Woe to those who punish the poor

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I have known times in life when three-minute noodles were the only option I could afford to eat for weeks. When I strung along payment plans for bills to ensure the rent got paid. When I couldn't buy petrol for a car, let alone have it repaired, or replace bald tyres.

Image of a homeless man's shoes in Darwin, Australia. (Credit: David Lee / Getty)But my relative poverty at those times was nothing compared to those with no dietary options, no roof over their heads, or clothes or heating or cooling, or a place where they can be safe. Those who lack what we see as 'basics' are largely invisible to our political masters or dismissed as dealt with by Newstart and other means of starvation.

It's a vote winner, this business of punishing poor people for being poor. Poverty is seen as their fault, and agitation over their plight by godbotherers and social workers as damned cheeky.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (known to his mates as Seneca the Younger) famously declared that 'it is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor'. Well, I'm inclined to bracket that with Marie Antoinette's call for cake, and Malcolm Fraser's truncated quoting of George Bernard Shaw, 'Life wasn't meant to be easy…'

It sounds grand and noble, and so remarkably unaware for a member of the empire that gobbled up much of the known world of its day while riding a fiscal pony named slavery. It is probably worth remembering that Seneca was a satirist and dramatist, as well as a philosopher and statesman.

Poverty goes well beyond questions of mindsets or attitudes to Maslovian imperatives of shelter, sustenance, inclusion and meaning, which are hard to come by if you are skint.

If the opposite of poor is dirty stinking rich, do you care to hazard a guess as to where the richest of the rich live, per capita? If you nominated Trump's US of A, that postmodern Rome, you'd be right. It's number one on a list floating around business realms, followed top ten-wise by China, Japan, Germany, Canada, France, the UK, Hong Kong, Italy and Switzerland.

 

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Oz is not without its plutocrats and billionaires, of course. The average net worth (2017-18) for Australian households is a mere $1 million, pumped up to that height by 'rising property values'. But Aussies with harbour views across multiple properties are relatively rare compared to the battlers.

ACOSS says there are more than 13 per cent of us — more than three million Australians — living below the poverty line; that includes 739,000 children. One in eight adult Australians, and one in six Aussie kids, are mired in poverty. Those of us doing it the toughest 'unsurprisingly [are] those relying on government allowance payments such as Youth Allowance and Newstart'.

What's the impact when you don't have a home? When you are hungry and thirsty, when you can't afford medical and dental care? How are you viewed, treated or neglected by those with cash? As John Falzon once said, Australians living below the poverty line are made to feel 'hopeless, lazy and stupid'.

We live, still, in a democracy. In the face of abysmal policies we can pressure elected governments to change the status quo. This year's Anti-Poverty Week is stressing the need to 'Raise the rate' by 'increasing the rate of Newstart and associated allowances by $75 a week'. There are a million of us that rely on these paltry, inadequate payments, doled out begrudgingly, without being topped up adequately for more than a quarter of a century.

The National Council of Churches in Australia reckons more than 90 per cent of us agree that in Australia 'no one should go without basic essentials like food, healthcare, transport and power'. We are an affluent nation, but we do not share our toys. We allow our elected officials to live like lords while the poor starve.

Francis Bacon is credited with the observation that 'money is like muck — not good unless it be spread'. Raising the rate would be a good start in not making our neighbours feel lazy, hopeless and stupid.

If our PM's theological name dropping rings true, as with his 2008 maiden speech, his life is guided by the life, teaching and leading of Jesus Christ. That unemployed Jewish tradie turned rabble rouser made this apocalyptic observation: 'Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.'

Who would Jesus screw over?

 

Anti-Poverty Week takes place from 13 to 19 October 2019.

 

 

Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image credit: David Lee / Getty

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Anti Poverty Week

 

 

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I like this Barry but do you really think Jesus was a rabble rouser? I don't hear him activating the mass for revolution or uprising against their masters or the wealthy class. An alternative might be to see him as a modern day Hebrew prophet talking to all classes and calling for Justice, compassion and care by everyone for everyone. All this was set within a context of relationships. The model Jesus offered of himself and the Father as one is a model he was offering to all creation.
Michael Bowden | 14 October 2019


Jesus didn't mean to be a rabble rouser but others saw him as that and he often had to get away from the crowds as they got out of hand. And I don't think many of them really got his message! Certainly not the rich (being rich is a comparative thing and also an attitude) and they still don't.
Peter | 14 October 2019


Good question, Michael. I think if Jesus was not a rabble rouser they would not have gone to the trouble to nail him to a cross. Interpretation kicks in, doesn't it? It's as true for us as it was for the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, the Romans, etc. We get to pick the boxes: Jesus is a monarchist (Matthew 22:21) Jesus is a communist (Mark 10: 21) Jesus is an anarchist (Matt. 10: 35,36) Jesus is a conservative (Matt 5: 7) Jesus is a radical (John 3: 3,4) Jesus is an environmentalist (Luke 12:6) Jesus is a demagogue (Mark 6:34) Jesus is a trade unionist (Matt. 20: 12) Jesus is a capitalist (Matt. 25: 20,21) Jesus is a lawyer (Luke 2: 46,47) Jesus is a judge (Matt. 25: 31–46) Jesus is an aviator (Mark 16: 19) Jesus is a dissident (Matt. 6: 48,49) Jesus is a non-violent pacifist (Matt. 26: 52) Jesus is a conquering warrior (Revelation 19: 11–21) Jesus is an armed insurgent (Matt. 10: 34) Jesus is a developer (John 2: 19–21) Jesus is a small business owner (Mark 6:3) Jesus is a traditionalist (Matt. 26: 17–19) Jesus is an innovator (Matt. 17: 27) Jesus is a law-giver (John 13: 34,35) Jesus is a law-breaker (Matt. 12: 1–8) Where does Christology begin and end? I think Jesus Christ would not look favourably on Newstart and its equivalent responses to human need.
Barry Gittins | 14 October 2019


"Who would Jesus screw over?" That says it all for me. Thanks for this prophetically cutting article Barry. Jesus was indeed a rabble-rouser. Nice young men didn't get crucified by the Romans. I believe he also calls us to be rabble-rousers for the kingdom. I'm reminded of Martin Luther King being accused of being an extremist. His response was that it was a good thing to be an extremist for love. That's why groups like Extinction Rebellion are needed today. Yes, they will make mistakes, but nonviolent civil disobedience is sorely needed in these days of climate emergency and pitifully low Newstart allowances.
Nils von Kalm | 14 October 2019


Morrison would seem to have more in common with those proclaiming that Jesus loves the elite - check out “The Family “ on Netflix ! Horrifying.
Bernadette Reeders | 14 October 2019


I’ve had trouble sleeping thinking about this article. A good thing. Kevin Hart, the poet/theologian, often calls God “dark one” and this is about his unknowability. Jesus was his Father’s son. It is clear that God deplored people being treated unfairly and wanted everyone to be reconciled to himself. We hold the government to account by elections and it is the voting public who need to take the brave steps in alleviating poverty by ensuring fair government.
Pam | 15 October 2019


Despite Barry Gittins's imaginative and secularising proof-texting, Michael Bowden's important question stands. Where in the author's list is there reference to the divinity of Jesus, so prominent (but not exclusively so, in John's Gospel ?- Jesus's perceived claims to which so outraged the Jewish leaders that they arrested him and handed him over to the Romans to be crucified. The case Barry makes is, I think, weakened rather than strengthened by the reductive politicising of Jesus and his mission.
John RD | 18 October 2019


You may well be right, John RD. As suggested, I think the way we perceive Christ and the way we interpret scripture will impact how we treat others. Witness the PM. I think 'the sheep and the goats' has a more powerful message for the powerless than 'the great commission'. I think the only worse thing than politicising Jesus is depoliticising Jesus. And I believe Jesus said it best (and it is more accurately translated as) 'the kingdom of God is among you'...
Barry Gittins | 18 October 2019


Barry, congrats on calling out the incongruity of the PM's stated Christian "values" and his walking in the footsteps of Jesus. Where oh where is his preferential option for the poor? His demonstrated pursuit of social justice? The New Start issue, the relentless punishing of those who seek asylum/refuge and the persistent oppression of our indigenous people would surely prompt this same Jesus to say today "Surely I didn't give these examples to anyone who claims to be my disciple to promote in my name?" Thanks Barry - but I am curious where you got your "WOE" quotes from?
michael schell | 19 October 2019


Jesus was not a rabble rouser. Jesus ways and actions overthrew the corrupt pagan system of ‘buying and exploiting influence, favours, and bribes’. This corrupt system also need to be overturned in Aus. Barry, I do not agree with your understanding of the Bible citations. The key problem we have in Aus is many Australians may read the Bible, but it is not in the reading but in the understanding of the Gospel. Whites control the media and control everything, white supremacy at the expense of blacks, inferring and enforcing black inferiority. The poverty article should focus on black poverty as majority of whites in Aus have 2 homes, one they live in and one in the country area for holiday and getaways. You would have your own home too. The black and brown man has been the bread and butter of white people in Aus. Changing white conscience to help whites is easy (whites complain and Govt drought handouts etc), this is the best country in the world for whites as you do need skills just a white skin in Aus and get given the economic order on a plate from the sweat, suffering and labours of black and brown families. We want our rights in Australia and tired of whites stealing our labours and fruits on the basis they are white, like criminals. This is exacerbated as the whites hide they are the prison stock so educated black immigrants immigrate not knowing their traits (do as I say, not as I do; what you don’t know, won’t hurt you) and their secretive culture with no protections in the law. Satan, father of lies, has the white race who bow before their race, lies and deceit, and not God. Jesus stands on Truth, He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. What whites did to the Aboriginals is the root sin of Australia. Whites changed a Divine Truth for a lie. God’s teaching is every human no matter the color is equal WORTH, equal DIGNITY. We do not want white respect, as that is like an act of pity for a black person, which is what we have experienced over the decades. We want our rights, we cannot get media profiles or public profiles as it usually young nonwhites who have not been through decades of the white system or those with a colonised mind or those easily bought to follow the political script. We suffer with our dark Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and are educated, multidimensional professionals that face racial discrimination, consciously and unconsciously, every day by whites, oblivious that there assets, clothes, houses are laced with the sweat and labours of blacks, theft and all sorts of ill gotten gain.This is the harsh discrimination blacks face everyday in Aus. Whites can return to God__not on white terms but God’s terms__to bring about the reconstruction of Australia on FULL Catholic faith with the right ordering of conscience, healing every root of sadness and bitterness in this land for the future for Australia and all its people.
Jackie | 19 October 2019


Criticism of the Church's is not fair as church organisations are the leading givers to the poor in our community. There are many volunteers that give time money and goods generously.
Adrian | 19 October 2019


I agree with this excellent article. Jesus said “love one another, as I have loved you” and that’s how I try to live my life. Be kind and compassionate. If someone needs assistance, then make every effort to help them. Give to the poor. How do you empower someone doing it tough, by backing them. Giving them hope, love and the means to do better. Not by shaming, starving and humiliation. That’s what I’ve learnt from Christianity. It saddens me so to see people manipulating Christian values for their own benefit.
Cate | 20 October 2019


Why must commentators about the poor be so nasty and judgemental? The author sneers ” We are an affluent nation, but we do not share our toys. We allow our elected officials to live like lords while the poor starve.” The facts tell the opposite: $175 billion of the Federal Budget is spent on social security and welfare. This is one-third of the Federal Budget. The primary source of income for around 2.3 million working age Australians between ages 16 and 64 is a welfare payment: 720,000 on Newstart, 685,000 on Disability Support Pension, 280,000 on Youth Allowance, 325,000 on Parenting Payment. As a taxpayer for 43 years who saw in recent years 35% of my pay go to the tax man to help fund social welfare payments, I find the author’s severe judgements disrespectful, inaccurate and unhelpful. What about some creative suggestions on how we might spend our welfare budget more skillfully, rather than his simplistic chant of more and more money for the poor from those mean bad people who work to pay tax?
Barry | 20 October 2019


"Thank you Lord that I am not like all those other rich men gathered together at the back of the temple making sure that the poor don't get in to disturb my prayer".
Hugh Bris | 21 October 2019


Barry Gittins: “I think 'the sheep and the goats' has a more powerful message for the powerless than 'the great commission'.” Indeed it has. And, as all New Testament Scripture, like the Old Testament Law, is one, the breaking of one part resulting in the breaking of the whole, the goats are equally powerfully displayed in Israel Folau’s representation of St Paul’s 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. It’s only ‘proof texting’ in the service of human ‘itchy ears’ which reserves for the former the blessing of a politically correct safe space and for the latter the anathema of a triggered casting into outer darkness. And the reason both Testaments are symbiotically equal is because both were commissioned to be written by the one Jesus who is the one God. It's not for humans to say which caste of sinner is a goat and which isn't. All castes of sinners are the same.
roy chen yee | 22 October 2019


Excellent article, although I never thought of Jesus as a 'rabble rouser'. An important message that Pope Paul VI gave the world way back in 1975: "The dichotomy between the Faith we profess and the lives we live is one of the more serious errors of our times." So true today!
Elizabeth Morris | 22 October 2019


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