In his book on American Politics, Jim Wallis says when he asks about Poverty, the key verse Christians quote is John 12:8 “The poor you will always have with you.”, he says that the church has accepted poverty as inevitable and unchangeable. But Wallis goes on to talk about how the verse is not about acceptance of poverty by proximity of the church, and Christians to people who are poor. A better translation is “you shall always be among the poor”.
We often make excuses for not doing anything about Poverty, so we will quote Blessed are the poor in Sprit from Matthew’s Gospel, ignoring the fact that Luke’s Gospel does not say that. And while we have made a whole theology of conversion of Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus in John 4, making it universal for us to be “born again”, we say the conversation with Jesus and the Rich Young Man in the Synoptic Gospels, where the man is told to sell everything, give it away and receive from God in order to follow Jesus, is specific to that individual.
While many in the church are involved in alleviating the causes of poverty through food banks, soup runs or debt relief counselling, the reality is that these are often niche groups within the church, and more and more staffed by volunteers not from churches.
Sadly, the church in our inner cities, in sink estates and especially in “traditional” post-industrial white working-class areas is either dying or dead. More and more churches are focusing on big “centres”, either in student, suburban areas of cities or in market towns. This has left poorer urban and rural areas devoid of churches, and where there are churches, they are often small and elderly, with very little ability to reach out to the people around.
The current Covid crisis is going to make this worse.
Christians who were called to be among the poor are now among the middles class, often doing disembodied outreach programmes or giving financially, but not doing anything to be among the poor on a day to day basis.
If you look at many of the great Revivals, they often begin in the margins, among the poor. It is where John Wesley preached, it is where the Welsh and Azusa street revivals began. If we want to see God truly move in our nation, we need to inspire Christians to live, work and worship among the poor. This may mean giving up our comforts, not living in our “dream” home, or taking that “dream” job or going to the latest “cool” church, and it might mean living in a Downwardly Mobile way, living counter to our culture (Romans 12:1-2).
Jesus was often found among the crowd (ochlos), the rabble, the unwashed. He had no home or possessions, relying on the charity of others. He died the death of a thief and was buried in a borrowed tomb. He became one of the poor. Paul writes in Philippians 2 that he became a slave. If we want to truly follow Jesus, then why do we think that we are allowed to live differently from him?