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More about solidarity than charity

14 February 2014

Loretta Minghella applauds the Church's record in supporting people in the developing world, and warns against voices telling us that charity begins at home


Demonstrating care: Christians were active in the Jubilee Debt Campaign

Demonstrating care: Christians were active in the Jubilee Debt Campaign

EVER since the Middle Ages, when they were known for offering sanctuary to those in dire straits, churches have had a proud record of responding to human suffering. For many of us, the recent positive press highlighting the many food banks in the UK run by churches was welcome, but nothing we did not know already.

Whether it is running food banks, or night shelters, or raising money for people caught up in disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, Christians are often the first to offer help.

Christian Aid, the organisation for which I work, is a living testament to that generosity. It was established in 1945 by the Churches of Britain and Ireland to respond to the huge suffering caused in Europe by the Second World War.

In an inspiring act of witness every May, Christians across Britain and Ireland take to the streets in the name of their faith to raise money for the world's poorest people during Christian Aid Week. The contributions of hundreds of thousands of supporters over many decades have enabled Christian Aid, working with partners around the world, to make deep inroads into the challenges of poverty in some of the most fragile and desperate places on earth.

I give thanks for the strong messages coming from church leaders, who continue to emphasise the need for Christians to make the concerns of poor people a priority. Indeed, as an ecumenical agency we are encouraged by what seems tobe a renewed energy across the denominations for engagementon issues of poverty and social justice.

POPE FRANCIS has made headlines around the world with his fresh articulation of Roman Catholic social teaching. I was moved by the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury at last November's World Council of Churches' gathering in Busan, South Korea: "The true children of Christ act instinctively to love those who suffer, as he loves us. If justice fades, hope faints. But when justice is loved, and lived, the poor have hope, and the whole world begins to sing."

Speaking on her recent visit to London, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Revd Lorna Hood, put it this way: "A bias to the poor is what the Church of Scotland sees as a priority in its life and mission."

For me, these messages speak to more than acts of charity in the sense of alleviating the symptoms of poverty. They speak to our calling to act in solidarity with those in poverty, and so to look for permanent solutions to the marginalisation and deprivation they face.

HERE is where I think we still have more to do together, to live out our Christian calling. We need to challenge and secure change to the systems and structures that keep people poor. I understand that clergy and congregations are besieged with causes, and, with campaigning, the journey can be long and uncertain, but no one said following Jesus was going to be easy.

I can see, too, why Churches often steer clear of potentially divisive party politics, but being "political", in general terms, is an important part of contributing to a healthy society.

Christians have a great deal to offer the political discourse, and I fear that we let down those in need when we vacate that space and leave it only to secular voices. When I found my faith again in 2002, I, too, thought politics was something better dealt with outside church. I was one of those people whom Archbishop Desmond Tutu was talking about when he said: "To those people who say the Bible is not political, I have to say, what Bible are you reading?"

It is safer and easier for us to keep our heads down, and not draw flak for speaking uncomfortable truth to power. But that did not stop Jesus from being overtly political. As well as being the Son of God, he was a radical activist, who challenged the powerful status quo of his time. He turned over the moneylenders' tables in the Temple, he preached good news to the poor, and he had a message of love so threatening to the powerful élite that they felt compelled to have him executed.

We have seen what can be achieved when churches come together. Christians here were crucial in the fight against apartheid. In the United States, led by Martin Luther King, they played a significant part in the civil-rights movement. More recently, we had the Jubilee Debt Campaign, which has led to $130 billion in debt cancellation.

THERE are still some big issues that need the prophetic voice of the Church. Climate change is a scourge for many of the world's poorest people. Unscrupulous companies get rich from working in poor countries, yet fail to pay their fair share of tax in return.

We can be the voice of the voiceless and speak up on these issues in a way that gives politicians the encouragement and pressure they need to take the long-term view that is best for all God's people, not just some of them.

It might not be well reported,but many Christians are actively engaged in campaigning in thisway. But there is more we can and should do. Archbishop Welby again: "When I read my Bible, I find that Jesus commands me to be very outspoken about the pressures on the poor." Although it can feel uncomfortable at times, I believe that challenging the powerful is one of the most effective acts of Christian witness.

A final thought: I am increasingly uncomfortable with the competition between the needs of people here in the UK and those overseas, and between those alive today and those yet to be born.

"Charity begins at home" is a cliché used to prioritise the needs of people here. But when Jesus called us to love our neighbours, I think we can be confident that he did not have any postcodes in mind.

I believe that we are called into right relationship with all people, God's image being present in everyone - North and South, today and tomorrow. And when we and our own country have had a hand in causing the problems affecting those far off, such as climate change, then we should be part of the solution.

Christians are increasingly seen as out of touch and divided over issues of sex and sexuality. We need to show the world another perspective. In the next couple of years, we face opportunities where the Christian voice on global suffering and poverty has to be heard: in the European elections, in crucial meetings to agree global strategies to tackle climate change, and, of course, the Westminster elections.

When we speak out on suffering and poverty - whether at home or overseas - then we will show God's love to the world.

Loretta Minghella is the Chief Executive Officer of Christian Aid.

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