The Poor


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    What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor?
    Isaiah 3:15

    The Churches considered it wrong to attempt to eliminate poverty, since Jesus himself had given an assurance that the poor would always be with us. Churches taught that poverty was something that had to be accepted with humility, as part of the divine plan. As one papal encyclical put it:

    Let the poor, and all those who at this time are facing the hard trial of want of work and security of food — let them in a like spirit of penance suffer with greater resignation the privations imposed upon them by these hard times and the state of the society which Divine Providence, in an inscrutable but ever-loving plan, has assigned to them*

    In Christian countries little effort has been made by the Churches to eliminate poverty (a blasphemous intention) or even to ameliorate it, since poverty was "natural". In the Middle Ages senior clerics lived in luxury, and even ordinary monks ate up to three pounds of red meat each day. No one thought it odd that they should do so while homeless people starved to death nearby. Secular society now ensures that people no longer starve in the street, but otherwise things are not very different. With a few notable exceptions (such as the Salvation Army), the overwhelming majority of clerics are content for their churches to remain empty for six or seven days a week while the homeless sleep on the streets outside, occasionally dying of exposure.

    No mainstream Churches have a good record in providing substantial help to the poor, and in Britain their traditional approach is best represented by the infamous Victorian Poor Laws. So it is that the expression "as cold as charity" makes perfect sense to most of us, yet would be a meaningless oxymoron in any but a traditionally Christian culture. Oppression of the poor and aged has been common in all Christian countries. Charity, when given at all, was offered only to those who accepted the current religious orthodoxy, 2 John 1:10 ("If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:") being interpreted as saying that it was sinful to help those with different beliefs. Clergymen taught that neither food nor shelter should be given to a starving man unless his beliefs were orthodox*.

    On the other hand Churches have traditionally provided wealth and power to the younger sons of noble families whatever their beliefs. Bishops" thrones and cardinals" hats were routinely distributed as sinecures. How blatant this practice was can be illustrated by a few examples. Benedict IX was a "mere urchin" when he was elected pope in 1032. (according to Raoul Glaber, a monk from Cluny, he was only 11 years old. Giovanni de" Medici, born in 1475, was made an abbot at the age of 7 and a cardinal at 13. He later became Pope Leo X. Early in the sixteenth century King James IV of Scotland appointed his nine-year-old son, Alexander Stewart, to be Archbishop of St Andrews. The poor saw rather less of the huge Church revenues than such churchmen. It is fair to say that for most of its history the Church has been a sort of huge international charitable fund for the already wealthy, taking from the poor and giving to the rich. Throughout Christendom the poorest were liable for a range of Church taxes. The nobility, which provided almost all senior ecclesiastics, was generally exempt. A handful of exceptionally able poor boys made a successful career in the Church — but the overwhelming majority were denied the chance of sharing in the worldly benefits of the priesthood and high clerical office. Some monastic orders required proof of noble blood for their abbots. The Cistercians hit on the idea of a two tier order of monks so that the full brothers, all from rich families, lived in relatively luxury on the labour of poor lay-brothers who enjoyed none of the privileges and who did all the work.

    Not so long ago the rich sat at the front of the church and the poor at the back. Sometimes the rich took Communion on a different day from the poor, and sometimes the rich and poor were offered wine of different qualities. Some priests even preached that there were different heavens for the different sections of society*. In the Roman Church discrimination extended to the provision of patron saints. There are patrons for persons in authority, judges and magistrates, governors, rulers and kings*. There is even one for the Spanish high command and one for the French monarchy (who must be at something of a loose end today). Almost everyone has been given a patron saint. St Bona is the patron saint of air hostesses, St Martin of Tours of geese, St Joseph of house hunting, and St Venantius of jumping and leaping. Yet it is difficult to find long-standing patron saints for the poor, or for slaves, or for oppressed women, or the victims of religious persecutions.

    Churches have changed their ideas since secular principles of equality have become widely accepted. Few of them now use the third verse of the hymn All Things Bright And Beautiful although its truth was unimpeachable within living memory:

    The rich man in his castle,
    The poor man at his gate,
    God made them, high or lowly,
    And ordered their estate.

    As in so many other areas of social improvement, the dynamos of change were almost all outside the mainstream Churches, and were condemned by those Churches for daring to try to change the natural, divinely ordained, order. The same minority groups — freethinkers, Utilitarians and Quakers — who advocated other reforms also advocated impartial care for the poor and aged. Thomas Paine advocated a welfare state and old age pensions as early as the eighteenth century. Bentham, whose maxim was "Maximise morals, minimise religion", had already published his Situation and Relief of the Poor in 1797. The ill treatment of the poor was brought to public attention by atheist economists like Marx and Engels, and attempts to ameliorate poverty were pursued by Quakers and socialist freethinkers.

    A woman covers her face in shame as she puts her four children up for sale, Chicago, USA, 1948
    Selling children was normal practice for many centuries under Christian hegemony

    Working conditions were no concern of the Churches. Apart from a measure of concern that industrial workers often rejected the Christian religion, there seems to have been minimal interest in them. Christians opposed all attempts at reform, saying that existing conditions were natural, and reform was contrary to the Bible. Churchmen in the nineteenth century opposed the reduction in working hours, protection for women and children, and even safety legislation. Agitation to improve industrial working conditions came from freethinking Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. Ideas like safe and hygienic factories, education for workers, and infant schools were pioneered by the philanthropist Robert Owen, who had rejected all religions at the age of 14 after reading Seneca. The Anglican Church opposed factory reform at every turn, and the only Christian employers to earn a lasting reputation for good employment practices were Quakers like the Frys, Cadburys and Rowntrees.


    Traditional Christian views still survive
    Here is Mother Theresa at a Washington press conference with Hilary Clinton on 19 June 1995
    quoted by Christopher Hitchens in The Missionary Position, Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (Verso, 1995), page 11





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    §. Caritate christi compulsi, cited by Hector Hawton, Controversy: The Humanist/Christian Encounter, Pemberton ( London, 1971), p 57.

    §. Wells, Religious Postures, p 121, referring to Scottish clergy in the seventeenth century.

    §. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p 180.

    §. Alban Butler, Butler's Lives of the Saints, Burnes & Oates, 1987.

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