Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Discussing Poverty and Greed with the Bendigo Baptists.

Recently I attended an event at Bendigo Baptist Church. It was part of a seminar series they’re holding with that weeks’ topic on “Greed and Poverty”. 

The worship side of things –a rock band for Jesus and the high tech, big stage prayer and praise left me unmoved. For one thing the hymns all proclaimed both a perfect god and a perfect worship of them; like “Jesus answers all my needs” and “I love you, God, more than anything else.” 

I had to wonder if this congregation ever sung a hymn like “Jesus, you’re driving me insane with your mysterious ways. I wonder if you’re really there at all”. If not, how many Christians leave church feeling like pretenders to this perfect faith? Although the grammar of these hymns was descriptive the content was prescriptive of an extremely (impossibly?) high standard of devotion.

The seminar itself however was humbling and inspiring. The panel were people involved in living out different responses to poverty with an approach of following the Christian gospel as they understood it. I was particularly impressed by the work of the Slatter family in giving to a Fijian community, the village of Rukurukulevu. They support schooling, including child and adult education, food hampers, toys for kids and small business sewing classes.

In this post I’d like to tease out what the panel highlighted as aspects of the Christian response to Greed and Poverty. I’m going to try and pull it together into a consistent philosophy/theology because I think it’s a fascinating approach to the issue. Also this way any Christian readers can challenge my comprehension of the matter.  

1.       1. Wealth is more dangerous than poverty.

Christianity has historically included views that poverty is spiritually “disabled” in some way. The Protestant work ethic grew out of Calvinism and is based on the idea that wealth is a seal of election while poverty is a mark of God’s disapproval. Putting this relationship in a different order Christian welfare organisations like the Salvation Army have in the past seen poverty as a consequence of immorality while wealth or at least a middle class existence is the direct result of honest living. These aren’t especially Christian views however. They crop up inside Hinduism, Confucianism, New Age philosophies and pretty much any religious (or irreligious) tradition somewhere.

The panel here wanted to correct this view with what they saw as a scripturally authentic opposite. The story of Jesus telling the rich man to sell all that he has and distribute it to the poor (Luke 18:18-25) was shared at the beginning of the discussion. This was interpreted by the panel as reversing the usual notion of riches being blessings. Jesus says “For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:24)

It’s important to distinguish the panel’s attitude from one of asceticism. The problem they were identifying is not wealth in isolation but wealth in relation to others. There was no sense amongst the panel that luxuries were problematic in the way that we would understand as monkish. Ipods, fancy coffee and fashionable clothes were treated as reasonable objects of enjoyment in themselves. The problem was the enjoyment of luxuries while other people went without their most basic needs.

2.       2. It’s all Gods anyway.

The primary reason why the enjoyment of luxuries while other people go without necessities is problematic was expressed as “all of creation belongs to God to be shared with our brothers and sisters.”

This statement’s first element “that all of creation belongs to God” was contrasted with the idea that some of creation at least is owned (and owed) to me. My property is mine is obviously a core principle of capitalism. The panel pushed a consistent message of human stewardship but never ownership of creation.

The panel weren’t challenging legal rights to private property. Instead they were arguing that those legal rights can’t be moral rights for Christians. Christians can’t say to any claim on their wealth, “that’s mine.” This includes claims on their wealth from people in need.

3.       3. All other people are your family.

The second element in this statement; that creation is to be “shared with ones brothers and sisters” is what makes the claim from people in need righteous. It is why this claim outweighs the competing claim we have for luxuries. 

This is a notion of family that is non-immediate. It is a consequence of God’s “Fatherly” love for all humanity which creates firstly a special status for human beings and secondly a fraternal relationship between us all.

This universal family has not always been the Christian interpretation of scripture. There is a theology which disagrees strongly with “universal salvation” and asserts that Jesus came to save a few and not all. These few, the elect, have been set aside for salvation since before time just as others have been set aside for judgement. 
 Any common language definition would struggle to say how God “loves” those set aside for judgement or how they could be seen as part of a family with those saved. In this limited definition of family “one another” in Christs’ command to love one another can even be understood as meaning other members of the elect only or at least primarily.

This is the dark side of Christianity which has not only preserved the wealth of some over the needs of others but has justified the atrocities of the crusades, the brutal colonisation of South America, the attempted extermination of Germany’s Jews and hate crimes against gays and lesbians.

The panel at Bendigo Baptist Church didn’t express a limited definition of God’s family. No-one in the audience asked them about it. In hindsight I’d love to know if they have even encountered this theology.

4.       4. Intimacy is key.

A limited view of Gods family is a difficult theology to maintain in the intimate presence of those excluded by it. As are the beliefs that the poor deserve their fate or that the wealthy are more moral. The panel members all talked about getting to know those in situations of need and being in community with them as a key part of their path to share more.

This desire for intimacy with one’s brothers and sisters is a logical part of the notion of family. On a superficial level we can acknowledge its value as motivation for anyone sharing their wealth with others but for a Christian its motivation is especially valuable because it is directly attacking the core problem.

Intimacy is so key it can define the Christian conception of the problem by its opposite. Opposite to intimacy with the poor is individualism and distance from them. These opposites are clearly inconsistent with recognising God as universal Father. Greater intimacy however embraces siblinghood and erodes any proprietary attitude to ones wealth.

Intimacy was important to the panel members to change how they made their daily decisions. One panel member described having photos of the people they wanted to help around their house and in their wallet. This way they made mundane decisions like whether to buy a block of chocolate with the awareness that one of their siblings had no food.

5. Unmaking a Difference.

As in any discussion about poverty the question of how can we make a difference came up at the seminar. This aim of “making a difference” has sometimes allowed Christians to partition “sharing their wealth” as some kind of “social gospel” almost at odds with the rest of the gospel.

Christianity like many religions has a tolerant view of life’s suffering. If a child dies this is seen as a tragedy however the tragedy is mitigated (even replaced by blessing) by the promise of a joyous afterlife. Alternatively even if a person lives a long and healthy life the “good” of this is insignificant if balanced against eternal torment in hell.

Some Christians have disrespect therefore for action which aims to improve people’s material standard of living as if that was important. Such Christians would only give (and may even give generously) to evangelisation efforts but just don’t think they should give to drives to eradicate blindness for example unless the drive is intended to convert people to Christianity.

Personally I find this stance hypocritical unless a person would be willing to suffer their own blindness to further evangelise others – after all if they are already Christian its’ a waste to spend money on their own eyes as it won’t convert them twice. Derisions of the social gospel just seem to me to be excuses to evade any fraternal connection to the poor and to hold on to the pleasures of wealth.

The panel at the Bendigo Baptist Church sidestepped the whole issue of the importance of material benefits by framing the issues very differently. There was no separate social gospel for them but a social expression of the one gospel.

As a consequence making a difference to world poverty was not the primary goal. Certainly there was a desire to make a difference in specific lives however that was the result of intimacy with them. The primary purpose of their engagement with poverty, to create that intimacy, was actually about unmaking a difference between themself and their siblings - not making a difference at all. This difference to be unmade was one of value reflected in putting luxuries before the others needs.

To put it another way one argument against “selling all that you have and giving the money to the poor” is that this will just leave everyone poor. The really simplified gospel answer to this seems to be “Good.” The primary issue isn’t material benefit anyway but spiritual separation from our siblings.

6. A systematic approach

An emphasis on “unmaking a difference” can sometimes produce poor outcomes in alleviating poverty. For example people in poverty often have a culture of complete sharing of their wealth which unfortunately means that money is spent on immediate consumption. There is no way to share assets as completely unless there is a significant degree of coordination.

The panel members’ involvement in alleviating poverty incorporated both immediate consumption (eg. free food distribution) and more systematic goals like skills training and building community resources, even protesting for government action. This probably would have been discussed in even greater depth though at any non-church forum into poverty. It may be a limitation of the gospel approach that this can’t be easily based in scripture but the panel all seemed to embrace a systematic approach anyway.

7. It’s supposed to change you.

I had one question for the panel that there wasn’t time for but I was able to ask privately later. My work with people especially young people in situations of poverty has often involved trying to maintain some emotional distance. The fear I have is that if the lid came off my concern I wouldn’t be able to stop. I would be reduced to... I’m not sure what the fear is exactly but something like “caring all the time.”

Now that I am a father this fear is even greater because I feel like caring for others all the time would be in competition to my responsibilities to my child. This is illogically applied to protect spending on luxuries for myself not only my child’s needs. Sometimes I rationalise those luxuries for myself as for my happiness which is for my child in a round-about way. Very dodgy I know.

The interesting and challenging answer I received from Kim Slatter was to let intimacy with the poor change me. This was an answer I have a lot of respect for. Being broken down and remade and broken down again is a life well lived in my opinion. I have always subscribed to that view and as a philosopher I often despair at the lack of impact people allow philosophy to have. If these words are supposed to change you how much more should growing closer to actual people change me.

After all am I all that content surrounded by trinkets and emphasising the importance of my family over others? From a Christian perspective that discontent is a great place to start.

Next week the Bendigo Baptists continue their seminar series with a discussion on Same Sex marriage. I am currently wondering about attending it. If I do go it would be with the fervent hope that I won’t be the only one in the room prepared to throw confetti at a same sex wedding. A shout out through this site of anyone else attending who is supportive of same-sex marriage would be much appreciated.  


  1. Hi Tony, Here is th link to my blog.

    regards, Kim Slatter

  2. well you know that obviously I support same sex marriages. in baptist churches even should anyone ever want to hold such a ceremony:)