Thanks to Sally Coleman, who posted this article on Facebook.
I have told a story on here somewhere before about making a visit to a school with our children, where we witnessed a display in the entrance hall about a link the local community had with a Ugandan village. The local people there relied on growing and selling chillis to eke out a meagre existence. Our kids were 7 and 5 at the time, and we had to explain huge issues, because they couldn’t initially believe that people lived in such desperate straits in our world.
Later, when we got home, Mark (then 5) announced at the dinner table: “I’ve changed my mind about what I’m going to do when I grow up. I’m not going to become an author, I’m going to save Africa.”
Trying not to show considerable surprise, nor wishing to pour cold water on his noble ambition, and secretly pleased, we asked him how he proposed to do this.
“I’m going to open supermarkets all over Africa where people can buy the food they need to live.”
“But where are they going to get the money to buy the food? The people you want to help don’t have much money.”
“That’s easy,” he replied – as only a child could. “I’ll open money shops as well.”
Mark retains his passion for Africa. He still doesn’t spend much of his pocket money or other gifts he receives.
Why am I retelling this story? Because another young boy in a Christian household is doing the same. Read Joel Vs Poverty. The difference is, Joel is getting into fundraising for TEAR Fund as a result. Not only has he written ‘Poor Box’ on an old cardboard Frubes container, he has decided to do a sponsored run on 23rd June. He has a page on Virgin Money Giving where you can donate to the cause.
There is a hashtag on Twitter to help you follow what’s happening, and it’s #TeamJoel. However, the important thing is not only to do clever social media things, but to use them in the service of giving and of changing our world.
So the bishops in the House of Lords supported an amendment that defeated government plans that would have limited benefits in such a way as to penalise the children of poor families. Predictably, the government didn’t like this. It feels like 1985 again, with ministers briefing that the ‘Faith in the City‘ report is Marxist.
Into this debate weighs journalist, TV presenter and poker player Victoria Coren. In a passionate piece in today’s Observer called ‘Attacking the Church is a Cheap Shot‘ (subtitled ‘Has everyone forgotten these are men of God? It’s actually their job to stand up for the poor), she puts it like this:
It doesn’t matter whether I think they’re right or wrong; I think it’s their job to do what the Bible tells them to do, ie look out for the needy, like the innocent children on whose behalf they raised the amendment, who might otherwise get lost.
The right-wing press that is so angry with the bishops has been complaining for years that Christianity (for better or worse, our national religion) is too weak and small a voice, that its values are not fought for. Now it’s happening, they hate it.
Their hands are tied. The gospels say what they say. If their lordships wanted to support the idea that handing out bread and fish is bad for people because it demotivates them from doing their own baking and fishing, they’d really have to leave the pulpit and get a job on a tabloid.
And while the Stephen Hesters of this world, already paid 1.2 million loaves a year of arguably public bread, are being given fish factories as bonuses, the church can hardly join in with a move to reduce herring portions for the hungry. It would look ridiculous.
If this were X-Factor for journalists, Louis Walsh would be saying, “You nailed it.” The Bible calls us to be fair, but it calls us to a special concern for the poor. She therefore argues it’s unfair for the bishops to be criticised. They are only doing their job. Quite right, too.
However, it shouldn’t surprise us as Christians. Critique the powers that be and opposition will come. Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus – all suffered. While being on the receiving end of criticism isn’t a guarantee of doing a good job, it may be a sign that the bishops scored a bullseye.
More worrying for me was the criticism by my former college principal, George (Lord) Carey. In an article in (of course) the Daily Mail, he seems to stereotype almost all people on benefits as being part of a dependency culture. Yes, some are, but overall – surely not! He knows all about growing up poor in the 1940s, but the pride of poor people he knew then in Dagenham still exists in many quarters, whatever else has changed. And yes, the national debt of £1 trillion is a scandal, but it was a scandal caused by the reckless folly of big business and a culture devoted to consumerism – a consumerism heavily promoted by the government that nominated him to the Queen first for Bath and Wells and then for Canterbury.
So well done the bishops, keep it up, whatever is thrown at you.
It’s not what you know, it’s Who you know – Marijke Hoek on Christian approaches to tackling social inequality.
You don’t go to our local Post Office when it opens on a Monday at 9 am. Not unless you need your benefits payment. The queue slithers out of the door and along the street. You’d better have something to occupy your mind.
For although our manse is on a prosperous estate, the nearest Post Office is across the park in a deprived area of town. It’s the only part of Chelmsford to have a tower block.
And, it turns out, you also don’t go there on a Tuesday at 9 am for the same reason. I know, I did that today. To keep things manageable in our small manse, Debbie sells toys, books and clothes the children have grown out of on eBay. She has sold about two dozen items in the last ten days, and I have been taking most of them to the Post Office for her.
As I waited today, distracting myself with music on my MP3 player, I looked at the variety of people waiting. The tracksuited teenage couple with their toddler. Already, the mother was getting irritated by the child’s independent exploratory jaunts. The mother and adult daughter. Was one of them long term sick? The short, elderly lady immaculately turned out in a red coat far cleaner than any garment most other people were wearing. It was her public signal of dignity. The preponderance of up-to-date mobile phones, clutched by people whose demeanour suggested they couldn’t afford them.
And I thought, what is good news in a culture like this? I lived in such a place for eight years before moving here. Often, there was terrible low self-esteem there. People had been rejected, dismissed and ignored by governments and commerce. You would have thought it were a simple case of ‘good news for the poor’.
But it wasn’t. For just as the good news is preceded by bad news as Wesley put it (preach law and then preach grace), there was the attitude that society owed them a living.
Somewhere in between those two attitudes locally is something my local vicar friend Paul has described to me. His parish strides across half of our middle class estate and half of the deprived area. In one half, he has competent, educated, professional people who will volunteer for activities and get things done. In the other, he has people who either cannot or will not take the initiative to do things, because they swim in a culture where everything is done for them. Either they are disabled by that, or they have reason never to grow as people by taking more responsibility.
So what is the shape of the Gospel in such a place? I’m still wondering.
This made me laugh: British nurse told to ‘take English test’ before she can work in Australia. The Daily Mail has gone all morally superior over another easy target case of ‘political correctness gone mad’ (™) but it is crazy. However, it does make a change from the Mail criticising people in this country who can’t speak English.
Anyway, Happy St Patrick’s Day to you. I commend May We All Be Irish by James Emery White as a suitable Christian reflection for the day.
Father Christmas has let me in on the present my parents have bought for my wife. It’s the DVD of Mamma Mia. You may have heard that this has become the fastest-selling DVD or video of all time in the UK – faster even than Titanic. Maybe it’s more than the catchy songs of Abba.
Or it might have to do with the fact that when times are hard, we look for some good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. Admittedly the current revived interest in stage musicals predates the recession, but it would be nothing new for there to be a revival of them during a recession. Certainly that was true in the nineteen thirties.
In the current climate, how many of us are spending less this Christmas? Or are we putting even more on the plastic and postponing the evil day? Could the Christmas story have a message for people whose credit is being crunched?
I think it does.
Sometimes we get the wrong image of Mary and Joseph. Some people assume that Joseph as a carpenter is some kind of self-employed businessman with a decent income – rather like the reputation of plumbers. Then we grab hold of the attempts to book into an inn and think of them trying to get into the Bethlehem Travelodge. It’s not quite what you’d expect from people on benefits.
However, the traditional English translations that say ‘there was no room at the inn’ are almost certainly mistaken. The word translated ‘inn’ from the original Greek of the New Testament is one that means a guest room. That could be a guest room in an inn, but it could also be a guest room attached to a typical single-room Palestinian peasant dwelling.
Given the Palestinian emphasis on hospitality, that is more likely. Joseph’s relatives try to do what is expected of them and take the couple in, but all they can offer is the raised area where they keep their livestock. And hence the baby is laid in a feeding trough. This is a picture of poverty.
And later on, when the infant Jesus has to be dedicated in the Jerusalem Temple according to Jewish tradition, his parents make the lowest cost offering, the offering prescribed for the poor.
What do we have, then, in the arrival of Jesus to his mother and legal father? We have the presence of God in the middle of poverty.
The recession will mean poverty for some (although not on first century Palestinian terms), and reduced standards of living for others. But Jesus promises to turn up in the middle of difficult circumstances. Focussing on his presence – rather than presents – will make Christmas a celebration, whether we have a lot of gifts to open or not.
So if you are struggling this Christmas, invite Jesus in. He’s probably hanging around somewhere close already. Ask him to make his spiritual presence known in your time of difficulty. He’s used to that kind of situation. And his love transforms it.
Something else about my wife. Until she married me, she had lived all her life in the town where she was born: Lewes in East Sussex. If there is one thing for which Lewes is famous, it is the annual bonfire. Six ‘bonfire societies’ produce amazing public displays for the Fifth of November every year. You may know that historically, as a town steeped in the tradition of dissent, the Lewes Bonfire has paraded an effigy of Pope Paul V, alongside one of Guy Fawkes and of contemporary bogeymen, such as Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Ulrika Jonsson in recent years.
But you might recall the national controversy five years ago when one of the bonfire societies from the village of Firle made an effigy of gypsies in a caravan. The effigies are traditionally burned every year to the cry of ‘Burn them! Burn them!’ A group of travellers had particularly annoyed the residents of Firle that year, and hence the choice.
But several members of the bonfire society were arrested by police, and an investigation was carried out into whether criminal offences relating to racial hatred had been committed.
Why talk about Bonfire Night at Christmas? Because if you get a flavour of popular disdain for travellers and gypsies, you will get a feel for how shepherds were regarded in Palestine around the time of Jesus.
We have cuddly images of shepherds from our nativity plays, Christmas cards and perhaps from our carols, too. But the reality is that they weren’t liked that much. Oh, the Bethelehm shepherds could supply sheep for the Temple sacrifices in nearby Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t be allowed inside the Temple themselves. Popular opinion saw them as thieves.
Yet the angels show up for a group of first century pikeys. Excluded people. A group that suffered discrimination and prejudice. Were the birth of Jesus to have happened in our day, we might imagine angels showing up in a deportation centre for failed asylum seekers or an AIDS clinic.
Perhaps there is some aspect of your life that pushes you to the fringes of society. Maybe it’s a reason for people rejecting you. If so, then the Christmas message is one of Jesus coming to offer his love precisely for somebody like you.
But what about everyone else? It’s very nice to say that Jesus has come for the poor and the excluded, but didn’t he come for everyone? Yes he did, and the message of the angels to the shepherds is a message for us all. The newborn baby is a Saviour (verse 11), and the angels sing that God is bringing peace on earth among those he favours (verse 14).
Now if we’ve heard the Christmas story over and over again in our lives, these references to ‘Saviour’ and ‘peace on earth’ might become part of the words that trip off our tongues without thinking. But we need to connect them to one other detail in the story. It came right at the beginning. Who issued the decree about the census? The Emperor Augustus (verse 1). Who was described as a saviour, because he had come to bring peace and an end to all wars? Augustus. Whose birthday became the beginning of the new year for many cities in the Empire? Augustus’.
Did he bring peace on earth? What do you think?
I don’t mention all this just to give you a history lesson, two days after the school term has finished. I think it has important connections today. Having talked about the poor and the excluded, let’s talk about one person who this year has been far from poor and certainly not excluded. Barack Obama.
Remember his slogan? ‘Change we can believe in.’ As one magazine said, it sounds like Yoda from Star Wars came up with it. Change was the word he kept emphasising. So much so that even his ‘change’ slogans kept changing!
The same magazine that likened his slogan to Yoda also interviewed John Oliver, the British comedian who appears on the American satirical TV programme The Daily Show. The journalist asked him, ‘How long will we be living in an Obama Wonderland?’ Three weeks, or at most four, said Oliver.
Well, you might reasonably say that Jesus hasn’t brought peace on earth, either. Sometimes the Church has made sure of that, and we have a lot for which we need to apologise. It isn’t just the wars in the name of religion (although atheism and liberal democracy have a lot to answer for, too). It’s been our attitudes in ordinary relationships.
What we the Church have departed from has been the prescription of Jesus for peace on earth. Peace on earth means not only peace with God, because Jesus would die on the Cross to bring the forgiveness of our sins. That peace requires peaceable attitudes with one another.
The Christmas message, then, for all of us, is one not of indulgence but of sacrifice. In Jesus, God descends – even condescends – in humility to human flesh and a life of poverty, blessing the poor and the excluded. The descent continues all the way to the Cross, where he suffers for all. And having done all that, we cannot presume it’s just to receive a private blessing of forgiveness. It’s so that the peace we receive from him at great cost can be shared with one and all.
May peace be with us all this Christmas. May the peace of Christ be the most precious gift we give and receive.
Please sign this petition from Avaaz:
World leaders gather this Thursday at the United Nations to renew the fight against extreme poverty. But three countries — France, Canada, and Italy — are threatening to undermine the world’s anti poverty efforts, by slashing their development aid budgets and breaking their international promises.
Sarkozy, Harper, and Berlusconi promised to contribute 0.7% of their national income to fighting poverty — aid money that would save millions of lives, and still leave these donor countries with 99.3% of their money. But apparently, they think 99.3% is not enough.
Our best chance to keep these rich countries to their word on aid delivery is to raise the alarm in New York this week. Sign our petition now, spread it to friends and family — and our friend, world famous economist and top UN official on poverty, Jeffrey Sachs will deliver it in speeches to the assembled heads of state at the UN summit this Thursday. The more names on the petition, the stronger the message that promises on poverty must be kept. Click below to sign now:
We know that public outcries like this one can work — because massive people-powered movements have transformed the fight against poverty over the last decade. The Jubilee movement cancelled hundreds of billions in dictator debt in 2000, and pushed world leaders to adopt the Millennium Development Goals to cut world poverty in half by 2015. In 2005, poverty campaigners the world over won commitments from G8 leaders to double aid to Africa. Because of these efforts millions of poverty related deaths have been stopped and millions more children are attending school, sleeping under anti-Malaria bed nets, and drinking clean water. Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have all exceeded the 0.7% target and in this year aid rose in real terms in nine EU countries. If all countries stick to their promises, programmes fighting disease and alleviating extreme poverty could be scaled up across the world.
But this year, some rich-country leaders apparently think that the public no longer cares about poverty. In Canada, which kept 99.7% of its income last year, Stephen Harper seems more interested in winning his election than in upholding Canada’s tradition of moral leadership. France’s Sarkozy, for all of his diplomatic efforts, appears to think that his people don’t care about lives and deaths beyond his borders. And in Italy — already one of the stingiest donors in the world — Berlusconi appears happy to slash crucial funding, even though, as host of next year’s G8 summit, his actions set an example for the other richest countries.
French and Italian Avaaz members are already flooding their governments with thousands of messages about aid. But those of us in the rest of the world can play a crucial role as well–sending Harper, Sarkozy, and Berlusconi a clear signal that we expect them to keep to their word — so please help us raise an outcry that can’t be ignored at the UN summit:
In recent years, millions have been galvanized by a vision: that ours can be the generation that ends extreme poverty. With other crises vying for our attention, the strength of this vision is now being tested. Let’s join together and ensure that leaders keep their promises — so that the promise of human potential in even the poorest communities can be unleashed.
Ben, Alice, Ricken, Graziela, Paul, Milena, Iain, Veronique, Brett — the entire Avaaz team
PS: For a report on Avaaz’s campaigning so far, see: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/report_back_2
Fact sheet on Official Development Assistance from rich countries:
More on the Millennium Development Goals:
Bono and Jeffrey Sachs’ blog on the poverty debate this week in New York:
To learn more about the international campaigning that has moved governments in recent years, see:
More on concern about France’s meeting 0.7% targets see:
More on Canada’s backtracking on 0.7% commitment:
To see the 2008 report on governmental aid to Africa see:
To learn about Jeffrey Sachs’ work on UN Millennium Development Goals see:
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