Poverty and Worship
The modern world was and is a world of order, of tidy distinctions, of pie charts, of barriers, of dividing walls. The dividing walls between spiritual and physical, religion and politics, public and private, business and pleasure. The list could go on. These walls enable us to retain control, to keep at a safe distance that which discomforts us. They can also have the unfortunate effect of distancing us from the consequences of our lifestyle.
Modern westerners are content with the dividing wall between my spending habits, and the plight of those crippled by poverty. The wall between my consumer freedom, and the suffering it inflicts upon the third world. The wall between my enjoyment of chocolate, and the suffering of the slave who has produced it.
Worship is the demolition of this dividing wall. Of course, the walls are there for a reason, and many will be happier to leave them intact. That is why much that passes for worship utterly fails to acknowledge that the wall even exists. Much in worship presumes that what happens beyond the wall is no real concern of ours. Our worship often serves to buttress the wall. And of course, God is on our side.
But here is what the world looks like on the far side of the wall: Almost three billion people live on the equivalent of less than two dollars a day. Almost a billion people entered the 21st century without being able to read or even sign their name. 790 million people in the developing world are desperately malnourished. 30,000 children aged under 5 are dying every day because of poverty. According to UNICEF, they “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and conscience of the world.” The dividing wall is doing its job.
Such is the plight of the world that God loved so much he sent his only son. But for the vast majority of us, we belong to the tiniest and most privileged minority that God’s creation has ever seen. We, the wealthy, worship the God who revealed himself as a peasant. What does it mean for the wealthy to worship the God of the poor?
The easiest option is to spiritualise poverty, so that we all feel 'poor in spirit'! We can then sing songs about how God makes me feel, hear sermons about the evils of others and my individual spiritual battles, offer prayers about how our church might grow in number and our friends might be blessed. These things will make the world a better place. Intercessions for the world would interrupt the flow of such worship. But this is just a celebration of individualism masquerading as Christian worship by quoting bible verses and looking pious.
Real worship will not allow the modern dividing walls to stand. We cannot worship the God who desires mercy not sacrifice, and leave our poverty-stricken world untouched. Nor do we honour such a God by tossing the equivalent of our loose change over the wall.
As Bono, campaigning for fair trade rules put it, “we are not looking for charity, we are looking for justice”. That is, we cannot simply regard ourselves as ‘doing our bit’, when what is required is a fundamental shift in the deeper structures of our living. And worship is precisely the place where such transformation takes place.
If we worship a God who loves the poor, then the action that flows from our worship is not an act of kindness, or charity – as though we were going out of our way to do a good deed. Worship is rather a disturbing (but ultimately liberating) experience, in which our spending habits, our financial priorities, our giving, our energy, our brains, our time, are exposed to God’s transforming power. We do not worship God, and subsequently share some of our wealth with others. Our wealth was never our own. Of course we’ve always known that – but the walls that protect it are still firmly in place.
(Published in the Baptist Times, Jul 20, 2006)