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Grace to the undeserving poor

In my last blog post I discussed the myth of the undeserving poor, referencing a number of articles which prove the tenacity of the UK work ethic. The book of that title does not, I feel, actually challenge the myth of the undeserving poor; but that does not mean that it does not make a useful contribution to Christian understandings of poverty. I merely think that the contribution it makes is different to the one that its title implies.

One point that Charlesworth and Williams do emphasise in their book is grace. Grace is goodness shown to those who don’t deserve it. It complements mercy, which is not punishing those who do deserve punishment. God shows mercy to everyone when he delays punishment for sin to give all the opportunity to turn to him; and grace when he gives good gifts of life, health, money, food, family and so on. Christians are to respond to God’s grace and mercy to us by extending that grace and mercy to others. Whilst Christians are called to hold one another to God’s standards, we are not called to judge the world in the same way but to show mercy and grace to those who do not know God. Therefore, whether we think a person ‘deserves’ help or not, if a non-Christian is in material poverty then we are called to help them.

This is such an outrageous and yet central message of Christianity that I wonder if this book would have been better entitled ‘Grace to the undeserving poor’, and this message of God’s grace to all people (Matt 5:45)[1] and the requirement placed on Christians to extend grace to others (Matt 18:21-35),[2] emphasised and developed further. This could have included emphasising the fact that we are all undeserving, and thus the ‘undeserving poor’ can be demolished as a concept either by showcasing the evidence of the strong work ethic amongst the poor (as per my previous blog), or by absorbing all of humanity into the group ‘undeserving’. Again, given the shortness of this book, there was room for much richer development of this theme.

Where this book does make a useful contribution is in some research it publishes which was carried out for the book. In chapter 2.4, the authors present findings from an analysis (carried out by an independent researcher) of media coverage of poverty. The authors report that, “after reading and coding 390 articles, the impression [the independent researcher] detected was of a ‘thinly veiled attitude… that poverty is a character defect’” (pg 38). But do Christians get their understanding of poverty from the media – believing poverty to be a character defect – or do Christians obtain their understanding from the Bible? Broadly speaking, Christians have a more sympathetic approach to poverty than do the general public (pg 42-43), but nevertheless Christians are more influenced by their political ideology than by the teaching of the Bible: self-reported political identification caused substantial swings in Christians’ beliefs about poverty (pg 44-45).

The Bible itself seems to take a much more structural view of the causes and solutions to poverty. The economy set out for Israel was one which worked strenuously to equalise riches across the population, redistributing property every 50 years, and which was strong on the requirement that workers be treated well and generously by their employers. When a person has to borrow to survive, the Bible is concerned only with the wellbeing of the poor person, and not at all with the recovery of the loan by the lender: so much so, that a person who refuses to lend on the grounds of not getting the capital back is labelled wicked; and interest on a loan was forbidden.

Our approach to poverty should be led by the Bible. Even if we believe in the myth of the undeserving poor, we should be striving for our individual lives to be marked by radical generosity to the poor, and for the public over-turning of all structural causes and contributors to poverty.

[1] “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Rain, in a dry country like Israel, was an essential good, not an unwanted evil. [2] Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

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