This week we continue to look for God's perspective on the world, and we will be thinking about protecting the vulnerable. Our reading will be Isaiah 58:6-12, and our prayers come from Christian Aid to mark the beginning of Christian Aid Week.
**The recorded service is no longer available, but the text of the reading and reflection are below, as well as one of the prayers we used.**
Prayer | written for Christian Aid Week 2021
Great God, who makes the sun to rise, and opens the heavens Hear the cry of the people who sow in hope for rain, but reap only despair Hear the cry of the people seeking shelter from the storm, their hopes and homes submerged Hear the cry of the people when creation is hitting back, with rage and resistance Give us hope, grant us salvation Give us a new relationship with creation with reverence to tend this gift from You And say once again of the earth and all you created ”it is good”. Amen.
Reading | Isaiah 58:6-12 (NIV)
Is this not the fast that I have chosen: o loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. Those from among you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.
Reflection | Protecting the vulnerable
Over the past couple of weeks, we have talked about knowing the world, beginning with its essential goodness, and tackling the mess, trying to restore that goodness. I want to add a thought to that last part before moving on this morning, because I have been watching a lot of ‘Call the Midwife’ recently, and it seems to me that episode after episode is about repentance and redemption. People change, people learn, people fix broken relationships, people get it right after getting it wrong for many years. Sometimes those things seem impossible, and so to see them played out over and again is life affirming and hope giving. Period dramas about midwives may not be your thing, but I encourage you to seek out other stories of repentance and redemption, so that you may have faith that those things are not impossible, and understand what they might look like when they do happen.
Moving on now to the theme of this week, which is protecting the vulnerable. I spoke last time about the need to recognise not only our individual sins but also our place in sinful structures, and I said I would be coming back round to that this week. The reason I want to tie those two ideas - protecting the vulnerable and recognising sinful structures - together is that in so many instances it is those structures that leave people vulnerable, and so we cannot do something about the one without first doing something about the other.
The letters attributed to Paul make several references to powers and principalities, the corrupt and corrupting forces which govern the world and which we find ourselves working against. There has been a tendency to see these as purely spiritual on the basis of Ephesians 6:12, which says that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”, but I think that conflates two different ideas that are at work in this passage. I think the point of “not against flesh and blood” is not that people are never part of the problem, but rather that we should not make enemies of one another, but instead tackle the roles and structures that we are caught in or uphold.
And so I think we need to begin by naming the powers and principalities of our age, the forces which break and bind and burn. I would begin with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism. Perhaps you would others to that list. We need to name them because it is only when we tackle them that we can do as God called us to do through the prophet Isaiah, that is to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke, or to use the language we began with, to protect the vulnerable.
However this morning I want to focus on the structural sin of poverty - and I want to be clear that by that I do not mean that it is sinful to be poor but that it is sinful that society leaves some poor - because it is woven in with the powers and principalities I have already named. People of colour, women, members of the LGBT community and people with disabilities regularly face discrimination around employment and healthcare and housing, and are therefore more likely to experience poverty, although of course the overlap is not complete, and we can belong to any of those groups and not be poor, or be poor and not belong to any of those groups.
I hope it goes without saying that poverty is not part of the goodness of the world, but if we needed any evidence of its evil, we can readily find it in the clear link between economic status and covid rates. Those in low income jobs are more likely to live and work with higher numbers of people, are less likely to feel financially secure enough to self isolate, and are more likely to have underlying health conditions, all of which means that their risk of exposure and illness is increased. People of colour and people with disabilities have also been disproportionately affected by the virus, perhaps with some common reasons. I studied medicine through time as part of my history course in high school, and it is depressingly reminiscent of the health inequalities which saw poor communities devastated by outbreaks of dysentery and tuberculosis a century or more ago.
I introduced this series two weeks ago by saying that we would be looking for God's perspective, and so here I want to draw on the idea of God’s "preferential option for the poor". This phrase was coined by the Jesuit priest Pedro Arrupe, before being more fully developed by the liberation theologian Gustavo Guttierez, who believed that poverty was not limited to economics but was the result of structural inequality, and that the message of the gospel was that “God loves the world and loves those who are poorest within it”.
The idea of preference may seem unfair and counter to what is more often said about God’s love for all, but poverty is an injustice and not even God can remain neutral in the face of it. Guttierez said that “God’s love has two dimensions, the universal and the particular; and while there is a tension between the two, there is no contradiction. God’s love excludes no one. Nevertheless, God demonstrates a special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life”. Or to put it in plainer language, Jesus said it is not the healthy who need the doctor but the sick, and in the same way those among us who are vulnerable and disadvantaged need particular attention.
That attention is not only God’s to give, and we too are called to hold a preferential option for the poor. Turning again to Guttierez, he declared that "a spirituality of liberation will centre on a conversion to the neighbor, the oppressed person, the exploited social class, the despised ethnic group, the dominated country. Our conversion to the Lord implies this conversion to the neighbor. To be converted is to commit oneself lucidly, realistically, and concretely to the process of the liberation of the poor and oppressed”. Note that he speaks of conversion to the neighbour, not conversion of the neighbour. This is not about taking people on as pet projects and making them fit a mould we approve of, but reorienting ourselves towards them and liberating them to be who they are when not weighed down by poverty.
I think that begins with solidarity not pity, praying and working with people not only for them, remembering that they are with us and among us, not only in some vague ‘out there’. Guttierez believed that theology done from the perspective of the rich did not adequately serve the needs of the poor, and that to do theology from the perspective of the poor one must first live alongside them. We must learn through experience or deep listening what it means to be poor, so that we can develop not just theology but social policy that respects those who are in poverty while seeking to raise them out of it. But those of us without experience will have to work hard to hear the voices of the poor because so often they are disenfranchised. When I put together a list of suggested reading to encourage us to hear the voices of those whose experience of life is different to ours, it was firsthand accounts of poverty that I found most difficult to find. I recommend the Poverty Truth Network as a good place to start.
None of this means that God hates the rich, or that we should do the same, although I do believe that God despises the damage that excessive wealth and selfish greed do, and that we ought to do likewise. That distinction between despising wealth and hating the wealthy is really important, because it is so easy to slip from one to the other, to make our anger personal in a way that is divisive and destructive. God has compassion on all that he has made, and a preferential option for the poor does not remove that compassion from the rich. In fact, might it not be the case that the rich too can only be redeemed by this option for the poor? To take a different issue for the moment, an option for the poor must lead us to take seriously the issue of climate change, which affects the poor most severely, and that will in the end save all of us.
Guttierez observed that “attempts to bring about changes within the existing order have proven futile [and so] only a radical break from the status quo...would allow for the change to a new society”. And the German theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said that “we are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself”. That might sound a little overwhelming or even alarming, but is it not the vision of scripture? Lions will lay down with lambs. The first will be last and the last will be first. The mighty will be cast down and the humble lifted up. We may only be able to do a little at a time - write to our MP about failings in the welfare system, take a moment to talk with a Big Issue seller so that they know they are seen, choose to spend our money with ethical businesses who treat workers fairly and pair fair tax - but if we keep our eyes on the vision of a kingdom which turns everything upside down to show us the world the right way up, then slowly but surely a better world will come.