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How the Church responds to poverty

Monday 3rd August, 2015 @ 11:08 am

by Christopher Harrison | tags: ,

The Vicar’s letter
Rev’d Christopher Harrison considers how the Church and everyone in it should respond to the challenges of poverty

We are fortunate, in this parish, to have a long tradition of supporting those in need around the world, in particular through the work of our Overseas Committee. This has typically included donations to agencies such as Christian Aid and CMS (Church Mission Society), as well as contributions to charities that work in specific fields such as the African Prisons’ Project, the Mission Aviation Fellowship, and the Children at Risk Foundation which works in Brazil (see the article in this magazine). We have also responded well to emergencies such as the Haiti and Nepal earthquakes.

Whilst aid such as this is important, the Church at large has always stressed the need to focus on the root causes of world poverty, and on all the factors which contribute to degrading and demeaning conditions of life. This was the thinking that led to the growth of the Fair Trade movement, which in turn led to an increased awareness of the need for a more just framework for world trade as a whole, which would allow poorer countries to enjoy greater opportunities for economic growth through trade. In the period immediately prior to the year 2000, the Jubilee Debt Campaign drew inspiration from Biblical principles of debt forgiveness to enable the writing off of considerable amounts of unrepayable debt for some of the poorest countries of the world. Since then, the spotlight has increasingly shifted to the effects of climate change on the poor, and the effect that tax avoidance by multinational companies can have on the developing world.

The Church has also long realised that conditions within the poorer countries themselves sometimes need to be addressed. This has led Christian Aid and similar aid agencies to campaign against corruption, the inadequacy of rights for women, and discrimination against minorities – not that these problems are limited to developing countries, however. It has become increasingly clear that transfers of money alone are not sufficient, and that factors such as healthcare, education, human rights and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes, both national and local, are also essential if poverty in the developing world is to be significantly reduced.

All of the above is largely the accepted wisdom within overseas aid charities, and also the mainstream Churches. How successfully, though, are we keeping up with the rapidly changing political and economic situation in today’s world? We are, today, faced with a range of new challenges for which solutions are far from obvious. The power of the global financial institutions to exploit their market position, and the inadequacy of effective regulation over many of these, has been highlighted by the massive fines recently imposed on those who have colluded in the fixing of exchange rates and interest rates. There is wide and increasing inequality between the richest and the poorest countries of the world, as well as growing inequality within many countries, both developing and developed. Growing desertification and rising sea levels, as global temperatures creep upwards, is threatening the livelihoods of communities least able to cope with these.

The latest, and perhaps the most demanding challenge for us, however, is how to respond to the migrant crisis which is affecting not just southern Europe but the developed world as a whole. The abhorrent methods used by the so-called Islamic state in its quest for a new Caliphate have resulted, as we all know, in incalculable sufferings for millions of people. The systematic persecution of Christians and other minorities is very much part of this. When we see those who have lost everything knocking at the door of Europe, seeking refuge, we are torn between a desire to offering sanctuary and our awareness that our societies are already highly stretched in their capacity to cope with new incomers. As far as tacking the root causes of such migration are concerned, moreover, it is incredibly difficult to conceive of any form of international intervention which would have a realistic chance of success. Military action, for example, might actually exacerbate the problems and give an excuse for even stronger antiwestern sentiment.

We have moved, in this article, from the well-trodden arguments about addressing world poverty to the huge complexity of today’s international situation. The urgent need for clear and decisive thought and action is heightened by the fact that the problems are on Europe’s own doorstep; and that if we in the Churches really care about the needs of our sisters and brothers who are in the most extreme difficulty and need, we have to respond with great generosity of heart and spirit, as well as in material terms. Are we like the rich man, in the parable told by Jesus, who simply ignored the poor man at his gate and whose hardness of heart was rewarded by an eternity in hell? And how would we feel if the tables were turned and we were the asylum seekers risking everything in a perilous boat journey, pleading for safety and a new start when we had lost everything that was precious to us?

There are times, I believe, when we have to put self-interest aside and simply open our hearts, minds and our societies to people who have been through horrendous suffering, or who have absolutely nothing left to live for in their country of origin. For such people, the decision to leave will not have been taken lightly, but will have been an absolute last resort. It is relatively easy to raise money for people living in poor societies thousands of miles away; but can we offer the hand of friendship to those in the most acute need when it actually involves offering hospitality ourselves?

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