notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
The distance and the detail
Introductory talk at a Merseyside and Region Church Action on Poverty event,
'Have We Beaten Poverty?', Friends Meeting House, Liverpool, 1 October 2005
I've just returned from a few days in Scotland, with other members and staff of the Iona Community, investigating how we might make the resources of the Community more readily available to groups of disadvantaged people and those who work with them.
I also enjoyed some free time, and one evening watched a local news report about the well-known photographer of Scottish landscapes, Colin Baxter, whose pictures are on postcards and calenders everywhere in that country.
For his latest project he has taken to a helicopter to photograph views of Scotland from the air; and looking at those pictures I was struck by how different the place looks from a distance - Glasgow during a rainstorm, the grid-pattern of those granite streets shining with the wetness of all that water - looked beautiful. The detail on the ground, though, was far less comfortable, as I discovered a few hours later having emerged from a Glasgow tube station with dozens of other people to be hit in the face by violent gales and struggling uphill as the rain came down in blankets to soak us almost instantly.
There is a great difference between how things look in the distance and actually are in the detail. I think this is pertinent to our time together today, as the politics of poverty deals with both distance and with detail.
As we know, 2005 is the year in which campaigners across the world have been invited to Make Poverty History. A worthy project in which I imagine many here are involved, and which I fully support, though it seems to me that the campaign's title may be an example of distancing. Though some small steps may have been made towards debt relief for some poorer countries, we know that this campaign will need to go on a lot longer than a year before substantive change takes place, before the details are thoroughly attended to.
And so it is with other headline campaigns: the problem with a campaign named Make Poverty History, as with the ambitiously-titled UN Decade for the Eradication of Poverty, or with government targets to end child poverty by 2020, is that they raise expectations and create disillusionment when they fail. There is always a tension between the distance and the detail.
Our religious traditions also deal with distance and detail. Though perhaps in surprising ways. In contrast to the eye-catching promises of Bono and Blair, Jesus Christ launched his anti-poverty manifesto by stating, "The poor you will always have with you." This sounds rather unpromising on the surface; a distancing statement, the language of defeatism perhaps, or an excuse to do nothing because nothing you do will make any difference.
But just beneath the surface of that statement lies a whole integrated ethic which holds the poor at the very heart of God's deepest concerns. As I suspect you know, or you would probably not be here, "The poor you will always have with you" is not an excuse for inactivity; it is an invitation to devote a lifetime to acts of concern and justice. It's a commitment to be involved in the detail.
Christianity shares with other faith traditions, and the best humanist traditions, a commitment to working with uncomfortable truths and dealing with complex details for the sake of justice and peace. So the man who said "The poor you will always have with you" actually spent most of his time with the poor, healing them, ministering to them, teaching them, making leaders of them. And in the earlier story of ancient Israel we see a dispossessed people, wandering through a wilderness, living hand-to-mouth, and God travelling alongside them, trying to provide for them day-to-day.
Our faith traditions get beneath the surface of headlines and spin to offer detailed directives about how to live justly for the sake of the poor. Laws protecting widows and orphans - the most vulnerable members of society; demands for hospitality towards resident aliens in the land. Trade rules insisting on honesty and equity from the business classes.
When a land is sick and broken through overfarming for profit, and a section of the community dispossessed by land grabs, scripture promotes the legal concept of jubilee, based on a deep sense of God's justice for all, which aims to restore the dispossessed to their former places, to restore balance in the land. And when a people are sick and broken through overwork, enslaved in bad employment practices, there are words of sabbath command, words which demand rest, God's way of ensuring justice in a potentially exploitative workplace.
We have to translate these scriptures from their ancient contexts to today, but we can do so in confidence that they offer us rich resources as we try to engage with the complexities raised in anti-poverty campaigning.
Many of us are here today not because we believe that we will succeed in making poverty history in 2005, but because we believe that by continuing to engage with poverty issues, in some depth and some detail, we may contribute towards making small but nevertheless historic changes which are at one with the central concerns of our faith traditions, for justice for the poor.
The title of today's meeting is a question: "Have we beaten poverty?" It is deliberately and provocatively rhetorical because clearly we haven't, and plainly for the forseeable future "the poor we will always have with us." But not to be ignored - rather, to be engaged with, supported, affirmed in the details of their day-to-day struggle for justice.
So we hope today to engage in dialogue and discussion which takes us well beyond remarks and slogans which distance, and into details which may help us in our ongoing commitment to keep on working keenly alongside and on behalf of the most vulnerable members of our society.