Transforming the unjust structures of society

To transform unjust structures of society,
to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation

A sermon on the fourth mark of mission
Church of the Resurrection and St Barnabas, Eastlands Manchester
23 July 2017

St Barnabas Eastlands

What does it mean to transform the unjust structures of society in Eastlands, Manchester?

The Old Testament Prophets, Isaiah, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, Micah… all used incredibly strong language to challenge violence and unjust ways in which the rich and powerful steal from and persecuted poorer and more vulnerable members of society.  Much stronger language than we would chose to use today:

You destroyed his vineyard and filled your houses by robbing the poor.
‘You have crushed my people and rubbed in the dust the faces of the poor.’
Isaiah 3: 13-15

Stop taking advantage of foreigners, orphans and widows. Don’t kill innocent people.
Jeremiah 7:5-6

You take over lovely homes that belong to the women of my nation
Get out of here you crooks.
Micah 2: 910

Jesus of Nazareth was equally not shy of challenging injustice, of calling out Zaccheus the tax collector for stealing from the poor, of turning over the tables in the temple, and of proclaiming good news to the poor.

And the Early Church, as we are told in the reading from Acts (4:34), “shared their possessions in common and there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”

Jim Wallis, the US preacher and activist, tells this story how as a young theology student he sat up all night marking all the passages in the Bible that referred to poverty and social justice – and then proceeded to cut them out of the Bible.  And when he’d done so, the Bible literally fell apart.

We don’t need to do that today, because the Bible Society have done the job for us – at least in terms of highlighting all the passages that refer to poverty and society justice.  They are virtually on every page.

So much so that the late Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard, famously wrote a book which was titled ‘God’s Bias to the Poor.’

And only last year Pope Francis talked about the need to ‘become a poor church for the poor.’

But what are we to make of the challenge of becoming a poor church for the poor? This is a question we are in the process of exploring at Church Action on Poverty.

What does it mean to transform unjust structures of society in East Manchester in 2017?

What are those unjust structures?

I’d be fascinated to have a conversation at some point as to what you think they might be?  What are the injustices that people in East Manchester experience?

At Church Action on Poverty we ask ourselves these questions of ourselves – and of people we work with – all the time. Some of the ones that come up frequently are:

Injustices in the benefits system, in the delays, errors and benefit sanctions which frequently leave people with no money for weeks – or months – at a time.

Injustices in relation to housing and homelessness, that are leading to increasing numbers of people sleeping rough on the streets of Manchester, in the midst of a housing boom – but the only housing that seems to being built are luxury apartments that are way beyond the pocket of even people on reasonable wages.

Injustices in the education system, which treat any young person who isn’t able to make 5 A-C grades at GCSE as a failure at the age of 16.

Injustices in the way people with mental health problems are treated as second class citizens by the NHS.

Injustices in the way that anyone on benefits are labelled lazy, scroungers, and cheats.

One of the worst things poverty and injustice can do is to take away peoples’ dignity; their sense of hope and their belief that they have any ability to change things.

In our response we must avoid making matters worse.  There is a kind of response which only talks about people in negative terms.  Funders, in particular, love you to describe how ‘bad’ a place is, before they are willing to consider giving you any funding.

The Good News of the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth is that God is on the side of the downtrodden.  God is on the side of those suffering injustice.  God is on the side of those who society would count as worthless.

And more than that, every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.  Every person.

Every person in East Manchester is created in the image and likeness of God.  Rich or poor.  Man or woman.  Black or white.  Christian, Muslim or of no particular religion.  Every person in this community is valued equally in the sight of God.

As a Church, our mission is to celebrate this fact.

As a Church, our mission is to recognise the value in every human being, the creativity in every human being, the love and the capacity to be loved in every human being.

To recognise that God is already present and active in Beswick, through the lives of our friends and neighbours.

This is truly radical.

The fourth mark of mission is not about charity.  It isn’t about handing out food parcels or second hand clothes.   You’ll be glad to know it isn’t about setting up more projects, when you’re already too busy with what you are doing.

It demands us getting to know our neighbours – whatever their race, creed or colour.

It demands that we listen to their stories and build friendships together.

One practical example of this from Church Action on Poverty’s own work is in relation to supporting the development of ‘Self-Reliant Groups.’  Small groups of people who meet together on a weekly basis, save together £1 a week, and then use their own skills and creativity to make things which they can sell – and make a small income from.

It has been described as the ‘economics of friendship’.

Economics of friendship

Self reliant groups: the ‘economics of friendship’

Some of this we can do ourselves.  Some of this requires us to collaborate with others locally and more widely.  All of it requires that we are open to collaboration with what Roman Catholic theologians have described as God’s preferential option for the poor.

Niall Cooper
23 July 2017

10 thoughts on “Transforming the unjust structures of society

  1. Hi Niall! I love what you do and stand for but I think you / we need to be honest with language. What do you mean when you talk about God being on the side of the poor etc … and God being active and present.

    • Hi Julie, thanks for the comment and question. My language was used in the context of a sermon, so possibly slightly different language to that which I would use elsewhere… In a sense, whatever our understanding of God might be, I was trying to make the point that there is a fairly strong ‘bias’ within the Christian tradition it favour of people who are poor and marginalised. How God is active and present may be more open for discussion – in my view this is principally through our actions as people ‘made in the image and likeness of God.’ As some have argued, it is frequently easier to talk about God using the language of metaphor…. but that in itself is another whole question!

      • Thanks for bothering to reply, Niall. The thing is, though, that to suggest to the ostracised and the marginalised that God loves them best is very demeaning, don’t you think? Like the worst sort of consolation prize. All these God problems are wonderfully resolved if you see g/God in the Bible as having come into being as the representation of the worldview of the marginalised Hebrews just as all other communities of the ancient Near East had gods representing them.

  2. Getting to know our neighbours takes more effort than projects it is a transformation of our lifestyle.So very hard who can give up their car and take to the bus to meet their neighbour?

  3. Hi Niall,
    Like Julie I too admire what you do and stand for but like her I have doubts about what you say…in my case concerning the Bible. You talk about Old Testament prophets using strong language and quote Isaiah, Nehemiah, Jeremiah and Micah, however, unfortunately Nehemiah was no prophet and no champion of the poor either. For he was a right-wing, authoritarian who beat up peoples’ foreign wives simply because they did not bring their children up as good Judahites as he thought they should. The sad fact is that there are as many repulsive, right-wing, authoritarian voices in the Bible as there are left-wing, liberational, marginal ones which makes your phrase ‘bias towards the poor’ somewhat lame and imprecise.

  4. Hi Andrew,
    Apologies for the delay in replying – summer holidays and all that. Apologies too if you think I was wrong to include Nehemiah on the list. As you say, there are many voices in the Bible, not all of which exhibit anything that might be described as a ‘bias to the poor.’ I’m hardly saying anything new if I make the point that both interpretation the Biblical texts and of Christian tradition more generally is a hugely contested subject. But I still stick to my point that there is a strong Christian tradition, which can find its roots in Prophets, that affirms God’s bias to the poor, or preferential option for the poor (to use more Catholic language). Others may differ, but this is the faith that I – and many others – affirm.

    • Yes I too am on holiday in the south of France and have only just seen your reply. It’s as clear as day Nehemiah exhibits nothing that could be described as a bias to the poor. There are many other texts which exhibit an anti-authoritarian marginal/Hebrew approach but it is quite wrong to describe this approach in terms of a ‘bias to the poor’ which is a socialist term taken from liberation theology. Since I too am a socialist I like the things that liberation theologians say but nothing in heaven or earth will ever persuade me that what they say truly reflect what the anti-authoritarian biblical writers were saying. For liberal ideas arose as a result of bourgeois revolutions and s
      ocialist ideas arose as a result of proletarian revolutions and there were no such things in the ancient world which means that it is just stupid to pretend that one can find liberal or socialist ideas in the Bible whatever Christians may say and you should not pretend to hide behind faith for this is an historical matter not a religious one. .

  5. Hey one thing I learn from the God of the Hebrews is that no one was to go hungry and even the foreigner was allowed to glean.(Get something for nothing) I challenge all of you sell what you have give it to the poor and then live with them as one of them. Watch I Daniel Blake. I have been with people when they have been made to feel second class in job centres The movie really tells it how it is. Do some shifts in the Food banks that is how the writer of I Daniel Blake found out what goes on. Finally do not discuss Jesus and political ideals in the same paragraph because you cannot legislate for the Kingdom of God you can only pray Thy kingdom come.
    PS there is one thing Nehemiah was brilliant at …praying and I would not dare criticise him on account of I remember what happened to Miriam when she grumbled against Moses

  6. I like a lot all you write except your ‘finally’ comment which seems to imply a number of things which are decidedly tricky.
    • That politics and religion are separate endeavors ‘legislation’ pertaining to the former and ‘prayer’ to the latter.
    • That Jesus functioned only religiously not politically.
    • That functioning religiously, as Nehemiah certainly did, is ipso facto good whereas functioning politically is always questionable.
    Everyone knows that legislation is a blunt instrument whatever ideology you are trying to put into practice and everyone should also know that prayer is no guarantee of goodness. For my money Nehemiah’s prayers were worthless authoritarian crap. As for Jesus I believe he never functioned religiously so that for him (as for his Hebrew ancestors) prayer was a form of ideological introspection in which he reviewed everything he was doing in the light of the marginal Hebrew ideology.

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