Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

When the Edge becomes the Centre

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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?’

 

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One Comment

  1. My Response:

    In 1987 I began work on my final thesis entitled: “Is the Church the Disengaged Preaching at the Trapped”. For my final work I had chosen to focus upon unemployment and the Church reaction. For the ‘cynic’, or the very experienced community worker, the answer cries with painful clarity!
    I was ignorant of the varied and complex descriptions of what is meant by the term ‘Church’. For the sake of space I am not going to rehearse the differences here – but rather dare to assume many are aware! I shall however not hesitate to state that the Church of the self-chosen, those who mistake for yet another badge of status, or class-related confirmation of their ‘Norms and Values’. During my research I discovered many sincere Christians who knew that the ‘Church Institution’, the ‘Church generalistic’ was indeed the disengaged preaching at the trapped. Completely unaware of the lives of the ‘trapped’ but more than willing to label, categorise and dismiss. The poor, the disabled, the vulnerable and the fragile were ‘used’ has a source for doing ‘good’ – thus enabling the ‘Church’ to hold on to the power of being the ‘Helper’ never genuinely engaging with the ‘Helped’, but rather ‘using’ them has an opportunity to feel good about themselves whilst not actually engaging with in any social action, or social justice to address the root of injustice – and thereby, either through wilful ignorance or just plain ignorance conforming to the world. Seldom did the ‘Church’ seek to renew its mind, resist conformity and seek to make things new!
    Early in the 20th century it was plain that the church had not lost the working class of Britain, it simply NEVER had them in the first place – before this the peasants attended under penalty of tax and a n abuse of Church power – that penalised the poor, whilst supporting the manmade divisions within society… “The Rich man in the Castle… the poor man at the Gate”.
    In 1988, having concluded by thesis I worked with groups on the fringe of the Church, and those now labelled “the Unchurched” – a label I particular despise! Has if to confirm my conclusions whilst working on a presentation on Poverty Awareness: with a group of younger people, using music and related readings we came across institutional indifference. Bordering opposition. Whilst at the diocesan house I met a ‘Canon of the Church’ who left me with no doubt that such power structures, and disguised indifference did indeed preach at the ‘trapped’. His response to the event was feigned interest, but when he found it was being held at a Church on a Council Estate his mask slipped: “Why, oh why are you holding it there no one will come for fear of having the car scratched”. I confirmed the gulf between us with my answer, an answer that left him in no doubt that he was ‘disengaged’ at the very least! Of course this is anecdotal, and I would not wish to be overly generalistic. However, over the next twenty odd years I am afraid I have witnessed to many such instances of a church staring at its navel, too busy ‘arguing who is the greatest’ to show a bias for the poor, or seek to be a voice of the voiceless. Lost in its own importance and its creeping professionalism I have witnessed the church present new ‘initiatives’ – which in actuality represent a ‘downing sizing and a very slow, creeping withdrawal from communities on the edge, communities constantly labelled, categorised and dismissed!
    Once again, we must remember I am using the term ‘Church’ to represent the ‘Church Institutional’, the ‘self chosen Churches’ based on status, wealth and power. A Church that is increasing infiltrated by isms and ologies agenda – conformed to the world’s agenda completely. A Church that is not only disengaged from the trapped, but also disengaged from any sense of service and vocation! A Church that simply replicates the disciples argument on the road – “Who is the Greatest”. An meanwhile the ‘trapped’ are going through ‘hell’ – over a thousand people have committed suicide with direct links to the welfare ‘reform’ bill and the ceaseless injustice being inflicted on those people with in the community the ‘Church’ regard has the ‘unchurched’ – This is a disgraceful scandal. AGAIN, I would stress that I am very aware that there are many Christians who take their vacation seriously, who sacrifice the ‘career’ and choose to serve their community, many gradually find themselves alienated from the ‘Church-has-it-sees-itself’ and the ‘Church-assumed’ or ‘Church Institution’. Unfortunately, the disengaged have centred upon their own agendas. The Church is attractive to those with personal ambition and career plans. The lack of fruit and their pursuit of ambition rather than any notion of having an actual vocation reveal false Shepherds. These ‘hire-hands’ have no vocation for Christ’s Church are shaming the church from the inside out! “The Christian Commonwealth” is false it is disengaged, lost in its own pursuit of power and ‘not-so-hidden’ agendas. However, it can no longer be accused of being the Disengaged Preaching at the Trapped’ because it simply does not engage with the ‘trapped’, and it no longer preaches the Word of God.
    I am writing from a position of alienation from a Church that has loosed itself from the moorings of God’s Word. I have not left the Church, it has left me, and not only me but the many thousands, millions it classifies has the ‘Unchurched’. I can only assure folk that this has not been a knee-jerk reaction, or the act of a person who ‘picks & mixes’ his favourite church! I support members of the congregation where and when I can, but I can no longer recognise the calibre of ‘Professional’ Priests or the church that becomes a place for the self-selected or self-elected, professionalism is a shabby shadow for those who are chosen for their vocation, rather than self-chosen for the professional development! They most definitely have their fingers crossed, and are more than content with their own version of ‘churchianity’ that does not need to bother with theological reflection/awareness or the exposition of God’s Word – after all they have their ‘Mission Statement’! The Emperor has NO clothes on!!”

    Adrian Wait

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