One of the few talks I made it to at Greenbelt this year was by the Rev Dr Sam Wells and was a rather academic talk on the nature of poverty. I enjoyed it so much that I am going to paraphrase parts of it for you and add in some thoughts of my own to bring it in to context.
Sam talked about how the central “human problem” is mortality. If we see someone dying, we want to help them. If we see someone with a low quality of life, we seek to improve it. If we can only live longer, or live better, then we will be on the right track. The central problem for humanity is of course mortality – will we live forever in Heaven or will we suffer forever of suffer the second death in Hell?
And so it naturally follows that our mission should focus on one of two things (or both, if you are a more left-leaning Evangelical): telling the gospel, and aiding those who are impoverished – that is, those with a lack of access to materials or to the means of production (communism, anyone?) . Both of these things help to either ensure the immortality of the soul or improve the mortal experience of the body.
In order to achieve this we must help others to have the opportunity to experience the same luxuries as us. We must make sure they have heard the good news, received an altar call, been brought up to speed on what to believe and how to believe it via an Alpha course and finally teach them how to make good, proper Christian quiche.
If they are poor or destitute we must go and help them. We must travel to those nations who are “third world” from our “first world”. We must come alongside them and help them to build their schools, hospitals, and churches (apparently the 3 founding pillars of any society according to the image presented by every missionary organisation ever). Some have recognised we should do more than this and so set up camp in these countries, spending their entire lives trying to help these people spiritually, in business, or in faith; sure of the knowledge that one day their worlds will merge and these people will finally “get it” and live as we do in our enlightened western ways.
Of course mission doesn’t stop abroad. We must go to the poorest parts of our own nation. We must run food banks to help those who cannot afford food to eat. We must teach people how to avoid debt. We must help them to get their lives “back on track” so that they can get jobs and contribute to society like the rest of us – finally fulfilling their sense of worth and giving them a sense that their life is here for a reason, that mortality is worth it and thus giving us a way to show them that immortality is worth even more again. We must plant churches in these areas to allow us to rub shoulders with these people – to give them an easy way to come to us, so that we can share all of these good things with them.
Clearly, we must, must, must, must do something about poverty. It is imperative in Jesus’ teaching, in the ways of the Torah, and it is something the Evangelical and Traditional wings of the church have ignored for far too long.
The problem is that virtually everything I have written so far is a load of complete bollocks (You can thank me over a pint for wasting your time!).
The central human problem is not, and has never been, mortality.
The central human problem is loneliness.
The afterlife is not about an extension of our mere blip of mortality. It is about being one with God, or not being one with God. It is about relationship.
The most impoverished state anyone can be in is total isolation.
And so we see our picture unravel, from the ground up. It’s not about telling people to believe in something – it is about sharing our stories with others that they might be inspired.
It is not about putting them on the middle class Christianity conveyer belt and hoping that they turn out just like us – it is about meeting people where they are at and recognising God at work in their particular struggles.
It is not about going abroad and building schools and hospitals, leaving a few weeks later having made so little an impact with your brickwork that the local community actually feels compelled to rebuild the building so that it is actually structurally sound. It is not about robbing people of their sense of self worth and ability to do things themselves. It is about recognising the isolating effects of globalism and isolationist politics, and recognising the exploitation that has come with the removal of the producer from the consumer. It is about redressing that balance and building long lasting friendships with those who sustain our way of life [though I struggle to imagine how this can be done].
It is certainly not about doing the same on our own doorstep. We claim to dislike benefits claimants, or those who exploit the system or are work-shy. Yet our Christianity hands them this culture on a plate (idiom chosen without irony). We go in to the “poor” communities with our food banks and day trips and “mission weekends” where we go in like America to Vietnam and carpet bomb them with love, kindness and Christianity only to head off the next morning back to our leafy suburbs. No, it is about choosing to be among a people; building friendships and relationships and allowing our hearts to be broken for them in such a way that instead of coming from outside the problem, we are a part of the problem. It is about knowing these people as our neighbours.
The irony of the pursuit of immortality is that it has actually damaged our desire for better relationships and thus made the central human problem worse. Instead of confiding in friends, we seek counselors. Instead of learning to provide for ourselves from our communities, we lazily become reliant upon handouts and pity, if we aren’t lucky enough to rely on a trust fund or a wealthy family, or indeed a postcode-lottery education.
Of course with right relationship comes a reduction in material poverty anyway – those with whom we relate, we share. Those for whom we love, we provide. It would be gratuitous to claim that the Christian should never care for those in material need. Of course we should. But that’s the key – we should care. You cannot truly care for someone if you do not know them.
The advantage of this way of seeing poverty is that we cannot fix it quickly and we cannot burn out. Too often when trying to fix material poverty, we simply apply sticking plasters, and after sticking too many plasters, we collapse from physical, mental, emotional or spiritual exhaustion. I have seen this happen time and time again in my local community. And I am sick to the core of it.
We do not need anything to help loneliness, but ourselves. When we are less busy trying to get the resources and the programs together to help “fix” others, we can spend more time ensuring we live a healthy balance of loving God, ourselves and our neighbours. That way, we are more likely to combat the isolation poverty of the world and feel better about it. Win-win! (That’s because the isolation poverty is relational, so when others feel good – so do we. It’s almost as if we were designed for relationship… hmm…).
Sam summed this all up as “working for” versus “being with”. Can I implore you to think about this. Do not work for anything. Be with those in need. Don’t think you can fix people or teach them how to be or show them God’s love by telling them the Gospel. No, instead – go and be with people. Be vulnerable. Be available. And don’t go doing it the other side of the world, or the other side of the city. Recognize that in order to not be “doing things for/to/at” people, you have to be among them. You have to become a part of the relational poverty. Otherwise you’re ultimately just adding to the problem.
I rather like how Rob Bell always ends with a benediction so I am going to do the same. This is my prayer for all of us, myself included.
So may you discover where you are in relational (dare I say spiritual) poverty yourself, and may you, in the words of Jesus, know that the Kingdom of Heaven is yours. May you go to your friends and neighbours and show them love and kindness. May you be a part of the solution, and not the problem.