Teaching the Coalition about poverty
Except to say, in terms of nuanced theology and practical politics, the Pope’s message is eclipsed by the written and spoken words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who spent his Christmas reflecting upon the politics of poverty.
But not in a 1980s Lambeth Palace / No10 kind of clash, in which Margaret Thatcher must have felt besieged by a hostile Church of England; where every Conservative manifesto pledge seemed to have an equal and opposite pamphlet issued by the Archbishop’s Commission.
Archbishop Rowan is rather more subtle than that.
So subtle, in fact, that Tim Montgomerie tweeted that the Archbishop ‘misses his best opportunity of the year to talk about Jesus Christ’, and today the increasingly two-dimensional Melanie Phillips accuses him of failing to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor.
His Grace refutes both of these crass allegations.
One might expect a polemic Jewess to be ignorant of the depths of Christian theology. But it is a little surprising that Tim Montgomerie misrepresents the leader of the Established Church (though he appears to be commenting upon [and links to] a Daily Mail caricature), and failed to notice that Jesus is mentioned no fewer than six times in the Archbishop’s sermon, three of which came in the opening paragraph.
It is not, in any case, the number of times the name is mentioned which is important: ‘Jesus’ will have been used, abused, sung and blasphemed in thousands of churches and professing churches over this season. What is important is the authenticity and relevance of the message.
And in this the Archbishop of Canterbury was four-square at the heart of the gospel.
His Christmas sermon touched on all of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ themes of social justice; our need for mutual dependence on our fellow human beings; our need for a spirit of fellowship and loyalty to each other in sharing the burdens of adversity in difficult economic times:
"Faced with the hardship that quite clearly lies ahead for so many in the wake of financial crisis and public spending cuts, how far are we able to sustain a living sense of loyalty to each other, a real willingness to bear the load together? How eager are we to find some spot where we feel safe from the pressures that are crippling and terrifying others? As has more than once been said, we can and will as a society bear hardship if we are confident that it is being fairly shared; and we shall have that confidence only if there are signs that everyone is committed to their neighbour, that no-one is just forgotten, that no interest group or pressure group is able to opt out."And he points to the need for us to work positively together in order to rebuild trust:
"That confidence isn't in huge supply at the moment, given the massive crises of trust that have shaken us all in the last couple of years and the lasting sense that the most prosperous have yet to shoulder their load. If we are ready, if we are all ready, to meet the challenge represented by the language of the 'big society', we may yet restore some mutual trust. It's no use being cynical about this; whatever we call the enterprise, the challenge is the same – creating confidence by sharing the burden of constructive work together."In the same way, the Archbishop also urges us to embrace the meaning of the forthcoming Royal Wedding, to recognise the significance of the Christian bond of marriage as a symbol of hope for humanity:
"Next year, we shall be joining in the celebration of what we hope will be a profoundly joyful event in the royal wedding. It is certainly cause for celebration that any couple, let alone this particular couple, should want to embark on the adventure of Christian marriage, because any and every Christian marriage is a sign of hope, since it is a sign and sacrament of God's own committed love. And it would be good to think that I this coming year, we, as a society, might want to think through, carefully and imaginatively, why lifelong faithfulness and the mutual surrender of selfishness are such great gifts."And in comparing Christian marriage with our covenantal relationship with God, the Archbishop reflects on - not only the trials of marriage - but also the inspirational examples of some marriages which he has seen:
"There will be times when we may feel stupid or helpless; when we don't feel we have the energy or resource to forgive and rebuild after a crisis or a quarrel; when we don't want our freedom limited by the commitments we've made to someone else. Yet many of us will know marriages where something extraordinary has happened because of the persistence of one of the parties, or where faithfulness has survived the tests of severe illness or disability or trauma. I admit, find myself deeply moved at times when I speak with the families of servicemen and women, where this sense of solidarity is often so deeply marked, so generous and costly. As the Prince and his fiancée get ready for their new step into solidarity together, they will have plenty of inspiration around, more than you might sometimes guess from the chatter of our culture.”And finally, Dr Williams asked us to remember during this time of Christian celebration our brothers and sisters in many lands who suffer repression and persecution for their Christian faith:
"I remind you of our Zimbabwean friends, still suffering harassment, beatings and arrests, legal pressures and lockouts from their churches; of the dwindling Christian population in Iraq, facing more and more extreme violence from fanatics – and it is a great grace that both Christians and Muslims in this country have joined in expressing their solidarity with this beleaguered minority. Our prayers continue for Asia Bib in Pakistan and others from minority groups who suffer from the abuse of the law by certain groups there. We may feel powerless to help; yet we should also know that people in such circumstances are strengthened simply by knowing they have not been forgotten. And if we find we have time to spare for joining in letter-writing campaigns for all prisoners of conscience, Amnesty International and Christian Solidarity worldwide will have plenty of opportunities for us to make use of."In this sermon there is no absence of Jesus: it is infused with the Lord’s concern for our eternal salvation and replete with His love and compassion.
The Archbishop followed this up with an article in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday on Good King Wenceslas looking out on the Feast of Stephen.
Continuing his ‘Big Society’ theme, he observes that the good King was motivated by the alleviation of poverty. It is easy, Dr Williams says, to start making political points of one kind or another:
“The Government is being heartless and oppressive, say some; poverty is mostly people’s own fault, say others, and it is none of the Government’s business.”And he praises Iain Duncan Smith for his ‘clear intention to put things in place that will actually reduce poverty and help people out of the traps of dependency’.
And he warns:
“But – before we relax too much – however good the intention, life at the grass roots is always going to be less black and white, and it is not surprising if a lot of people, already pretty insecure, start feeling even more insecure. At the very least, there is a job of communication to do.”Less black and white, that is, to everyone but Melanie Phillips (or is it The Daily Mail in general?)
There are very many thousands in this country and millions across the world whose life of poverty is not of their making, and they are impotent to escape it. And so the Archbishop talks of ‘the Victorian distinction between the deserving poor and the rest’:
“Hard-working and honest people who do their best really do face problems; so do people with disabilities, with mental health issues or limited mobility. There are doubtless some who make the most out of the benefits culture (just as there are some who have made the most out of other kinds of perks available to bankers or MPs).”And then comes the paragraph which so offends Ms Phillips:
“But even if there are those who are where they are because of their own bad or foolish choices in the past, that doesn’t mean they are any less in need in the present. And it can’t be said often enough that most people in poverty – and we should be thinking of children in particular – haven’t chosen it.”Like Job’s comforters, she clings to the simplistic cause and effect of bad and foolish choices, insisting that the poor who make these poor life decisions thoroughly deserve their resulting penury and have no-one but themselves to blame.
She shows ignorance not only of Jesus’ privileged message to the poor but also surprisingly of her own Scriptures: for every proverb which is concerned with God’s punishment for sin, the Wisdom Literature contains whole paragraphs dedicated to the fact that it rains upon the righteous as well as the unrighteous, and the reason is something of a mystery.
And it is shameful that Ms Phillips fails to distinguish even between the ‘deserving poor’ and ‘the children in particular’.
The alleviation of poverty was foundational to the ministry of Jesus: he preached more about money than he did about eternal salvation. When examining what he said about the poor, consideration has to be given to context and audience, and the nuances of Greek vocabulary also need examining.
What does Luke mean by ‘the poor’ (6:20)? The peasants who possessed little material wealth were not called ‘poor’ (‘ptochos’) if they possessed what was sufficient (ie subsistence) - they were termed ‘penes’. Jesus was (and is) concerned with the literal, physical needs of men (ie not just the spiritual [cf Acts 10:38]). When Luke was addressing the ‘poor’, he meant those who had no money - the oppressed, miserable, dependent, humiliated - and this is translated by ‘ptochos’, indicating ‘poverty-stricken…to cower down or hide oneself for fear’ - the need to beg. The ‘penes’ has to work, but the ‘ptochos’ has to beg. Those addressed by Jesus are the destitute beggars, not ‘penes’ or the general peasant audience of few possessions.
This is an important distinction for the politician and the journalist, neither of which appear to be capable of grasping what the Archbishop is talking about. He insists:
"That is where the Church wants to be – where it has to be – in all this.Unlike his Episcopal predecessors of the 1980s, the Government has in Lambeth Palace an Archbishop with whom they can do business. He is not into formal receptions and long meetings for discussion, but has a passion for actively working to meet the needs of the poor, irrespective of the cause of their hardship. Like Jesus, he does not care how they became poor: he cares simply because they are poor.
The Church isn’t a welfare agency and it isn’t a political party and it should never forget that. But the Church IS a body of people called by God to make a difference to how people see themselves and their world – called to help people towards greater confidence and fearlessness and generosity.
"Good King Wenceslas wasn’t writing a party manifesto but he did believe he had to try to make a difference because God was calling him to be generous – and that God had showed him how to be generous.
"The greatest resource of the churches is that they have people in them who have the confidence and the imagination to make a difference, people who are willing to be volunteers in the service of society.
This is an Archbishop who meets with destitute migrants, visits inner-city parishes with programmes of local relief, community education and holiday clubs for children. He wants to discuss the possibilities for expanding hospice care for the dying, and support groups for the unemployed.
And he wants to do all this without ‘carping or point-scoring’:
And the most important thing the Church has to say is that it is willing to help make things work for the good of the people most at risk in society – willing to encourage a few more folk to tread in the footsteps of Good King Wenceslas.This is the Word of the Lord: a message not just for Christmas but one which chimes harmoniously with every stated social justice objective of the present Government.
So, instead of carping and point scoring, embrace him as a partner and a friend. You will not find it easy to 'use' him. But he is ready and willing to serve his Lord to mitigate the long-prophesied pain caused by the Government's policies.