The nativity, child poverty, and where the church stands

By Bernadette Meaden
December 24, 2018

At Christmas, Christians focus their thoughts and prayers on a traditional nativity scene, with the baby Jesus at its centre. The scene evokes tenderness and compassion, as the innocence and vulnerability of a new born infant becomes our focus. And we also see how subversive the story is, as gift-bearing members of a privileged elite bow down to a baby in temporary accommodation. The weakest and most powerless being becomes the centre of the Universe.

But at the same time, in the world outside our churches, “a first time mum… is devastated when told by her GP that her calorie intake  – following a recent sanction  – was too low for her to produce milk”. Just yards away from our nativity scenes, real mothers and real infants may be deliberately deprived of sustenance by a government which, in a cruel inversion of the Christmas story, apparently cannot see a weak or powerless person without feeling an overwhelming urge to punish them. The weaker and more vulnerable they are, the harsher the treatment. This is the bullying nature of our current government, the very antithesis of Christian values.

And yet, surely the nativity means that every baby, without exception, is equally precious.

We now have a litany of statistics which evidence the cruel and abusive effect of government policies. Whilst life expectancy falls for the poorest, the figures for homeless deaths, infant mortality, homeless children, and foodbank use are all rising. The evidence is so abundant there is no longer any room or any time left for argument. The United Nations has seen and deplored what is happening.   

So although it is vital for us to support the victims of cruel and abusive policies, it is no longer enough. We must speak out about why the support is needed. And not in woolly general terms, expressing dismay at the misery all around us. Anybody can do that. Even politicians responsible for such policies will talk about their concern for ‘the poor’ – conveniently ignoring that it was their policies which took the money out of the pockets of ‘the poor’ and made them even poorer. No – at a time when the architects and supporters of welfare reform and austerity have the audacity to smile for the camera at foodbanks, the church needs to get far more focused and incisive if it is really going to resist injustice.

Instead of bemoaning poverty in general terms, the church needs to get thoroughly informed about Universal Credit, PIP, the bedroom tax, ESA, Work Capability Assessments, and all the ways in which the most disadvantaged and poorest people in society are being crushed by the prosperous and the powerful. Only with such knowledge will it be able to effectively argue and counter the lies which are constantly told by government.

A good example of how church leaders can combine moral leadership with economic and political reality was given in an Advent sermon by Paul Overend, Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral. Preaching about John the Baptist’s call to repentance, he cited information from the Joseph Rowntree Trust and the report of the UN Special Rapporteur, and said, “Pious platitudes of reconciliation are not enough. We are a divided nation, where the richest few have become richer, and the poorest have increased in number. It’s that choice for a certain sort of austerity, which involves withdrawing funding from support services for the poor and vulnerable, that we need to challenge with this call to repentance. We need that political turning around that is the heart of repentance.”

Some in the church may be afraid of becoming too political, they wish to remain above the fray and fear offending anyone. But as Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

And there is one more thing the church needs to do, in addition to practical help and speaking out. As somebody once said - “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

The church needs to physically stand alongside people not just when they are suffering, but when they are resisting the cause of their suffering. It needs to literally show where it stands in a physical, visible manner. So when disabled people protest against an inhumane assessment system, the church should be there. When Charlotte Hughes stands outside Ashton under Lyne Jobcentre, as she has every week for years, supporting the victims of Universal Credit, the church should be there. The presence of a member of the clergy in those places would, I believe, be profoundly meaningful, symbolic and Christ-like.

Anyone who doubts how meaningful such a course of action could be needs only to consider the reaction to what some people deemed a ‘fake’ vicar on Newsnight recently. Even people who would never describe themselves as Christians seemed to feel that a clerical title and garb lent the speaker a form of authority and credibility that in this case was illegitimate and had been misused. So if a priest, vicar, or minister were to physically stand with the sanctioned and the destitute as they resist their injustice, it could be profound. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury says, “when God chose to live among us, he chose vulnerability. He chose a place of fear and insecurity. He lived in solidarity with those suffering. Christ calls us to those people and places as his friends seeking hope, justice, healing and love.” In the USA, faith leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign frequently take to the streets in peaceful displays of resistance to injustice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, saying, “We believe that people should not live in or die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist. Blaming the poor and claiming that the United States does not have an abundance of resources to overcome poverty are false narratives used to perpetuate economic exploitation, exclusion, and deep inequality.”

It seems to me that if the nativity means anything, it means that every child born is equallly precious, and deserves a chance to thrive and fulfil their God-given potential. Every baby is a Royal baby. And whilst any baby, or any person, is being unnecessarily deprived of their chance to thrive, then Christians must resist, and must show where, and with whom, they stand.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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