Simon Fowler's Blog

rLiving Day 3: Knowing the poor (Directness)

Posted by Simon on May 2, 2010

With a few friends, I’ve run a Sunday class at church for the last 18 months called the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. We administer it but as far as possible we have the participants be the teachers (more like discussion facilitators with a simple handout as the basis of discussion) from their expertise or interest, to help us all think through the issues in the light of Scripture and then, hopefully, change how we live. But at least change how we think. So far we’ve touched on: Inequality ($$); Disabilities; Music; Myth of a Christian Nation; Giving and Generosity; Relationships and Social Capital; Suffering and Joy; Food; Healthcare (twice); Science and Faith; Inerrancy; Hermeneutics; Education (the “reading wars”), and today we started a series on “poverty”.

“It’s a lot easier to talk about poverty than to talk with someone who is poor.” (Mother Theresa)

“The great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.” (Shane Claiborne)

Relational Proximity Dimension #1 is “Directness”. My relationship with someone is better and healthier the less mediated it is. It can be mediated by technology or other people: these reduce our ability to communicate fully. It can also be mediated, even when face to face, by dishonesty and fakeness: there’s a real me and a real you, any fronts we put up reduces directness.

Our first question was whether anyone had experienced poverty personally, or had encountered ‘it’ anywhere. Among us was a man who’d been homeless for 11 years but apparently by choice. Several of us had encountered poverty in various places such as London (the homeless), inner-city Boston, El Salvador (people living on a garbage dump), Mexico (solvent-addicted street kids), and Paraguay (financially poor but with land, food, water and shelter and no sense of being poor themselves). Then in small groups we discussed causes.

What was immediately obvious was that ‘poor’ has relative and absolute meanings and that the experience of the poor varies enormously. This is why we need to know them, so that we can love them for who they are, as individuals and families. We also need to know them so that we actually do something.

If our (individual) relationship with the poor is mediated, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll fixate on ourselves (with guilt about our riches), we’ll be ignorant about the poor (romanticize them, pity them, judge them), and in the end we’ll do nothing except perhaps pay our indulgence through charity to salve our conscience. Directness – encounter relationships with actually people who are poor – seems to hold so much more promise in creating other-centeredness, compassion and respect, and appropriate action that empowers and liberates.

If you’d like to join the discussion next Sunday in downtown Boston, let me know.


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