What follows come with a health warning! This post is not a carefully honed, meticulously referenced and balanced articulation of ‘serious’ academic political theology but a passionate personal reflection….
Tek9 is a young rap musician from the Bromford estate in Birmingham (UK). In his track ‘What Going On These Days’ he raps, ‘I’m from Bromford, they call it the slum.’ Georgia is a Black 9 year old from London whose mum recently found her caking her beautiful face with talcum – ‘I’m ugly!’ she said, ‘I want to be beautiful, I want to be White!’ Joe is 21 and lives on a large housing estate. He has not been able to find a job for 2 years and is sick of being described as a ‘chav’ and being judged when people see his postcode. When I was a teenager I loved drawing but my art teacher at secondary/high school told me again and again that I couldn’t draw – now I don’t draw! We are told that the USA and the UK are dynamic, inclusive and meritocratic societies. And yet the gap between rich and poor (the 1% and the 99%) in both countries is wider than it has been for a generation.
In recent week the UK government has introduced its ‘Troubled Families’ social policy initiative aimed at what it says are 120,000 ‘problem families’ across England and Wales. Some have suggested that it is a serious attempt to tackle social exclusion. However I would argue that it individualizes complex social problems, sets certain families apart as ‘less valuable’ than the rest of us and stigmatizes the overwhelmingly poor communities within which they live. In the White House and in Downing Street we hear a lot of talk about social mobility. And yet the cultural, ethical and theological implications of such talk are not followed through. So let’s begin with a basic question – ‘How do we measure a person’s worth?’ Why is it that Tek9 calls his neighbourhood a ‘slum’ or that Georgia thinks she is ugly because she is Black or that Joe is deemed unemployable because of his postcode (zip code)? Why are rural gun owners in the USA asserting their rights under the US Constitution but young men who carry guns in Baltimore are gangsters?
The world I have described is not a caricature and nor is it only confined to tiny segments of society. This is the experience of millions in both the US and the UK and far beyond too. But does the Christian Church ‘get’ this world? In spite of significant exceptions the Church in the UK and the US is largely middle class. It doesn’t ‘get’ what stigmatization, exclusion or moralizing dismissal do to people because by and large we live comfortable lives where we are affirmed and valued. The Church talks about the God of love, ‘loving our neighbor’, ‘outreach’ and a God who is biased to the poor. But how deeply does this impact on the theology and culture of congregations and clergy? Do we romantically envision ourselves as theological radicals because we went on an ‘Occupy Movement’ rally or because we have a book by James Cone on our bookshelves or perhaps because we have campaigned about global debt whilst unconsciously perpetuating a theology of indifference to those on our doorstep whom society labels ‘worthless’?
What might happen if we read the Gospels afresh not from the perspective of distant struggles for justice or objectified notions of ‘the poor’ (as if ‘they’ were no more than a category) but from the perspective of those in our cities and towns who are considered ‘worthless’, part of an ‘underclass’, ‘surplus labor’…..? In the Gospels Jesus ‘prioritizes insignificance’ – the people, the places, the groups that are devalued (the prostitute, the Samaritan, women, children, the poor, the stranger). Those on the ‘edge’ are brought to the ‘centre’ of the Kingdom he is so passionate about. And when the ‘edge’ becomes the ‘centre’ revolutionary things happen.So let’s not have Matthew’s domesticated and spiritualized Beatitudes but the hard-edged ‘blessings’ and ‘woes’ of Luke 6 – ‘Blessed are the poor’ not ‘the poor in spirit’! When we ‘prioritize insignificance’ we embody the upside down Kingdom of the Gospel, but ‘prioritizing insignificance’ is not a spectator sport – It demands what we might call ‘liberative reversals’ in our own communities and not at a safe distance, in our own congregations and not down the road. The devalued become the marker of the Kingdom. The question is ‘Are we ready? Do we mean it when we read the Magnificat or do we have our fingers crossed behind our backs?’