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WHY CHURCHES CANNOT IGNORE POVERTY AND OPPRESSION

KENNETH LEECH

A talk given at St Paul’s  Church, Robert Adam Street, London on 23rd May 2006 at a conference to mark the merging of UNLEASH with Housing Justice

 

This year is the centenary of the death of Josephine Butler, that 19th Century evangelical Christian woman, who cared for, but also campaigned for the dignity of, women involved in prostitution. Josephine Butler, in common with many 19th Century Christians, worked happily with the language of ‘rescue’, but she realised the need to go beyond rescue to reform, and she successfully campaigned for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act which helped to stigmatise and dehumanise prostitute women.  A political campaigner, she was profoundly influenced by the mystic St Catherine of Siena: piety and politics went together (1).

Thinking about Josephine Butler, I realise that she, like many of us, moved from rescue to reform, from mysticism to politics, from care to campaigning. And not just ‘beyond’, for rescue and reform, mysticism and politics, care and campaigning hang together. As I reflect on how churches respond to such issues as homelessness, bad housing, prostitution, drug abuse, and so on, I believe that they tend to move between six modes of response: retreat, reinforcement, rescue, reform, revolution and resistance. I want to look at these six Rs in relation to our work in the field of homelessness.

First, Retreat. Usually this is a fundamental option. When I hear the statement ‘Why churches cannot ignore poverty and oppression’, my depressing response is that they often can and do. And they do so on the basis of a kind of theology: a theology which sees ‘the world’, not as the fallen order alien to God and the demands of justice, but as the material life of the world – economic and political activity for instance - which is a source of contamination and a threat to the purity of Christians. Often the retreat posture leads to an obsession with internal church politics and a retreat into a pseudo-Christian piety. Retreat can also be a strategy of renewal, withdrawal in order to build up resources to advance, but it is not usually so.

My second R is Reinforcement. Here the church acts as an agent to reinforce inequality, injustice and oppression. It upholds the culture of wealth, the dominion of Mammon, the economic, political and social system which prevails. Again, there can be moments when reinforcement can be a positive force. Churches can, and should, give support to actions of governments which seek to support the common good. It would be interesting here to compare Faith in the City (1985) with Faithful Cities (2006) (2). But the danger of Reinforcement is that churches come to sacralise the dominant order rather than challenge it, and there are many examples of this.

Thirdly, Rescue. Here churches see the need to rescue individuals from forms of bondage – alcoholism and other addictions, prostitution, and so on.  The Salvation Army, the ‘rescue missions’, much evangelical work comes to mind. I worked in the 1950s with Fr Joe Williamson, the ‘prostitutes’ priest’ in the Cable Street area of East London. Williamson, like Josephine Butler, who inspired him, and about whom he wrote a small book, used the language of rescue constantly, yet he saw the close link between prostitution and bad housing. He campaigned so relentlessly against slum conditions that he got a good deal of his parish neighbourhood demolished. However, Williamson was not politically astute, and often failed to make wider connections.

However, there were Christians who saw the importance of Reform, my fourth R, and this involved careful research, documentation and political campaigning. One of these was the economic historian R H Tawney who once observed that what thoughtful rich people called the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people called the problem of riches.  Commitment to reform involves churches in policy issues and in legislation. Examples of such groups are the Christian Social Union in the 19th Century, the various Boards for Social Responsibility in the Church of England, and, more recently, the Catholic Housing Aid Society, now part of Housing Justice (3).

The fifth R is Revolution, and conventional Christians may be surprised that this is the most traditional and most biblically-rooted of the six.  The word dunamis, power, often used of the power of the Holy Spirit, is the word from which we get dynamo, dynamite, and dynamic. It means revolution in its most literal sense. Metanoia, translated repentance in most English Bibles, refers to a complete change in values and in consciousness. Its closest Greek word is paranoia which means to be out one’s mind. Metanoia means a revolution of the mind, the personality, so that we see things utterly differently.

These words call for not only personal but structural change, for a new form of community. The call for revolution is always present, and essential, in Christian preaching and catechesis, but, in its political sense, it arises when, as Yeats said, ‘the centre can not hold’, when a political system is ‘beyond patching’, beyond reform. Many Christians believe that capitalism, based on the mortal sin of avarice, is such a system. The Roman Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre ends his major work After Virtue with the claim that our predicament is ‘so disastrous that there no large remedies for it’ (4). His close friend and colleague Stanley Hauerwas calls the church to be an alternative form of community based on a different politics. Here we move towards my sixth R.

Resistance, according to Hauerwas, influenced by the Anabaptist tradition, is the normal condition of a prophetic, counter-cultural church. It seeks to offer a different model of being human together, moving beyond rescue and reform, moving beyond ‘the servant church’ towards one which, by its lifestyle as well as its proclamation, calls the principalities and powers to account.

Now I am not arguing that any individual or any church can neatly be identified with one of these models. Most move between several of them, often trying to hold them together at the same time. For example, we spend a good deal of time in band-aid or ambulance style ministry, while at the same time trying not to lose sight of the prophetic ministry or of campaigning for legislative changes. We may believe that capitalism is not reformable, yet still find ourselves putting forward what Trotsky called ‘transitional programmes’. But my experience has been we usually, as churches and as organisations within or outside churches, usually move from one model to another when events, struggles or experiences bring about some kind of ‘paradigm shift’ in our thought and practice.

Thus, in 1880 the Whitechapel Board of Guardians reported that ‘habitual vagrancy cannot be repressed by severe discipline and treatment unassociated means of pauperisation’. This marked a shift from a penal understanding of homelessness to a more structural one, a shift from a reinforcement model to one of reform. The shift in the 1960s from the highly localised provision of housing by groups such as the Notting Hill Housing Trust towards national campaigning led to the creation of Shelter: a shift from the rescue of individuals and families from housing distress towards a more political stance.  About the same time, Anton Wallich-Clifford, founder of the Simon Community wrote Beyond Simon (1968) in which he argued that the organisation needed to expose its own image and recover its Catholic identity. While I don’t this ever happened – Simon was never the same as the Catholic Worker in spite of being inspired by it - it did seem to make a shift from being a ‘mission to the misfit’ (an early Simon phrase for rescue work) towards something akin to Hauerwas’s stress on the church as an alternative reality, rooted in a social and sacramental tradition.

When Anton and I and others founded Centrepoint in December 1969, we had both rescue and resistance in mind, as the name indicated. St Anne’s Church, where the night shelter began, does stand, geographically, at the ‘centre point’ of the district of Soho. But we also had in mind another building of the same name, the Centrepoint tower by Tottenham Court Road, which stood empty as its value increased. It was Ruth Glass, Director of the Centre for Urban Studies in Gower Street, who said that, by calling our little project Centrepoint, we would be causing major confusion, and drawing attention to the scandal of ‘this insolent building’ which was an insult to all the homeless and badly housed people in London (5).

In 1991 the publication of Michael Fielding’s study of homelessness projects in London and New York pointed to the fact that a number of them seemed to make little or no connection between their religion and their work. This helped to push some towards more theological reflection while not neglecting the needs of people. The following year No Fixed Abode published Carolyn Ye-Myint’s “Who’s Hiding?”, which looked at non-priority homelessness in Tower Hamlets. She answered her own question:

   No one was hiding: they were making as loud a racket as they knew how.

   But those who are in positions of power in our society are refusing to listen,

   refusing to see.

Again, this marked a shift from a simple-minded notion of ‘hidden homeless’ and lack of education toward the recognition that often the problem is structural deafness, refusal to see, and failure of political will, which rescue or reform alone cannot  change.

At the end of the day, the churches’ authenticity and faithfulness to the gospel can only be judged in action. It is by our fruits, not our words, that we will be known (Mt 7: 16, 20). The Son of Man will repay us ‘for what has been done [kata ten praxin, according to the praxis], (Mt 16:27).  This central role of action was brought out strongly in Stanley Evans’s The Church in the Back Streets (1962):

Supremely…there is only one way in which the church in the back streets, as, of course, anywhere else, can proclaim the Gospel effectively, and that is by action. The great mass of people have a very shrewd idea of what Christianity professes; but they have an equally shrewd idea that the practice  of the Church in no way corresponds to these professions….They are not going to be converted by a church which is not visibly trying to live out its professing. This means more than a practical demonstration that the relationships between people in the Church are on a Christian basis, although    that is vital; it means a perpetual demonstration that the local church is so concerned about the people of the district that it is prepared to take any action that is necessary to help them, and this means everything from street crossings and housing and race relations to hydrogen bombs. No people who are really adult are going to be persuaded to come to church and mutter prayers about the Church Militant when they know well that the one thing the Church fears more than it fears the devil is any kind of militancy. Militancy is not respectable. The Church Respectable can do many things, but it cannot convert (6)

References

(1)  On Josephine Butler see Miriam Phillips, ‘Champion of fallen women’, Church Times, 26th May 2006.

 

(2)  For an assessment of Faith in the City see Kenneth Leech, Struggle in Babylon; racism in the cities and churches of Britain, pp 132-150, ‘The Archbishop’s Commission and beyond’, Sheldon Press 1988.

 

(3)  See, for example, Housing and Homelessness, Board for Social Responsibility, Church Information Office 1982. This report commented: ‘Homelessness cannot be attributed to personal failure; it results largely from the inability to acquire suitable housing (p 15). See also Housing as a Moral issue, Roman Catholic Bishops Conference Division of Social Responsibility 1985; and A Vision Rooted in Justice: housing policy and the churches, Catholic Housing Aid Society, October 1995.

(4)  Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press / Duckworth 1981, final pages.

(5)  Centrepoint Tower was completed in 1967, and was bought by MEPC from Harry Hyams in 1987. See Bea Campbell, ‘Towering Sixties: tomb of a rotten society’, The Independent,  30th March 1994.

(6) Stanley G Evans, The Church in the Back Streets (Mowbray 1962), pp 35-36.

 

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