First, let me clear the ground. I do not like the right wing attitudes that are suddenly (or suddenly to me) acceptable to spout in polite society. I do not wonder that people hold them, but I do wonder that these opinions are lauded and not seen as embarrassing. The policies that this climate is allowing to get through are detrimental to society and to the well being of the world in my opinion. Yes, a struggle is on and we need to succeed in at least damage limitation. Every battle needs more people than there seems to be available.
However, I want to get across something that is being lost in the midst of the battle. We need to keep the big struggle in view. The big struggle is not for better rights for women enshrined in law, not for the better treatment of migrant and not for better welfare. I want all those but I worry that we are too often if focussing on them gaining pyrrhic victories. We are at the same time as technically gaining a legal or democratic victory losing those who would be our allies in other battles.
The big struggle is for the hearts and minds of the people. When we have that then we have the others will come. However, if we succeed in alienating most people then we will lose all we have struggled to gain eventually. That means we need to watch the method and tone of our argument. So much of today that passes for debate is actually two sides becoming more and more entrenched. We think about the fight as if it is a duel between two already formed teams
The fact is that it is a lot more fluid than that. Individuals are always making decisions on whether to participate, which side to participate on and how much energy to give. There is thus the immediate opponent or opponents but also the onlookers. Now some of the onlookers are moved by the strength in battle but others are moved by other things. These include
how much space you give those who join in to hold their own views
if you care about the issues that face them as well as your central cause, however worthy your cause.
are they able to influence the strategy or are they just battle fodder
is the underlying morality a matter of deep faith or just surface politics
how you deal with the ambiguity that occurs in most people’s lives
can they actually talk about something that is not directly relevant or is their only the campaign
is it ok to take time out to care for family or will that be seen as not caring
is there a greater narrative here or is this seen as a one-off issue
Those may sound as general questions but I think we need to be very careful that we never, ever think that the effort for any particular cause is worth sacrificing other people. Ourselves we can sacrifice and to be among the highly committed can produce great comradeship. However, if comes to something else when we think we have the right to ignore the humanity of those who are working with us. We can and will only grow if we can engage with the humanity of other people.
This is a late addition to a series of posts I made and it is in response to Bishop Philip North’s Hope for the Poor which he gave at New Wine in August. It is a good piece of writing and thought-provoking. I am for urban ministry and if you got this far in this series you will not be in any doubt about that. I am for those articles that encourages us to look at what people bring to the Church in more than monetary ways. The problem I want to address is one that is brought by a hidden change of topics in the article. He starts by arguing for an acknowledgement of what the poor bring to the church and ends up with arguing for the greater development of churches ministry to the poor. Without a doubt, the poor need help if their ministry to the church is to be received. It is not easy to draw the poor into the institutions of power and the Church is often too similar to other institutions. It would do the Church no harm to focus. However, I actually want to address here what the poor bring to the Church that is distinctive and why the Church should welcome it.
Let me be clear the Church has a long tradition of holding the poor in high esteem. In the letter from James (James 2:1-6), the Christians are chastised for not welcoming a poor man as they welcome rich. In verse 5 we read “has God not chosen the poor to be rich in faith”. Charity towards them is important enough for it to be a sign of unity to for the Church (Galatians 2:10). The opening of Jesus’ ministry includes ‘proclaiming good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18). Jesus asks us that when we have a feast we should invite the poor (Luke 14:13) and in the Lukan version of the Beatitudes it is simply “Blessed are you poor” (Luke 6:20-21). Matthew 25:40 has the rebuke for not doing it for the “least of these”. Indeed we are told if we are to be perfect we must “sell all we have and give to the poor” Matthew 19:21.
Now not many of us take that seriously but there has been a long tradition in the Church of doing so. Most notably with the Franciscans. St Francis is revered even today for the extent which he sought to be poor and one of the early classics of Franciscan spirituality is an allegorical exchange between St Francis and Lady Poverty. What is more, most monastic orders keep the vow of poverty or the practice of not having personal possessions.
More modern communities where the radical adoption of poverty has featured include Sojourners and Bob Holman. There are others particularly among evangelicals but you almost have to specifically know who they are to be able to identify them. The radical choice of evangelical poverty is not just a call to minimalism and an absence of stuff but to something deeper. A joining with the poor so as to be one alongside them. The Church is not called to help the poor but to join with the poor. It is different. There is much written about the advantages of poverty as a spiritual discipline but there is a world of difference between poverty chosen and embraced and poverty thrust upon you. The poor in the Biblical sense are those who have it thrust upon them.
So far I have argued that Christian relationship with the poor is not just about serving the poor. and also that voluntary poverty is different from being poor and, while a valid and useful religious discipline, is not the same as being actually poor. Equally, we are not called to idealise the poor as if they are automatically saints by virtue of not having enough to eat. We need to take off rose glinted glasses.
There is one thing that all people who are poor experience; that is that they are subject to institutions, forces and beings that they cannot control. Those forces may be represented by the debt collector, the people who give them substandard shelter at inflated prices, government agencies, charitable agencies, the local drug dealer. Basically, they experience daily lack of agency in their lives and have no illusion that they are masters of their fate. They know they are dependent on events and people they cannot subjugate to their will. They will still try and manipulate those events and people to their advantage but this feels more like playing Russian Roulette than solving the Cryptic Crossword. Get it wrong and you will end up in real trouble with only a limited knowledge of the outcome.
This is very different to anyone even slightly higher up the social scale. We are very much Cryptic Crossword solvers. We tend to believe that if we try hard enough, work long enough, or ask enough people we will eventually find the solution to life’s many riddles and be able to run our lives successfully on our own. We may acknowledge the Divine God who judges all but we tend to imagine him rewarding those who play well and punishing those who cheat at solving life’s riddles. We think what is more that the more money we have the less we are subject to vagaries that life brings.
The poor bear witness to the fact that we ultimately are not in control.
Faith actually begins when we realise this and put our trust in another. While we are trying
to micromanage our ways out of possible disaster or trying to put money aside for every eventuality we are in fact also creating an illusion for ourselves that we are in control. If this is the case then it is not surprising Jesus says that it is harder for rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25). Usually the illusions stay until something pretty traumatic happens and then we work hard to regain the illussion. They are our safety net from an anxiety attack that would leave us unable to operate or so we believe. The poor know how to operate while permanently without the safety illusion and they know they often have to risk putting their trust in something they cannot control.
That is the poor know what it is to have faith. They rely on faith, perhaps not in God, though many do believe in God in some form but faith in institutions, the social worker or their mate to see them right. If they did not they would end up overwhelmed with anxiety. The rest of us therefore have some catching up to do when it comes to the technology of faith. While we may be experts at doctrine, have a thorough understanding of the Bible and regular in devotional practice we have little experience of trusting anyone with our existence.
It is the middle class and the rich who need to take the risk for faith, whether that is to embrace voluntary poverty or step out of comfort zone in some other way. Without it we are too shielded from our ephemerality, believing that what we purpose will happen and become self-orientated. Until we open ourselves to risk for faith we cannot know what faith is.
Let me start by saying what this is not about. It is not another debugging of the idea that there existed theocracies anywhere in the world, be it Geneva under Calvin, Scotland under Knox or the Pilgrim Father’s in America. I do not believe they thought that they had a theocracy; it is what others have put onto them. Few in the Reformed tradition including conservative Calvinists want to actually establish a theocracy today.
I believe the commonly cited examples of theocracy never really were experiments in being one in a meaningful way. I have read enough about the real power politics of Geneva during Calvin’s time to know firstly that the appearance of absolute power to God or to Calvin is a later projection. Take the simple fact that Calvin was never a citizen of Geneva. Imagine an absolute ruler who was not even a citizen. Nor was Calvin above the normal pettiness of human beings. I am not talking Servetus here, his enemies have made too big a play of that from the facts. Indeed it could be argued that Servetus’ mistake was to think Calvin was more in control of Geneva than he was. Calvin’s failure to save Servetus was a case of political necessity; for Calvin to save Servetus would have given his enemies, even more, grounds to attempt to destabilise Geneva than if Servetus was tried by the magistrates. If Geneva was destabilised then Calvin would not be able to save Servetus anyway. Rather there is evidence of small minded pettiness in his judgements at the Consistory (Church) courts such as not giving a pay rise to those who had argued with him previously. Geneva under Calvin from Calvin himself down remained a city with toxic power politics. Calvin’s big achievement was remaining alive in such a brew. If that is true of Geneva, then I suspect it is true of Scotland (the evidence I have read supports this) and the Pilgrim Fathers (I have little acquaintance with the evidence there).
Rather I want to look at the change in the conceptualisation of government made to the approach to social justice. Before Calvin, there was Aquinas with a model of government where the chance of something being good was matched with the chance of something being bad. So you reformed government according to tradeoffs. Under Aquinas Democracy is both least potential good and least potential bad while a monarchy had the most potential good and potential bad. Calvin seems to sweep that aside and proposes a way of organising the Church and state that is acceptable. My recall of reading it is that even he thought of it as one of the acceptable solutions to the problem, not the only solution and as such one of the ways churches could be acceptable to God. Notice Calvin’s focus is very much of the church, the state is a side issue. It does, however, suggest that the way a state is governed can be more or less acceptable to God. Thus the questions come can you reform institutions Church or State so that they are more or less in accordance with the will of God. It starts an idea, that is that you can make the worldly structures such that they reflect the will of Heaven. This is not the same as they are ordained from Heaven and the result is almost the opposite.
This has a profound effect on the way the Reformed behave. Let’s get this clear. All churches engage in both charitable works and issues around social justice. There is nothing special here about the fact that the Reformed are engaged in both. What does strike one when dealing with the Reformed is the amount of effort and energy that goes into considering the ways structures reflect issues of social justice. The dominance within Reformed circles of the idea that society needs to be reformed this is regardless of whether these structures are faith based, community-based, or state based. There is a political activists agenda running under the surface that says society could and should reflect the agenda we see as God’s. To put it bluntly, our tedious worrying over structures and forms is in large due to seeing these as a way to get things right for God.
It can be a blessing. The ideas of checks and balances, the keeping of detailed records for trials and such have strong connections with the Reformed tradition. The New England Puritans for the first and none other than John Calvin for the second. On the other hand, it can lead to exceeding officiousness. We tend to forget that people exist as individuals in their own right and while we can shape the structures of society to promote general well being, we need to be careful that we do not overreach. That is, in the end, we cannot force people to be good and respect their integrity. Goodness, if it is worth anything, has to come from the desire within a person rather than enforced from the outside.
I see the enthusiasm of young people for hot topics: Climate Change, Politics, Immigration etc. I admire it, wish I was not so tired myself but…
Over twenty years ago, pre-new Labour, I sat in the Chapter House in Iona late September. The week was the first ever JPIC week. If you are wondering what the letters stand for that are Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. It was the first time that the Iona Community added Integrity of Creation to their Justice and Peace commitment.
I remember it as a wet day, the room was cold and like all Justice and Peace events the people there were two groups. There were the seasoned battle weary campaigners, there were the new enthusiastic recruits and there was me. Age wise I should have been in the new recruit group, but I was somewhere between struggling out of quite a severe bout of depression and I started young, really young. I was battle injured from the bouts when I had come to Iona ten years earlier. We were asked to list the story of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in the last fifty years. The process was dismal, as defeat after defeat was listed. So much so that I, of all people in that room, started to demand that we somehow hold a candle of light. I was close of suicidal but I knew we had to keep a light or there was no hope.
A decade later I watched many of the new recruits burn out. I was also in the long, still ongoing road, to trying to find a balance. I have never been a vocal campaigner but have spent much of my time engaged in the backroom. Trying to make things happen and improve the lot. I am still here, trying to light those candles. Sometimes I am more active than others but I never totally give up. Often it has involved trying to help people as they approach burn out. I have no illusion on the cost of engagement.
Maybe it is returning to Iona that set this off. Maybe it is that I am making contact with new recruits. If I was in that room I would say to the new recruits today:
we have been here before this is cyclic,
there will be times when we make progress (and yes forward is the direction overall)
long-term engagement with any of these issues is costly
short of the parousia there is not going to be a quick fix, you need to be in for the long haul
choose your battles, you can’t do everything and trying to just hastens burnout
weary campaigners often have wisdom, often hard won, so listen
but be ready to do things differently – you will at least fail for different reasons.
make sure that your spiritual oxygen supply is getting through. You cannot really help anyone else if you are suffocating.