Them and us

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.


Cherry Foster

Alice in Wonderland – the broken rule that worked

When I was at primary school being required to write (what I felt were) highly uninspiring stories about aliens invading the earth, there were some major no-nos.  One of which was ending with “and [the protagonist] woke up and found it was all a dream”.

This has led to a substantial fascination on my part with the feeling, at the end of Alice, that the ending was relatively satisfactory.  Despite the fact that it seemed to break that cardinal rule.

(I realise not everyone agrees that it does work.  I’d enjoy comments with a different take on it).

Though I love and admire it greatly, there’s a lot about Alice in Wonderland that isn’t particularly brilliant.  It is, for one thing, a book that lacks a coherent plot (unlike Alice through the Looking Glass, which does actually have a beginning, a quest, and an end).  In Wonderland, we wander vaguely from one happening to another, wondering if there is any point, though most of the incidents are fun in themselves.

While I don’t in many ways think much of the ballet, which I feel made far too much use of special effects and far too little use of dance, what they did with the beginning, the end, and the general logic of the happenings was extremely clever.  I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, though.

But back to the puzzle of the end that shouldn’t work.  I think there are several factors in the fact that it does.

It is strongly hinted at the beginning that she’s falling asleep.

She then wanders from one absurd, unreal happening to another.  The court case of the tarts, and Alice’s place in it, are not going to be solved in any logical way.  That’s already clear.  The notion that the cards fly at her, and then become the leaves that her sister is brushing off her face, doesn’t bear very much resemblance to the violent and scary “I’m in prison and the aliens have just tortured my friend to death and then I woke up”.  Something weird and unpredictable is going to happen.  If the baby has been rescued from its plight not by the local social services department, but by transmogrification, and you can fall out with Time so it is always tea-time, growing too big for the room and then waking up is in accord.  And far from obscuring or changing what has already happened, it makes more sense of it.  Ah, the reader may think, that was why it was all absurd.  That was why the nonsense.  It was a dream.  Dreams are like that.

The other thing is that the book doesn’t end with her waking up.  It ends with her older sister’s thought-monologue on her.  The story is (apparently) the tale of a dream, but the book is in a real sense about the girl.  Her dreaming and waking up aren’t really the point.  The point is who and what she is and what her sister and godfather hope she will become.  There is a touch of sentimentality here that I find somewhat irksome, but only, I think, because it is of its time and not part of my culture.

Interestingly, I think the end of “Through the Looking Glass” doesn’t quite work so well.  I feel it is more clumsy precisely because the whole book is more coherent.  I felt that she might properly have had slightly longer to enjoy the triumphant conclusion of her quest before waking up.  But that is not really to criticise the structure of the dream in general, but to suggest that particular part of the narrative might have been even better if handled slightly differently.

(And I do enjoy the kittens and the elephant-bees).

The conclusion I would come to is that the problem with “it was a dream” is not ending in that way in itself.  The problem comes when an author breaks the narrative sense of the story, by signalling to the reader with narrative pointers of genre and style and coherence that this is real (in the story sense) and makes sense and is a reflection of real life, and then awkwardly breaking out of that and doing something different which they hadn’t properly pointed towards.  If you write about a dream and the person doing the dreaming, the narrative pointers all go in the right direction, and the waking, while still anti-climactic in style, is part of the story rather than interrupting it.


Cherry Foster