Empowering those at the margins to speak truth to power confidently and effectively remains a central aim of Church Action on Poverty. But one can also speak truth to power as an advocate for those experiencing poverty who may not able to do it themselves. Christian writers have a long history of doing this, often with impressive results. Examples are the seminal work published in 1931 by R H Tawney, Equality, in which he argues powerfully for a more egalitarian society to the one in interwar Britain, as a means of reducing poverty and improving the life chances of working-class men and women. Another, is the ground-breaking work of 1942 by Archbishop William Temple, Christianity and Social Order, which was, in part, a critique of interwar poverty and its causes in Britain, and was pivotal in shaping the post-war Welfare State settlement. The autobiography of 1958 by Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom, is a third example, with its memorable account of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956-58, that set the scene for so much that followed in the struggle for equality and opportunity for blacks in America in the late 1950s and 1960s. These three authors shared a view that the radicalism of Jesus’s ministry merits nothing less from us when it comes to striving for social justice.
Scripture, tradition and the human capacity to reason have played a large part in shaping Christianity, and no doubt will continue to in the decades to follow. However, in the last half-century or so there has been a trend within academic Judeo-Christian theology to explore whether experience might also play an important part in the development of theological insight. By listening out for God’s voice in others, it is argued we can learn much about God that the more traditional theological methodologies can’t as easily reveal to us. The technical term for this approach is contextual theology, and a key methodological requirement for conducting research in contextual theology, is the ability to listen attentively. Often, this will entail adopting an approach to pastoral or academic encounter that arises from, and is shaped by, the lived experience of others, especially those living at the margins ― seeing Christ in their faces, seeing the cross where they stand, and thus letting God speak through them. This approach to doing theology thus lends itself to supporting the goal of enabling people living in poverty to speak truth to power. It respects their insights, their expertise, their wisdom, their overall perspective on things, and puts them at the centre of campaigns for reducing poverty and the social exclusion that goes with it.
In summary: when it comes to tackling poverty and its causes, then, it is the voices of experts by experience that need to be heard loudest, as they are the most authentic voices in the room, although, of course, they are not the only voices in the room that need to be listened to. Care professionals, volunteers, politicians, economists, academics and the clergy (this is not an all-inclusive list) also have voices that are relevant to finding solutions to poverty and its causes. However, in my view, they should never become disengaged from ― or disrespectful of ― those who are experiencing poverty first hand. This is also the view of Church Action on Poverty, and was a key theme at the ‘Dignity for All’ conference.
Dr Joseph Forde is Chair of Church Action on Poverty, Sheffield. He researches and writes on welfare and Christianity, and is author of Before and Beyond the ‘Big Society’: John Milbank and the Church of England’s Approach to Welfare (James Clarke & Co, 2022).