Poverty and the image of God
Posted on October 14, 2016
This is the first in a series of articles, published by Manna Gum, which try to grapple with the nature of poverty. It is an exercise in situating myself within both the story that we inhabit as Christians and the story of Long Gully. Long Gully is my neighbourhood and it is the ground from where these reflections spring. Later articles will delve more deeply into the experience of disadvantage in contemporary Australia, look at what divides us from ‘the poor’ and, finally ask – where is the Christian church in all of this and where should it be?
Early morning, I scramble up one of the sagging hillocks of slate that circle the west of Long Gully. They are silent now, but once they echoed to the din of huge batteries of crushers and down their dark shafts and tunnels the deafened miners crawled. The gold they extracted made Bendigo rich and turned Long Gully into a bustling township. That world is gone now.
West of Eaglehawk Road, I enter Sparrowhawk Estate, a public housing area built on ‘reclaimed’ mining land. The homes are brick, some with immaculate gardens tended since the estate was built in the late 1970s. Most of the residents are white, with a few indigenous people and a growing Karen community. Many struggle with the anxieties of insufficient income, debt, illness, disability, unemployment and stigma. Some carry the added handicap of abusive parents who cared little and more whose parents didn’t know how. They share with wealthier neighbourhoods a mix of personalities: the vindictive, the forgiving, the compassionate and the cold-hearted. What they don’t share is the stress of poverty; that in the land of promise, they have failed. As William Stringfellow said, ‘Where money is an idol, to be poor is a sin’. Like many ‘sinners’, some have turned to salves to make the shame and boredom bearable: drugs, alcohol, violence, crime. But others live heroic lives: caring for sick family, fostering nieces and nephews rather than allow them to enter the dubious system of child ‘protection’ and giving hours of service to their neighbourhood.
The people of this neighbourhood are often referred to by terms such as ‘battlers’ or ‘the marginalised’, or ‘those experiencing disadvantage’; but in the biblical lexicon they are ‘the poor’. How do we make sense of the Bible’s teaching about ‘the poor’ in relation to the real people and the real places we encounter? Who are the poor? What defines the experience of poverty? Who are we in relation to the poor and who are we together?
This is the first in a series of articles trying to grapple with some of these questions. It is an exercise in situating myself within a larger story: both the story that we inhabit as Christians and the story of Long Gully. This is my neighbourhood and it is the ground from where these reflections spring. Later articles will delve more deeply into the experience of disadvantage in contemporary Australia, look at what divides us from ‘the poor’ and, finally, ask most pointedly, where is the Christian church in all of this and where should it be?
What story are we in?
I met Robbie a decade ago. Robbie’s mother died when he was 11 and from then his elderly grandmother cared for him. Robbie had an intellectual delay and rarely attended school. Robbie’s grandmother died two years later. His uncle, though he cared deeply for Robbie, could not support him. Robbie was soon in trouble with the police and spent time in youth detention. Too young, he became a father and soon his children were taken into foster care. He is young, jobless, with scant education and mountains of anger and grief. His story is not strange in Long Gully.
What should we do about this? Stanley Hauerwas writes:
Morally speaking, the first issue is never what we are to do, but what we should see. Here is the way it works: you can only act in the world that you can see, and you must be taught to see by learning to say.
If we can only act in the world that we see, and we learn to see by saying, then we need to say our story. The first story is that of the reign of God, whose central and defining character is Jesus Christ. When Christians see poverty, we do not first see a problem of policy, social structures or personal values, but a problem of our identity as Church, the body of Christ. The second story is that of the places where we find ourselves, the places where we must somehow live out the story of Jesus.•