Reflections on climate change and the urban poor

To me, suffering, climate change, and poverty are interconnected.

I grew up in a crowded city in East Asia in the 1970s. Most of us were poor, though not destitute. We were able to put food on the table, but had to work very long hours in unsafe conditions in factories in order to make ends meet. Common urban environmental issues—such as air pollution and dirty sewage—affected us all the time. But through hard work and perseverance, we made do.

Today, the area I lived in continues to be one of the poorest districts in the city. In fact, the city’s rich-poor disparity is the worst among developed countries. Although the city is undoubtedly one of the wealthiest in the world, the living condition of the poor is quite appalling.

Climate change will affect the urban poor severely. Rising global temperature is a health hazard for the poor, not least the elderly and young children, in this very hot urban concrete jungle. The increasingly frequent extreme weather endangers the life of the poor who live in makeshift accommodation, often in the form of substandard rooftop dwellings. The urban poor’s lack of economic resources and low social status means that it is hard for them to adapt to or take part in mitigating the effects of climate change. They cannot afford to have energy-efficient housing. Nor can they opt for renewable energy at its current price.

cardboard_lady_1But if we think that they are not active participants of creation care, we are wrong. Their poverty means that they do not worship the idols of materialism and consumerism. (But of course they are often victims of a highly market-driven economy). They contribute to negligible greenhouse gas emissions, for they don’t use much electricity anyway. In fact, they naturally minimise energy usage for that is their lifelong habit.

In my view, it is important not to think that the urban poor are simply victims of climate change, or passive participants of creation care. Yes, the poor do suffer more than others, but we should appreciate their resilience and tenacity. The Bible says,

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:1–5; NRSV)

Even though this passage is about the Christian life, it sheds light on the fact that suffering is not necessarily a negative experience, whether Christian or not. The urban poor have learned to live in hope. Their character has been shaped by years of patient endurance in suffering. I will finish with a symbolic picture of a phenomenon in an Asian city.

Everyday you can find a large number of elderly people collecting cardboard boxes, old newspapers, and aluminium cans on the streets. They sell these recyclable items for a small amount of money so as to make a living. So, ironically, these people in their 60s and 70s (or older) take part in recycling and waste management to protect the environment, while the wealthy continue to indulge in consumerism and materialism. Despite their old age and declining health, these urban giants persevere with dignity. They live in hope and self-respect even though the city has forgotten their lifelong contribution to its welfare. Paradoxically, the silent resilience of the vulnerable is a loud voice that speaks against Australia’s lack of serious action on climate change.

Source of picture: http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1624253/cardboard-dreams-day-hong-kong-elderly-woman-who-must-scavenge?page=all Accessed on 20th June 2016.

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The display of wealth of the city and the urban poor

I came across an article written by Dr Jayakumar Christian, someone I respect greatly. It is entitled The Rise of the Urban Poor. There is much to ponder, but I will only highlight a few things using the following quotes.

Jayakumar Christian talks about the “vulgar display of wealth” of the city, and observes that the rich-poor disparity is an increasing problem.

In a strange way, the city brings to the fore in a pronounced manner the gap [between the rich and the poor]—the worst of urban poverty. The rich display their wealth as if the poor do not exist in the cities. The malls and neon lights overshadow the dark corners where the poor eke out their living. Shining India happily coexists with abject poverty as though poverty was a mere landscape issue. One wonders if this is a consequence of our religious philosophies and worldview . . . There is a parasitical relationship––not manipulation but helplessness. In the process, the poor and vulnerable children get exploited and oppressed.

What is often touted as a ‘lack of political will’ in our governance and bureaucratic leadership is really an intentional (ideological) effort to crush (never allow) any uprising of the poor and to suppress any emergence of hope. This is about a powerful collective playing god in the lives of the poor and wounding the souls of the poor, reducing them to a state of hopelessness.

In terms of the church’s response, Jayakumar Christian has the following (and much more) to say.

Grassroots practitioners/agents of change must:


reflect their ‘inner being’ through their engagement. Poverty and powerlessness are human and relational; therefore responses to poverty must also be human and relational. This requires investment of life. It cannot be reduced to mere action plans; demonstrate covenant-quality inclusive relationships based on truth practitioners must allow truth to confront their public and private life;


be competent to exegete God’s work among the poor-trace the ‘patterns’ in God’s movement among the poor in the city; be competent to analyse the worldview of a people and the ideology that drives the economic, political and other systems that crush the poor; and be countercultural in a society that values entitlement over sacrifice.”

The church—the prophetic community—must rediscover herself in her own neighbourhood. The church must locate its mission in the space . . . between hope and hopelessness, life and joy, and pain and death. The church is the evidence that our God has not given up on the urban poor.

Source: http://www.wciujournal.org/journal/article/the-rise-of-the-urban-poor as at 8/9/2014

Some thoughts on giving to the poor and Shepherd of Hermas

Some years ago a respected minister and scholar gave a talk on the church’s giving to the poor. He listed how the church was involved in some of the best charity work in history.

Most of the audience loved his message. But I was somewhat uncomfortable with the lack of discussion on what the church is doing now in Australia. I don’t mean that the church is doing little for the poor today (because it does do a lot for the poor). But the tone of the talk seemed to be more about how well the church did in the past, rather than a thoughtful evaluation of what the church in Australia is doing now.

More importantly, I am not sure whether the speaker successfully described the sacrifice of the early Christians when they gave to the poor. As a result, the message was more about how charitable Christians were, rather than challenging us to learn from the sacrificial giving of the early church.

Some months ago (April 2015), John Barclay, Lightfoot Professor Divinity at Durham University, UK, gave an excellent talk at Houston Baptist University, USA, on a similar topic. He surveyed how the early church gave to the poor sacrificially. (Click here to watch the lecture.) Prompted by some of the things he said, I looked up an early church writing, Shepherd of Hermas, and found the following.

This fasting,” he continued, “is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord be observed. Thus, then, shall you observe the fasting which you intend to keep. First of all, be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from all the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect. And you will do also as follows. Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord. If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord. These things, therefore, shall you thus observe with your children, and all your house, and in observing them you will be blessed; and as many as hear these words and observe them shall be blessed; and whatsoever they ask of the Lord they shall receive.” (Emphasis added)

Source: Shepherd of Hermas, Fifth Similitude, chapter 3 http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/shepherd.html accessed on August, 17th, 2015.

I also found the following quote regarding Shepherd of Hermas.

These passages in the Shepherd of Hermas reflect the common attitude of Christians towards property in the early Church. It has its dangers: where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Too much wealth makes a believer vulnerable in time of persecution. On the other hand, wealth can be used generously, for the good. No one need give up all their possessions, but they should not have too much and should use what they have for the benefit of others. So Hermas urged his readers to give indiscriminately to all in need: ‘give to everyone, for God wants his gifts to be given to everyone.’ Almsgiving was linked particularly to fasting; Hermas advised his readers to use the money they have saved on a fast day and give it to the widow, the orphan or the needy person. Hermas even goes so far as to depict the poor and the rich in a relationship of mutual dependence. The prayers of the rich are weak. They need the prayers of the poor, which are so much more powerful before God, and their almsgiving makes up for the inadequacy of their prayers. The poor, meanwhile, need the rich to support them in their need and they pray for the rich in thanksgiving. (Emphasis added)

Source: Bernard Green, Christianity in Ancient Rome: The First Three Centuries (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 116–7.

We do need to study the Bible itself on these issues. Also, we should not be legalistic about giving. Nor should we give to the poor because of guilt. But I think the Shepherd of Hermas does leave us with a challenge.

The widow’s offering: Scripture, justice, and honour and shame reversal

A fresh look at the widow’s offering

The widow’s offering in Luke 21:1–4 is well known for its example of sacrificial giving. The widow’s devotion to God is admirable, and her willingness to give out of her extreme poverty challenges all of us today.

But Luke 21:1–4 can hardly mean that every widow should give all she had to live on, given the fact that widows in the ancient world were among the poorest of the poor, and that the temple was an adorned and magnificent building (Mark 13:1; Luke 21:5). To ask a widow to give to the temple treasury is like asking a low-income person living with a disability to give away their disability payment to the church for a brand-new auditorium. It is also like requiring someone living below the poverty line to pay GST for basic food (e.g., bread, milk, rice, fruit, and vegetable).

It should be noted that Jesus did not ask other widows to “go and do likewise.” Instead, when Jesus said that the widow had put in more than all the others, he was probably saying that the gifts of the rich were in fact acts of religiosity that were incompatible with God’s requirement to stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalised. On the contrary, the widow was commendable because she did not allow her poverty to stop herself from loving God wholeheartedly. Let us look at the context of the passage.

The links to the previous three verses

The three verses before the widow’s offering, I think, are crucial.

In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Luke 20:45–47; NRSV)

Here Jesus asked his disciples (in the hearing of all the people) to beware of the scribes—the experts of the Law of Moses and religious leaders in Jesus’s day.

It is easy to miss the connections between the widow’s offering (Luke 21:1–4) and the previous passage (20:45-47). It is because most English translations insert a heading at 21:1. But in the original Greek text there were no chapters or verses, let alone paragraph headings. The break between the two passages is artificial.

There are in fact many points of contact between 20:45–47 and 21:1–4.

First, the word “widow” is used in both passages (20:47; 21:2, 3). Second, in both places there is a reference to the livelihood of the widow—“houses” (20:47) and “all she had to live on” (21:4). Third, in both 20:45–47 and 21:1–4 the powerless are contrasted with the powerful—that is, the widow versus the scribes/the wealthy.

With these in mind, it is likely that the widow’s offering is in fact an illustration of Jesus’ teaching concerning the wealthy religious leaders.

Wealthy scribes versus a powerless widow

Jesus said that the scribes loved being greeted in the marketplaces and having the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets (20:46). In antiquity these were the practices of the rich and powerful. In the words of New Testament scholar, Joel Green, the scribes “enjoyed being treated as persons of status, as though they were wealthy benefactors.”

Jesus rebuked these religious leaders and said that they devoured the widows’ houses. Indeed they would receive the harshest judgment (20:47). We don’t know how exactly they devoured widows’ houses. But the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18 suggests that widows were subject to systemic injustice.

Without a husband representing them, widows—both in antiquity and in many parts of the world today—are among the most vulnerable in the society. They are defenceless and are often impoverished. But the Scripture says that the LORD loves them and he defends their cause (Deut 10:18). No wonder the Law demands Israel to look after and protect them (Exod 22:22; Deut 24:17–22). In fact, Moses says in Deuteronomy, “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” (Deut 27:19a; NIV). It is, therefore, astonishing that the Scribes—the experts of the Mosaic Law!—should devour the widows’ houses.

It is in this context that Luke mentions the widow’s offering. The rich gave out of their abundance, but the widow gave to the temple treasury everything she had. Here, Jesus turns the prevailing social convention of honour and shame upside-down. The widow is honoured, but the rich are dishonoured.

The widow’s sacrificial giving demonstrates her devotion to God—something to be praised, although probably unnecessary in practical terms given the enormous size, beauty, and magnificence of the temple. Her devotion is commendable because she did not stop loving God despite her socioeconomic condition.

In light of the wealthy scribes’ oppression of the poor, it is not surprising that immediately afterwards Jesus announced the upcoming destruction of the temple (21:5–6). But the destruction of this religious centre had deeper reasons. In earlier passages Luke has spoken of the failure of the leaders in Jerusalem to understand God’s purpose and recognise Jesus as the Messiah (Luke 20:1–44, especially verses 41–44). The chief priests and the scribes failed to understand the Scriptures and put them into practice, and the widow’s offering served as a penetrating illustration of that.

The question we should ask ourselves as Christians in Australia is: Do we really understand the Scripture and the heart of God towards the poor, the vulnerable, and those who cannot fend for themselves?

Scripture, justice, and mercy

I belong to a Christian tradition that upholds in the authority of Scripture and the moral ideals of God. I have come to love the Bible and sought to live a life that is pleasing to God. But I have to admit that at times—though not always—we fail to care for the poor and defend the cause of the powerless, even though the Scripture demands us to do so.

At times I feel uncomfortable with the fact that some Christians do not think that our governments’ treatment of asylum seekers lack compassion, despite the Human Rights Commission’s damning report into children in immigration detention early this year. I am ashamed of the repeated cut in foreign aid since the current government came into office last year, bringing the level to one of the lowest on record. I am, therefore, disappointed that a Christian leader told me a couple of years ago that the domestic economy was more important than overseas aid, despite the affluent lifestyle of his church members. I am also very much aware of the injustice our country has done to Indigenous Australians when their land was taken from them. It seems that it is often unrecognised by my Christian friends.

Sometimes I wonder whether we are like the scribes who failed to understand the Scripture and hence God’s demand for justice and his love for the poor and needy? I wonder whether our churches are like the temple system in Jesus’ day, that we forget about the plight of the poor and the marginalised while we enjoy wonderful worship services and church programs? These questions are particularly poignant in light of Jesus’ judgment against the temple.

About ten years ago God led me and my family to a church in an inner-city suburb. It has been a blessed adventure. In our midst there are many asylum seekers and low-income people, and some of our members live with a disability. Their tenacity in adversity is an inspiration to us. Up until recently we had a wonderful Indigenous family. (They have now moved interstate.) They taught us about love and forgiveness despite the injustice they and their kindred experienced.

I am thankful for these wonderful people. They do not have many material possessions. But in them I see God’s handiwork, for they bring glory to God in their perseverance and trust in him. Like the widow in Luke 21:1–4, they love God despite their socioeconomic situation.

Although Luke paints a gloomy picture of the religious leaders of his day, in the Book of Acts (his second volume) he vividly depicts the amazing community of the disciples, whose solidarity with the poor can be found at the very conception of the church (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–35). The challenge for us today, then, is to learn from this early Christian community and seek to be genuine disciples of Jesus. I think I have had a glimpse of that in my recent church experience, for which I am deeply thankful.

(I am indebted to Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1997], 72–78, for his insights on Luke 20:45—21:4.)

Tim Costello on faith and political power

The Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers in recent years has been appalling. What is also appalling is the government’s latest cut in foreign aid. The cut will mean that Australia will slip to the 19th position in aid in the 2016/2017 financial year, even though Australia is the fourth richest nation in the world (according to the article below).

The Baptist minister and CEO of World Vision Australia, Tim Costello, has written an article today (5th January 2015) regarding the current Coalition government, which has many Christians in the Cabinet.

Here are some excerpts from the article.

Despite ignorant populism that aid is wasted, the opposite is true; it is a runaway success. It saves lives through immunisation and clean water and gives girls an education, a chance for a better life. And it is not trade alone that has lifted people out of poverty. The halving of infant death rates over the past 20 years – from 30,000 kids under five years old dying a day to 17,000 today – has been as great in landlocked sub-Saharan Africa nations …

Christians believe the resurrection of Jesus brings not only forgiveness of sins but also liberation for the down-trodden and God’s promised justice for the poor and oppressed. Pope Francis has further attacked “savage capitalism” that allows inequality to grow; with profits flowing to the richest and the poor are abandoned.

History has recorded the inescapable transmogrifying of faith once it is married to political power. The typical solution of the devout politician is to privatise faith and truncate the Gospel so it only addresses the personal dimension of forgiveness of sins, with the social dimension contracted out to market technocrats. Worse, Christianity is diluted to some conservative moral principles that act as cultural glue to support the state sometimes in its worst nationalistic chauvinisms …

The article can be found by clicking here or here.

The biggest cut in foreign aid in Australian history, according to Ben Thurley

Ben Thurley (at Micah Challenge) has written a blog post about the recent announcement of the cut in foreign aid by the Australian government. Here is an excerpt.

With due deference to the terror and tragedy of unfolding events in Sydney’s Martin Place yesterday, the Government delayed by a few hours the release of its mid-year budget update. However, when the Treasurer finally announced his plans, it was terrible news for Australia’s aid program.

On top of the $7.6 billion already ripped out of Australian aid since coming to office, the Government is planning to cut a further $3.7 billion from aid over the next four years. Despite the fact that aid represents just over 1% of the Federal Government’s budget, cuts to aid represent more than a quarter of all the budget cuts this Government has made in the 15 months since coming to office.

These cuts will take Australian aid to their lowest recorded levels and include the largest single-year cut to aid in Australian history – $1 billion or 20% taken out of the budget from this year to next.

Click here to read the entire post.

Micah Challenge has provided the following diagram to explain what the cut means.

budget-Dec-142

Jayakumar Christian: The poor are made in God’s image

I met Jayakumar Christian, National Director of World Vision India, in person several years ago when he came to Australia. I loved his warm personality, which, to me, was an outworking of his love for God.

The following is an interview with Dr Jayakumar Christian (from Tyndale University College and Seminary, Canada). Here are a few key points from my notes (which include my interpretation of what he says in the video).

  • The church wants to find a solution for poverty, but that’s not the right place to start.
  • The most important thing to realise is that the poor are made in God’s image. This recognition is critical.
  • We need to have a relational—not an individualistic—understanding of poverty. This is the understanding of Indians (and Asians). If we understand poverty this way, then our starting point will not be activities and programs.
  • Poverty is the result of broken relationships. Injustice and oppression are manifestations of broken relationships. When the powerful exclude the marginalised, relationship is broken. When the poor have no choice but to submit to the powerful, they become non-persons.
  • The poor live as “whole persons.” They do not live life in “categories.” When we separate words and deeds into two categories, we fail to treat them as “whole persons.”
  • Living among the poor is important.
  • We need to study the Bible in context. There is no point to study the Scripture in isolation from the poor.