Sunday 22 June is Poverty Sunday, a campaign run by the Church Urban Fund. David Walker, Bishop of Manchester and a trustee of the CUF, urges churches to pray and to pledge to act.
There’s always something ambivalent in a Franciscan writing about tackling poverty. St Francis, though born into one of the wealthiest families in the town of Assisi, gave up everything. He spoke of ‘Lady Poverty’ in the same language that the romantic troubadours and medieval knights would use to describe the earthly ‘Lady’ to whom they offered utter devotion. But then there is huge difference between that poverty which is freely embraced, in order to enjoy release from material concerns, and the poverty which is forced upon an individual or household.
Francis and his followers in fact did much to alleviate this latter. And in tackling it they challenged one of the worst aspects of how poverty was viewed at the time, they made no distinction between the deserving and the undeserving. Lepers in particular, who were commonly thought to have brought their plight and consequent destitution upon themselves, were at the heart of the ministry of the first group of Franciscan brothers.
What saddens me most, as I reflect upon the present attitude to poverty in the UK, is that this false distinction seems once again to lie at the heart of social policy, and to be accepted as such both by government parties and by the mainstream opposition. Were it genuinely an issue of affordability, that the costs of supporting some who could be identified as undeserving were such a large portion of the welfare budget, then I would understand it from an economic perspective, even whilst deprecating it as theologically deficient. But that patently is not the case. The costs of treating our poorest people better, of treating all poverty as a reality not a sin, represent a very small proportion of the budget. They could probably be met if the five largest global companies from among those who avoid almost all UK corporate taxes were made to pay on the basis of the actual work they do here.
Jesus, who like Francis made himself poor for the sake of the gospel, tells us that we shall always have the poor with us. Not as a reason for doing nothing about poverty, but as a reminder that some challenges will be there for his disciples to tackle even after he has accomplished his earthly ministry. When he himself showed compassion on the poor he did not set some standard of prior merit that the recipients of his bounty needed to attain and evidence. Indeed the very theology of grace that underpins his teaching is alien to such a notion.
So here we are again, another Poverty Sunday and poverty has got no better since the last. We can continue to tackle it through the direct action of our food banks and other projects. We can continue to tackle it by speaking out against the causes of poverty, not least by challenging policies that exacerbate it or add to the numbers condemned to face it. We can tackle it too by seeking to refute the rhetoric of the ‘undeserving poor’. And we will have Jesus and Francis at our sides.