piece of research

Thursday, 10 November 2022

Hard to believe - a Cockney lad became a bishop

As a friend of the author, who moved into East Ham in 1975, soon after he left to prepare for ordination, I recognize the Cockney culture of the period, and some of the locations, pubs, schools, churches and people in the early sections of the book. I even knew the vicar of St Barnabas who recognised his call to ministry.  Since then half a century has passed and we have all learned a lot,

Laurie recounts with humour and serious reflection his journey over those years from parish ministry in Birmingham, to training vicars in the Aston training scheme, then back to East London and to his period of bishop of Bradwell serving the churches and people of the Cockney diaspora in Essex.

In all that time Laurie has been a leading practitioner, theologian and inspiration of urban ministry and mission. The book is important for any Christian engaged in urban and estate ministry today. As someone who still identifies as an evangelical I don't agree in every detail with Laurie's, theology, ecclesiology and spirituality, yet have learned so much from him. In particular I share his emphasis on understanding the urban context, engaging with and discovering God incarnate at work in the lives of people and communities, reading the bible from the underside of society, his political passion for justice and conviction that ordinary urban people have much to offer in church and community.

It is an excellent read ; do buy it , enjoy and reflect on it.

You can get a copy here:

Saturday, 29 October 2022

An Old Sermon

I have just discovered this in our family ephemera box. I think it is the notes from a sermon given by my Methodist Lay Preacher grandfather, (H.O. Smith - pictured on page)  probably in the 1950s. Simple words but still relevant today.

Tuesday, 9 August 2022

Just published. review of an important book for urban mission

Mez McConnell, The Least, the Last, and the Lost: Understanding Poverty in the UK & The Responsibility of the Local Church 
Published by Evangelical Press 2021
ISBN 978-178397-328-6 

Reviewed by Greg SmithAssociate Research Fellow William Temple Foundation