Pope Francis began his new ministry by telling journalists he wanted a Church which is “poor and for the poor”. With Christian Aid Week upon us this month (12-18 May), and a huge upheaval in the Welfare State just getting under way, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on our attitudes to poverty, and what a Church “poor and for the poor” might actually mean.
Thousands of volunteers will be taking part in this year’s house-to-house collection during Christian Aid Week. Thanks to the work of organisations like Christian Aid we have come way beyond seeing aid as charitable giving to the starving. A typical Christian Aid poster is much more likely to show an individual or family whose lives have been transformed by their ability to grow their own food and send their children to school than the stereotypical picture of a malnourished child with a large belly and staring eyes. Aid is, and has been for years, about development: enabling the poor to lift themselves out of poverty, take control of their own lives, and restore a sense of dignity.
It is not “Christian” aid because it seeks to convert or proselytise, but because it starts from the promise that every single human person is a child of God, and aid is a reflection of the Christian obligation to love others as Christ loved. It begins with an understanding that we are all responsible one for another, and that we have a duty of solidarity to stand with those who are poor, not simply to relieve material distress but to work together to build the common future of the human race. That common future is not just a matter of putting money in a box, but of recognising that God requires of us the promotion of human development in its fullest sense. As such it is not only addressing a humanitarian cause: it is an essential part of Christian mission in the world.
That will take many Christians beyond what is often disparagingly referred to as “charity”. One of the characteristics of Jesus is that he was never content with an ‘ambulance work’ approach: patching up people he encountered and leaving them more or less where they were. His encounters always sought the transformation of people’s lives – lifting them into a new experience of freedom, of inclusion in the community, of a restoration of themselves as children of God.
Working to transform lives in that way inevitably sometimes becomes ‘political’: sin is a social concept as well as an individual one, and where the structures of society are unjust it is not enough to leave those structures unchallenged if lives are to be truly transformed according to the pattern of Jesus.
That’s why it’s entirely right for bishops and other church leaders to question some of the likely effects of some of the government’s changes to welfare provision. Where we have an economic system unable to deliver fairness, in the lack of jobs, an inadequate supply of reasonably-priced housing, and a morality behind it which blames the poor for their poverty, there is not only a justification but a requirement for Christians to remind government of the principles of the common good. Along the way Christians must also speak on behalf of those too easily picked on as scapegoats – whether they be migrant workers or so-called ‘scroungers’. It is no bad thing for a church report to remind us that in 2011 there were just 130 families with 10 children in the whole of Britain on out-of-work benefits. Facts can sometimes be an inconvenience to politicians and press alike. Nor is it a coincidence that one of the fastest-growing initiatives in the country is the development of foodbanks, providing emergency food parcels to help people often over a short-term crisis once the rent and heating bills have been paid – leaving little left over for food.
A Church which is “poor and for the poor” is one in solidarity with the most needy and vulnerable in our communities – at home or anywhere in the world. Long may it be so.