THE most significant convergences among the representatives of the different Christian traditions are to be found in those who discern the structural and systemic nature of the justice issues that the world currently faces.
The practitioners of “public theology” and the campaigners for social and economic justice find the denominational silos in which they were, in many cases, reared less and less relevant. They read one another’s books and reports; increasingly, they share common vocabulary, pursue similar themes, and find that their approaches to the interpretation of scripture diverge less and less.
That does not mean that all the writers sound the same or are simply interchangeable in their manner of expression. Each will have a constituency in mind, an ecclesial community to address. So creative differences remain; but the common witness to justice leads to the discovery of increasingly shared roots.
Justin Thacker’s “theological guide” to global poverty is a singular example of that convergence that does not obliterate difference, drawing particular inspiration from Lesslie Newbigin, one of the 20th century’s greatest prophets of a search for justice rooted in the gospel.
The work is detailed, the range of secular and religious writers cited and discussed is wide, and the command of the statistics of poverty is impressive.
This is not, however, simply another call to be involved in the struggle against worldwide inequality, although there is an epilogue containing some fairly standard recommendations for action. Rather, the main body of the work is an exercise in “applied theology”: a drawing together of biblical and doctrinal resources on the one hand, and the characteristics of global poverty and inequality on the other, in a process of mutual enrichment.
We learn about the contribution that Christian faith can make to a deeper understanding of poverty, and the contribution that an examination of the nature of poverty can make to a more profound appreciation of the central tenets of the faith.
The book is arranged in five parts, structured around key loci of Christian doctrine: creation, Fall, Israel’s story, redemption, and consummation. Each part is composed of chapters that move between biblical and theological material and discussion of the nature of global poverty.
For example, in Part 1, under “Creation”, the author argues from the biblical texts that the imago Dei resides not in the individual, but is
a social reality within the whole human race, and that, therefore, some of the difficult texts that appear to relate poverty to individual failings in fact provide insight into the systemic nature of global poverty.
In Part 2, “The Fall”, the chapter on taxation and debt uses the biblical narrative and the legacy of colonialism to raise the question “Who owes what to whom?” and, thereby, to propose a radical revision of current attitudes to taxation.
This pattern of relating biblical and doctrinal themes to the challenge of global poverty is persistently followed. Thacker does not hesitate to question both secular and theological theories of poverty-alleviation, in a way that illuminates both sides of the comparison. His reading is wide and, if that leads sometimes to some breathlessness, and the sense that too much ground is being covered, it also gives the book considerable authority.
Given that, it might seem unfair to draw attention to two surprising omissions. But Anglicans concerned to develop a faith-based understanding of global poverty might have expected a critical assessment of the particular Anglican inheritance in this regard. Yet the trajectory from F. D. Maurice to William Temple is not even alluded to. Although such thinkers predate globalisation as we know it, they offer insights about poverty which are part of global Christianity and deserve attention.
Most surprising of all in a book concerned to relate global poverty to the principal loci of Christian doctrine, and possibly something that an examination of the Anglican tradition might have caused the author to reconsider, is the absence of a section on the incarnation.
Of course, no work of this kind, wide-ranging as it is, can cover everything; but it is surely of the greatest significance for our consideration of global poverty that God in Christ chose, though rich, for our sakes to become poor.
The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.
Global Poverty: A theological guide
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50