The Prism of the Poor
I have been poor. For a considerable part of my adult life I lived a hand to mouth existence as a long time student. I left Oxford with a Doctor of Philosophy degree and £20 in my pocket. I arrived at Glasgow Central Station and spoke to a beggar there who said to me ‘I have lost everything’ ‘So have I’, I replied. Then I had some temporary work in this country and in Canada followed by six years as a poorly paid missionary of the Church of Scotland in Kenya. On returning I was twice a parish minister interspersed with a university chaplaincy. It was not until retirement that I found myself living more comfortably. I had not bothered about money for most of my life. It was not important to me. I genuinely wanted to live a non-materially incentivised life for Jesus.
I remember working as a labourer on a building site the summer after I had turned sixteen while still at school. Palmer Brothers was a local building firm and growing up I had played with one of the sons, a near neighbour. The firm was building a large council estate in Greenock. So off all of us workers went each morning at 7 00am in the works bus to arrive in time for the 8 00am start. The two Palmer brothers were both well over six feet tall. Bert Palmer, the elder brother was a large character full of revelries and bonhomie. Bill the younger brother was serious and strict. (Reminiscent perhaps of Esau and Jacob). Bert was heart, Bill was mind. Bert told many stories. One of his best was when he told us that he passed one of their workers on site and noticed that the poor man’s left boot upper was quite separate from its lower and was flapping around as the man walked. ‘Here, I’ll help you with that boot’, said Bert. He took out a large wad of notes from his pocket, held together by a strong elastic band. Bert took the elastic band off the large wad of notes and handed it to the worker to wrap round the boot and keep its two parts together. Then Bert went on his way laughing. Bert did not say whether he went back to his worker to give him some money for a decent pair of boots. He may have done - because he was that kind of man.
Bill was different. Seeing that the men spent their hard earned money in pubs on Friday evenings, he bought a pub himself and told the men to go and drink there. So at 4 00pm on Fridays Bill paid his men. At 5 00pm, the pubs opened and some of the men spent the evening giving Bill back his money. They called the pub ‘Pomerys’. With little sense of irony and even less of self-harming ‘the working man’ fulminated against the bosses and the rich and supported Labour Party politics while volunteering for a kind of consensual indentured labour accompanied by alcohol and entertainment.
‘The Poor you will always have with you’. This was not a statement by Margaret Thatcher or Donald Trump. Jesus said this. But the context is important. It is found in Mark 14 : 3 -9. ‘While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Jesus was right of course. There always have been, there are and there always will be poor people in the world. Half the world’s people live on less than $2 50 per day. Over 900 million of humanity cannot read or write. Chinese President Xi Jinping says his country has achieved the "miracle" of eradicating extreme poverty. His government says that over an eight-year period, nearly 100 million people have been lifted out of poverty. Mr Xi said it was a "complete victory" that would "go down in history". But some experts have questioned the way this has been measured. In China, extreme poverty is defined as earning less than $620 (£440) a year. Generally more than one billion of the world’s people have lifted themselves out of poverty over the past 25 years. There are however nearly 8 billion people on earth. The seven most common causes of world poverty are lack of access to food and clean water, warfare and conflict, lack of jobs, social injustice, lack of infrastructure, climate change and lack of education.
In Britain The Joseph Rowntree Foundation maintains that 14.2 million people are in poverty, including 4.5 million children, 8.4 million working-age adults and 1.4 million pensioners. The new measure has demonstrated that more children and working-age adults are in poverty, and somewhat fewer pensioners than we’d thought previously. Nearly half of people locked in poverty (6.9 million) are disabled themselves or live in a family with someone who is. One in eight people in the UK is in persistent poverty: they are in poverty now and have been in poverty in at least two of the previous three years. Persistent poverty is highest for those in workless families and disabled families. Around 8.2 million people are more than 25% below the poverty line, and 2.5 million people are less than 10% above it. The poverty line is set at 60 per cent of the median UK household income. In financial year ending 2020 (April 2019 to March 2020), the period leading up to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, median household income in the UK was £29,900, based on estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Household Finances Survey. The median value is the middle one in a set of values arranged in order of size. Thus the poverty line is £17,940 per year, or £1495 per month or £345 per week. This is actually called the relative poverty line as distinct from the absolute poverty line which is described as income below that necessary for basic living standards, something experienced by homeless and drug addicted people. Some of the main causes of relative poverty in the UK are inequality in wages – low skilled workers stuck in low paid jobs, unemployment and long-term economic inactivity – no wage income, reliance on benefits, high renting costs and debt and debt repayments.
From the outset of the formation of the Israelites as a community of the People of God, concern for the poor was central to the practice of Judaism. Deuteronomy 15 : 7 - 8 says, “If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks. Proverbs 17:5 reads ‘He who mocks the poor taunts his Maker; He who rejoices at calamity will not go unpunished’. In the New Testament, Jesus famously told the rich young ruler “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” As we know, however, he didn’t. James 2 : 15 – 16 echoes Jesus’ teaching. ‘If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?’ (Matthew 19 : 21)
St Paul lived a life of apostolic poverty and dependence. Not all the time. He admits to having been well off occasionally due to the generosity of fellow Christians. ‘I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength’. (Philippians 4: 12) Paul was against freeloaders in the early Church. ‘In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, labouring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Judaism had no time for slackers. In Proverbs 26:12-15 we read ‘The lazy man won’t go out and work. “There might be a lion outside!” he says. He sticks to his bed like a door to its hinges! He is too tired even to lift his food from his dish to his mouth!’
Applying Biblical insight to conditions of poverty in Britain is not welcome. There is a sense that it is virtuous to be poor. But the poor who are always with us are not always virtuous. A woman was interviewed for a main news evening bulletin about poverty on Monday 20 September 2021. ‘I am a single mother’, she said proudly. ‘I have a daughter’. The interviewer did not ask, ‘Where is your child’s father?’. Why did you have a child in an unstable relationship?’ Horror upon horror! But the interviewer could have gone on ‘Was he a hit and run merchant? Was he hopeless as a partner and/or husband? Has he ever accepted responsibility for and contributed to the upkeep of his child? Did you throw him out once you’d had your baby?’ Poverty in Britain is not associated with wrong lifestyle choices. There is no wrong. Poor lifestyle choices? A child is a child is a blessing. Are lots of women more or less raped in fleeting relationships and left with children? Are lots of women inclined to motherhood without the hassle of a partner and and/or husband? Media people and celebrity women are always advertising this lifestyle choice. The connection between behaviour and poverty is not generally made. To do so is seen as censorious and judgemental.
Labour MP Angela Rayner Angela Rayner, 41 years of age, recently claimed that her mother fed her dog food and shaving foam because she could not read labels. She said that in 'modern times' she 'definitely' would have been taken away by social services. There is a seemingly permanent fecklessness among some of the poor of any society. Is this what Jesus saw and meant? There is most certainly a connection between poverty and crime. The journalist Kevin McKenna has opined, ‘If you are living in poverty you are 18 times more likely to die a drugs-related death’. (The Herald 25 09 21). All human misfortunes of our society are connected instantaneously to poverty. None are connected to behaviour and lifestyle choices.
Fraser Nelson, writing in The Telegraph on 23rd September 2021 argued, ‘The results of 150,000 tests by Hodder Education show pupils in the poorest primary schools suffered twice as much damage in lockdown as those in the richer ones. The six and seven year olds (whose attention was never going to be commanded by a teacher on an iPad) were particularly badly hit. This study is pretty damning, and it has never been mentioned by any Labour MP. Tories have been left to do the job of opposition. It was Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, who revealed that there were seven million fewer NHS appointments during lockdown. It was Tory backbenchers who highlighted that 20,000 pupils never returned to school when classes started again. You could go on. What about quantitative easing and the way it’s certain to boost asset values, making the rich even richer? How about going harder on the Prime Minister’s decision to tax the poorest to ensure that no one has to sell their house to pay for their old age care; isn’t this a straight transfer of resources from the poor to the rich?’
Do the poor accept any responsibility for their condition? Surely, no-one is responsible for their own birth or natal circumstances. Are they responsible for their childhood, education and early teenage years? Probably not, but there have been criminal exceptions. Some indulge in sexual intercourse from a very early age. This is their choice. Not always. Some teen age girls are raped. Some teen age boys are raped but that does not result in a child being born. Grooming is a by-product of the internet. Teenage girls become pregnant, some by desire and choice, some by naivety and some against their will. Some in order to be allocated a house by the local authority. The cycle of poverty is not broken. It carries on into ensuing generations with state dependence for money, housing and health. ITV News recently exposed the grievous and appalling state of some local authority housing. Work might be a luxury but it might be also less attractive than living on benefits. A universal wage for everyone is being offered in some countries. It is being mooted here. Who pays for this? Everyone who pays taxes pays. It is seen as a right not as a gift. There is no ‘quid pro quo’. There is not even an obligation to good behaviour.
What is it like to live through the prism of the poor. When I worked in Africa, I saw people daily to whom a plastic bag was a possession worth keeping. In Britain we dispose of millions of these every week. In Kenya if there was no means of education, there was pregnancy for teen-age girls and perhaps modest marketing of food produce as work. For boys, there was collective thieving and buying and selling little value goods. In Kenya primary school is free but uniform, books and food are not. There was continual poverty of expectation, the crushing knowledge of being stuck at the lowest point of the social ladder. No wonder girls had sugar daddies and boys were tempted into theft and prostitution. Christian charities have helped many out of these circumstances. Government schemes now also help. The prism of the poor engenders longing for something better, something that is visible – the good fortune of others seen in fine houses and expensive cars. Christianity in Christian churches has been a significant elevator of poor people for centuries. This provides balance to the campaigning of the Black Lives Matter and the extremes of critical race theory.
What is it like to live life through the prism of the poor in this country? Beginning with the homeless and with drug and alcohol addicts it is the hopelessness that is so obvious. These are human beings who cannot sustain their own lives and need much help just to exist from day to day. The help is not always there and indeed is seriously lacking for some. Dying and death follow. Most homeless and most addicts are men. Many were poor and poorly brought up. They may have had brief relationships but these failed. Their dependences resulted in them losing housing. The streets became their homes, begging their way of life. Dirt and cold and hunger and aching internal and craving followed. Some have memories of better times, others do not even have the consolation of remembering things lost. Feelings of non-existent self worth and of rejection by society exacerbate. Who cares? Only a few well motivated carers and redeemers. Some places of refuge and treatment and rehabilitation. Insufficient for the numbers suffering. The prism of this poor is dark with light breaking through only briefly and here and there.
Richard Lucas’s Scottish Family Party seeks to address the basic issues of poverty. He maintains that family breakdown is the main cause of poverty. He wants marriage to be promoted in social policy and in schools. He thinks that marriage could be encouraged by using the tax system. Most poor people do not get married, he says. It is true that they form relationships and produce children often when very young and without stability. Most news items feature single mothers. They are given Mary like status, virginal, pure, unconnected to males. An article in The Linacre Quarterly seeks to bring balance and perspective. ‘A very large body of social science research going back decades has documented the vital and unique role of mothers and of fathers in childhood development. These studies have also demonstrated the negative psychological, educational, and social effects on children who have been deprived of growing up in a home with both biological parents who are married to each other’. Mothers' unique and crucial role in childhood development is universally accepted. Fathers however are almost invisible today. Yet fathers also bring an array of distinctive talents to the parenting enterprise. ‘Fathers excel when it comes to providing discipline and play and challenging their children to embrace life's challenges. Fathers provide essential role models for boys. A father's presence in the home protects a child from fear and strengthens a child's ability to feel safe. Extensive research on the serious psychological, academic, and social problems in youth raised in fatherless families demonstrates the importance of the presence of the father in the home for healthy childhood development’.
It seems hopeless. Homosexual and lesbian coupling has led to adoption by same sex couples. Trying to promote heterosexual marriage in the tax system would be decried as discriminatory. Now children are being taught not to necessarily accept their biological sex and to choose a gender. Age old natural heterosexual terms such as mother are being replaced with absurdities such as ‘chest feeding people’ and ‘birth person’. No matter how nonsensical and unnatural the divergence, politicians are caving in throughout the western world. Family destruction leads to social destruction leads to national destruction. We do not have a cohesive stable society. ‘The poor you always have with you' is as true now as it was when Jesus said so. The kind of political controls necessary to reintroduce marriage and heterosexual family life would not be acceptable in our culture. These obtain in totalitarian and despotic states. They look with contempt at our confusion and self-harming.
We are a long way from ‘So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’. (Genesis 1 : 27). Heterosexuality is made in the image of God. Jesus affirmed this truth. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh’. (Matthew 19 : 5) Socialist politics have contributed to the destruction of the Judaeo-Christian teaching and practice of marriage. It is more financially beneficial for a young unmarried mother on state benefits not to have the father of the child living under the same roof. Therein lies the generational poverty of today. No politician in power will address this. A remnant of heterosexual marriages will continue at least as a witness to a better way of life.