What mean ye that ye beat my people
to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor?
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.
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*.
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
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),
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