JESUS AND POVERTY 3

The figure of Desperate Dan, above, in the centre of Dundee, is a working class icon, an energetic kindly superman who is always working, if he is not eating cow pies. It’s a reflection of Scottish working class ethos, with its view that real men ought to be heroes and providers, while women ought to be heroines and sustainers. I use the word class because it defines groups of people according to their role in our economy.

The greatest factor in the decline of this class in Scotland is the almost complete absence today of the sort of heavy industries, mining, ship- building, vehicle production, steel manufacture and others, which employed so many working class people in the past. Since those jobs ceased to exist, some working class people have adapted to work in the service, commercial and modern technology sectors while others have become dependent on unskilled jobs and benefits. At the same time, Trades Unions have been legislated into relative impotence. The huge reduction in public housing initiated by Margaret Thatcher has greatly reduced the ability of local councils to provide accommodation for the working class most of whom have become home-owners, while others live at the mercy of rapacious landlords or in poorly maintained properties.

Desperate Dan a working class man
Desperate Dan a working class man

These economic and political changes which have weakened the power of working class people by dividing them into haves and have-nots are part of the development of capitalist economics from 1980 to the present day, which are influenced by the power of banks and multi-national companies over populations whose livelihoods depend on the international movements of capital. The kind of economic measures seen in the recent UK budget, reducing essential welfare benefits while setting a new minimum living wage, are relatively benign (!) expressions of an ideology that is utterly opposed to communal solutions to social problems and totally committed to solutions that place all responsibility on individuals however incapacitated they may be.

Added to these fundamental convictions of capitalist economics is a magical belief in growth: with the right economic framework economies will grow, that is, gross domestic product will rise, and increased wealth will gradually trickle down even to the feckless poor.

Clearly as regards Scotland I am talking about relative poverty; by world standards almost all Scots have enough income to survive, although the lives of the poorest are blighted by illness, stress and premature death.

Much of this is entirely unnecessary. It is the result of an ideology that favours the possessors and accumulators of wealth by persuading people our nations are poor and cannot  afford to be  socially creative, when we are amongst the richest societies that have ever existed. Our wealth is socially created but the ideology pretends that that is due to the individual skills and energy of so-called entrepreneurs, and that therefore a disproportionate reward should be given to them. In fact, the greatest rewards go a handful of global corporations.image

A proof of the effectiveness of this ideology can be seen in the provision of age-care in Scotlland today. As people live longer and as the family life of their children is more and more geared to making money than to the care of family members, the need for residential and home care of the elderly increases. Because we have let market forces set the price of such care, the pay of care workers is little if at all above the national minimum wage, and conditions of work are very poor. The result is that our elderly relatives are consigned to the care of the some of the poorest people in our nation, in many cases, recent female immigrants. This reveals our values; people who have a vital caring role for vulnerable human beings are paid next to nothing, while people who play football, or sell armaments are paid millions.

The above is my brief and disputable analysis. It contains no mention of Jesus. The reason for that omission is that Jesus had little or nothing to say about economic policy.  Jesus had no doubt that God’s justice favoured the poor, but he had no policy suggestions for the Roman government; he had no doubt that the unrepentant rich were going to hell, but he had no plans for swingeing taxation that would prevent them getting there.

if we say that Jesus was creating a community that valued all its members equally, used the willingly given resources of the rich to enable the lives of the poor, and the human gifts of the poor to enhance the lives of the rich, we will have said almost all we can about Jesus’ economic policy, which was based on the free generosity of God towards all creatures, including those lives had piled up heavy moral debts.

Jesus did not instruct his followers to offer a critique of social institutions but to be a critique, by virtue of the justice and compassion of their communal lives. We will see how Jesus’ one parable about societal behaviour, known as the Last Judgement, indicates what is desirable not by social statistics, but by  individual acts of human kindness.

Ship-workers 1929
Ship-workers 1929

This takes us towards an important conclusion: the Jesus Tradition does not give us the tools for criticising social policies, but simply requires that his followers treat people as equals, with justice and compassion. Developing social policies that achieve these outcomes, along with a critique of policies that prevent these outcomes, is the business of believers, like me, for whom social justice is a main concern. In that business believers have the freedom to draw from human traditions of social justice, as for example, socialism or conservatism, while not becoming prisoners of these traditions. A comprehensive justice that is generous to all creatures should be our aim. At best of course, we cannot identify our politics with those of Jesus; but if we have tried to build on his witness we should not be too apologetic about the results, which ought to be good news to the poor and challenging news to the rich.

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1 Comment

  1. You are absolutely correct. The Jesus Tradition does not give us a blueprint for economics. Much as I hate to admit it, I don’t think there is any possibility that a society can ever reflect the values of Jesus. The gifts that you so eloquently summarize – “the human gifts of the poor to enhance the lives of the rich,” wow, what a great statement! – can be expressed within a society, but they are not a recipe for a society’s transformation. Believers are salt and light in the world; but Caesar will still be Caesar, even when he worships a Cross.

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