There are surprisingly few works of theology which specifically explore how we should respond to poverty in the UK, so I was very interested when I heard about The Myth of the Undeserving Poor by Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams. Its central argument – that Christians need to act against the growing belief in the UK that some people in poverty should be blamed for their situation and don’t deserve help or support – is obviously one we are in sympathy with at Church Action on Poverty.
There’s a lot to celebrate in this book. First of all, it’s very welcome to see theological reflections of this kind emerging from the evangelical tradition, which has often placed more emphasis on individual salvation than on social issues. (The authors both work for Jubilee+, a network with roots in evangelical churches, which equips churches to engage with their communities.) The strengths of that tradition are especially clear in the arguments from scripture. Where some of us who work on tackling poverty can sometimes be guilty of quoting supportive Bible verses in isolation, the authors present a clear, coherent ‘biblical argument for radical mercy’ drawing on threads from throughout scripture.
The section presenting media research is also strong, probably because one of the authors has a background of academic study into media narratives. It’s very helpful to have access to detailed research into how poverty is represented in different media outlets. While it mainly confirms what one might expect (the Daily Mail and the Sun are prone to demonising people who receive benefits; the Guardian is more positive), it also throws up some surprises. For example, the outlets which present the most negative images of people in poverty are also (slightly) more likely to actually include the voices of those people in their reports.
However, by the time I finished the book, I was disappointed that it had failed to live up to the promise of those sections. Considering how much the authors have to say about how the voices of people in poverty are ignored by the media, it’s ironic that those voices are completely absent from this book. It doesn’t contain a single testimony or statement from anybody with personal experience of poverty. Indeed, it often refers to “the poor” as a single mass, who seem to be passive recipients of the church’s mercy. There’s no sense that people in poverty might be active agents, or that congregations may even contain people who are in poverty themselves.
Similarly, this topic demands what Kenneth Leech called ‘backstreet theology‘, but the authors don’t relate their theology enough to real lived experience; and they don’t follow through the full implications of their theological position. They seem to think that Christians can challenge the myth of the undeserving poor – a powerful media narrative promoted by enormous corporations and influential politicians – through charitable giving, simple living, and running community projects. There’s no sense that churches are also called to speak out like the prophets against structural sin and the oppression of people in poverty. There’s no mention of the church’s involvement in community organising and campaigning for the Living Wage, no mention of Church Action on Poverty’s work to give a voice to people in poverty, and no mention of how the churches in Scotland are supporting the excellent Poverty Truth Commission. In particular, I would have expected to see some reflection on how the Trussell Trust has begun speaking out publicly about injustice as well as providing emergency food aid.
The book has identified the harm done by the myth of the undeserving poor – but the solution it proposes is simply to make sure we give help to all the poor. I don’t believe that’s enough. If “the poor” are people made in the image of God, the church needs to genuinely stand alongside them, listen to them and empower them, as well as offering them charity and mercy. And where we see injustice and oppression, we’re called to act for change – to challenge the myth of the undeserving poor by telling a different story, not just to help those who are affected.
This book is welcome, but I hope it will be the first step on a longer journey.