Rev Dr Lynn Arnold AO
14 October 2018
NAMING THOSE WHO ARE POOR – NOT DEFAMING THEM
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today is the start of Anti-Poverty Week 2018. This annual week was first held in 2001, and is always centred on October 17, the UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty which was first denominated in 1993 and aims ’to promote people’s awareness of the need to eradicate poverty and destitution.’ For the past nine years there have been over 400 events annually around the country during the week. From 2010 until last year I had variously been National Co-Chair or Deputy Chair of National Anti-Poverty Week and have been personally involved in many events.
It should go without saying that, as Christians, we have a clear call to be concerned about poverty and those afflicted by it. Jim Wallis, of Sojourners International, has noted that there are more than 2,000 texts in the Bible that deal with the poor, wealth, poverty and social issues. While Jesus’ reference that the poor will always be with us [Matt. 26:11] may seem to encourage indifference to their plight, his words in the Inasmuch Sermon [Matt. 25:31-45] – ‘inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me’- should clearly dispel any such notions. But how should we be involved?
This evening I don’t intend to regale you with a raft of statistics about poverty here and overseas – neither the dire news nor much that is actually hopeful in terms of global poverty reduction, even if our own national indicators are worsening. If you would like to hear such statistics, you would be more than welcome to hear an address I will be giving at the University of Adelaide this coming Tuesday afternoon on ‘The Changing Face of Poverty’.
Instead, I want to consider a Kingdom approach to the question of poverty and the differentiated call which that makes for us as Christians from that which the secular world often feels called to follow. To seek God’s wisdom rather than the world’s.
A former colleague of mine in World Vision, Jayakumar Christian, wrote a book entitled “God of the Empty-Handed: Poverty, Power and the Kingdom of God”; four years ago I convened a book study on this work here at the Cathedral, which some of you attended. Jayakumar’s analysis, which was heavily influenced by the work of Walter Brueggeman, was based on a reinterpretation of the relationships of power and of individuals in our world. On the subject of power, Jayakumar said:
The powerlessness of the poor is imposed by the non-poor and the powers of the world. [p208]
And on the subject of relationships, faith in Christ asks us to declare our side in a context where Jesus made such a choice. Jayakumar said this of our Lord’s choice:
The helpless baby was a precursor of the crucified Christ. This reversal (of power and relationship) for Jesus meant the washbasin and the towel. It meant being misunderstood and ridiculed before other people. It involved being treated as an ‘option’ by Pilate to be considered for release or not … When Jesus was rejected, it meant the experience of the Cross. For Jesus, all this was part of a journey in powerlessness. [pp207-8]
Without going into a detailed analysis of the Inasmuch Sermon from Matthew 25, there are two key indicators in that particular passage which affirm the points highlighted by Jayakumar Christian. Firstly, consider whom Jesus named as the key person in this sermon to his disciples – it was not the incarnate Jesus who stood before his disciples, but the risen Jesus – the King. Secondly, note the comparison offered to the disciples; Jesus did not say that when succour was offered to those in need that ‘it was like you had given it to me’, nor did he say ‘it was as if you had given it to me’.
Listen to the actual words he said to his disciples:
Inasmuch as you gave it to the least of these, you gave it to me.
Jesus, as the King, had become the very personhood of those in need. Bryant Myers, another World Vision colleague of both Jayakumar and myself, has written in his book – Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development – about the significance of this transformed personhood of the King this way:
We must embrace the poor, accepting them as God presents them to us. [p217]
The way Jesus spoke in the Inasmuch sermon, he presented the poor to us, not as like the King, but as the King; and thus does God present them to us. When we see anyone in need, how do we see them? Does it matter? The sad reality is that so very often those in need are seen in quite an opposite way; they are depersonalised – we call them ‘The Poor’. In the 1840s Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels coined a term – lumpenproletariat – which echoed this loss of identity that is so often implicit in the way the poor are considered. The significance of this is not only that a respectful sense of individual identity is lost, very often it is worse even than that, for personhood is often replaced by problemhood. In other words, poor people are too often not defined by their personhood but by the problems that may afflict them – they may become redefined by labels of their circumstance.
Not that there hasn’t been some push-back against the use of the anonymous term ‘The Poor’. There has, so we have replaced it with the term ‘low socio-economic’. Let me tell you a salutary story from my time as a well-meaning local member of parliament. One day, a local woman, Beth Harvey, came to talk to me about a series of challenges facing our shared community in the north. Beth had no degrees in sociology, or of any sort; indeed I don’t believe she had even finished high school. But what she did have was a profound understanding of and feeling for the community where we both lived. After some time of a very good conversation between us about these challenges, I put my foot well and truly in mouth when I said:
Yes, we live in a low socio-economic community …
But before I had the chance to proceed with the wise point I was about to make, she stopped me in my tracks responding:
You’re wrong! We don’t live in low socio-economic community – we might be a low income community, but we are not low socio, thank you very much!
She went on to say that, while there were many social problems in our area, so too were there many social problems in other areas of higher income. Some of those problems might have been the same, some might have been different – but all communities encountered social problems. And, she was indicating, it was of absolutely no help in addressing the problems of lower income communities by labelling them low socio as well.
I was duly and justly chastised and ever since I have not only refused to use the term ‘low socio-economic’ myself but have baulked whenever I have heard it used elsewhere.
This is all more than mere semantics, for there are important relational issues involved. A popular response of governments in recent decades has been to speak of Social Inclusion – it is one of those warm today-speak terms that says volumes. Its very rightness is proved by its title – no more need be said. Social inclusion? Of course, we all support it, how could we not? Yet, what is in a name? Ah, how very much is the answer to that question.
Lou Wilson, from UniSA, wrote an essay back in 2009 on the subject of Social Inclusion in which he critiqued the approach sometimes used by activists in the field. His conclusion did not carry the warmth I had expected from the title. He finished his essay with these words:
We might all hope that at some time in the future social inclusion policies that ‘work assertively’ will not be applied to us.
For, in his essay, Lou Wilson warned against social policy approaches that failed to address the causes of social problems, but instead often implicitly blamed the victims for their own circumstances and then introduced policies to control the lives of those very victims … for their own good, of course! Three years ago, I preached on poverty in Anti-Poverty Week during the morning sermons; a quote I gave then from Herman Melville spoke directly into the point made by Lou Wilson:
Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.
Bryant Myers put this in a way that spoke in theological terms:
(The relationship of the poor) with others are often oppressive and disempowering as a result of the non-poor playing god in the lives of the poor. [p13]
Just who is this ‘god’ who is at work in helping others? In their different ways, both Lou Wilson and Bryant Myers spoke of the capacity for the distortion of aims in efforts supposedly designed to help. Too often the ‘god’ at work is that of the world’s wisdom; derived from the best intentions of the world’s power and might. Jayakumar Christian, after exploring this dilemma in addressing poverty, focussed on this quote from Zechariah:
For it is not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. [Zech 4:6]
The eleven years I worked with World Vision taught me a great deal about not only the what, but also about the real how and why of working with poor communities. Just to do the work (the what), was not necessary but not sufficient; it was important that the why and the how be based on proper principles. My time in World Vision showed me how such work should be based on Kingdom-principles – all of us being children of God, He who loves all his children, and that there be a spirit of love of neighbour as ourselves at the very heart of our work.
Back in 1998, I visited World Vision’s work in West Timor. I toured through project work in communities in the Kupang district. Three days arduous visiting entailed 7am departures from our accommodation followed by long days of visits and meetings before returning in the early evening; all of this in hot and humid conditions. Near the end of the third day, I was tired, sweaty and uncomfortable from the heat and couldn’t wait to complete one last visit before getting back to the hostel to pour cold water all over me and collapse for the night. But I still had one more village to visit or, I’m sorry to say, to get through; for that was how I was actually feeling at the time.
In this village, I was shown how World Vision had assisted the community in developing a school, a health clinic, an experimental plot of agricultural land, a small dam, a bridge to enable goods to get to market without the dangers of fording a sometime fast flowing river. At the end of the inspections, I knew it was my time to talk with the locals about all this work and their aspirations for the future. But after three days of intense project visiting, I was so tired and ready to call it a day; I’m ashamed to say that I let my brain go into default mode, which is that I opted to ask a series of predictable questions which would, I expected, receive predictable answers; at the end I would then make predictable statements of congratulations and good wishes so that I could then go for a wash and to bed. So it was that I asked of a community leader the first question of an easy script already prepared in my mind. It went:
From all these projects with which World Vision has been involved with your community, which do you think has done the most?
I waited for a predictable answer which I thought would be based upon what the community leader had assessed from feedback of others over the two years of the project. The answer might have been the school, the health clinic, the experimental plot, the dam or the bridge – despite the options, it would have been predictable none the less.
But the answer that came was not predictable, the community leader did not name any of those community assets, instead he said:
What World Vision has most done for us has been to help us understand how we can help ourselves.
I had asked a lazy question, he had given me a serious answer. There was I, tired after an exhausting three day schedule of dawn to dusk visits, ready to call it a day; having opted for easy conversation, I had been met with a profound answer from someone who lived and worked there everyday of his life in that heat and humidity. His answer did not speak of the what of the work in that community over the previous two years, but about the real how – empowerment – and, implicitly, the real why – the fellowship of neighbours from different sides of the globe working together. In the face of such wisdom, I quickly reengaged my brain and took part in a real conversation which went on for a couple more hours before we returned very late to our hostel.
Our reading from Job tonight spoke of the source of true wisdom:
But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding. Mortals do not know the way to it. [Job 28:12:13]
How apt are these words as we consider how we should respond to issues of poverty in our world? The world’s wisdom, our own individual wisdom, will often short change us as we as we seek ways to respond meaningfully to poverty in our world, especially if it is not spirit-based but influenced by might and power – we may end up focussing only on the what at the expense of the how and, more importantly, the real why. In terms of looking into the eyes of those who are poor, the world’s wisdom all too often only sees the other – separate from and lesser than the us. As we heard in Job tonight:
God understands the way to (wisdom). [Job 28:23]
In this year’s National Anti-Poverty Week, may I encourage all of us to reflect upon our own concern for those who are poor, and the way we express that concern. Will we seek a Kingdom response where we see the eyes of Christ in those in need and so see our neighbours as ourselves?