Sandra Dutson, a member of Church Action on Poverty’s Council of Management, reviews a new book of contextual theology by Bishop Laurie Green.
I really wanted to read this book and I certainly really want to encourage others to read it. It is full of real questions and stories of real people living on estates where the realities of poverty are experienced. It also contains a thorough analysis of the history of housing estates so often failing in their expressed intention of being a blessing to the poorest people in our society. It contains such a wealth of biblical reflection and deep thinking about the role of the church on housing estates, it is hard not to want to quote every other sentence.
The real question which sparked the writing of the book was what Jesus meant by ‘Blessed are you who are poor’, from the group of sayings known as the Beatitudes. My initial reaction was that maybe he was missing the point: Jesus was not addressing the crowd at this point, but his core group of disciples, asking them to give up everything to follow him. However, by the end of the book he had shown clearly, without in any way glossing over the harsh realities of some of the more difficult relationships on housing estates, that there are many people whose lives are hidden in the crowds of our society but who are a source of blessing to each other and to their wider community. There are also stories of people who have responded to the call to find their home with the poor, who receive real blessings in rich relationships and deep insights into the gospel.
The book uses the clear method of listening to real stories, analysing issues arising from those stories, reflecting on both in the light of our faith and gospel, and then acting on those new understandings. At every point there is a checking out with people living with the realities of poverty. This is second nature to Laurie who has lived this method during a long ministry.
So many stories and insights, but I will share a few which made an impression:
- A few neighbours had gathered in a house to clean, paint and provide a few basics for a couple who had been in trouble with police and other neighbours. Laurie comments on this common experience of people rallying round with a special kind of humour to help people who have hit rock bottom for whatever reasons.
- In the reflections on the Beatitudes themselves, he highlights the way Jesus addresses the poor directly, i.e. the words are said to the poor not about the poor. Throughout, he uses great care to use language which avoids any demonisation of poor people, without romanticising most troubling aspects of daily life on some estates. He does not shirk describing the real fears of street attack, loan sharks, drug dealers, bailiffs, and speaks with understanding of those who do turn to drugs, alcohol or other ‘highs’ as their way of escape. Throughout the book there is clear respect for those he encounters. The word ‘respect’ is so much used by groups of young people on some estates, when the language used about them is more often of vilification.
- In reflection on the Lord’s prayer, he recalls where a congregation was enacting the traditional ‘stations of cross’, and at a picture where Jesus was falling under the weight of the cross on the way to his crucifixion, someone shouted “Just stay down.” A cry from the depths of someone who knew what it was to be knocked down repeatedly, and how difficult it is to keep picking yourself up again.
- In the final section, when he asked a woman “Why did Jesus say ‘Blessed are the poor’?” she responds that being poor is not much fun, but the blessing was that Jesus was “in the same boat with them”.
The book is a struggle to find an answer to his original question. No glib answers, but the discovery that those whose daily life is a struggle – and all who deliberately share in such struggles – find that Jesus is in the boat with them. This is a clear invitation for churches to join those in the boat, without overloading it with their own baggage, and discover the blessings of doing so.