Why I hate hearing about poverty and social justice in Church
I once heard a whole sermon preached on the film “I, Daniel Blake” which made many good points, but never once acknowledged the possibility that Daniel Blake might have come to church that evening.
Similarly, I heard a vicar preach on some bit of Jesus’s teaching with the insistence that Jesus is “talking to us middle class affluent people here, not to those who don’t know where their next meal is coming from”, without an acknowledgement of the possibility that there might be someone in the church who had no food in the house.
And that, at present, seems to be typical (at least in the church circles I frequent).
The extent to which the poor aren’t supposed to be in Church is worrying. We are preached about; we are never preached to. Sermons and prayers are almost always about how “we, being wealthy, should live simply to alleviate their poverty”. They are never about how the poor should respond to their situation in order to grow in faith and love. The poor are always the subjects on which the wealthy should practice piety, and never fellow Christians who ought to use their real situation, about which they themselves can currently do nothing, to grow in faith and love of God and their neighbour.
I have never tried to preach, but I’ve heard enough comments from people who do to realise that it is difficult to get right. And the difficulty of telling people that they should understand and use their suffering in a particular way when you do not share the same suffering is immense. I appreciate that the diffidence that causes preachers who are not poor to be reluctant to talk to the poor about how they should respond to their poverty is arguably very praiseworthy in itself.
But what results from it is the completely unintended implication that poverty is situation that is beyond grace. It is implied that only way in which it is possible to be a Christian is to have surplus and to give it away. Those who do not have surplus are “outside”. We must wait in a sort of limbo for others to improve our situation, and then, perhaps, we will be included again among those for whom Christian living is an option!
It is part of the church being there for the poor that the poor should be equally involved, equally addressed, equally engaged. Poverty of fact is not much use spiritually. If, as a person without much material wealth, one spends all one’s time envying and coveting and complaining*, it is not going to help in growing towards God. Within Christian theology, nothing is beyond God’s transforming touch, no poverty, no illness, no suffering of any kind.
Yet continuously listening to sermons directed at the “wealthy”, of which you are only a helpless subject, is far more likely to have the effect of encouraging us in these sins than it is to be of any help. I want to be directly addressed too. I am also a sinner who needs to learn to act with love. I want to be told how to respond to the real fact of my poverty for the good I and others can get from it.
I feel poverty is disproportionately talked about in church, compared with other aspects of Christian living. But when it is talked about, I’d love as a person comparatively poor to hear sermons which have a structure that addresses the poor too: “The rich should… the poor should…” rather than only addressing those who have surplus.
*I do not mean by this that people should not talk about their difficulties and explain, e.g. the administrative problems they encounter with the benefits system, the difficulties of actually living on the minimum wage, or the extra costs incurred when you can’t buy in bulk or have to pay in instalments. I think it is proper to distinguish between explaining problems – which is necessary, for it isn’t fair to expect people to spontaneously understand an experience they’ve never had – and complaining about them – which suggests resentment and a lack of faith.