For the last 10 years, I have been living in a tribal society in the Middle East. Family connections are strong and are used to secure jobs, licenses, benefits, healthcare, education, etc. The system works well for those who are part of it, but for those on the outside – foreign workers, refugees, people from lesser families, the poor – it can be difficult to get things done. Social mobility is often limited by surname, and there is a growing gap between the elite and the rest. I love living in this country, but as rich westerners, our money gives us a voice. I wouldn’t like to live here if I were poor.
In the Old Testament, God places special emphasis on protecting the vulnerable – widows, orphans, foreigners, the landless, slaves and the poor. These were all groups without a voice inside the system, who could quickly fall into poverty or be taken advantage of. Those within the tribal system had means of protection, but special measures were needed for those outside.
In comparison to many countries, Britain and Ireland are very fair societies. Anyone can get healthcare without a credit card, schooling is provided free for all, social services do not take into account your surname before calculating the benefit. No one is really starving. However, there are still many people on the ‘outside’. Many people feel excluded, whether from decent education, from the job market, from family life, from a ‘way up’. Many hold out no hope that their lives can improve, and in these days of deficit-inspired cuts in government services, perhaps more people are going to fall out of the system.
One of the church’s roles is to mediate God’s Biblical concern for the needy, the vulnerable, the poor and the excluded. This should be a central part of the mission of the church today, even in rich countries. In recent times we have delegated much of this role to our Christian-inspired state, although some churches have continued to make this a priority. Now that the money has run out, all churches need to get involved.
The solutions to many of today’s societal problems are complex and sometimes generational. By getting involved, we risk getting dirty, getting things wrong, making things worse, being misunderstood, possibly even wasting our time. But if we are to follow God’s commands, we have no choice. As the apostle James said, ‘pure and faultless religion is to look after orphans and widows in their need’. Has the church become another ‘insider group’, part of the elite, looking after its own interests rather than tending to the needs of those on the outside? If so, perhaps these next few years of austerity in public services will be an opportunity to serve again, in practical witness. When Old Testament Israel forgot the poor, God’s prophets railed against her. The outward practice of religion was not enough to stave off the punishment of exile. God wants his people to make a difference to those around them.
Stephen McIlwaine is a water engineer from Belfast, living and working in the Middle East.