CHRISTIANS AND THE POOR
Paper by Bishop Paul Butler, Church of England Bishop of Durham
Saint Egidio International Meeting “Bridges of Peace. Religions and Cultures in Dialogue”
Monday 15th October 2018 – Bologna
Saint Paul in writing to the Galatian Christians noted that when he met with Peter, James and John in Jerusalem to talk about the good news that they preached to the Gentiles these ‘pillars of the church’ supported all they were doing, ‘Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.’ (Galatians 2.10)
From the very outset of the Christian church concern for, care of and being alongside the poor has been at the core of our vocation.
It is an honour to share some reflections on this as an Anglican. I do so bringing special greetings from the Archbishop of Canterbury.
OLD TESTAMENT ROOTS
The first Christians were building on the legacy of how God had called upon Israel to care for the poor. Whilst in the Old Testament ‘the poor’ is an oft used phrase it is also clear that at the heart of this group were the widows, orphans (that is the fatherless) and the strangers, sojourners or refugees. This approach is entirely rooted in God’s self-revelation as the one who ‘executes justice for the fatherless, and the widow and the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.’ (Deuteronomy 10.18). It also regularly recalls Israel’s own experience of being enslaved and mistreated in Egypt. Since they knew what it meant to be poor and ill-treated in a foreign land they were to learn and ensure that they did not treat others in that way. It is because God is for the poor that his people must also be for them. This worked out in Israel’s law and practice through:-
1) the practical provision of daily needs for the poor,
2) ensuring that the poor were treated with justice (Exodus 22.21-27; Leviticus 19.15; Deut 24.17f) and
3) having ways of enabling the poor to take responsibility for themselves, engage in meaningful and useful work, and be restored fully to the life of the community. A clear example of this enabling the agency of the poor is in the gleaning laws (Leviticus 19.9f, 23.22; Deut 24.19-21). Most beautifully told in the story of Ruth (Ruth 2).
The Psalmist regularly reiterates both that God is the God of the poor and that the righteous person cares for the poor (Psalm 10.14,18; 68.5; 146.9; 72.4; 112.9). The Prophets regularly accuse Israel of failing to care for the widow, the fatherless and the sojourner. It is this failure which consistently leads to God’s judgment upon the people. Injustice lies at the heart of this prophetic condemnation. (Amos 4.1-3; 5.4-24; Isaiah 1.12-26; 58; Jeremiah 7.5-7; Ezekiel 16.49; 34; Zechariah 7.8-14)
Alongside this there is the apocalyptic vision of the future in which all are cared for; where the young and the old are living life to the full. Where the whole community is at peace and the poor are no more. (Isaiah 65.17-25; Micah 4.1-5; Zechariah 8.1-8)
Jesus’ own ministry is clearly rooted in this prophetic tradition. He deliberately reads from Isaiah 61 when he is in the synagogue at Nazareth. (Luke 4.18ff) He consistently is alongside those who were regarded as the poor and the outcast by the religious leaders of the day; in his healing ministry he restores those who had been excluded (e.g. Luke 5.12-16; 8.40-56). He heals those from a Gentile background (e.g. Mark 7.24-30). In the way in which he welcomes children and places a child in the midst as a possessor and sign of the kingdom he places children amongst ‘the poor’. He commends the generosity of the widow (Mark 12.41-44). He calls the poor ‘blessed’ (Luke 6.20). He is with the poor, speaks and acts for the poor and looks to the kingdom, the reign, of God in which there is justice for the poor. He encourages his disciples to be those who serve the poor, perhaps most powerfully at the end of Matthew 25.
The early church, both in the scriptures in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 6.1-7; 9.36-42; 11.27-30; 20.35) and in the letters clearly sought to live out the care for the poor, in whatever form that poverty took (2 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 2.10; Hebrews 13.1-3; James 2; 1 John 3.11-18). There was a particular care for the poor amongst the church itself but it clearly spilled out into care for those amongst whom they lived. This is then worked out in the life of the church in the early Christian centuries. Christians were known to be those who stood with and cared for the poor. Ignatius for example is clear that the grace of Jesus Christ leads to concern for the widows or orphans, for the oppressed, for those in prison or released, for the hungry or the thirsty’ (Letter to Smyrna).
So our continuing response to the poor in our own day flows from this long history of God’s people. One thing to note here is that our Christian calling is two-fold: to offer practical service in response to the immediate needs of individuals, families and communities, and to oppose unjust economic and social structures that trap people in poverty.
I would also note here that the response is never to put people in a category. The poor are always people to be loved not a problem to be solved. They are valued as made in God’s image and people for whom Jesus Christ gave his life not an anonymising abstraction called poverty.
CHURCH OF ENGLAND / ANGLICAN RESPONSE TO THE POOR
The Church of England as the established church of the nation has from its outset been connected with the powerful of the land. It has arguably, therefore throughout its history struggled to express its conviction about serving the poor. In my own area of Durham, for example, the Church of England was largely associated with the owners and managers of the coal mines. It was the Methodist church that was more closely aligned with the miners and their families themselves.
In the great missionary expansion that saw Anglican churches established across the globe at one level the story reads like that expansion is closely linked to the powerful and could be seen as an imposition on the indigenous populations.
But there is another side to the story. The establishment of church schools early in the nineteenth century, led by the visionary Joshua Watson, was all about ensuring that the poor were educated. Church of England schools were all originally founded for the poor. It was Anglican missionaries who also saw the importance and value of education for all as the church was established in parts of Africa and the Indian sub continent.
Likewise many early healthcare developments were inspired by Anglican leaders. The missionaries established hospitals and health centres aimed at serving the poor.
Wilberforce and fellow Anglicans struggled to first end the Slave Trade and then Slavery itself. Lord Shaftsbury led many of the reforms in how factories were run so that children were no longer used in labour and the rights of the poor were protected. Prison reform was partly down to Anglicans. Octavia Hill created the very first social housing so that the poor were better housed.
In the middle of the twentieth century William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, played a critical role in further developing education for all, and in the creation of the National Health Service. It was Temple who coined the idea of the ‘welfare state’. What drove him and his contemporaries was a concern for the poor and a desire to see justice for all pursued.
Across the Anglican Communion today there remains a very high level of commitment to expanding access to education and health care. Anglican churches are also heavily involved in working with others to provide clean water, better sanitation, literacy and financial training for the poor and the empowerment of women. The Mothers’ Union is the largest voluntary charity in the world with its 4 million members. They work everywhere with the poor. Anglicans are often leading the way on environmental care, reforestation, protection of the land, and of people’s land rights. Very often this is done in partnership with other Christians and through inter and non-denominational organisations like Christian Aid, Tearfund, World Vision and WaterAid.
Across the globe Christians welcome refugees as they come across borders. They help them with food and clothing and homes. They help them integrate into society, and where appropriate also help them return home when the time comes. Because Anglican Provinces are national structures they are also able to bring some corporate strength to strive for justice which may not be available to more independently structured churches.
At a local level in Durham my own local authority is clear that the welcome that has been offered to Syrian refugees would not have been possible without the welcome and support given by church members, many of whom are Anglican.
In England the vast majority of food banks, created in response to concern for families struggling to make ends meet, are run by local churches and their volunteers. Prison visitors are often Christians. Organisations helping people resettle after prison are often run by church members, many Anglican. We run Holiday Hunger programmes; help sex workers stay healthy and get off the streets; visit the lonely elderly; run lunch clubs and friendship schemes. We host large numbers of carer and toddler groups. The ‘Church in Action Report’ of 2017 offers a clear analysis of the way the Church of England is engaged in social action.
We also join with others to campaign for better housing, the living wage, and fairer welfare systems. The Archbishop of Canterbury spearheaded the campaign against payday lending in the UK. He has recently been part of the IPPR group that has presented fresh ideas for a more just economic system that has a priority for the poor.
The Church of England still educates over a million children every day in our schools. Large numbers of these are situated in settings where the poor are largest in number.
All of this said we still struggle to be a poor church that is with and for the poor. We are generally better at offering charitable help to the poor than at working with the poor to bring about a more just economic system. Very often, in England, we appear to be part of the establishment and therefore of the powerful rather than of the poor. Pray for us to learn more of how we can truly be ‘poor’ and with and for the poor. Always remembering that ‘the poor’ are not a category but each is a person, part of a family and part of a community. Each made in God’s image; each valuable and loved; each one for whom our Lord Jesus Christ died, and through whom he seeks to minister to us.
May we all continually seek to be those who are eager to remember and be with and for the poor.