There are certain things that I remember about Christmastime as a child. Every year I would create a nativity scene out of cardboard, bits of straw and an assortment of farmyard animals and Barbie dolls, and we’d string up glittering rows of Christmas cards on the mantelpiece. At Sunday school, I coloured in pictures of baby Jesus and learned the Calypso carol, and my mum put things together for a shoebox appeal.
I got to thinking about that shoebox the other day. As a child it seemed mysterious and exciting: a box full of items that seemed very normal, like toothpaste and facecloths, but were luxuries for the people who would receive them. I imagined the box going to some distant country, poverty seemingly far-removed from my family’s comfortable existence.
Whether it’s filling a shoebox or donating to charity, Christmas has traditionally been a time to remember the poor. As Christians, we are – or should be – good at giving to those in need; the Bible is full of commands to look after the most vulnerable. But what if the needy aren’t miles away, but on our doorstep? Inequality in the UK is steadily increasing, and we are currently experiencing the greatest gap between rich and poor since the Second World War. With 13 million in poverty, and of these an estimated 4 million living in food poverty, this Christmas many will be relying not on shoeboxes but on parcels from their local food banks.
That this deprivation exists in the seventh richest nation in the world is shocking, but it’s not just this that is the problem. Also of fundamental importance is the way we view the poor – because the portrayal of the poor in the media is as much of an issue of injustice as poverty itself. The idea of the deserving versus the undeserving poor emerged in Victorian times, and is a concept that is just as prevalent today.
On the one hand, charity adverts and programmes press all the right buttons to get us to part with our cash. Against a background of sad music, a tale is told of blameless victims of circumstance, poor through no fault of their own. Serious-sounding celebrities implore us to donate whatever we can. They are the type of ‘hard-working families’ politicians tell us the welfare system is there to help.
And then there is the second camp: the unemployed scroungers, the druggies, the hoodies with ASBOs and the chavs who buy plasma TVs with their dole money. Newspapers scream headlines of benefit fraud and immigrants sponging off the state. There is an assumption that some people deserve to be poor because they are too lazy to work or simply bad at managing their money.
The fact is that many popular perceptions of poverty are untrue, and the poor often go unheard, powerless against a political-media narrative that is biased against them. When times are financially tough, it’s the most vulnerable – the poor and the outsider – who become society’s scapegoat, and never the rich and powerful.
This polarisation of the poor is also far from biblical, where instead of polarising, we are instructed to bless the poor without condition. Jesus never said: “Give to the poor, but only those you think deserve it.” This is the Jesus who died for us, regardless of our merit. We should give generously and without judgment, because when we give, it’s as if we give to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40). But when we buy into the humiliation of the poor, we deny one of the core values of Christianity – to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
So how should we respond? What does it look like to bless the poor this Christmas? Giving is – well – a given! Whether we can afford a little or a lot, there are many ways to give financially, be it donating to charities or directly to those in need. But secondly, and I believe just as important, is our mind-set. Poverty is so much more than a lack of resources: it’s a state that robs people of joy, hope and purpose. Loving the poor means treating people with dignity and honour, and challenging the notion that anyone deserves to be in poverty. So this advent, let’s turn our attention to giving generously and loving without judgment, just as Jesus did for us.
“Then the righteous will answer him: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”