No Poor Among You: Part I

This comes from a three part sermon series preached by Jean-Ray Knighton Fitt about social justice and poverty.  The CAST team hopes that you take some time to ponder how God wants us to treat the poor in our communities. 

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I’ve worked with poor communities for more than sixteen years. Over the years I’ve met lots of people who think it’s a great idea to work with the poor, but I’ve also met some who think it is a waste of time. I’ve often heard Christians say “Didn’t Jesus say the poor will always be with us – there is nothing we can do about poverty”, or even this: “It’s God’s will that there should always be poor people.  We know this because Jesus said: ‘You will always have the poor with you’”.

Jesus did say that, of course, but this is what happened: Jesus was having supper at the house of some important man and a very sorrowful and repentant prostitute came in crying and poured perfume over his feet. It was shocking and embarrassing for everyone except Jesus, it seems. And people were making all kinds of judgments about both him and her. Some people were saying: “It’s disgusting that Jesus would let a woman like that touch him, doesn’t he know who she is?  And that is expensive perfume, she should rather have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor.”  And so Jesus, reclaiming her dignity, says: “Leave her alone … You will always have the poor among you … But you will not always have me.”

It’s fascinating to me how much emphasis is put on that verse to excuse us from confronting the problem of poverty as Christians; it’s especially fascinating to me because we know that Jesus talked so much about our responsibility to the poor.  That little quote, “You will always have the poor with you”, is actually referring to a passage in Deuteronomy which talks precisely about our responsibility to the poor.

Often, those of us who are rich (or upper-middle class—and let’s be realistic here and define that as the richest 25% of the population: anyone with a gross monthly household income of more than R4 000 per family member) … those of us who have enough money, often think that if someone would just throw enough money at the problem of poverty it would go away.  But poverty is much more complicated than people not having enough money: poverty has to do with opportunities, infrastructure and accessibility of resources, power and control, mindset, education, belief, history  …  and just giving money or food does not solve all the problems of poverty. It never will.

In Deuteronomy 15, God does say that there will always be poor people. Fascinatingly though, just a couple of verses earlier he prefaces this by saying (v4-5) There should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you … he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.

But just in case (v7-11) … “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you … be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs … There will always be poor people in the land.”

Here are two statements almost right next to each other that seem to contradict each other: “There should be no poor among you” and “There will always be poor people in the land”—which is what Jesus was referring to.  So what does that mean and how should Christians respond to each one of those statements?

This chapter actually started by reminding the people that God commanded them to cancel debts every seven years.  If someone couldn’t pay you back, there was a time every seven years that you had to write off the debt. Of course when you lent something you had to calculate repayments based on that law, but basically it was a way that God made sure that nobody could get entangled in debt in a way that they couldn’t escape.  At some point everyone could get free.

There are certain things that keep people poor, certain things that cause poverty to be passed on from parent to child, that trap whole families in poverty: and one of those things is debt. Now, obviously there is a time for lending and borrowing, but there is also a time that it gets out of hand and so God does not want debt to destroy the life of any person or any family. It was the same with slaves, slaves had to be freed every seven years—so even in that era when slavery was considered normal, God put a limit on how long someone could be a slave.

This wasn’t the only law God gave to stop people becoming trapped in poverty, he also made sure that every family had land that they could farm, and that even if they had to sell that land or gambled it away, then every fifty years, in the year of Jubilee, the land would be given back the family.  So that no matter how irresponsible parents had been, the land would be given back to the children and the economic opportunity—the ability to produce wealth, would be restored to every generation.

These things probably seem strange to most of us today, living in a world where the rich just get richer and the poor get poorer.  This is because the economic systems we have today are built around the love of money, not around fairness and the dignity of people.  The harsh reality is that if you grow up in a family that is poor, you will probably go to a school where there are 70 in a class and you won’t have much access to books or the internet. If you study maths or science your teachers will probably not be qualified to teach you and you’ll probably fail. You might struggle to concentrate because you are hungry. And if you manage to pass matric and do some level of tertiary study, you still probably won’t know someone who can get you a job, no one will have taught you how to do a CV or conduct yourself in an interview … so you will join the millions of others who are unemployed and really don’t have much idea what to do about it and your family will remain trapped in poverty for generation after generation.

The rich never really need a safety net, because our bank accounts, our insurance policies, our education, our families and friends are all our safety nets.  But there is no real safety net for the poor. That is why God commands us to build in a safety net system for poor people.  And God measures justice in this world against the standard of his laws.

Check out the blog next week for the second installment of “No Poor Among You”

A Time to Build: Youth Month 2016

From Pastor Jean-Ray Knighton Fitt’s sermon at Appelsbosch Youth Conference on 25 June 2016.

Probably almost everyone has attended a Youth Day Celebration this month. Certainly for all of us Youth Day was remembered. And I would like to pause, at the end of Youth Month 2016 and again remind ourselves of the events of forty years ago on 16 June 1976.

I was a small child – not even two years old. Most of us were not born yet. But the events of that day were one of the greatest forces that shaped the history of this country and brought democracy and freedom.

In the 1970s there was a law in this country that black students must be taught in Afrikaans. This law was offensive for several reasons – not only because people of this nation were being forced to learn in a language many of them did not understand, but more particularly because at that time Afrikaans was seen in the eyes of the people to represent the apartheid system: segregation, robbed opportunities, broken families, poverty, injustice and oppression.

And so on 16th June 1976, thousands of young people of our country held a march, a march that was intended to be peaceful, to stand against laws that were unjust and cruel.

When the police saw the people marching they panicked and tried to stop them. But the youth carried on marching and so the police opened fire. The first person to die that day was a twelve year old boy, Hector Pieterson. A young man, still a child, marching peacefully for freedom, because he wanted to grow up in a just and fair society. The machine gun fire took him first. He fell under a shower of bullets. His friend and his sister tried to carry him to safety, but by the time they got to the clinic he was already dead.

Youth Day is regarded as the turning point in the history of this country. The famous picture of Hector Pieterson being carried will never be forgotten, his sacrifice has shaped the destinies of tens of millions of citizens of this country and, in fact, the world.

That day, more than 500 people were shot and killed by the police. And in the days that followed as the people rose up, at least another 200 young people were killed. What shocked the world the most and plagued the consciences of the oppressors was not so much the killing as the fact that it was a peaceful march – there was no threat to the police or the stability of the nation and yet the lives of hundreds of youth were taken from them that day.

But I want to challenge you today again to remember and understand the pain that this nation was in 40 years ago. The gut wrenching, desperate cries of mothers who had lost children. Their lives were the price of justice in this country. The freedom we take for granted today – they paid for with their blood.

I hear people – young people especially – of every colour and culture in this nation, say that they are not interested in the past, that we should forget the past. I want to remind you today that if it had not been for June 16th 1976, Hector Pieterson would be alive today, and 700 other people who died that week. And maybe we would still be suffering under the evil system of apartheid. We can never forget the price of freedom, and we should never take that freedom for granted.

I can still remember, clearly from my childhood this nation where we lived in fear and in separation. There was bitter misunderstanding between Zulu and Xhosa, between English and Afrikaans, between Coloured and Indian, Black and White – tribes and languages and cultures lived in anger and hatred of each other. Apartheid was not only a segregation of Black and White, it was a system that permeated to the very core of the way people understood their own identity and how they related to every other person in this country. It was a rule of tyranny and fear. Not only for Black people – but also for Coloured, Indian and White people – every person that our government presumed to put a race tag onto and dictate their lives based on that tag. I remember it well.

I remember the fear – particularly my fear of the government and the police.

I remember the violence – the stoning and the burnings, the necklacings.

I remember the oppression, the pass laws, the police brutality – when I think of those things I think of particular faces of people that were our friends and were beaten, teargassed, imprisoned, banned – Black and White and Coloured. The father of one of my school friends had both his legs broken by the police and was left in prison without medical help. I can clearly remember the face of another friend, who was so badly beaten for not carrying a pass – I remember him arriving at our house in that state after the police had let him go. I remember the swelling on his face and the anger of my parents and my father driving him home. I remember the secret police parked outside our house for days – we didn’t know who they were and why they were there until later. In fact it was our neighbour. I remember the rejoicing in our home when that neighbour – a political activist who been banned and was then arrested – managed to escape and cross the border into Botswana in the boot of a car. He went to Europe where he lived as an exile lobbying the European governments to impose sanctions against South Africa to force the end of apartheid. I remember all of it well.

My appeal to you today is to not forget, please do not forget those who gave their lives for our freedom. Remembering brings perspective, remembering brings understanding and wisdom. I do not believe that we will properly be able to build this nation to a place of peace and prosperity and safety, security and opportunity for everyone until we have done three things:

  1. Understood the reality of our past,
  2. Grasped a vision for our future, and
  3. Counted the cost of making that vision a reality.

When I say we must understand the past, I don’t just mean understand with our heads. We must feel the pain to understand why people acted as they did and why they were willing to pay with their lives.

We must feel the pain to appreciate the freedom we now have in our hands – we are fools if we forget the immense cost. How grateful are we to those people? And how much are we willing to do the same for future generations of South Africans? Do you live expecting everything to be given to you, at no cost to yourself? Do you live only with your own pleasure and success in mind? Or are your willing, like Hector Pieterson and thousands of others in our history, to sacrifice yourself for a better tomorrow?

And here I want to talk about the future.

For most people – their eyes are on themselves, and what they can get for themselves: money, power, influence, status, bigger cars, better cell phones and technology. Most people do not lift their eyes to see a better future for everyone, to be inspired to work harder and give more for future generations. We have become a sick, self-centred society where it is harder and harder to find the proud African spirit of Ubuntu.

If generations in the past had thought the way we do – we would not have freedom today. A better world, a safer country full of opportunities and prosperity will only come at a cost. And we must all be willing to pay that cost.

The Bible tells us in Ecclesiastes 3 that there is a time for everything: a time for breaking down and a time for building up. A time for dying and time for being born.

I want to declare that the time for building is now, the time for new birth is now.

At a momentous cost we have achieved the end of apartheid, we have brought equality and respect to people of all cultural groups in this country. But, to be honest, we have got stuck there … after 20 years we still have rampant poverty, abuse, hopelessness, selfishness and greed.

I want to declare that the time for building is now, the time for new birth is now.

I see a picture of a South Africa where families have mothers and fathers and children grow up in safety – where husbands are faithful to their wives, and give time to their children, where children honour and respect their parents.

I see a picture of old people who are safe and respected.

I see a picture where no one goes hungry at night, or has to catch rain in buckets as it pours into their homes, where all people have houses, with water and electricity.

I see a picture of communities that are free from drugs, free from the fear of crime. Women who are not afraid of rape or abuse or discrimination – and are honoured.

I see a picture of peace, where there is not anger, where there is not bitterness, no fighting – but happiness, contentment, sufficiency.

I see a healthy nation – free of disease and malnutrition, able to access health-care when they need it.

I see schools that are not overcrowded, where young people come eager to learn, eager to improve themselves, bright eyed in expectation of a fulfilling career, a wonderful life and future that lies ahead of them. I see a nation full of hope for the future, optimistic – knowing that tomorrow will be better than today.

Do you see those things?

Will you give your life to making that picture a reality?

The time for building is now, the time for new birth is now.

The future rests in the hands of this generation.

Just like the youth of this nation turned the tide in the struggle 40 years ago, we can turn the tide today:

To bring the end of poverty and the beginning of prosperity,

To bring the end of abuse and the beginning of honour and respect,

To bring the end of hopelessness and the beginning of real opportunity.

How must we, as Africans, think differently and what must we do differently?

And let me remind you – that it is the youth who will bring this change. The future of this country lies in your hands. And now I am going to say some things that are hard to hear – things that will make the difference between us moving forward as a nation and being stuck where we are.

The first is this – we will never move forward while we blame the past. There were terrible things that happened in the past, we must remember them and we must learn from them. But if we blame them for where we are today they will paralyse us—we will not be able to move forward, we will forever be stuck. The people who are to blame are dead, the systems that are to blame have mostly been changed. And this is a fact – while we blame someone else for our situation, we will always believe the responsibility for a better future is with that person, but that person will never give us a better future. We have to wake up and realise that every one of us has a choice to live stuck in a place of negativity or to make the best decision with what we have today – every single one us – to build a better tomorrow.

We see many young men blaming their fathers for abandoning them, angry with them for not caring for their mothers, resentful about them never sending money home. And every one of these young men has a reason to be angry. But anger and blame will never help them, and they will become just like their fathers. The answer is this: forgive your father, because he was doing what was done to him. You will never find the root of the problem. Rather do not blame, do not be angry, but choose to be a better father yourself.

Second – build up, don’t destroy. When we destroy property or people’s lives all of us pay. We’ve watched schools being burned, buses and taxis being burned by angry mobs demanding services. And yes, government should be fulfilling their promises and providing basic services – but you know, everything we burn takes us back a step. Every school that is burned will have to be rebuilt, and who will pay?  We will – in higher tax, in lower wages, in poorer municipal services. It costs us – all of us when we destroy. Yes the smoke may get the attention of government. But there are other ways to get attention – usually an organised cooperative approach where we say to government – this is what we need, this is what we are able to do ourselves, this is what we need you to do. Time and time again that approach has proved to be the most effective approach. If all the energy that we have expended in breaking down was used for building up we would a different country with much better opportunities.

Third – do not expect other people to change your life. You change it. It is going to take more time and more effort than we expect. So try harder, work longer, push and push and do not give up; you have more in you than you realise. I promise you do. You are able to achieve more than you think you are able to achieve.

At school or at university – if you put in more work, you will do better. If you are handed a degree on a plate that you did not work for, I promise you it is worth nothing. To get something that is worth something takes hard work. So make the decision today to build – against every obstacle, delay and disappointment. Do not blame, do not complain, keep building.

Fourth – Seize every opportunity. This country is bursting with opportunity – for businesses, for wealth, for strategic relationship, for building a better tomorrow. Many foreigners have come to this land, and put up shops and started businesses and made good money – in a country that offers no benefits to foreigners. And we as South Africans have become angry and blamed them for stealing our opportunities. Do not blame – there are plenty of opportuntites to go around. Foreigners take them because we don’t. But there are more. Find them and take them. There are opportunities to study – search for them. Foreigners with every obstacle stacked in their way are prospering in this country – while we complain and blame. There is enough opportunity for the foreigners. There is even more opportunity for us.

But don’t see those opportunities for yourself only – share when with others, let’s recapture the spirit of Ubuntu. Unless you become a better person, more compassionate, more just, more kind – one who cares for others and is moved by what is just, right, true and pure – You will become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. You cannot do that alone – you need the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit in your life. You can try – but you will soon realise that you are not strong enough, not wise enough, not good enough.

God bless you as you consider how you will make your life count to build a better society and a better country for your children than the community and country you grew up in. Young people of this nation, the opportunities are in your hands – the time for building is here, the time for rebirth is here. With God’s help we will build a better country and a brighter nation for the future.