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Poverty on the agenda

22 August 2014

Peter Selby considers a subject Christians increasingly attend to

Charity: The place of the poor in the biblical tradition
Gary A. Anderson
Yale University Press £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT508 )

Manifesto of the Poor: Solutions come from below
Francisco Van der Hoff Boersma
Permanent Publications £5.95
Church Times Bookshop £5.35 (Use code CT508 )

The Poverty of Capitalism: Economic meltdown and the struggle for what comes next
John Hilary
Pluto Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49 (Use code CT508 )

Why Fight Poverty?
Julia Unwin
London Publishing Partnership £7.99

TOO little has been learned from the financial crisis of 2008; what is encouraging is the far greater attention being given by churches and theologians to the subject of economic justice than in the past; and the subject is being addressed at many different levels. This selection offers a sample of the range of the publications that are now available: biblical scholarship, campaigning, political theology, social analysis.

Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Rowntree Foundation, asks "Why Fight Poverty?" not as a rhetorical question with an obvious answer, but out of the energy and commitment that the struggle to end poverty has required over generations, and the consequent questions whether it is worth it, and whether there is any sign of success in the offing. She argues cogently that the need to end poverty is urgent, because poverty is dangerous and wasteful, and - perhaps above all - because we have the means to end it.

With clear diagrams to illustrate her evidence, Unwin shows how much poverty there is, and how the economic realities of the post-2008 years, as well as the welfare policies pursued, have made things harder for those in poverty. She disposes of the comforting thought that, in absolute terms, poverty is not as severe as it used to be, or as it is in some parts of the world. In her second chapter, she attacks the notion that poverty is both inevitable and, in that sense, not a priority concern, because there will always be some who do badly in a competitive world. That does not alter the fact, she argues, that it is damaging and wasteful.

Particularly important is her chapter on public attitudes to poverty and why they are an obstacle to change: her survey of attitudes and how they are formed is especially valuable, something those seeking change need to take seriously into account. Her next chapter, "Is Poverty Inevitable?", is a vital part of that discussion: there is a great deal of officially sponsored despair about the possibility of change. Unwin's concluding changer is a call to fight poverty because we can fight it and win. What the book as a whole shows is just how much astuteness that struggle will require. It is a really helpful resource for those who seek to be as astute as they need to be.

For those seeking testimony that a fairer world is achievable, and that the solutions to poverty and injustice are there, available "from below", Francisco Van Der Hoff Boersma, co-founder of Fairtrade certification, presents his manifesto. He has been there - in South Mexico - lived the life and served poor farmers, trusting their instincts, and working with them to produce modes of production and trade which are a powerful critique of the single model offered by a liberal, globalising economy. That model may claim all kinds of achievements, including individual liberty and technological progress. "However, there is one major problem that it has not resolved: the poor distribution of the fruits of these efforts, and the goods and wealth derived from them": that is the "permanent crisis".

Before the reader assumes that means that this "manifesto" is another example of concern with distribution to the neglect of production, this is an account of concrete actions to enable people to produce enough. The lesson of the Fairtrade movement is that fair distribution is a condition of technological progress in the long term: "I am not against globalisation; I would like to globalise Fairtrade."

Behind this inspiring manifesto is a real economy and the insights gained "from below". Here is another Francis demanding not just that we do not forget the poor, but that we seek solutions with them, because it is with them that the solutions lie.

And so to John Hilary's argument that the poverty we really need to address is the poverty of capitalism itself. His book is an analysis of the 2008 crisis, and like Van Der Hoff Boersma, Hilary also believes that we are in a permanent crisis: the crisis is capitalism itself. In a well-researched and documented work, he takes the reader through the growing inequalities of wealth and income distribution, and the way in which any claim that corporate social responsibility - the voluntary activities whereby companies seek to integrate environmental and ethical initiatives into their business activities - can ever be anything other than an alibi for a capitalism that will continue to deplete the planet's resources and further impoverish the already poor.

This book derives its power from its three example chapters: on the extractive, garment, and food industries respectively. The Marikana mine conflict is probably the most vivid illustration of the lengths to which some extractive companies will go, at the cost of communities' livelihoods and individuals' lives, to achieve their profits; but it is vivid because it reveals the way in which the extractive industries have such a destructive effect on the communities and localities in which they operate.

Hilary's account of the global garments industry - what our well- known brands mean to the lives of those who actually make their garments - should be compulsory reading for any who believe that the organised exploitation of labour by capital is something from a previous age.

It is an excellent strategy on Hilary's part to concentrate on industries that exist to meet our most basic needs - energy, clothing, and food. And the last of these again illustrates how the processes of capitalist globalisation dominate both producers and consumers. The relations between supermarkets and farmers are just a small part of that: globally, the possibility of finding ways to feed our population depends on evolving a system of ownership which enables democratic sovereignty over the essential needs of humankind.

Among the resources we most need and are most likely to neglect are our sense of history, and, in particular, the wisdom at the heart of our faith. Gary Anderson's Charity presents an account of our relations with the poor which is rooted in scripture and its earliest interpreters. The idea that charity towards the poor amounts to nothing less than lending to God comes to the reader first as a shock; then, when Anderson shows how central that theme is to the biblical account of the poor, we might take refuge in some caricature that presents that thought as the belief that the generous are rewarded in the next life.

In fact, charity is a witness to the fundamentally merciful and compassionate structure of the world as God has made it. It will be by the continued flourishing of humankind and the created order that the "loan to God" represented by charity to the poor is repaid.

Anderson's agenda, in this highly readable and erudite work, is to lead those who, out of their formation within the Reformation debates, too readily equate such thinking with ideas of a "store of merit" and, indeed, "justification by works" (whether they take "Protestant" or "Catholic" sides in those debates). We need instead to see in that theological theme the calling to find God's mercy at the heart of creation, and the poor in the face of Christ.

Powerful as the other three books reviewed are, there is in Anderson's work a remarkable inspiration towards a world that has charity at the heart of its economy, and a challenging witness to what scripture, faithfully interpreted, can bring to our contemporary crisis.

Dr Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.

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