The Bishop of London spoke at the Christians Against Poverty 25th Anniversary Service at St Paul’s Cathedral.
7:8-end and 1 John 3:11-end
There can be few of us who have not felt anxious over the last 18 months. As well as taking our breath away, Covid has taken those we love, financial security, employment and the important links to family and friends. It has also revealed society’s fault lines of inequality and, maybe more than at any other time, kindness has become more important.
Kindness is one of the most underrated virtues in today’s world. It is often accused as being bland or soft or feeble or weak. It isn’t. Kindness which comes when and where it isn’t deserved, regardless of cost or reward, is more than being nice and it can be very demanding.
The words of Zechariah from our first reading:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.
For 25 years the charity Christians Against Poverty has been walking alongside those who find themselves vulnerable because they are in debt.
The sort of kindness offered by Christians Against Poverty is the sort of kindness which the Lord asks of us through the prophets. Not just the sort which smiles and nods and sympathises but the sort which acts to make a difference. This is the love which the apostle John speaks about in the third chapter of his first letter. His focus is on abiding in Jesus – and allowing his Spirit and his love to abide in us. And he talks about the difference which that should make to our relationships with others.
He asks: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
And he goes on to say:
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
Christians Against Poverty is an organisation which embodies this active love. And in doing so it stands in a long tradition of Jewish and Christian action on the issue of debt.
In Leviticus chapter 25 God speaks to Moses on Mount Sinai about how the people should live when they enter the promised land. He explains that every 50 years they will have a Year of Jubilee, when slaves are freed, property is returned to those who own it and debts are forgiven. It’s a kind of re-set, preventing people from becoming permanently enslaved or getting deeper and deeper into debt and therefore poverty.
At the turn of this century the Jubilee 2000 Coalition was inspired by the Year of Jubilee described in Leviticus. It was a global movement which ultimately led to the cancellation of more than 100 billion dollars of debt, owed by 35 of the poorest countries.
The campaign logo for Jubilee 2000 was the number 2000 formed by a chain. Crucially, one of the links in that chain was broken.
When we are in debt it is a chain around our lives. We drag it with us, every day, wherever we are and whatever we are doing. If we are unable to see how to get out of debt, and interest payments are mounting up with each day that passes, we feel that chain pulling us down. Jesus tells his disciples in John chapter 10, verse 10: ‘I have come that you might have life in all its fulness’. But if we are in debt we cannot access that fulness of life. The sleepless hours, the constant calculations on scraps of paper, the impossible choices between food and heating bills, school uniform and other essential purchases. All of those are life-sapping preoccupations. They deprive us of any sense of possibility, or hope, or a future where we are free to follow our dreams, or simply to feed our family without always wondering where the next meal is coming from.
Throughout Jewish and Christian history, care for those living in poverty has been a continuous theme. During their wanderings in the desert, Yahweh’s followers are provided for by the God who gives them enough for each day, and then enough the following day. They are encouraged to share what they have in hospitality to strangers, and generosity to those who are less able to support themselves.
Through the continual cry of the prophets to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger we see what we might call God’s bias to the poor. And as we move on into the New Testament we find Mary, pregnant with hope for the future of the world, singing out those prophetic words,
‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
These words of Mary the mother of Jesus, drawing on the song of Hannah from the first book of Samuel, remind us of a truth spoken by Nelson Mandela: ‘Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life’.
Jesus’s life was shaped by his encounters with those on the edges of society. Those who were affected by poverty because they were sick or marginalised in some way. Generosity characterises God, who clothes the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. He cares so much for the wellbeing of each of his creatures that he numbers the hair of our heads. And he knows the necessity for creative acts of justice if poverty is to be effectively addressed.
And if we abide in Christ, the same generosity that we see in God will dwell in our hearts and spill forth from our lives. Whether we support charities such as CAP or come alongside a friend who needs a wise and sympathetic ear as they worry about their financial situation; we might sign-post them to a debt advice centre or another source of support. And we may find that charities have begun to work creatively together, as they meet the different needs which lead people into poverty or which occur once the chains of debt have taken hold.
During the pandemic Christians Against Poverty not only continued to offer financial advice and help with managing debt, they also directed people to charities and organisations offering other forms of specialist support. This mutual co-operation is in the spirit of the Year of Jubilee, of the cries of the prophets, of the song of Mary and the first letter of John, as he calls for love lived out in action.
And of course, it is in the spirit of Jesus who said: ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me’.