Talking down to God – thoughts about “the poor”

By | March 29, 2014

Beginning on the 6th April the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Cardinal Nichols the leader of the Catholics in the UK begin a series of prayers and reflection in support of social action among the poor. I was asked to film one of the reflections presented by theologian Paula Gooder which will be introduced on the 11th of April. We did the filming at Scargill House near Kettlewell in Yorkshire.

Listen to God, Hear the Poor is the title of the series and it has been an inspiration to me before it has started. The Archbishop’s determination to address issues of poverty in this country is very encouraging. Read a speech he delivered here

So this Easter my own reflections will be anchored in this series, Listen to God, Hear the Poor. For any church members who use twitter there is an opportunity to highlight social action using the hashtag #listentogod

Here I want to reflect on my own perspective on the poor which has changed in the last few years.

As Christians we count ourselves as children of God, made in his image. When we look into the eyes of another person we may say that here is the face of Jesus. Difficult to comprehend isn’t it? How can it be that we human beings with all our imperfections and annoying ways can be identified with God? Let’s think about this question of identity. When we talk about “the poor” what’s going on in our heads? What do we see when we encounter “those people” we see as the poor?

My understanding of theology is so small that it is beyond me to offer an intelligent explanation, but I have studied ideas about identity where it concerns products and marketing. I know, for example, that the brand identity of a product is closely mapped to how we see ourselves as people. What kind of car you drive can be part if your identity as can the clothes you wear, the drinks consume and so on. Marketing agencies are brilliant at understanding human identity and managing the connections we make between what we consume and who we are. There are strong links between wealth and identity.

If you dig into this question of identity as formed through product consumption you begin to realise how manipulative and divisive it can be. Big business can not only respond to markets but they can create markets by using celebrities, tv programmes, and popular press to help people form an identity for themselves based on lifestyles built around products. So called impartial and objective broadcasters easily bolster these manufactured identities.

An even more worrying aspect is that people’s consumption is encouraged to be competitive and aspirational. “the car in front is a Toyota” , “because you’re worth it”, for example. Through our lives we are encouraged to see ourselves as constantly in need of improvement through the consumption of ever more expensive and sophisticated products which enable us to be better than someone else.

The employment of status and standing (high or low) is prevalent. Status is a powerful motivator linked to income, consumption and hierarchies of power. I have been lucky (if I can say lucky) to have worked in an industry which uses people’s status as raw material for the production of engaging television. Whenever I met or worked with a famous person I never lost that giddy child like excitement of being in their company. As broadcasters we present people as branded products – labeled and packaged. The banker, the politician, the poor person, the immigrant. Each person’s identity is formed out of a mix of stereotypes, visual clues, popular shorthand, the products they associate with.

TV shows thrive on presenting people as either success stories or the victims of misfortune, the winners or the losers.

As a TV producer at the BBC I had status. One of the first questions I got asked when I walked into the office at Television Centre was. “did you go to Oxford or Cambridge?”, seriously. Friends were always interested in who I had met or what I knew about people of status.

The Church of England (admire it as I do), is a place where I encounter a high degree of status awareness. People of influence connected with government, the BBC or the Royal Family easily become the focus of attention. On the other side of the coin, people of low standing are also given a lot of attention but for different reasons. It is very easy for (us) to see people who have fallen on hard times as deserving causes and for (us) to assume a position of rescuer. The feelings we get when doing good can easily feed this almost universal tendency to need status. The poor, when we discuss them in a Christian environment, always seem to be “out there” somewhere, or the kind of people who pop up on our doorstep. Need is something that people in a foreign country suffer from and it’s our job to go there as missionaries and sort them out. I’m making a sweeping statement but you know what I mean.

When I left ITV and joined the community development charity Oblong Leeds Ltd I found it hard to adjust to an environment where I no longer had power over those I was serving – where equality was practical. The life of Woodhouse Community Centre is built around groups of volunteers formed into collectives who make decisions together. There is no CEO or manager as such. It may be that there are hidden power structures but the experience has been humbling, cleaning the toilets beneath no-one. The words “the poor” or “disadvantaged” are hardly ever used, we don’t seem to use terms that bundle people into categories. We are focused on an individual’s needs – a person looking for work, a person who needs help managing their money, a person who is struggling with their mental health. The important thing is that we are sitting down together at the same table sharing meals and getting to know each other as individuals.

So what’s my point? I think we can only really serve people when we get to know each other as equals. We should guard against the inevitable appeal of status? We should not sucumb to the impulse to put ourselves above others? Beware of the emotional draw of doing good.

If God is in our neighbourhood, if Christ is visible in those we encounter, then we must be mindful of those people we are inclined to talk down to. Sitting down at the table with stranger is a good place to be but it will involve sacrifice and humility.

Let’s be careful about the attitude we adopt and the language we use, lest we talk down to God himself.