I have been sharing a number of theological papers on ministry that I have written. This is a copy of my notes for a discussion that I took part in recently with Bishop Barry Morgan (former Archbishop of Wales) and Matt Batten (comms officer for Archbishop Andy John’s Food and Fuel campaign) on the theological challenge that the cost of living crisis poses.
What is the role churches should play in addressing questions about poverty and justice?
The churches need to be playing an absolutely central role in addressing the challenge of poverty and justice. To abandon those experiencing financial hardship is to abandon the gospel. Poverty robs people of dignity and value and so the challenge of those who are “struggling to make ends meet” is central to our faith.
Concern for the well-being of others arises naturally out of biblical theology and our understanding of the Gospel, as does a desire to see the vulnerable and needy provided for and protected. At the heart of God’s character and his relationship with his world is care and concern for the poor – we see this in the teachings of the Torah, the prophetic tradition of Amos, Isaiah, and Micah, the ministry and teaching of Jesus, and the life of the early Church.
It is therefore outrageous that so many children in the UK, the sixth largest economy in the world, are living in poverty and that families are dependent on foodbanks, even those people who are in employment. While the cost of living crisis will impact each and every one of us differently, Christians cannot be silent while so many experience the crisis in an acute way, facing poverty or destitution.
So the challenge to the churches in facing this unacceptable situation, with child poverty on the increase and families having to make choices of eating or heating, is absolutely clear. But, of course, it’s not just about being hungry or being cold. Often the suffering of poverty is hidden from us. In the past few months, the numbers of those suffering mental ill health has soared, even amongst people who were previously stable, as individuals face anxiety, worry, and often a sense of shame at their struggles. Economic poverty has a devastating impact in a plethora of different ways on the lives of both individuals and communities.
How do you react to the statement that God helps those who help themselves?
The statement “God helps those who help themselves” is completely alien to a theologically-literate faith. In the context of poverty and justice, there is certainly nothing biblical about that statement. In the book of Genesis, God looks at his creation and sees it as tov me’od (“very good”). Thus, God’s intention for this creation is that there should be no shortages. We are, after all, gifted with more than sufficient provisions to meet our physical needs. So, Levitical and Deuteronomical laws ensure care for the vulnerable and marginalised in society, while Sabbath and Jubilee pronouncements lead to debts being regularly cancelled. Later in the Old Testament, the prophets rage against the injustices of the day and the structures of their society. So the expectation is certainly not that we leave people to fight their own individual struggles, but rather that we ourselves should rage against today’s injustices and ensure that we provide for those on the losing side of the inequality divide. Certainly that’s what the early church did – the book of Acts details the church of the disciples dedicating time and resources to meet the immediate needs of those struggling in their communities.
It is clear in scripture that poverty contradicts the will of God, and so Christians need to ensure that we nurture communities where no person is left behind, where no child goes to school on an empty stomach, where no parent has to make a choice between feeding their children and feeding themselves, where no young person has to eat raw food because using their hob is too expensive, and where no pensioner has to choose to sit in a cold and damp room just so they can afford their daily meals.
How can we engage with others to work towards a fairer society?
Generosity is at the heart of working towards a fairer society. St Paul urges generosity in his epistles and we Christians should be encouraging and showcasing generosity in our churches. Archbishop Andy John recently invited churches to be “practitioners of generosity”, urging every congregation to donate 10 boxes of basics items for the foodbank distribution network during Advent. The fact foodbanks and other ventures like pantries need to exist in twenty-first century Wales is appalling, but they do exist and the need is increasing in light of the cost of living crisis. So we need to be generous in our giving – donating food to foodbanks, but also donating money to charities. After all, the whole charity sector is feeling the effects of economic instability, with donations to charities going down considerably because people need their money for food and fuel.
We also might consider generosity in terms of opening churches and church halls as warm spaces for those struggling to heat their homes. This, of course, relies on the church being able to pay its own gas and electric bills – and that’s no longer a given. But we can still as churches and Christians join forces with other public bodies or charities to work together to continue reaching out and assisting.
Is it possible to be ambivalent or non-committal about politics and faith?
Being ambivalent or non-committal about politics and faith is not an option for Christians. The arc of the biblical narrative is for justice, fairness and equality – and these are political matters. From the outset of the creation narratives, we hear that God creates humanity in his own image. That may only be one little verse in the Bible, but its implications are profound. If all people reflect God’s image, then we are duty bound to care for one another. Poverty robs people of what God intended for them; it inverts God’s desires for his creation.
No wonder Jesus tells us that we see God himself in the face of the poor. ‘Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me’, he says in Matthew 25. But the real challenge is what he says a few verses later, when he states: ‘Truly, I tell you, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me’. In other words, it’s not just about what we do for others, it’s also about what we’re not doing for others. That’s a huge challenge for our commitment to politics, social action, and justice. God is present in people who are struggling, financially or otherwise, and, if we Christians are not there standing alongside them offering hope, warmth, and light, then we are not living as Jesus wanted us to and, of course, we we are not living as Jesus did. Not only was Jesus’s teaching unequivocal about what we ought to do with our wealth and resources, but he himself modelled a life of selfless solidarity with the marginalized of his day.
And so, in light of the biblical call for justice and in light of Jesus’s life and teaching, Christians can’t be ambivalent when surveys are showing one in seven adults in the UK had skipped meals or routinely gone without food, when the number of workers on zero–hours contracts in the UK have increased fivefold in 10 years, and when we hear dreadful stories about people having to eat pet food or trying to heat food on radiators.
Where do things like prayer and fasting sit within a prophetic and radical engagement with the world?
We sometimes feel helpless when we face the problems we see in our society. But our faith is all about hope. And that’s where, for me, prayer and spiritual exercises collide beautifully with prophetic and radical engagement with our world. As Christians we believe that God is at work in the world and so our prayers matter. They matter objectively, but they also matter subjectively. Desmond Tutu described prayer like sitting in front of a warm fire. Just as we become warmed ourselves as sit in the light and heat of the fire, time spent resting in God’s love makes us more loving ourselves.
So prayer strengthens us and inspires us to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world. There’s a wonderful African proverb: “when you pray, move your feet”. And there’s something profound about that – prayer is essential, but remaining on our knees is not an option. Pope Francis talked about prayer by stating: “you pray that the hungry will be fed, then you get off your knees and you feed the hungry – that’s how prayer works”.
Again, we can look at the model of Jesus. It’s no coincidence that Jesus began his ministry by quoting the Jubilee passage in the book of Isaiah “the spirit of the Lord, is upon me, because he has sent me to proclaim good news for the poor”. But Jesus’s life was not one that was only marked by social action, just as his life wasn’t only marked by prayer. Jesus’s life was a balance between prayer and action – we could call it contemplative action. We need to embrace that beautiful balance in our lives.
With news that the 2021 census results show that less than half of the UK population identify as Christian, do people care or even believe that the church is the voice of the marginalised?
I think perhaps that question starts in the wrong place. Rowan Williams writes that “God did not make us human to become Christian, but he made us Christian to become more human”. In other words, what matters is not whether people care or believe that we Christians are the voice of the marginalised, but rather that the Spirit does inspire us to become the voice of the marginalised. Reaching out in compassion and love to our brothers and sisters who are vulnerable and struggling financially is what becoming more human is all about. It is also what God is all about – he is, after all, the God of justice.
The reality is that Christians do so much in local communities to assist those who are struggling, whether financially or otherwise. According to a recent survey, Christians who attend church regularly are more likely to be taught and experience generosity in their own lives than non-Christians. The poll found that 79 percent of Christians who practice their faith said they had been taught the importance of generosity, while only 58 percent of non-Christians said the same. And so it’s little wonder that church communities across Wales, as elsewhere, are becoming hubs for generous activity in the cost of living crisis, whether as foodbanks or warm spaces.
So it doesn’t matter if people outside the church see us as the voice of the marginalised – it matters that we are. It is, after all, our duty and calling to reach out to the marginalised and vulnerable, to empower and enable people, and to ensure power balances are redressed.