This morning I started reading the book Neither Poverty Nor Riches by the American Craig L Blomberg. I can’t tell you how refreshing I found the first four pages, which is as far as I got whilst reading in bed prior to finding the energy to get up. There was no apology for wealth; no attempt to say that it’s okay to have use money for one’s own indulgences; no excuses given; no protestations that God wants us to enjoy ourselves on this earth; no justification for middle-class lifestyles and the consumption of luxuries. There is no argument given that we shouldn’t ‘guilt-trip’ or ‘manipulate’ people into giving: God loves a cheerful giver, but he also rebukes the non-giver.
The opening pages are ‘introductory considerations’ and include ‘a sample of statistics’. Instead of current tropes of undeserving poor and assumptions that family breakdown, low education, criminal activity, mental health problems, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and so on cause poverty rather than are predominantly caused by responses to poverty, this book lists external factors as the causes and exacerbators of poverty. These include nature and natural disasters; a lack of jobs (key to the UK’s unemployment since the 1980s), physical illness (in the UK, this can be caused or exacerbated by bad jobs), political oppression and religious persecution.
Blomberg points out how poor countries are struggling against “enormous debts they cannot possibly repay, while trade deficits ensure that they continue to export what wealth and natural resources they have to benefit the rich nations even though their people grow poorer” (pg.17). In the UK and US, growing inequality consigns many people to poverty in countries that unquestionably have the ability to all but end poverty. Despite being over 30 years old, Blomberg’s book is still up-to-date on these issues.
Blomberg also cites some striking figures on Western spending habits; admittedly they are 40 years old, but I doubt that our spending has seen a shift away from self and luxury consumption towards helping the poor. There has perhaps been a shift towards more ecologically friendly spending, but not in the numbers necessary to counter-balance the increased consumption. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Westerners spent twice as much each year on cut flowers as on Protestant ministries; one and a half times as much on each of pinball machines, skin care and chewing gum; seven times as much on sweets; twenty-six times as much on soft drinks; and 140 times as much on legal gambling.
Blomberg writes that, “In most affluent of suburban Western communities, it is impossible to detect outward differences between the expenditures of professing Christians and the religiously unaffiliated who surround them in their neighbourhoods” (pg 20). John Wesley’s epigram – gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can – seems to have been replaced with “money will solve all your problems”, “go with the flow to make the dough” and “spend all you can” (Suter, 1989).
In stark contrast to modern, Western Christianity’s conformity to middle class living styles, Christianity of the past was noted for its sharing lifestyles and strong commitment to generous giving. The early church in Acts was noted for ‘having all things in common’ so that ‘there were no poor among them’. Christian giants of the faith were noted for there sacrifice: John Wesley allocated himself a fixed, restrictive amount to live off each year, and gave everything else above that away; George Mueller, who received no government support and never asked for assistance nevertheless managed to house and educate over 10,000 orphans in his lifetime; Charles Spurgeon was inspired by Mueller to also open an orphanage, amongst other charitable work in London; Amy Carmichael, Mother Theresa and Jackie Pullinger gave up not just their incomes but their home countries in order to serve others.
If there are few poor people in the Western church, it is because poor people aren’t entering the church or being helped by the church, not because the middle class have given their resources to assist large numbers of poor people out of poverty. The first few centuries saw pagan rulers exclaim in despair that the Christians looked after not only their own people but the non-Christian poor as well; in the UK today, it is private secular businesses who step up to meet a crisis when the government fails, not the people of God.