Reading on the web this week of Stanley Clifton my thoughts immediately turned to hymns.
Clifton from Darlington is the 31 year old who has never held a job, has a long list of convictions, and who wouldn’t complete a community service order given for an assault because as an alcoholic he is on incapacity benefit, although he claimed in court he has not had a drink for a year. He and his partner and their four children live entirely on welfare.
The judge criticised Clifton as the embodiment of welfare dependency. Outside the court Clifton criticised the judge, asking how the “****ing radge b******” would like to look after his children all day long.
During my ministry there are some hymns I have never used. Chief among them is Blake’s poem Jerusalem. This is not because of any anti-English animus, it is because the poem is utterly wrongheaded. There is simply no point in singing after the first line, for the answer is “No, those feet did not walk on England’s mountains green.”
My main reason for not using the hymn is that despite being equipped with bows of burning gold, spears, chariots of fire and swords we will be unable to build “Jerusalem in England’s (or any other) green and pleasant land.” A cursory reading of Scripture reveals “Jerusalem coming down from heaven from God.” It does not emerge from our effort and striving.
The progressive Christian on the other hand, like her unbelieving counterpart, believes in and is committed to salvation of and through society.
However, it is Christ who changes individuals and that change has direct consequences in society. In Hanovarian England, whose public morality was not all that different from ours, John Wesley would repeatedly return to areas where he had already preached amongst the poor and find that he had to begin work amongst the poor all over again. Not because converts had backslidden, but because those previously sunk in abject poverty and degradation had changed and were living responsible lives.
Because of Christ their lifestyles had altered dramatically and so their circumstances had altered. Gone was a selfishness which demanded instant gratification to be replaced by a future oriented work ethic and concern for family. Drunkenness and violence had been replaced by sobriety and fidelity. Greed replaced by responsibility.
Now my main interest in politics is to know who is in power and how best to survive them. I must know the former in order to do the latter. I have, however, observed that the view which holds that it is odious to hold any responsible for the consequences of their behaviour is common in all parties.
It would be charitable to describe the records of recent governments to eradicate poverty as patchy. In many instances they enact policies which perpetuate poverty.
The idea that the immoral and irresponsible should be treated in exactly the same way as those whose behaviour has been irreproachable is itself profoundly dangerous. It owes much more to Marx than to the Bible. Marx taught that people are not responsible for their own circumstances but are instead helpless victims of an exploitative economic system. The individual’s behaviour and its consequences were removed from the discussion. The Bible teaches us that we are, as individuals, responsible for our own actions and their consequences.
Many are poor through lack of ability, illness or other circumstance, and our social structures too often keep them poor. They must be helped. But others contribute to their poverty through their own deliberate choices. Yes, there are single mothers who are the innocent victims of desertion or violence. There are also women who choose motherhood without a permanently committed father around. By doing so they sentence themselves and their children to poverty and a myriad of other disadvantages.
Poverty cannot be eradicated; it can be ameliorated. Reducing poverty depends to a significant extent upon restoring the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Not because it is motivated by an absence of compassion, as often implied, but by its opposite a deeply compassionate desire to help those trapped in permanent generational poverty.
To do this we must not condescend to the poor but consider them as being governed by the same impulses as everyone else. As Dooyeweerd points out what distinguishes humanity from the animals is that we make responsible choices. Progressives unwittingly treat the poor as less than human, as incapable of making responsible moral choices.
The way to fight poverty is not to disperse large amounts of money indiscriminately. Meaning well is not the same as doing well.
The way to fight poverty is to encourage behaviour that will end poverty. The way to do that is through Christ. The Church’s task is to proclaim Christ, not to become amateur social workers.