About 20 years ago I quit my career to study at a Bible college. Then I worked as a pastor in a local church and later in a Christian organisation to serve the poor. For most of these years we had a very tight budget, for my salary was very low. Just over two years ago I lost my job due to a restructure, and ever since then our family income has been effectively below the Henderson Poverty Line (published by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research).
But we are not poor by the world’s standard. In fact, with careful budgeting we are doing not too badly. We can still eat out at cheap places, and go to the movies (thanks to the low income concession card). Having said that, life is not easy. I teach at a number of theological colleges as an adjunct lecturer, and work as a cleaner once every fortnight. I have a full-time workload, but my income is not good. In the meantime, I am serving (as a volunteer) at my local church, a mission organisation and a social justice group. I am, therefore, not idle. Yet despite what I do to remain active and positive, there is a level of anxiety that I have to deal with because of our financial situation.
The impact of the Federal Budget (2014)
Given my situation, I have to admit that the Australian Federal Budget in May this year is distressing. It is true that the impact of the budget on my family is bearable, but it does mean that we have to tighten up our spending further. It will also affect the long-term wellbeing of everyone in the family, for the budget has adverse effects on the cost of healthcare, education and retirement. As a Christian, I am learning to turn to God for comfort and deliverance. I cannot control the circumstances, but I know the One who is sovereign over all areas of life.
It’s now just over one month after the Federal Budget was announced. Here I want to share a few personal reflections.
First, I count myself fortunate that my situation is not desperate. My church is located in an inner-city area, and there are many low-income individuals and families. The proposed cuts in healthcare, education and family tax benefit will have considerable negative effects on them. They know firsthand the impact of the budget on their lives and future. They are already doing it tough. Some of them cannot work because of severe health issues, even though they want to. Some are children in dysfunctional or vulnerable families. We are concerned about their wellbeing, but wonder what we can do for them apart from walking with them at this tough time. Like the psalmists, we cry out to God and ask, “How long, Lord?” And we ask God to show us mercy, that justice will be done and that our low-income friends will somehow find a way to face the challenge.
Second, I am reminded of how our social location affects the way we see the world. I live in a middle-class suburb east of Melbourne. Many of my Christian friends will not be severely affected by the budget. The small levy that they have to pay will only be a small part of their income. Yes, some of my friends will find it hard because of the potential reduction of family tax benefit. Indeed, some have a big mortgage and life will be tougher than before. But the majority of my friends on this side of town will manage the tougher economic situation quite well. Don’t get me wrong, my friends are compassionate people and they love God. In fact, not a few of them are concerned about the effects of the budget on the poor. Yet, I think it is fair to say that the overall impact of the budget on them is relatively small.
The contrasting perspectives of life
The contrast between my two different circles of friends can best be illustrated by the content of our conversations regarding the Federal Budget. When I mention the budget among my friends from a low socioeconomic background, I hear anxiety, pain and even anger. I can identify with them to some degree because of my own circumstances. If I feel anxious when I think about the budget, they must have found it much harder. The budget measures, if they all pass through the Senate, will be a lived reality for them.
But when I talk about the budget with friends in better economic situations, I hear an intellectual interpretation of the pros and cons of the budget measures. Some are positive about the budget, while others are somewhat more critical. I don’t, however, hear any serious anxiety or anguish among these friends. The difficulty that the poor experience is little more a theoretical notion. Here I need to emphasise that no-one should feel guilty about being middle-class. What I am trying to demonstrate is that our social location has a significant influence on our perspective of life. Is it possible that our wealth can blind us from seeing the world as what it really is? Would it be helpful if we spend more time with those living on the margins and hear their stories? Would our perspective change if we are willing to enter into their stories and allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us?
Opportunity to grow in Christ
Personally speaking, I think it is in times like this that I can grow in Christ. I realise that I am a man of little faith. Why should I fear the future when I know that God is there for me? I must learn to trust God. At the same time, I need to learn to thank God for the opportunity to identify with the poor, even though only in small measures. Jesus, the Son of the living God, became a human being to identify with humanity, including the plight of the poor and needy. My own economic situation has helped me to share, in some small ways, what Christ himself did. I am also more convinced of the benefit of spending time with the poor. It is in hearing their stories that we start to understand the reality of their lives. Our own faith can be greatly enriched if we allow their stories—especially their resilience and tenacity in hardship—to transform us.