Some thoughts on “The Poor”

philip-north
Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, who criticised the Church of England for not caring for the poor

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about “The Poor” (apologies for the quote marks, I’ll explain why in a minute). Clacton, where I’ve been for the last three years, is not a rich area – according to the Church Urban Fund, the parish of Great Clacton ranks 892 out of 12,599 parishes nationally for deprivation. This is something which I’ve been mulling over for a while. Then, the other night I watched Professor Green: Living in Poverty, which was looking at the issue of child poverty in the UK (it’s worth watching, by the way). And today, I read that Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, has criticised the Church of England for abandoning the poor.

I don’t pretend to have any special insights into “The Poor”, but I offer here a few thoughts which I hope might prove useful to some.

“The Poor” are not an alien species

A month or two ago I got round to thinking about being in a more deprived area, and wondered – of the people I know round here, who are “The Poor”? And it made me realise two things: (1) I probably know people who would come under that label (people don’t usually talk much about their finances, of course); (2) they are not different to me.

People sometimes talk about “The Poor” as if they are other, as if they are different, as if there is a class of people called “The Poor” and they are on that side and we are on this side. We all know, of course, that the reality is much more complicated with shades of grey (the government have started using a Multiple Deprivation Index, for example, which takes into account seven different factors). But I think it’s easy to talk about “The Poor” as if they aren’t us, which is silly, because the poor are ‘us’. This is why I started out putting “The Poor” in scare quotes – because this is how I think it gets talked about a lot of the time.

I don’t think it’s wrong to talk about “The Poor” – Jesus did – but it’s important to remember to always have in mind that the reality is somewhat more complicated.

Housing is really important

One of the things that struck me about the Professor Green programme was that housing is really important. If the place where you live is secure, then you can cope with a lot. (There was another programme recently called “The Week the Landlords Moved In” which showed something similar).

When I was growing up, my Dad became the pastor of a small independent church in a Suffolk town. Although I didn’t really know much about it at the time, he was receiving a very low wage – far less than the national average. In fact, my Mum told me years later that sometimes she didn’t know where the next meal was coming from – she had to count every penny and make the most of everything. However, I always had what I needed (clothes, food, etc) – we never went without the essentials as a family. And I think the biggest reason for that is my parents did actually own the house.

People talk about a housing crisis in the UK, and unfortunately it’s those in the lowest income bracket who suffer the most because of it.

Family / marriage is really important

Another thing that struck me about the Professor Green programme is that of the three families he talked to, in two of them the Dad had abandoned them and in the other (as far as I could tell) the parents were not married. It’s not really surprising – when a family breaks down and splits up, it becomes very hard to manage. How can a single Mum be expected to bring up three children and work to earn enough money to support them?

I talked a little about this in my last post, but it should be deeply troubling to all of us that marriage is becoming exclusively a preserve of the wealthy. I did a little (and very non-scientific) experiment recently: when we were visiting my Dad, we took our daughter to the local park. It’s in a fairly nice middle-class kind of area. I made a point of looking around to see how many people were wearing wedding rings – lots of them were. Most of the parents were not that young – i.e. probably waited a few years to get married and then have kids. In contrast, in Clacton, the picture is very different – lots of younger parents, not very many of them married. This is backed up by the research – according to the Marriage Foundation:

There’s a growing Marriage Gap: 87 per cent of high earners (over £43,000) marry; only 24 per cent of low earners (under £16,000) marry. The rich get married (and stay together); the poor don’t.

Family breakdown causes huge problems, particularly for those on the lowest incomes. I’d suggest that if the government (and the church) want to do something for the poor, they could do a lot worse than promoting marriage.

Mental health and isolation

Two other issues which I noticed in the Professor Green programme. Firstly, mental health: all three of the families involved had someone who suffered from some sort of mental health issue and was unable to work. Mental health is becoming a massive issue – which is why the young royals (William, Kate and Harry) came up with the Heads Together campaign.

Secondly, all of the families involved seemed to be suffering in isolation: I didn’t see many friends or family members helping out. This could, of course, simply be a matter of what they filmed / included – but it did strike me that none of them seemed to have anyone they could really call on for help. (And isolation probably doesn’t help with the mental health, either).

“Good news to the poor”

What can we say about this from a Christian perspective? According to Luke’s gospel, when Jesus began his public ministry in Nazareth, he quoted this passage from the prophet Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Jesus applied these words to himself, as the one who was anointed by God. But in what sense does Jesus proclaim ‘good news to the poor’?

Some people say that Christians should seek to serve the poor by transforming unjust structures in society – by calling on the government to build more houses, by creating more jobs, by giving out food and money to those in need etc. I’m sure all these are good things.

But what the Bible says our root problem is, fundamentally, is not unjust structures in society or lack of money but sin. The sin which separates us from God, the sin that separates us from our neighbour.

This is what came home to me as I was watching the Professor Green programme. Sin – failing to do what God wants us to do – was at the root of pretty much everything. Think about family breakdown: God has designed family life in a particular way, and yet we think that we know better and decide to improve on it. Sure, those women whose partners walked away from them weren’t can’t be blamed for their other halves walking out – but at some point in the past they had to decide to get together with them, to have children, etc. This is not trying to blame the victim, but simply to say that our choices have consequences.

Housing is also affected by family breakdown: if a family no longer lives together, two houses are going to be required rather than one. In the programme I mentioned about landlords, one woman said that she and her ex-husband were home owners – until they split up.

What about isolation? I was struck afresh recently by how the New Testament never envisions an isolated Christian. In other words, in the Bible, Christians are always part of the church – never separated from it. Christians are called to meet and share their lives together. In an ideal church – and no church is even close to ideal, but some are closer than others – people’s needs should be looked after and everyone loved and cared for. Jesus famously said: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). In those programmes, I often wondered what it would have been like if the people featured were actually part of a church family.

And finally – mental health. What does sin have to do with mental health? I think it has a lot to do with mental health. I don’t think that God takes all our problems away (physical or mental) in this life, but I think things are often more bearable when walking with God and walking in His ways. Augustine said in a prayer in his Confessions, “O Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless above all things until they find their rest in you.” When we are living in right relationship with our creator, when we are living in accordance with the ways He has given us to live – these things are a big deal and make a huge difference.

The best news is, of course, that Jesus died for our sins: Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment for our sins so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness. Jesus sends His Spirit to us now, one who will walk with us and transform us day by day. We have hope, we have joy, we have the “life to the full” (John 10:10). Christians have been adopted as children of their loving heavenly father, and can trust that all things work together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

This is why the gospel is good news for the poor: because the poor have the same problem as anyone – only, perhaps, the problems for the less well-off are more acutely felt because they don’t have the resources to be able to escape the consequences of sin so easily.

Which brings me to my last point.

We are all “The Poor”

Back where I started out: “The Poor” are not different – in fact, in God’s eyes, we are all “The Poor”. Jesus once wrote to the church in Laodicea:

You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see.

This particular church thought they were rich because they had material wealth – but they were poor towards God. They were poor in spirit – but they didn’t realise it! When Jesus began the beatitudes “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), he meant people who realised their own spiritual poverty before God. Why are they blessed? Because those who recognise their own poverty are able to receive from God’s riches.

Recently at church we sang James Seddon’s hymn “Go Forth and Tell”, and was struck by the verse:

Go forth and tell where still the darkness lies;
in wealth or want, the sinner surely dies:
give us, O Lord, concern of heart and mind,
a love like yours which cares for all mankind.

“In wealth or want, the sinner surely dies”. This is absolutely true. Whether someone is a millionaire or doesn’t have a penny to put to their name – in God’s eyes both are equally sinful, equally poor, equally needing the gospel. The only question for both is: will you accept your spiritual poverty and come to the Lord Jesus, who proclaims good news to the poor?

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