When I was a medical chaplain I worked with a rabbi, who would stop by my office and tell me a Jewish joke on the way to a meeting. “What is the only thing two Jews can ever agree on?” he would say, “what a third should give to charity.” I’m sure I could come up with a Christian version, that the only thing two Christians can agree on is who a third should, or shouldn’t be sleeping with. The depressing thing about the press is that when the church is mentioned at all, it is usually about the mating habits of Christians, a subject abou which the gospels say very little.
What will be of no interest to the press is what Christians can agree on. When I came back from my post-Christmas break I learned that my congregation had had a retiring collection for victims of the Asian tsunami, raising almost £250, even after they’d already given to the church collection. I thought it was fantastic. Two aid agencies which I know about, raised phenomenal amounts in a matter of days, and this on top of their existing programmes for aid in various parts of the world.
You don’t have to be a Christian to have been moved by the devastation of the Asian tsunami. What is interesting about the response is that there was no question about it: there was an earthquake, a freak wave, communities destroyed, lives lost and help needed, and we responded, immediately.
It was only later on that I began to wonder why many thousands more people continue to die through disease and malnutrition, in countries for which development is impossible because of crippling debt, and trade rules which favour us, the rich West. Are we slower to come to their aid because, deep down, we know that their suffering is a result of a world whose resources are distributed in ways which are always in our favour. A tsunami is ethically neutral, African farmers undercut by cheap European produce is not. It’s easier to give to one than the other because, with a natural disaster we can ask why? without being in danger of finding that the answer might have something to do with changing the way we live.
While we were still making sense of the news footage from Sri Lanka and Phuket, the New Year’s Day episode of the Vicar of Dibley took the 20th anniversary of Live Aid as its theme. The programme included the characters wearing a white armband as a way of introducing the Make Poverty History campaign.
Make Poverty History is a coalition of all the non-governmental aid agencies in the United Kingdom including Christian ones like the Church of England, Cafod and Christian Aid. It is borne of a widely-held conviction both among the religious, and among those who are not, that the human race can no longer live in conditions whereby three-fifths of our species barely lives. The hope of the campaign is that 2005 is the year when we finally come to grips with the problem, both while we have the presidency of the G8 countries, and while we have a Chancellor who is passionately committed to ending poverty.
This is something which Christians should be able to agree on. While sex has a bit-part in the Bible, looking after the poor is a central theme. I discovered this week that one in sixteen verses in the Bible is about poverty; one out of nine in the first three gospels.
Last Advent, when he preached on the Last Judgement, James Forbes of New York’s Riverside Church, was talking about the parable of the sheep and the goats, where those who are not destined for paradise are asked by Jesus what they had done for the needy? Forbes went on to say that, according to this parable, “nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor”.