Turning towards the poor
Pizza Night at St Matthew's Church in Long Gully is a time when people of diverse social backgrounds come together.
In a contemporary echo of Christian saints and thinkers through the ages, Shane Claiborne reminds us that: ‘The great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.’ So much of our view of ‘the poor’ in Australia is shaped by our superior economic position and the voyeurism of the mass media, epitomised in television shows like ‘Struggle Street’. This series of articles argues that the church, as the community of discipleship, needs to relinquish gazing at the poor from a distance and instead become involved, with all the risk and uncertainty and difficulty that such involvement entails. In doing so, the church fulfils her vocation as a true companion of the poor.
In the first article (Oct 2016), I argued that we must view the poor through the lens of the image of God, possessing equal dignity, despite experiencing the distortions of that image common to all. In the second article (May 2018), I provided an insight into the practical experience of poverty in Australia, an insight that attempted to avoid sacrificing the essential dignity of the people whose stories I told.
In this third article, we move from the questions of sight, to questions of response. In the Bible, the ideal disciples are those who are healed of blindness and immediately follow on the way of Jesus. Think of Bartimaeus (Mark 10) and the man born blind (John 9): they demonstrate that discipleship is not only a matter of seeing clearly, but of following Jesus. How does that apply to the matter at hand? Having seen the poor through Jesus’ eyes, and gaining insight into their experience, we need to respond. The first step in any biblical discipleship is repentance.
Repentance means that we turn from all that distances us from God and those God loves. We turn towards God, and to those God loves, and in doing so are transformed entirely. Repentance means that we turn to God and towards those who, the bible tells us, are close to God’s heart: the sick, lonely, destitute, unemployed, despised, the persecuted, oppressed, and the hopeless.
But we don’t repent in a vacuum. Often it can feel like just ‘trying harder’ to be a moral and decent person. When we see repentance like this, discipleship becomes a short-lived moral legalism. Rather, Christian repentance occurs in an atmosphere created by three crucial elements:
The love of God: when God’s love becomes real for us, we find ourselves motivated by the Spirit to turn away from things that grieve God, and towards those things that God loves. Rather than bowing to an abstract rule, we obey a personal and loving God.
The better way: we are always turning towards something more beautiful, truthful and just, not simply away from something sinful. The way of Jesus and his reign is the better way, now and in its full consummation.
The Christian community: we are repenting in a community where everyone is repenting and where support, affirmation and accountability can be found. Of course, the church fails often, but without this community, repentance can become a source of resentment and bitterness.
Repenting from economic security
We must first repent from economic security and turn to generosity. Our world is full of messages about economic security. You won’t have enough retirement savings. You’ll never own a home. Wages haven’t grown. School fees are set to rise. You, or your children, must have this experience to be healthy and well. These messages are designed to instil anxiety and for each anxiety, there is a corresponding ‘solution’ that you can buy. When we succumb to this anxiety about economic security, our capability for generosity is stunted.
Ageing with dignity, homes, fair wages, education and caring for family are all worthy concerns. But worrying about these things beyond their importance means we become grasping and focused on ensuring our security through accumulation. In the process, we become insulated to the needs of others. We say, ‘we’ll care for others once we are financially stable’, or ‘we need enough for ourselves before we can be generous’. But the point of the anxiety-inducing messages is to keep us in a permanent state of deprivation; hence we feel like we never have enough security to look to others. The pursuit of wealth, as scripture and Christian tradition would have it, is indeed a snare.
Especially insidious is the way that the pursuit of economic security turns us away from the losers in this race. They become strangers to our way of life and, because their lives are not relevant to our anxieties about security, they become gradually more invisible. We fail to see them.
Repenting from outsourcing our calling
Second, we must repent from outsourcing our Christian calling and turn to personal involvement.
Even when our pursuit of economic security does not completely blind us to the poor, we often outsource our care for the poor to professionals. We have believed the lie that poverty is a special illness that requires intervention from specialists and ordinary people need to keep well away. A whole bureaucracy of service provision exists to maintain this fiction. However, since poverty is a problem of relationships and community, a professionalised approach to poverty is not enough. We need to get involved in some personal way. I am not condemning professionalisation outright, but a corrective is needed. Without personal involvement, professionalised service provision simply perpetuates the distance between people that causes poverty.
Turning from economic security to generosity is essential, but it is misguided to reduce generosity to the giving of money. Christ-like generosity is much deeper than this. Can you remember a time Jesus gave away money or goods? I can think only of the feeding stories (Matthew 14 and 15). Jesus focused on giving his time, presence and attention. This sets the pattern for us: giving of material goods is good, but the giving of our own selves is the far better way.
Repenting from reputation and respectability
Third, we must repent from reputation and respectability and turn to solidarity.
Despite wanting to serve those on the margins, our desire to be respectable and reputable often means we keep the poor at a distance. In general, many Australian churchgoers (and still more outside the church) hold the view that Christians should be ‘better’ people than those outside it. They should be respectable, virtuous and reputable, and seen to be so. This pre-occupation with social respectability hangs over from a time when the church was an establishment institution that commanded respect. (If you still think that, reading any Australian newspaper or online comments will set you straight.)
But focusing on respect and reputation has the effect of distancing us from the disreputable and those that no-one respects. Jesus intentionally blurs these boundaries: sinful and holy; clean and unclean; rich and poor; Jew and Gentile. By eating with, touching and forgiving the disreputable and outcast, he places himself with them in solidarity, rather than keeping them at arm’s length.
Will that mean some think ill of us because we are friends with the disenfranchised? Yes. Will that mean some people won’t come to our church because the disreputable do? Yes. I’m not saying turning people away from church is a positive. But I am saying that solidarity with the ‘losers’ is the priority; not the comfort and admiration of the cultural mainstream. Jesus was clear that his people are the sick, the broken, those who know their need of forgiveness, the desperate (Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31-32).
These three ‘repents’ can be summed up as turning from a constant search for solutions to poverty that maintain our distance from the poor. This search is a sin and has no sympathy with our identity as the people of God. We must turn away from it.
Jesus offers something better. He gives himself to us through the incarnation, in announcing his reign in word, deed and sign, culminating in the cross and resurrection, and then remains with us through the Holy Spirit which animates his Body, the church. More than a message or strategy or practice, it is a reality of loving involvement, in which he invites us to participate with all of our lives. This is discipleship.
Having cleared the ground, our next step is to understand the church in a particular light; as the experience, community and practice of divine friendship, where generosity, involvement and solidarity become real. That will be my next topic …^ back to top