Last night I went to the Archbishop Blanch Memorial Lecture at Liverpool Hope, given by Rev Dr Sam Wells, from St Martins-in-the-Fields. It was profound, challenging and moving. I have tried to write up my notes below, though inevitably it will be subject to my own bias and interpretation and miss lots of stuff out!
We started with metaphors of poverty, which dragged me right in as I’ve done a lot of thinking about how metaphors shape the way we see the world and consequently our behaviour. Wells divided his suggested metaphors into two – deficit and dislocation. The first deficit metaphor identifies poverty as desert, were the problem is seen as one of lack of resources, and the solution is to provide more resources. The second metaphor is poverty as defeat. The understanding is that some win and some lose, the losers having been dealt a poor hand or not having made the most of their opportunities. In this metaphor, tax and welfare make things worse by reducing motivation and effort to win. The third metaphor sees poverty as a dragnet, a trap like a cat flap, which you can fall into but then can’t get out.
Wells then turned to dislocation metaphors for poverty. Firstly poverty as dungeon or prison. Here, poverty is almost seen as sin and people are held in by those with power around them, or like a prison that people put themselves in through laziness or recklessness. His second dislocation metaphor was poverty as disease, where poverty is seen as not having a human cause, but does have a human remedy. It can be ‘picked up’ from those around us and the problem lies in relationships and society, and can even afflict the rich. (This reminded me of the thesis of “The Spirit Level”, that inequality detrimentally affects all parts of society, not just the poor.) The final suggested metaphor was poverty as desolation, which seems to focus more on symptoms than causes. It suggests a state of having not trusting relationships, where people are vulnerable to exploitation from those around them.
In summary, deficit metaphors focus on lack of resources, while dislocation metaphors focus on a breakdown of relationships. Each suggests different solutions are appropriate to the problem.
Wells then moved onto an analysis of what is fundamentally wrong with the human condition – what is the fundamental problem of human existence? Wells’s thesis is that our culture believes our fundamental problem to be mortality, or more widely, to be limitation. Our culture celebrates anyone who can overcome limitation, from athletes to scientists, in medicine and in technology. This is described as seeking our freedom and is packaged and commodified as creating choice. The deficit metaphors work with this view of mortality as the fundamental problem and see poverty as a constraint on freedom (like Amartya Sen?).
But Wells questioned this assumption and asked us to consider the possibility that mortality is not the fundamental problem but rather isolation. Then, the solution would not lie in what do not have, but in what we do have – each other. To illustrate this, Wells asked us why Christians want people to be saved. In essence it is to save people from hell. But what is so great about heaven? It is not so much about eternal being, but about being with, otherwise we would just be alone forever, which is surely a definition of hell. There is no value in being unless it is being with. If isolation is our problem, then the solution lies in the restoration of relationships and community. The church, Wells said, calls this ‘communion’. The dislocation metaphors of poverty work with this view of the fundamental problem of humanity, and see the problem as the breakdown of relationships, the under-use and abuse of one another, rather than the problem of scarcity.
How, then, does all this inform how we engage with poverty. Wells gave us as an example an encounter with a homeless person in Trafalgar Square. He suggested that there are four models of engagement with poverty, four ways to react. One reaction would be to get the person off the street into accommodation and employment by supporting shelters, lobbying politicians and providing food and clothing. This model he called ‘working for’. The second response could be to come alongside the person, take them to a shelter, find out their needs and point them in the direction of services which could meet those needs. This he called ‘working with’. A third response would be to take the person for coffee, share conversation and be genuinely interested in that person and their views, especially their expertise in their own experience. This, he said, was ‘being with’. Finally, the response could be to get angry and go home and write a blog about the injustice and to rail against the dehumanising language used to diminish homeless people. This he called ‘being for’. I spend a lot of time being for!
Later, Wells went on to say that each model has its place and brings about good things. But at this point in his talk he discussed some of the short-comings of each model. Working for tends to be the default option, the professionals’ model. It wants to fix the problem and sees things in terms of solutions. Being for is similar to working for but tends to see the problem as being fixed by someone else – “something must be done”. The trouble with being or working for is that it is not necessary to actually interact at all with (in this example) the homeless person. The homeless person is not engaged in finding the solution and anyway, who wants to view themselves as a problem?
Working with and being with actually involve interaction with the person who is homeless. The homeless person is at the heart of the interaction and there is a recognition that there is no transformation without agency. However, even working with is still looking at ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’. Being with doesn’t start with a problem, unless that problem is me scurrying passed the homeless person in Trafalgar Square. It starts with wonder and abundance, recognising the other person as the source of my salvation, and not with absence and what we have not. It is not about fixing but receiving, not assuming a script imposed from elsewhere, but actually talking and sharing about what is really important to the other person [and to myself, I want to add, if this is a genuine conversation].
Wells then brought us to a theological reflection and anchor for all of this, which I didn’t manage to capture all of in my notes. He started by asking what God’s view of the world might be – a problem to be solved, or a gift to enjoy – deficit or dislocation. Was the incarnation to fix our mortality or to overcome our isolation? The incarnation itself demonstrates that it is not enough for God to be for us, God’s purpose is to be with us, dwelling among us. Christ is with us even to the extent that it meant, momentarily, that he was not with God. Wells looked at Jesus as a model for us. Jesus worked with his disciples, teaching, encouraging, demonstrating. And he worked for us on the cross. But this amounts to only 10% of his life. What about the other 30 years in Nazareth, glossed over in the Gospels, which Jesus spent simply being with us. The incarnation echoes creation and anticipates heaven.
It is easy to default to working for when we want solutions, to right wrongs. Wells described being on the receiving end of ‘working for’ as diminishing and humiliating, but that at times we are happy to submit to the humiliation at the hands of the expert in order to address a crisis, giving the example of submitting to a dentist when we have toothache. But beyond the crisis, he maintained, we need to be with. Working with is closer to God’s way, increasing agency and partnership like Jesus did with his disciples. But being with releases each individual – the centre of the church’s mission is being with the stranger.
Wells described the modern world as the tussle between liberty and equality – both noble but ultimately only means to an end. Where (for want of a less masculine word) is fraternity? It is neglected but should be our goal. Sadly and ironically, initiatives which start with our deficit and assume mortality is our problem lead to solutions which increase isolation. Poverty is not the absence of money or power, but of relationship breakdown, which is what diminishes human dignity. Working for is rather like building a better world without becoming better people. We need to be with people and restore relationships. Sometimes this is hard because it is painful and costly as we face up to our own need. The example that touched me was of a parent with a child. It is easy for parents to cook dinner, tie shoelaces and pack school bags, however much we moan about it – working for. But how much harder it is to notice that there is something not right and sit with the child for half an hour while they can’t articulate what happened in the playground, and to be with the child until the words come and the problem can be brought into the open and the tears flow.