Faith at the Margins lead Paul Coleman reflects on our call to tackle the root causes of poverty and injustice.

A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree foundation highlights the deepening levels of poverty in Britain, which are now approaching levels seen prior to the COVID 19 pandemic. They also point out that “it has been almost 20 years and 6 prime ministers since the last prolonged period of falling poverty” in the UK. It is perhaps easy to see why so many people feel that tackling poverty is a pipe dream. After all, even Jesus seems to acknowledge that poverty is simply a fact of life: “The poor you shall always have with you.”

This well-known saying of Jesus’ from John 12 verse 8 is often used to justify inaction, because if poverty is inevitable, what use is there in attempting to bring it to an end?

Yet Jesus is intentionally echoing part of a much longer passage from Deuteronomy 15 verses 7-11:

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbour with hostility and give nothing; your neighbour might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.”

Deuteronomy 15:7-11 NRSVUE

When read in its entirety, this quotation is not a reference to the futility of tackling poverty, but instead is an injunction to care for those in need. This is something we see reflected throughout Jesus’ ministry on earth, particularly in events like the feeding of the five thousand. This is an event we see repeated in minature time and time again by churches across our city through their involvement in running, and collecting for, food banks. Over the last year in our city, the Leeds North & West Foodbank gave out 14,491 emergency food parcels. During the same period, Rainbow Junktion community cafe served an average of 193 households per week, increasing to an average of 233 per week in 2024. Over the last four years the foodshare at Rainbow Junktion has served over 260,000 food parcels but, as Rev Heston Groenewald, the Vicar of All Hallows, points out:

“We’ve hardly managed any real challenge to the systemic issues of food insecurity and poverty, and we’d love to try do more of that.”

It seems that no matter how much churches do to meet the needs of people at the margins, it is never quite enough. It is perhaps time for us to seriously explore the role of the church in seeking to remove or reduce the need for foodbanks.

I recently read an online article by the theologian Jon Kurt with the provocative title ‘The sins of social action’. Jon makes the argument that Christians need to think more strategically about how to deal with the causes of the issues in our communities, rather than simply treating the symptoms.

As is demonstrated by Rainbow Junktion, the need for support is continuing to rise and churches have stepped up to meet those needs. However, this has not led to a reduction in poverty, either in Leeds or elsewhere in the UK. To quote Desmond Tutu, (also quoted by Jon):

“Christians should not just be pulling people out of the river. We should be going upstream and seeing who is pushing them in.”

The blog linked above is an abridged version of a longer article, Justice, Empowerment & Faith: the future direction for Christian social action originally posted in December 2023. This reflection explores these questions and challenges us to think differently about how we, as Christians, respond to the injustices of poverty in the UK.

I encourage you to read these articles and allow them to challenge you. If you would like to comment or respond please do get in touch on [email protected]. Over the next couple of months I am going to be exploring what it might look like for churches and Christians in Leeds to move beyond simply pulling people out of the river, and in addition, acting to stop them falling, or being pushed, into the water to begin with. There is much anyone can do, of any age or background or ability.