[The article below was originally published in Zadok Perspectives, Spring, 2012, pages 19–21. I will post the article as a series in this blog. The article is used with permission from the editor of Zadok Perspectives. I have slightly edited the article.]
I love the Scripture. I also believe that God loves the poor and that we are called to proclaim Christ as the king and Lord of the cosmos. For nearly seven years I worked in an overseas relief and development organisation. My job was to engage with Australian Christians about issues of poverty and injustice. To be honest, I found it a very difficult job. There are two main reasons. The first is that theologically there seems to be a polarisation of views between those who put emphasis on evangelism and those who believe in social justice. The second reason is that socially many Christians have little contact with the poor and it is hard for them to understand what it means to be living in poverty.
I have come to realise that it is far better to use real examples to illustrate what poverty and mission look like in practice. In this article I will first outline a contemporary mission challenge in Taiwan. I will then share stories about my own personal experience in poverty overseas and what I have learned in an inner-city community in Melbourne. It is also vital to study the Scripture and allow the biblical texts to speak to us, rather than allowing polarised theological presuppositions to dominate the discussion. I have, therefore, selected Romans 12:9–16 for our discussion below. In doing so I will draw our attention to some recent research on the social condition of early Christianity, and see how it may bring fresh insights into Paul’s theology and mission.
Working class in Asia
My involvement in mission has alerted me to a phenomenon in Taiwan. The working class in Taiwan makes up two thirds of the population. They are factory workers, taxi drivers, shop workers and small business owners. They are mostly uneducated. Most of them are involved in Taoism, Buddhism, ancestor worship and other folk religions. Despite more than 100 years of missionary activities in Taiwan, less than 0.5% of the working-class people are Christians. But there are many churches in Taiwan, except that their members are typically middle-class and educated. It is recognised that working-class people find it hard to fit into these churches. About 2.6% of the overall population in Taiwan are Protestants, and 1.3% Catholics. This means that not a few non-working-class people are Christians. Realising the needs of the working class in Taiwan, missionaries from organisations like OMF live among them, seek to identify with their struggles, and endeavour to reach out to the most marginalised people in their midst. [a]
I have not undertaken research into why there are few churches among the working class in Taiwan. But the situation reminds me of my own working-class background in another Asian country. I was born in a relatively poor urban neighbourhood. As a child I had to work in a factory so that we could make ends meet. Everyone in the family worked long hours in order to survive. We didn’t have a bedroom and the whole family slept in one bed. I find that people can understand these facts intellectually, but it is harder to recognise the anxiety and fear that are associated with these living conditions.
Working long hours for the sake of survival is not only tiring but also emotionally draining. When children have to work they don’t have time to play with their friends, and are deprived of a normal childhood experience. When a teenage girl has no bedroom she doesn’t have any privacy. Then there is the constant fear that the whole family will go further into the downward spiral of poverty. Indeed life in that situation is very stressful. Depression, mental illness and family breakdowns are all too common. I can say from my own experience that it was a life that I would rather forget, for it brings back horrifying memories.
[To be continued here.]
[a] Source: http://www.omf.org/omf/taiwan/ministry_in_taiwan/our_ministries (accessed on 10th June 2012).