The most important biblical paradigm/model for the social engagement of the Church of God is found in the gospel descriptions of the feeding miracles. So important is this paradigm that it occurs in all four gospels in more than one form (at various points involving 4000, 5000 and 7000 people,) and in the Johannine corpus receives additional importance as possessing sacramental significance, being an exploration and exemplification of the eucharist.
The paradigm comprises a number of components of particular interest:
• in each case the poor are present in large numbers;
• they find themselves in the wilderness, i.e. they suffer the penalties of dislocation;
• they are a population drawn from many different communities, i.e. they have no common community identity or overall internal cohesion;
• they are seeking fulfilment in life and are hungry for the basic necessities an their hope is that the remedy for their need may be found in the miracle worker from Nazareth. Nevertheless, they are more curious than committed.
The characteristic response of Jesus throughout his ministry from the very beginning is summed up in the words, “When he saw the crowds he had compassion on them.” (Matt 15.32; Matt20.34; Mark 8.2; Mark 9.22;; Luke 7.13; Luke 10.33; Luke 15.20. See also Matt 9.36; Matt 14.14; Matt 18.27; Mark 1.41; Mark 6.34) which is strongly reminiscent of his understanding of the state of the Jewish nation as “like sheep without a shepherd,” (Matt 9.36; Mark 6.34;) and of his self understanding expressed in the words “I am not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt 15.24, also Matt 10.6)
The words , “When he saw the crowds he had compassion on them,” are particularly resonant. This is an active rather than a passive understanding of “compassion”. The classic English translation does not render the idea that Jesus merely “felt” compassion, it was not simply that he “felt their pain and perhaps shared it,” noble as these sentiments may be. Rather he had compassion on them. He set a course to meet the need and thus give fulfilment to the dual requirements first to recognise and then to remedy the suffering that the word compassion implies.
It is particularly instructive to observe the way in which these things were accomplished. Having recognised the dependency of the disparate crowd apparently unable to to provide for its own needs, Jesus discerned certain priorities:
1. the need for leadership: he sent his disciples to take responsibility for the crowd with the injunction in John's gospel, “Make the people sit down” (see Matt 14.18; Mark 6.40; Mark 8.6; John 6.10.)
2. They set about creating structure, organisation and thus community: they were organised into groups.
3. Jesus sought resources from within the crowds themselves: he sought evidence of capacity.
4. Capacity was discovered in an unlikely place: a small boy who was prepared to offer what he had, namely loaves and fishes.
5. Jesus, having uncovered this innate capacity, built on it in order to break the spiral of dependency and empower the community to be self sufficient.
6. That self sufficiency was signalled in two ways: first by the fact that the resources uncovered were more than sufficient for the current need since everyone received what they needed and there was plenty left over; and second, by the fact that the people were now equipped and empowered to return whence they came,equipped with a new and empowering vision of their own innate capacity to thrive – they had acquired a sense of direction and purpose.
It seems to me that this is a highly instructive and programmatic pattern which the Church of God is required to emulate. At its heart is the call for the Church to empower communities to find structure, internal resources and effective indigenous leadership. In other words the Church, in the power of the gospel, must act to be a source of hope and inspiration so that people and communities can uncover the capacities they already have and, therefore be empowered to attain their most cherished aspirations.
The contemporary city is, increasingly, a place of disparity. Disparity is among the most onerous and dangerous threats to justice and harmony in the common life. The Peasants’ Revolt in England in the 14th century (1381) was about disparity. The revolt sought to throw off disparities of power and status in medieval England and brought forth this rhyme from the mouth of the Lollard priest John Ball: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”
Ball continued, “From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who would be bond and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage and recover liberty.” Unsurprisingly, John Ball was put on trial, hanged, drawn and quartered in the presence of King Richard II on 15 July 1381.
The contemporary city is also, increasingly, the destination of last resort for the rural poor. It is therefore increasingly a place of ethnic and cultural diversity and also of social dislocation. Too often, and too simplistically, poverty is characterized only in terms of disposable income. The poverty that I see in the cities I know best is much more multifaceted.
Thus the publication entitled “The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching” declares, “Poverty is not only about shortage of money. It is about rights and relationships; about how people are treated and how they regard themselves; about powerlessness; exclusion and loss of equity.” (Quoted in Church Action on Poverty: Christians and the Gap).
Bishop David Walker, Trustee of the Church of England’s “Church Urban Fund” wrote, “The God who meets us in Jesus, calls us to meet and serve each other, yet the gap between the well-off and the poor has become so wide that few bridge it…”
And Paul Marriott, Chief Executive of DePaul UK declares, “Narrowing the gap is not just a matter of fairness but also necessary if we are to promote the common good. This is not just a matter of making life better for those who have less. It is about making our society a better place for all.”
I live in one of the more deprived parts of the United Kingdom. I will say something about what I see as additional components of deprivation in Northern Ireland where almost my entire ministry has been focused; but before I do, I offer some simple statistical analysis published by Church Action on Poverty.
In the UK a household is below the official poverty line if its income is below 60% of the UK median income for a household of that type. By this definition 22% of people live in poverty.
22% of all children live in poverty only Spain and Italy have higher rates than the UK.
Poverty is higher among minority groups and disabled people and ethnic minorities are twice as likely to be in poverty.
The gap between rich and poor is greater now than at any time in the last 40 years.
Because of this gap it is argued that the UK has
o Lower life expectancy
o Higher rates of violent crime
o More drug abuse
o More teenage pregnancies
o More mental health problems
o More obesity
o More people in prison
o Lower social mobility
There is a service gap. This means that it costs more to be poor. The poor pay higher costs for:
o Fuel – because of the fact that people with limited incomes are forced to use more expensive ways of buying their fuel. Many are forced to choose between heating and eating. As a result 20,000 people die of the cold each winter.
o Poor people also pay more for Insurance, Food and Credit. This “poverty premium” costs poor people an extra £1300.00 a year
o In the case of Debt and Credit loan sharks prey on people in poverty who cannot get credit from banks. There is no legal limit to the interest and fees chargeable by door-step lenders, pay-day lenders and hire-purchase companies. Rates in excess of 180%APR are not uncommon.
There is huge pay disparity
o The minimum wage is inadequate to live on and many, because of age or the vicissitudes of the “black economy”, receive less than the legal minimum of £5.93 an hour
o Pay at the top of a company can be hundreds of time higher than pay at the bottom. This takes no account of the, sometimes, astronomical bonuses paid, especially to bankers!
o People in poverty pay proportionately higher taxes than the richest – 39% as against 35%. Indirect taxes hit the poorest hardest.
People seeking sanctuary/asylum are treated worst of all.
The August riots and looting in England came as a completely unanticipated shock to English society. Those disturbances may not have been specifically attributable to material poverty, indeed, they may have been associated with organized criminality, or simply the thrill of the chase, but they certainly point to a broader range of expressions of poverty and disparity that need to be given deeper consideration. These have to do with
Alienation and marginalisation
Identity and culture
Aspiration and justifiable hope
Models of parenthood, family and community
Consumerism and the hunger for satisfaction
Positive role models
Each of the above contributes to justifiable perceptions of poverty and social exclusion and I should like to comment upon some of these in the context of the struggle of Northern Ireland to emerge from conflict, division and deprivation.
Identity and Culture are in most respects inseparable. To lack a secure group identity is a serious form of poverty that undermines one’s individual identity and impoverishes one’s life. Identity is also expressed in the context of family. Where family structures are weak or chaotic and social boundaries indeterminate there arises a special kind of poverty in the form of a lack of intimate relational social solidarity. The cliché “Bare is the back without a brother behind it” sums up the vulnerability and isolation of the individual. Since family is innately the fundamental unit of socialization and solidarity, to be deficient in such support is a particular kind of poverty that undermines the individual’s sense of belonging and “good identity”. Coping strategies are developed to substitute for this ranging from the model set forward in the American sitcom “Friends” to participation in street gangs.
Cultural deprivation occurs when the characteristic traits of one’s group identity are undermined, devalued or threatened by perceptions of a stronger cultural identity in a rival community. In Northern Ireland there is a deep sense of cultural inadequacy among members of the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist community when compared with the Roman Catholic/Nationalist/Republican community whose Catholic/Gaelic ethos expresses a much more cohesive internal solidarity. By its nature, at least in Ireland, Protestantism has expressed itself in an individualistic fashion with no shared, monolithic, religious culture, and thus no cohesion derived from it. Its cultural roots are more contested than they might be and, too often are expressed negatively as in opposition to the prevailing Gaelic culture rather than in positive terms celebrating a secure and coherent alternative cultural identity. Such cultural insecurity is a significant contributor to social instability both when the rival culture is experienced as being in the ascendant, and when perceptions of external threat that normally encourages solidarity are reduced or removed. The challenges of living positively with difference, or creating/participating in a shared identity with a sharing of cultural assets remains a distant goal. It is almost certainly the case that only when one’s identity and cultural inheritance is strong has one the courage to reach across the divides to embrace the other. In order to traverse the bridge that spans a stream the abutments on either side must be strong and secure.
Alienation and marginalization are also forms of poverty since they signal a radical discontent and a disconnection from the nexus and solidarity of community. In this respect they are closely related to the collapse of aspiration and justifiable hope. One of the ways in which this is often seen expressed is in attitudes to education and a reluctance to take seriously the potential of education to break the spiral of deprivation. I know of many households, concentrated in particular areas of cities, in which three and sometimes four generations have never experienced gainful employment. With no experience of work as a remedy for dependency there is also no aspiration to advancement through education. Here the face of the poor is sullen but resigned, angry but ineffectual, and, with the expectation of escape from dependency demonstrably unrealistic, inclined to seek remedies through the emulation of those whose criminality has brought demonstrable material rewards. If the only evidence of material success is exhibited by members of one’s community whose income is derived from illegal activity, there is little incentive to restrict oneself to that which is legal. Poverty and criminality are not synonymous, but poverty, loss of justifiable hope and the collapse of aspiration are drivers of criminality.
Experience drawn from the aftermath of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland is highly relevant here. Paramilitaries, whether with a sophisticated political analysis and objectives or not, generally sustained much of their activity through criminality – racketeering, extortion, drug dealing, robbery etc. The proceeds of such activity always contributed in some fashion to sustaining the lifestyle of individuals in the organizations. The benefits to those involved were often extremely high. Paradoxically, the victims who paid the highest price were generally the residents of areas controlled by the very paramilitaries who portrayed themselves as the “protectors” of the community.
However, although the perceived requirement for “protection” has now passed, the paramilitaries remain. In Republican/Nationalist areas paramilitarism managed a relatively successful transition to political activity and elected political office, although the potential for physical force remains a reality. In Loyalist/ Unionist areas, however, such a transition has not been achieved. There is a serious deficit in political analysis and no coherent “shopping list” of social priorities. Deprived of significant political representation (with the honourable exception of the PUP, in the person of the late Mr David Ervine) Protestant paramilitaries became increasingly identified with serious and continuing illegality. As a result, the role model of material success exhibited in Protestant working class ghetto areas continues to be criminal.
It is only fair to add this. The aging leadership of the main Loyalist paramiltary organisations has been working to bring about transformation. Without political representation this has been particularly difficult. They recognize, nevertheless that they do not wish their grandchildren to experience the appalling things they have experienced and be involved in the appalling acts they have undertaken or approved. The influence of former prisoners has been especially important, imprisonment is an additional impoverishment both of the prisoner himself and of his family. In my view, therefore, to bring ex-prisoners and other paramilitaries “in from the cold” is a matter of high priority. They need to be encouraged and empowered to continue the journey towards normality.
A further defining characteristic of such areas has to do with social mobility. Those members of the community with initiative almost always sought to leave the deprived inner city for peripheral residential housing estates. This stripped the inner city of most positive role models of success and also of leadership potential. Leadership in such inner city locations was largely seen only in the relatively disciplined ranks of the paramilitaries who, of course, did not move out of the ghetto. This created a paradox: on the one hand the only competent leaders were paramilitaries; on the other hand the residents of such inner city areas who had been exploited by the paramilitaries were extremely reluctant to accord such individuals leadership status and credibility.
As a general comment, therefore, I offer the following observations:
1. Discrete communities need indigenous, home grown, leadership.
2. The community in general, but especially those with leadership ability or potential, require empowerment from outside in order to be effective and to emerge from the spiral of deprivation and criminality. The key component in breaking that spiral is empowerment, and especially such empowerment as provides for and enables effective advocacy.
3. Advocacy and empowerment, in turn, require the capacity to engage with the community in coherent analysis of the needs and priorities of that community, subsequently affirmed and validated by demonstrable success in addressing such needs and priorities. The raising of unrealizable and unfulfilled expectations is dangerous, dispiriting and disempowering.
4. A culture of dependency is a form of extreme poverty since it saps the human spirit by engendering a sense of worthlessness and inadequacy.
5. The pursuit of justice; the preferential option for the poor; the task of sacrificially loving and empowering one’s neighbour; the offer of acceptance, reconciliation and renewal; a commitment to freedom for the captives (including those held captive by hatred and prejudice); and the provision of access to a new and spiritually enriching life, are key objectives of the Gospel. They are, therefore, the urgent priorities of the Church of God