23 September 2011
This week, Jobcentres in England and Wales began referring needy people to local food banks run by The Trussell Trust. The Christian charity is almost doubling its feeding centres to 150, expecting that 100,000 Britons will rely on their service this year.
The expectation is realistic in the current climate and the ever-growing shadows of the economic forecasts. The IMF and academics suggested that the UK government would consider an economic Plan B. We will watch this space. And crucially, we need to mind the gap,particularly in view of the findings of the Institute for Fiscal Studies that indicate that the poorest 10 per cent of the population will be hardest hit over the next three to five years.
Plan A has always been the Church. The Church Fathers recognised their "responsibility of reading the signs of the time and of interpreting them in the light of the gospel" (Gaudium et Spes, 4). While the ancient Greeks viewed poverty as a curse from the gods and a reflection of a divine indifference towards the common people, the Fathers' socio-political consciousness was integral to their faith. After all, Christ is identified with the poor. In the fourth century Emperor Julian wrote: "These imperious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them in their agape, they attract them..." (Epistle to Pagan High Priests).
Throughout time, the Christian commitment to re-weave society is remarkable. Social movements tend to emerge when times are out of joint. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the widespread dislocation and economic deprivation engendered by the industrialisation proved to be fertile ground for the growth of the Pentecostal movement in the US. The enduring systemic hardship and lack of opportunity gave rise to the civil rights movement in the 1960s-70s. The spread of Pentecostalism in Latin America, Africa and Indonesia took place among the poor because it worked with the poor.
Wesley and Spurgeon ministered in a complex socio-economic context. When their times were out of joint, they established orphanages, schools, colleges, almshouses for the elderly, housing, loan programmes, free health clinics, job centres, and so on, as an integral part of the salvific mission. Spurgeon's love for the orphans is illustrated by his wish to be buried on the grounds of the orphanage. Together with the Earl of Shaftesbury and others he formed a network of effective advocates for social reform concerning the treatment of the mentally ill and the working conditions in mines and factories.
Describing The Character of a Methodist, Wesley reflects on the person who "does good unto all men - unto neighbours, and strangers, friends, and enemies. And that in every possible kind; not only to their bodies, by 'feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those that are sick or in prison', but much more does he labour to do good to their souls, as of the ability which God giveth".
Such a rich Christian history inspired me this week when I met with local community leaders, advocated for the Robin Hood Tax in the lead up to the G20, had a meal with my asylum friends, read the new Micah Challenge resource and prayer walked with my arty mentee. May Christ inspire us to walk faithfully in our time, interpreting our responsibility in our professions, communities and campaigns, and work tirelessly with the ability God gives us.
Marijke Hoek, coordinator Forum for Change