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.