Saturday, February 10, 2007

Blessed are the Poor

Here are some things which people have said when they were asked whether they felt poor compared to everyone else. 'I do feel poor because I can’t see a better future for my kids, and for my nieces and nephews.' 'I hate having to rely on hand-outs.' 'All my kids have asthma and I think the traffic pollution here is to blame.' 'I don’t read or write very well, and I find it difficult to explain what I'm thinking, so it’s hard for me to fill in forms or even to phone up for advice.' 'I often feel a failure as a parent.' 'The system seems designed to crush you once you're down.' 'I found it hard to bother with school – nobody I knew got a job when they left so it didn't seem worth trying.'

Do you know anyone who feels that way about some of those things? I'm sure you do. You might even feel the same way yourself, even if you have to substitute the word 'grandchildren' for 'kids'. There are times when all of us feel poor – when we're down in the dumps, when we're very ill, if we've lost our job or taken on a big mortgage.

I know a lot of people in Darnall who would certainly echo some of those feelings. And if someone finds that they can put a tick against not just one or two of those statements, but against most of them, then we're on the way to creating a real sense of disadvantage and exclusion where some people feel that others are inside the loop, scooping up many of the good things that life has to offer, while they are definitely on the outside looking in.

Many people are concerned today about the way that a growing number of Muslim people seem to feel alienated from the rest of society. There's much talk of the need for greater community cohesion – bringing together people from different cultures and backgrounds so that they go to the same primary school, to the same shops and to the same meeting places. Part of my job in Darnall is to find ways of building and enhancing that kind of cohesion – helping people to mix with one another so that they find they're not so very different after all and can learn from one another's cultures, faiths and traditions.

But, when you get down to basics, I think achieving community cohesion is mostly a knife and fork issue. Once people begin to feel that they are being included in the prosperity they see around them, and that their faith and culture are not a barrier to inclusion, a lot of the other things which divide us become matters for dialogue and friendly persuasion instead of extra grievances.

Darnall Forum's multi-faith and multi-cultural team of community workers has only been in place for a few months, so these are early days, but already we are working alongside people who feel that they are disadvantaged in various ways, trying to help them gain a stronger stake in society. People like the successful businessman who is still very uncertain, despite years of practical experience, about how to write down a business plan for a new venture. Or the young men and women for whom becoming a security guard or a shop assistant was, until recently, beyond their wildest dreams. Or the children who start nursery school barely able to speak, and the children – not necessarily the same ones – who leave primary school barely able to read and write. Or the young mothers who need a chance to build up the confidence to do new things and seek out new skills.

Does Jesus have a bias to the poor? Reading St Luke's Gospel we could easily think that he does. Whereas St Matthew tells us that Jesus said, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit,' St Luke has a starker version of the same saying, 'Blessed are the poor.'[1]

But before we start to worry about this bias, we have to ask ourselves, 'What does it mean to be poor and is it really blessed to be poor?' Someone wrote a reflection about poverty which goes like this, 'Once I heard someone speak about holy poverty. I thought it sounded good. I longed to share in holy poverty, like St Francis giving his warm cloak to a needy beggar on a cold day. But now that I know real poverty, I know that it isn't good or holy. It is pitiless and cruel, it saps my energy and drains me of feeling. I don't long for holiness any more, because I am poor.'

Well it may be true that desperate poverty, real poverty in the sense of aching hunger or gnawing thirst, is not blessed. But, of course, if we think of poverty just in these absolute terms very few people in Sheffield are actually poor. Most people have a roof over their heads, even if it leaks. Some children may go to school hungry, but there's often a breakfast club to feed them when they arrive. If we fall ill, we can all get to see a doctor, and there are plenty of good second hand clothes shops.

If, however, we think of poverty in relative terms – which is to say, if we think of the gap between the most fortunate citizens of Sheffield and those who are least fortunate – then there are still lots of poor people in Sheffield. At one time, some experts denied that relative poverty was a meaningful term. They argued that, so long as everyone had food, clothes and shelter, no one was really poor. But today even the leader of the Conservative Party accepts the idea of relative poverty.

Of course, as I said at the beginning, in any street in the City we will find some people who are relatively disadvantaged in various ways. One may be unable to work because of poor health. Another may have to rely exclusively on public transport even in cold and wet weather. One house may have several computers, while the person next-door may think that a mouse has four legs and a tail, a net is made of strands of knotted twine and surfing is something which can only be done in the sea.

However, it's not just individuals and households who are better or worse off in comparison with one another. The same comparison can also be made between neighbourhoods. Some parts of Sheffield are relatively well-to-do, and other parts are relatively down-at-heel. And the City has a very precise way of measuring these differences, called 'the SNIS'.

The first time I heard somebody say, 'SNIS' I wanted to reply, 'Bless you!' But it's not a sneeze. It stands for 'the Sheffield Neighbourhood Information System'. It will not surprise you, I guess, to learn – if you don't already know – that Woodseats is one of the ten most affluent neighbourhoods in Sheffield and Darnall is one of the ten least affluent, one of the 'closing the gap' areas where the City Council is taking special measures to reduce relative poverty.

So is it true that the Gospel of Jesus will turn this index upside down? Is it true that the poor will be blessed, that the hungry will be fed, that those who weep now will laugh? And is it true, conversely, that there will be woe upon woe heaped upon the rich, that they will no longer be consoled, that they will be empty instead of full, that their laughter will turn to weeping? Is it true that the gap which really needs to be closed is the gap between the most complacent citizens of Sheffield and those who feel in greatest need, and is it the complacent who need to catch up with their brothers and sisters?

I think there's a lot of truth in that idea. As Christians, each one of us is called to play the prophetic role of disturbing the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, which might not make us very popular in neighbourhoods like Woodseats. We have to challenge the values of a society which measures success in terms of the number of new cars on our driveways, the size of our homes and the amount on our pay cheque and we have to encourage the policy of closing the gap by taking resources from better off areas to lift up those at the bottom of the pile. This is essential if we really want to create community cohesion in Sheffield – not just between people of different faiths and cultures, but between all of its citizens.

However, there is a danger that – in taking on board this idea – we will romanticise poverty and assume that, just because someone is poor they are somehow morally superior to everyone else. That's simply nonsense. If Jesus and the Kingdom of God are biased towards the disadvantaged, that doesn't mean they are biased in favour of some of the things which disadvantaged people do. As Christians, we may be called to be sympathetic to those who find themselves trapped in disadvantage, but we are also called to be tough on the causes and consequences of disadvantage and ignorance. Closing the gap is not about dragging people and neighbourhoods down towards the average, it's about raising the average to a higher level by lifting the poorest communities out of disadvantage.

And finally, I'm not sure that the difference between St Matthew's version of this saying and St Luke's version is really as stark as people sometimes imagine. In St Matthew's version Jesus may talk about spiritual poverty rather than poverty in the sense that I've been describing, but both Gospels are at one in describing the outcome of God's bias to the poor in spiritual terms. The poor will only be happy in the Kingdom of God in so far as their aspiration is to share in the rewards which God wants to bestow. And the rich will only feel woe and emptiness if spirirtual rewards will not be enough for them, because the way they measure propserity and achievement is false.

But the spiritual and the practical sides of the good news which Jesus brings are certainly intertwined. The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is not just about life beyond death for individuals.[2] It's about regeneration for dying communities, new hope where hope and good news were previously in short supply.

As Christians, our task is to help love to break through where now hatred is being fostered, to let justice and righteousness rule where now it is being undermined or destroyed, to let yearning for change live on where now hope is being crucified, to let faith persist where now truth is being denied, and to let the struggle continue throughout the City until the gap between the way things are now and the way things will be in the Kingdom of God is closed for ever.

[1] Luke 16.17-26

[2] 1 Corinthians 15.12-20

Some resources have been adapted from material for Poverty Action Sunday 2007 published by Church Action on Poverty.

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