The Poor and the Powerful (Part 1)

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The one thing that has been playing on my mind in 2013 more than any other is the danger we face, when extending compassion to another human being, of establishing an unhealthy power imbalance.

Or in other words: what a powerful position we find ourselves in when we set out to care for “the poor”.

This thought has got under my skin and you know that when you think about something a lot you just keep noticing it more and more.  And as a result I have noticed how implicitly a number of our community development “frameworks” and approaches (the way we do things/our programs), especially in Churches; actually promotes and supports this power-imbalance.

And because I have been thinking about this SO MUCH (as well as giving presentations and sermons on it) I thought I would blog about it in two parts.

So in this first part I want to look at what I’m going to call “love-safety-nets”

Love-safety-nets are a self-protection tool that keep us safe and in the seat of power. We’re all about love and forgiveness in the Church.  Most of the time, however we are all about love and forgiveness … SO LONG as it doesn’t come with the risk of personal or financial harm to myself or risk to those I actually care about.  Now I am not going to even bother touching on what is theologically wrong with that last sentence (because I hope that’s pretty obvious) but I do want to say that I think that this terrible theology all springs from the fact that, by the time we trot off to primary school, each of us has worked out that the world is a dangerous and scary place and to love is to make us vulnerable.  So what we want to know is- where is the love-safety-net?

We want to care for people who are “poor”; are “less fortunate”, but we don’t want their need to impact or disrupt our own security.  In fact often their need deepens our appreciation (adoration?) of our security: “how fortunate I am” we think “not to be in their situation!”  And so out of this appreciation we give compassion.  Out of our have, we give to those who have-not.  And what we have, and they have-not; is power.  The power to do something about their need; the power to change their situation.  What we create therefore are relationships of inequality.

Jesus, however, hasn’t commanded us to meet the needs of the poor; Jesus has commanded us to love our neighbour.  If I need something from you and you don’t need anything from me then it is very difficult to set up a relationship of whole-hearted love.  Because whole hearted love is build on more than just gratitude … whole-hearted love is built on mutuality.

So, if we want to whole-heartedly love of our neighbour, we must be aware, in all our relationships and services of the imbalance created by power, control and need.  We must be aware of our underlying desire to create love-safety-nets.

My job is to support a couple of churches, situated in lower-socio-economic areas, to healthily engage with their communities- their neighbours.  Part of this process is to try to facilitate these churches to have healthy and equal conversations with their community- regardless of that communities “need”.  In fact by taking an asset based approach (ie. looking first at the communities strengths rather than its needs) the hope is to start the work from a place of mutuality rather than “meeting need”.

The work is to get the people who currently participate in the church services and those who live in the neighbourhoods around the church to come face to face begin to imagine what it might look like for them to work together, as equals.  To work towards seeing a healthy, thriving and safe community come to life around them.

This isn’t about the Church providing programs for the local community but about people who attend the Church and people who live in the neighbourhood co-creating together.  Determining and developing together what is needed to make this recipe of healthy, vibrant and abundant life come about.

As you can imagine this process doesn’t happen overnight and it is certainly not a work that is ever finished but requires continual fostering and nurturing and massaging.

It also has a strange, foreign element to it.  It isn’t the standard framework that a Church looking to serve their local community normally operates under.  It certainly isn’t the way “we have always done things around here”.

It is very different to looking at the ABS stats and providing a program for the community based on what the stats say the needs are.  And what comes out of it, more often than not, is very different to food parcels and soup kitchens… and because it is so different it is also a bit of a journey for both parties to get used to.

People in the wider community aren’t used to being asked by the Church what it would look like for their lives to be richer… so there can be some wariness there.  If they have been asked before- it is even rarer that they have been included in actually bringing about the solution.  More likely the solution has been produced by the Church, ready packaged for them.

And when we started discussing this process recently with a group of Church leaders it was not surprising that one of the questions that was asked was:

“What are you suggesting… Are we going to let ‘non-Christians’ lead this?”

The question I asked back was around whether we believe that God is bigger than the Church?  Do we believe that God is already at work in our communities, in our neighbourhoods? That God’s Spirit is already working to bring it… and all of creation… to restoration?

Or as Eugene Cho recently tweeted:

“The Church can’t contain all that God is doing because God can’t be boxed in but it is nevertheless, one of the beautiful things God is doing.”

If we can agree with that, then isn’t it our job as people who know the Father and recognise Jesus’ voice and the Spirit’s handiwork…  to find where God is already at work- building the Kingdom and join our Creator in that work!

There is so much power imbalance when we go about trying to “serve” the poor by providing a program for those “in need”- not to say that all programs are bad but that we must be more aware of the power we hold when we are the providers and reconcile that with the Christ who we serve:

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-7)

And the one who said that the “greatest among you will be the servant” (Matt 23:11)

If we truly want to be communities of restoration we must find ways of putting those we are seeking to care for in positions of authority… at the head of the table so to speak (Luke 14:7-11).

What would it look like for your Church to work WITH the people who live around it in order to bring abundance and wholeness to the lives of the whole community?

One thing is sure and that is that working WITH a community towards love, restoration, healing and wholeness is not a work that can be conducted from the side lines- are not works that can be conducted with love-safety-nets.

And that’s what I want to look at in the next blog article:
Getting up close and personal vs  “sexy volunteering”

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