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


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