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Who says Christians don't care about the poor?

By Rowan Forster - posted Monday, 21 March 2016

The article "Wealth abuse taxation and religion" by Brian Morris contains a fundamental contradiction, and is full of unsubstantiated generalizations with a conspicuous paucity of factual detail.

Taking the first point first, Brian seems unable to decide whether religion has poverty as its cornerstone, or whether its cornerstone is wealth. On the one hand, "poverty has always been the cornerstone for religion", and as an example, Mother Teresa "was a friend of poverty, not a friend of the poor". (I'm almost tempted to respond with a somewhat provocative rhetorical question I once read: "So how many filthy, starving beggars have you washed, clothed and fed today?")

On the opposite hand, "Christianity influences the creation of wealth", and has "symbiotic rapport with the elite who perpetuate inequality"; while churches "continue to champion Christianity's privileged elite", and are "a major player in the environment of wealth escalation."


So which is it? Is poverty the cornerstone? Or is it the creation of wealth and the perpetuation of privilege? Surely a symbiotic rapport with the most privileged is hardly compatible with a dependence on impoverishment and economic dispossession.

Turning to generalizations, Brian confidently asserts that "all churches have remained silent and miasmic with indifference" [bearing in mind that miasmic means noxious and putrescent] on the issue of the poverty-wealth gap. That "the churches" (no exceptions) "say and do little" about poverty, and their purported "care" (Brian's italics and quotation marks) is by clear implication feigned. That "all churches flourish primarily in impoverished societies" in a manner he clearly regards as exploitative. That religion never "muscle-flexes" to condemn the wealth gap. That there is never any "clamour from Christian churches to do something about the poverty problem". That religion has "an overall callous insensitivity" toward the poor. That Christianity (across the board) is "predatory" towards people in sectors such as welfare, employment, private education, and private health and aged care. And, last but not least, that "the churches" (again without exception) "have departed from the alleged teachings of Jesus to give succour and comfort to the needy."

Now that is an awful lot of largely, if not totally, unsubstantiated generalizing, and it's best countered with concrete examples to the contrary. It would take a month of Sundays to enumerate the veritable plethora of faith-based and church-based agencies and enterprises around the world that are directly addressing the issues of poverty and injustice that Brian has raised.

And when I say faith-based, this includes aid agencies which have Christian origins. These include the Red Cross (founded by Swiss Christian philanthropist Henri Dunant); Amnesty International (founded by Peter Benenson after becoming a Catholic convert); Opportunity International (co-founded by Australian Christian entrepreneur David Bussau); Habitat for Humanity (founded by American Christian convert Millard Fuller); Doctor Barnardo's homes for orphans and destitute children (founded by Christian evangelist Dr.Thomas Barnardo); Bread for the World; and Urban Neighbours of Hope (UNOH), founded in Melbourne by Christian couple Ash and Anji Barker, which has grown from humble origins in Springvale to become an international service to the poor and marginalized. UNOH engages in alleviating poverty through grass-roots community transformation, and is now operating in several centres in Australasia and in overseas locations from Klong Toey, the largest slum in Bangkok, to Birmingham in England.

Another outstanding Christian enterprise is TEAR Australia (known internationally as Tearfund). It's an international development agency which describes itself as passionate about ending poverty. TEAR is an acronym for Transformation, Empowerment, Advocacy and Relief - clearly a far more comprehensive approach than simply giving handouts to the poor.

There are also countless other faith-based agencies that don't address poverty directly, but which provide a wide variety of welfare services that improve the fabric of communities and societies in which the poor are living. These include Alcoholics Anonymous, founded by Christians, and acknowledging a Higher Power (AA has inspired all subsequent 12-step programs); the modern nursing movement (founded by devout Christian Florence Nightingale); the modern hospice movement (founded by another devout Christian, Dame Cicely Saunders); the Australian Inland Mission and subsequently the Flying Doctor Service (founded by Rev.John Flynn); Prison Fellowship (founded by former Nixon aide Charles Colson after his Christian conversion); Prison Network Ministries (for female prisoners and their families); L'Arche communities, caring for people with severe disabilities (founded by French Christian Jean Vanier); Operation Smile (founded by plastic surgeon Bill Magee); Children First Foundation (founded by Melbourne-based Catholic Moira Kelly, of conjoined twins fame); and many more.


And of course, there are many agencies that are perhaps more obviously Christian (or as Brian would call them "religious"), such as the Salvation Army, St.Vincent de Paul, the Brotherhood of St.Laurence, the Mission of St.James and St.John, Anglicare, Baptcare, Uniting Care, Melbourne City Mission, World Vision, Micah Challenge, Christians Against Poverty, Christian Blind Mission (now known as CBM), and leprosy missions in many afflicted parts of the world.

Another set of examples that should torpedo Brian's generalization that Christians don't muscle-flex or create a clamour to challenge injustice, is the list of courageous Christian leaders who have been passionate and outspoken campaigners against the inequality and injustice in their midst - in some cases at the cost of their own lives. They include Archbishop Oscar Romero, put to death by the military junta in El Salvador, and Ugandan Archbishop Janani Luwum, murdered on the orders of Idi Amin. Another prominent church leader who can rightly be regarded as a martyr for freedom was German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis for working with the resistance. Other church leaders who have openly taken an unflinching stand for the poor and oppressed include South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, American civil rights leader Rev.Dr. Martin Luther King, and Filipino Archbishop Jaime Sin. In more recent times, outspoken activists on the issue of world poverty have include U2's lead singer Bono, and World Vision CEO Rev.Tim Costello.

If, on the other hand, we look at the lives and legacies of famous atheists such as Nietzsche, Rousseau, Hitchens, Dawkins or Krauss, for instance, do we find examples of life-long compassionate service to suffering humanity in blighted corners of the world? I think the question is rhetorical. (Although it's probably unfair to single him out, Rousseau is infamous for fathering five children, all of whom he dumped as babies on the front steps of a foundling hospital.)

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About the Author

Rowan Forster is a Melbourne journalist.

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