“It’s good there’s poor people, because we can do mission now.”
“It’s good there’s poor people, because now they need us and when people are in need they listen.”
“It’s good there’s poor people, because we needed to salve our conscience by helping somebody.”
Like any good writer, I made those quotes up. Imagine how you would feel if you actually heard somebody say them? The thing is, I don’t think you have to scratch very far in many of us and our churches to find those opinions, however unspoken, however unrealised. Let me explain, and I will begin by saying some really positive things about the church generally at the moment.
The church (or a lot of it) is seizing the moment and being active among the poor and those in need, even parts of the church that didn’t used to do much. The support for FoodBanks, Street Pastors, School Pastors, debt counselling and so on is, without doubt, a Good Thing. And it is being (slowly) collectively realised that much of our contemporary worship is removed from the world in which we live, so there are (a few) songs that actually mention how we live (e.g. Bring Heaven to Earth by Andy Flannagan and Build Your Kingdom Here by Rend Collective). This is good. It almost goes with out saying that church pilgrimages like New Wine/Spring Harvest/Soul Survivor have a practical social action element to them. Brilliant. 10 years ago this was new.
Now to the crunch though. I was recently in a meeting of church leaders in which a speaker was talking about the link between government welfare cuts and church social action projects; he said that it isn’t and never was the state’s responsibility to care for the poor, but it is the church’s responsibility, and we should see the (positively spun) welfare cuts as an opportunity for mission. To my horror, there was a murmur of approval from many of said church leaders.
Reduced to it’s unspoken core, this says it is good there are poor people, because now we can do mission. For churches who were faltering to find a place and a voice in contemporary society, and who were not engaging with people in poverty in any meaningful way, it is so easily seen that way. I will now tell you why I think this is wrong.
1. Poverty should never be an opportunity for mission, but an opportunity for service. Service must come first. We serve the poor, relentlessly and selflessly and even if they never come to church we serve and serve.
2. Poverty needs more than sticking plasters. Martin Luther King said the church is great at being the Good Samaritan, but not good at going back to the Jericho Road to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Desmond Tutu said the church is great at pulling the bodies out of the river, but what we need to do is go upstream and see who is pushing them in. And stop them. Foodbanks are great, an essentially but TEMPORARY sticking plaster. There is one in my church but I don’t want it there – not because I don’t like it, I don’t think we should need them.
3. Tackling poverty is a long-term community-based issue, which means building relationships, asking questions of councillors and MPs, lobbying on behalf of those who do not have a voice. Finding out about people who are not me.
I feel passionately about this because I am so middle-class I know how easily it is to think you’re helping by buying Fair Trade, supporting a Food Bank and shopping in Waitrose. But it’s not enough. Can you write good letters? Write them. Can you argue well? Argue for the poor. Are you a shareholder who’s CEO salaries are outrageous? Tell them. Campaigning for a Living Wage, for example, must be done hand in hand with FoodBanks, as 60% of people on benefits are IN WORK.
We need to see the current economic situation not as a wonderful opportunity to do mission but a terrible opportunity to do service. Challenge your church leader. Ask them for a theology of poverty. Do a Bible study on Isaiah 58. And see what happens.
I’m thinking about joining Christians on the Left (formerly Christian Socialist Movement). Have a look for yourself.