Monday, 2 March 2015

Transforming Poverty; Or, More Accurately, Transformers and Poverty-lite

Powerglide: my first Transformers toy
When I was a kid growing up in 1980s Peterborough, I had the largest collection of Transformers toys and paraphernalia of anyone I knew. But I was also the only boy I knew who wore his school uniform outside of school hours due to the lack of other types of clothing.

The previous paragraph summarises a large part of my tweenage years. My Mum was entitled to social security and, if I recall correctly, some kind of child benefit, which meant we received roughly £40 a week to spend. We claimed housing benefit, so that £40 didn’t need to go towards the rent; but it did need to go towards electricity, gas, groceries, and so on. But very often, the money went on having a Monday splash-out on food and usually, for me, some kind of Transformers-related product. By Wednesday, most of our money had gone, and so Mum would borrow a couple of quid from two or three neighbours, or took out short-term payday loans (as we’d call them now). Mostly these loans from neighbours and more formal lenders would tide us over until Monday morning, when Mum could take out her social once more; but often these small loans didn’t last the distance; and, of course, come Monday, the neighbours and lenders had to be repaid – and this left us short of money again. It was something of a vicious debt cycle, but one that allowed me to indulge in collecting Transformers even though my school uniform was ill-fitting, and any non-uniform clothes I possessed were tatty and threadbare. I could write more about these years, but I’m sure you get the picture. I didn’t live in poverty as such; it was poverty-lite, I guess; but it was real, it was emotionally tough for Mum and me, and, as a result, I have a strong need for material security and can occasionally manifest some impressive financial mismanagement skills – though I hasten to add that I no longer wear a school uniform.

Now I write all this because I’m greatly affected at the moment by the issue of poverty and the ways in which many in the Church are pushing for its alleviation. Poverty is a massive issue, and, in my local church, I’m often reminded of how much of the world lives in poverty, even absolute poverty, and how God calls the Church universal to care for the poor, feed the hungry, and so on. And I agree; oh, how I agree! Even though I’d started going to Sunday School regularly during the period I described above, and I was able to cadge a sandwich tea each Sunday evening from my Sunday School teacher before the evening service, I knew of no church, including my own, that actively campaigned for the poor or set up the 80s equivalent of food banks. I can’t help but wonder how my situation would have been different back then had a local church shown my Mum and me how to handle our money properly and budget effectively in much the same way as many, including my own, do today. Poverty, finances, and the many related issues are immensely crucial, and a local church that does not provide for the needy is surely more a country club than a sacramental instantiation of the body of Christ in the wider community.

But I’m concerned that the issue of poverty is becoming little more than a drum to bang, and the relevance or importance of other instruments is being downplayed. It might just be because there’s so much awareness of poverty at the moment, and more sensitivity to addressing it, but it’s almost as though the Church has nothing else to talk about – well, apart from sex. I appreciate that a hungry person is more likely to hear the Gospel message on a full stomach, but I can’t help but recall Jesus’s words about a person not living by bread alone. Material needs are important, but other needs – for example, emotional and spiritual needs – are also important, and I’m concerned at the possibility that so much emphasis is being placed on the former needs that the latter needs are neglected or diminished in importance. Of course, this could be just my reaction to my own church’s apparent public prioritisation of anti-poverty activism – which in itself is a good thing, I continue to stress.

But in some respects, I detect a kind of romanticisation of the poor. In my church’s main morning service yesterday, the service conveyed the idea that the poor have the brightest smiles, are happy with what they have, count their blessings, and so on. Maybe many do; but all I can recall of my experiences of poverty-lite was how much tension there was in my home at times because my Mum didn’t have enough fifty pence pieces for the electricity slot metre to last over the weekend. I didn’t so much count my blessings as count the hours until 9.00 on Monday morning, when the local post office opened and Mum could collect her social. As with so many things, it’s important not to so generalise those living in poverty that it’s presented as a homogenous experience; I assume that, for various reasons, some can cope better with living in poverty than others. Moreover, talk about ‘those living in poverty’ or ‘the poor’ possibly sets up a binary opposition whereby ‘the poor’ are paradoxically (a) ‘better’ than ‘the rich’ because they aren’t ensnared by the trappings of financial privilege; (b) ‘worse’ than ‘the rich’ because they are, of course, dependent on the generosity of ‘the rich’; and (c) ‘better’ (again!) than ‘the rich’ because their very dependence is redolent of all humanity’s overall dependence  on the provision of God. ‘The poor’ are cast as unfortunate but virtuous. But does this not in a way actually dehumanise those caught up in poverty, first by depicting them as little more than the flotsam and jetsam on the tides of market forces, and then by holding them up in their poverty as examples of having a simple lifestyle greatly to be desired?

The causes of poverty are diverse, as should be the responses, and we do the matter a disservice if we divide society into convenient social groupings such as ‘the poor’ and ‘the rich’ only then to denounce and try to remove the barriers that we ourselves have erected. I’m convinced, too, as important as the matter is, that the Church cannot focus solely on material poverty to the exclusion of any other human needs. Is it possible that poverty is as much addressed by a consistently offered vision of future transformation through the eschatological bread and wine as it is through the present-day provision of everyday bread? And if it is possible and desirable to do this, then does the Church need to shed its socialist pretentions and more explicitly, more publicly, live out its identity as the body of Christ, with all that that sacramental life entails?


  1. Yes, there was much romanticisation of the poor. And... they were mostly from other cultures. I felt it made the poor a complete other. Regarding your question maybe it's a way of understanding poverty and a response to it within our sacramental life, as part of a greater whole. I think this is how the Iona community try to understand it.

    1. Can you explain this a bit more, sir?

  2. I wrote a very long comment and stupid blogspot decided to delete it.

    So here's the short. Amos 5 is an passage to look at in this context. Though in the middle God seems to be saying "i hate your worship! Focus on Justice!" the wider context of the chapter seems to be about seeking God and discarding idols. So it seems the call for justice is within the context of the call for authentic worship.

    Many are fighting for justice but is there a difference about the Christian approach to justice? This is where the theological reflection needs to come in for us to try and grasp what we are actually doing and for what. And hopefully it would be an interleaving of worship, justice and theological reflection that would keep our faith grounded and our deeds sacred.

    1. Stupid blogspot, eh?

      I think it's right to think about what's distinctive about Christian approaches to justice, lest the Church's actions just be social activism. There's nothing wrong with such activism, of course, but the balance between right worship and right practice can become skewed if the latter is strictly identified with the former. Social activism is an act of worship when carried out by God's people, but it is surely not the whole of worship.