The Black Pyramid

A brief moment on Twitter compelled me to share a poem that I’ve been hiding.

What follows might not be pretty. In fact, it might be awful but I’d like to share it all the same. I want to share it because of a fleeting conversation I had on twitter with @elephentlessons. It was a brief moment considering if teachers write for fun in their spare time and how daunting it would be to share anything we had written with colleagues (especially as English teachers).

So, here I am sharing a piece of writing I did in my spare time, a poem. I can’t think of anything more frightening than sharing a poem with the world. Especially if it was awful. Tonight feels like a night to be courageous – so please read my poem.

The Black Pyramid is a very personal piece of writing and I’ll discuss the event that inspired it below.

Black Pyramid Poem

The Black Pyramid is not a poem I wrote for fun; I wrote it for catharsis. The Black Pyramid is about a miscarriage and it was one of the ways that I worked through what happened to my wife and I.

The pyramid is a thing that haunts me still – even three years after it the miscarriage. In early 2015 we were rapidly approaching the twelfth week of our pregnancy. We were excited. We couldn’t wait for our first scan. Sadly, we wouldn’t have to.

My wife knew something was wrong so we arranged for an emergency scan. When we were in the room I could see what was happening with the scan – my wife couldn’t. Before the doctor said anything I knew we weren’t going to be parents. The image I had expected to see wasn’t there: there was just a black triangle, unnaturally sharp and empty. I tried to force my face to remain neutral, but my wife knows me too well and the tears began even before the doctor’s blunt diagnosis made everything painfully real.

The baby had never formed. Not properly anyway. But they had formed in our hearts and our minds. We’d thought of names. Discussed potential personalities. Told friends. We’d envisioned a new life. We felt robbed. We were heartbroken.

I’m a dad now. I’m happier than I could ever have imagined (I may reevalute this statement during the teenage years), but the spectre of the pyramid lingers. That’s what miscarriage does to you – it brings a fear that you never knew existed, makes you mourn the unlived life.

We chose to share our experience and talk openly about our miscarriage because we knew keeping it in would do us far more harm than good.

If you need help or advice, take a look at https://www.miscarriageassociation.org.uk/

 

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Reflecting on New Voices 2018

New Voices 2018 was a rollercoaster personally – but I learned a lot and I’d do it again in a heartbeat (even though I’m pretty sure that’s against the rules).

New Voices came at the end of a tough week for me. It had been one of those weeks where everything just seemed to kick you in the guts: a long week made longer by open evening, lessons that didn’t seem to land, relationships with students that took a knock, and just generally feeling a bit rubbish. I didn’t savour travelling from Yorkshire to London, but I was excited to speak about supporting trans students and the experiences I’d had in my own career.

For me, the day started with Peter Bloomfield’s (@PeterBloomfie13) presentation about his career progression from caretaker to head teacher and the mistakes he’d made along the way. There was some really common sense advice for leaders and, as a novice head of department, there was some food for thought about how I’d approach my own tenure and some of the ‘wasps’ I was already encountering in my classroom.

Then it was my turn to talk. I rehearsed my opening as I waited for the room to clear. And clear it did.

And it stayed clear.*

It’d be disingenuous to say I wasn’t a little disheartened to realise how small my audience was going to be (for a brief, horrifying moment I thought there would be no audience), but I still wanted to deliver my talk – even if it was to just three people.

And I’m glad I did talk. Because, even if it was just to three people I was able to get across the difficulties faced by trans students in our schools. The data is horrific at best (84% of trans students self harming, 92% experiencing suicidal thoughts, 45% attempting suicide), but the stories I’ve encountered first hand have made me determined to be a voice for trans students. Being given the opportunity to speak outside of my own school context has simply made me even more determined to share the stories of trans students and make teachers think about the impact that they can have on the wellbeing of trans students. Telling these stories for the first time made me realise that more teachers need to hear the harsh realities of life for trans students and ways they can support their trans students.

You don’t have to look very far to find transphobia in our media. Trans children are being presented as potentially dangerous sexual predators simply for wanting to live life as their experienced gender as fully aspossible. Adults that support the rights of trans children are denounced as child abusers. Trans children need champions in their schools, not only to protect their right to the education they deserve, but to also combat the quagmire of lies, misinformation and smears that trans children and their parents are enduring right now. Teachers can be the spearhead in the fight against transphobia because we can be the champions our trans kids so badlyneed.

It doesn’t take much to makea big difference in kids’ lives. Just today @MissLAMatthews shared this incredible moment on twitter:

A tiny shift in pronouns is all it takes to improve the mental health of our students. But I wonder if this is one teacher making a world of difference in one lesson where it could be every teacher, every lesson, every day.

Following my experience at New Voices I want the stories of the kids I know to reach more than three people. So, if you have trans students in your school and you’d like a CPD session based on what I’ve learnt please reach out. I’m no expert – and there are agencies out there that can go further (see @Mermaids_Gender) and parents whose voices are invaluable (@dadtrans and @fiercemum are knowledgable and passionate), but sometimes teachers need to hear from other teachers and I want to be that voice for trans students.

I didn’t leave New Voices disappointed. Bernie Callanan (@Bernie_SENCO) and Taneisha Pascoe-Matthews (@Mellow_Pascoe) both gave great talks about autism and how we can meet the needs of students in our schools. Their approaches were vastly different, but I came away impressed by how much each of them cared for their students how what I could do for my own ASD students. There were also talks from Elisabeth Bowling (@elucymay), Claire Hewitt (@Clairehewittsim) and Ben Morris (@brmorris10) that all made me reflect on my own practice and consider my vision.

Ultimately, New Voices was a wonderful experience. Jane Manzone (@heymisssmith) and Ruth Luzmore (@RLuzmore) deserve high praise for organising such a great event in such a delightful space. If you’ve never spoken at an education conference and you’re passionate about something then think ahead to signing up in 2019. I may have only reached three people on Saturday – but that’s only the beginning for me.

*To be fair, Amanda Spielman arrived as I was about to speak and there were teachers from Michaela talking about behaviour too. Just the luck of the draw on the day.

 

 

Bad Faith Brett

The Brett Kavanaugh debacle was a missed opportunity for powerful Christian witness and instead became a rallying cry for cowardly manhood.

Let’s be honest. We know Brett Kavanaugh was lying during his confirmation hearing – especially about his drinking. I’ll tell you how I know. I’ve met Brett Kavanaugh. Not the Brett Kavanaugh but a whole bunch of Brett Kavanughs. Heck, I’ve probably been Brett Kavanaugh.

The Brett Kavanaughs I met hailed from the Deep South rather than D.C. These boys went to church every Sunday. Knew their scripture by heart. Prayed, earnestly, before ball games. Got pissed off if they heard Hell or Goddamn being used as cuss words. Some even formed Christian rock bands.

These same boys would also happily regale each other with tales of how obscenely drunk they got at keggers; how high they got – usually weed or Xanax; the blowjob they got from that freshman; how they chased that senior they’d heard was a slut; or even how they’d assaulted one of their peers.

I’m not listing those things from a place of judegement because I know that none of us can throw the first stone: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). I also understand that I have been saved by the grace of God from my own sins and my own failings – and continue to be bathed in that grace every time I stumble. And stumble I do. Repeatedly. And their seems to be a pretense in American political life that you can’t admit you’ve been saved from anything; you have to be a sports-coat-wearing-cookie-cutter-Christian freshly minted out of the box (sin sold separately).

What amazes me about Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing was the notion that somehow by being Christian meant that in no way could he admit the imperfection he’d been saved from. Sure, he liked a beer – but never got blind drunk (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary). And he was a virgin, so how could he have sexually assaulted someone? (This latter defence – if a genuinely held belief – would terrify me if I were a US citizen.) There seemed to be this idea that in conceding his behaviour was flawed he would somehow be a lesser man, be a lesser Christian and – perhaps most tellingly – less powerful. And that idea led to a display of anger, dishonesty and partisanship that belittled a victim, diminished the nation and demeaned the faith. And to achieve what? To further whose agenda? His own? Trump’s? The Republicans’? The Evangelicals’? God’s?

We can’t simultaneously be saved, yet have nothing to be saved from. It’s intellectually and spiritually dishonest.

Can you imagine if he’d used his confirmation as a testimony?

Thirty-six years ago I was a different man. I wasn’t even a man. I was young and foolish. I drank too much. I drank to the point of oblivion. I cannot be sure what I did in that oblivion. I know I held women in disdain. I know I treated them as objects. I know that when fuelled by beer and liquor I went too far with women without their consent.

That is who sits before the Senate today. He has not existed for decades. I come before you now redeemed by the blood of Christ. I am not the boy I was in 1982, but in being considered for such a high office I must atone for his actions – no matter how foreign and alien they are to me now. I apologise, unreservedly, to Doctor Ford for what happened in 1982 and I pray that she can forgive me.

In light of these allegations it would be better for the people and the President if I were to withdraw myself from the nomination. I thank the President for his confidence in me, but it would not reward his confidence for me to continue with the process. I thank the Senate for their time and consideration and I pray that God gives us a candidate that reflects the values of this great nation and serves it justly and proudly.

What a defining moment that would have been! It would have shown that faith doesn’t breed entitlement. That grace breeds humilty. Justice is more important than power. Women are more important than our selfish ambitions. That the truth of the cross is more powerful, more enduring, and more valuable than the seat on the Supreme Court. That men can, and must change, to usher in the kingdom of God. Sadly, it was none of that. It was a rallying cry for craven men: you’ll be okay as you are, there’s no need to change.

You only need to have encountered #MeToo or #ChurchToo in the most cursory of ways to realise the pain women have endured at the hands of men. Christian men are no better in this arena. We do a disservice to our Sisters in Christ if we pretend otherwise.

I believed Dr Blasey Ford’s testimony. It was powerful. It was compelling. It was brave. As men we need our testimony to be just as brave to lift each other up, to be better, to change. We need to concede our sin and speak up with victims – not scream out lies to drown out their truth.

 

 

 

 

Meeting The Needs of Transgender Pupils as a Christian Teacher

As Christians in the classroom we can encounter things that challenge our worldview. What do we do when that happens?

If I am honest, I have lived an unchallenged life. I am white, straight, middle class and a Christian. These things have a power to them. I am likely to earn more than my female colleagues. I am likely to be listened to, believed, respected. I am likely to be represented positively in the media, treated favourably by the justice system, and hold positions of political power. With all of these things comes a responsibility to push our society past these advantages. Especially as a teacher. As a teacher it is my responsibility to support my students in overcoming any obstacle that prevents them from fulfilling their potential.

It is with this responsibility in mind that I was saddened to hear of teacher Joshua Sutcliffe leaving his job after he was found to be in contravention of the school’s equality policy. The incident he seems to have been investigated for was the misgendering[i] of a student during a lesson. It has been reported in such a way to suggest that this was an act of absent mindedness, an accident- a mere slip of the tongue. It is also often reported that Mr Stucliffe was sacked. However, it is clear that Mr Sutcliffe resigned because he does “not believe that young children should be encouraged to self-select a ‘gender’ which may be different from their biological sex” or that “everyone at school should adjust their behaviour to accommodate such a ‘transition’” (note the inverted commas). In his resignation letter he also refers to the “ideology of transgenderism”.

Five years ago I might have held a similar position as Mr Sutcliffe. Five years ago I’d never met a trans person. I held a position that was apparently sympathetic, but ill-informed. Five years ago I moved to a school with a trans student (A) and my views had to change. I had to be informed. I had to be a good teacher.

But change was slow in coming.

Four years ago, a trans student (B) joined my tutor group. And, quite honestly, I was a bit of an arse about the whole thing. Actually, I was a massive arse about the whole thing. I was careless to avoid misgendering; I have a habit of reading the register on auto-pilot, so I deadnamed[ii] him regularly. I had conversations with colleagues where I expressed the belief that he was confused or that he was just gay and hadn’t accepted it. My teeth itch at writing this. I know how awful these things are. How ignorant and backward. How much they belie the fact that I wasn’t living up to my responsibility to help this student overcome the obstacles placed in front of him. Thankfully, he’s an incredibly open and honest lad and has spoken to me a lot about his journey. His frankness is one of the things that has pushed me to examine my own beliefs and behaviours.

A and B are not the only pupils that I work with, and they won’t be the last. I’m writing this for them. To atone for my own ignorance and to help others overcome theirs. Hopefully, I can address some of the myths we have about gender and provide a way to meet the needs of trans pupils in a meaningful way.

Myth 1: Gender is a simple choice.

Just to be clear there is a difference between gender and sex. Gender is the social and cultural differences between male and female, whereas sex is the division based on reproductive function.

As noted above Mr Sutcliffe’s letter refers to the idea that “not believe that young children should be encouraged to self-select a ‘gender’ which may be different from their biological sex”[iii]. There’s an idea here that somehow someone can make a choice about their gender in a willy-nilly manner as part of a fad or fashion.

Now I hate to be a bad Christian about this – but that’s a dangerously unscientific idea to lead with. I’m not going to unravel all of the problems with that idea here, but I’ll take a stab at pulling at the thread a little bit.

First of all there have been studies that have revealed that the brains of trans people are different. Results of a Spanish study in 2013 showed that the brains of trans people held similarities with their experienced gender[iv] before treatment. A study published in Amsterdam in 2014 revealed that adolescents with gender dysphoria responded to an odorous steroid in line with peers of their experienced gender rather than peers of their sex assigned at birth. Further studies out of Amsterdam showed that adolescent boys with gender dysphoria responded to specific sounds in the same way peers of their experienced gender would.

These studies are important because they reveal that there’s more going on neurologically with trans pupils than we often understand. Our understanding of gender is often linked to the presence of a penis or a vagina – but these studies show that we are more complex than the sum of our parts (awful pun intended).

It should be clear that these students aren’t making a simple choice; they are experiencing a complex neurological condition (on top of what is already happening with their teenage brain) and to diminish that to a ‘choice’ is both dangerous and irresponsible.

If you need more convincing that gender identity is more than a simple choice I would like you to consider the case of David Reimer. David Reimer is sadly an infamous case in the world of gender theory. Reimer’s penis was destroyed by a botched circumcision at 6 months old. At 22 months he underwent gender reassignment surgery based on the flawed idea that gender came about as the result of social learning. He was renamed Brenda and he spent the next fifteen years living as a girl and being treated as a girl (to the point of being given hormones during adolescence). Around the age of nine David was aware that he was not a girl and had transitioned back to male by the age of fifteen. This was after years of living as a girl without knowledge of what had happened to him, intensive psychological intervention and hormone therapy.

One could argue that this proves that what we are born as is what we are. David was born a boy and nothing could change that.

I would counter that with the argument that it is what is happening inside that is important. Reimer was male internally and no matter how much he was forced to live against his experienced gender his true gender identity emerged. For trans people it’s somewhat inverse. They know their body is wrong, but biology forces them to remain trapped. Bad medicine and bad science forced Reimer to live in the wrong body. It might be an oversimplification to say this, but for trans people it is nature that has trapped them.

As a Christian it might be important to note that we are often reminded of our lack of understanding in the face of God and that he has created all things. It is our responsibility to seek out wisdom and understanding in the things we may find confusing or challenging. Gender identity, as complicated as we may find it, is not a simple choice. It is hardwired into us and it may not always align with the bodies we are born into.

Myth 2: It is not the responsibility of the Christian Teacher, or anyone else for that matter, to accommodate the transition of a trans pupil.

This is where my anger as both a teacher and a Christian rises.

As part of his resignation Mr Sutcliffe suggests that he does not believe that “everyone at school should adjust their behaviour to accommodate such a ‘transition’”.

Well, he’s wrong.

And here’s why: The Teachers’ Standards[v].

The Teachers’ Standards (TS) are what govern our professional lives. As a Professional Mentor I refer to them a lot. The standards “define the minimum level of practice expected of trainees and teachers from the point of being awarded QTS” and “headteachers (or appraisers) should assess teachers’ performance against the standards to a level that is consistent with what should reasonably be expected of a teacher”. As such, we should look to the standards (in addition to our Christian beliefs) for guidance as to how to behave in the classroom.

So, here’s what I think applies to a teacher and how they should, as a professional, meet the needs of trans students in the classroom. And I do not apologise for the repeated reference to failure.

TS1: Set high expectations which inspire, motivate and challenge pupils

1:1 establish a safe and stimulating environment for pupils, rooted in mutual respect

If a student doesn’t feel safe in your classroom because you insist on misgendering them (something that I found out a colleague had done regularly) or deadnaming them – well, you’re not living up to your professional responsibilities. If your behaviour leaves a child feeling anxious and unsafe, then you have failed as a teacher.

If we demand our employers and colleagues respect our Christian beliefs (which are completely a choice) even if they disagree with them, then we should absolutely do the same for our pupils. If you cannot provide your students with mutual respect then you have failed as a teacher.

1:3 demonstrate consistently the positive attitudes, values and behaviour which are expected of pupils.

If you are misgendering or deadnaming students in front of other people – especially pupils, you are sending a message that such behaviour is acceptable and students will respond to your example. They too will deadname and misgender, and this has consequences. You may not understand what a trans student is experiencing, but if your behaviour is making a child’s life harder then you have failed as a teacher.

TS5: Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils

5:3 demonstrate an awareness of the physical, social and intellectual development of children, and know how to adapt teaching to support pupils’ education at different stages of development. 

If you cannot demonstrate that you understand that children are developing in unique ways that requires you to adapt your teaching then you are failing as a teacher. And take a look – that involves physical development. If you have a trans pupil and you haven’t taken any steps to develop your understanding of how to meet their needs you have failed as a teacher.

5:4 have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs; those of high ability; those with English as an additional language; those with disabilities; and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.

As a teacher you are called to understand the needs of all students, not just the ones you understand or agree with. You are called to support them. If you cannot work to understand the needs of trans students, or support them by using their preferred pronouns and name then you have failed as a teacher.

TS7: Manage behaviour effectively to ensure a good and safe learning environment.

7:1 have clear rules and routines for behaviour in classrooms, and take responsibility for promoting good and courteous behaviour both in classrooms and around the school, in accordance with the school’s behaviour policy.

It is good behaviour and courteous to meet the needs of trans students by using their preferred name and pronouns (regardless of if you understand and agree or not). As teachers we model good and courteous behaviour so that students can act as we act. If you cannot model good and courteous behaviour to trans students in the same way as you would any other child, then you have failed as a teacher.

7:4 maintain good relationships with pupils, exercise appropriate authority, and act decisively when necessary.

If you cannot use a trans students preferred name and pronouns you cannot have a good relationship with them. One trans student (C) explained to me how demeaned he felt when one of my colleagues repeatedly deadnamed him in front of his peers and repeatedly asked him to use his “real” name on the front of his book. Sadly, that member of staff left before they could be challenged. C hated that lesson and that teacher. If you can’t build a good relationship with a trans student simply because they are trans, then you have failed as a teacher. Likewise, it is not in our authority as individual teachers to decide if we follow our school’s equality policy based on personal beliefs or understanding. We act within the authority we have – we do not have professional authority to make a value judgement on a person’s life (unless it falls under child protection, and then we must act). If you act outside of your authority simply because a child identifies as transgender, then you have failed as a teacher.

TS8: make a positive contribution to the wider life and ethos of the school.

If the ethos of the school is to be respectful and inclusive then you are respectful. It is not our calling as Christians to rebel against authority (as seen in Romans 13). If you do not support the ethos of your school simply because of your personal biases then you have failed as a teacher.

As teachers we are also called to follow a number of standards regarding our Personal and Professional Conduct.

Professional Standards

As you can see as teachers we are supposed to treat our pupils with “dignity”, “respect their rights”, respect the value of “individual liberty”, and show tolerance for “different beliefs”.

If you can do none of the above simply because a child has identified as transgender then you have failed as a teacher.

But all of the above only matters if your primary concern is your professional conduct. If your Christian faith comes first you might be able to readily put all of that aside. So I’m going to present one simple argument for treating trans pupils with compassion whether you agree with the concept of transgenderism or not.

I love John 3:17. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Christ didn’t come to condemn us. He came to save us. As such, our aim should be to save rather than condemn. I fear that when we misgender or deadname transgender pupils out of our Christian beliefs then we are condemning them.

The attempted suicide rate for young transgender people in England is approximately 48%, much higher than the attempted suicide rate in the general population[vi]. Suicide rates remain high in young transgender people regardless of whether they come out or not. Young transgender are more likely to be discriminated against and more likely to be attacked than other members of society. They are also more likely to experience severe depression.

And the primary driver in all of these things: societal rejection. The study the revealed such high rates of attempted suicide went on to state that “the high prevalence of depression and suicidal tendencies among transgender persons seems to be highly influenced by societal stigma.”

If, in some misguided attempt to preserve our Christian beliefs and avoid discrimination (something Mr Sutcliffe argues he is a victim of after being “forced” to resign), we knowingly push transgender pupils towards a life of mental illness, attempted suicide, physical and sexual violence and worse – then we are condemning them. Personally, I could not stand before Christ and say I was satisfied that I had acted justly by pushing a trans student into that life. I have witnessed the horror of self-harm and I will not be responsible for a child enduring that. I will not condemn them to that.

And if we pause and consider Mr Sutcliffe’s original contention, that all of this is a choice: who would choose this for themselves? Who would endure all of this out of choice? Who would face all of that rejection and suffering willfully just to part of a fashion or fad?

If you really cannot see a way of understanding a trans person or agreeing with their lifestyle (which is not a choice remember) then you can still behave in a way that Christ expects us to behave.

We have His own example of his encounter with the woman at the well. He did not agree with the woman’s lifestyle, she was from a different culture, and the disciples found his behaviour surprising – but He met her with love and respect and brought her the truth of God’s love. That, surely, has to be the least you can give: your love and your respect in the power of God.

We also have the instruction to “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) and “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36). And we are to do these things for our “enemies”. Personally, I don’t see the trans community as my enemy, but I suspect Mr Sutcliffe does. If that’s the case he is still called to this behaviour, and I see no mercy in misgendering or deadnaming a student.

Finally, as Christians James reminds us of the power our words have:”The tongue is also a small part of the body, but it can speak big things. See how a very small fire can set many trees on fire.” (James 3:5) and “with our tongue we speak bad words against men who are made like God.” (James 3:9). When we speak as Christians we can bless or curse – and my fear is we have to be especially careful of our words with children. We must lift them up and empower them in Christ, not crush them. As James goes on to say, “Those who plant seeds of peace will gather what is right and good.” (James 3:18). I’m not sure how we plant seeds of peace by misgendering our pupils, resigning publicly and then only telling our side of the story to the press.

Like me, Mr Sutcliffe is a white, straight, middle class and Christian man. His pupil is a trans male teenager. Where does the power to discriminate lie in that situation? Who has the power to lift up or knock down?

If you are a Christian and a teacher, you are doubly beholden for the safety and well-being of your students. If you are protecting your own feelings over theirs then you are doing something wrong. A child is a child regardless of their gender identity. They need your love, your respect, your compassion and your professionalism. Give them that.

 

[i] The use of a person’s gender at birth over their experienced gender.

[ii] The deliberate use of a person’s birth name over their preferred name.

[iii] I’d really like to know his thoughts on gender identity in intersex people.

[iv] The gender a trans person experiences over that of their sex assigned at birth.

[v]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/301107/Teachers__Standards.pdf

[vi] From a study in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine

Christians and the poor: What do you do when you disagree with a tweet? Write 2,442 words in response, that’s what.

Screenshot_20171204-224401[1]Judas. Not only is he guilty of betraying Christ, but he was also guilty of robbing from the poor. He said what sounded like the right things: admonishing Mary for not selling the expensive perfume that she used to anoint Jesus’ feet in order to provide money to the poor. But, “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” As Christians we have to be careful not to fall into the same trap. We can’t say fine things about giving to the poor whilst we horde our blessings and improve our own lives under the pretence of individual responsibility.

In the past week America’s Republican Party powered through a series of tax reforms that, on the surface at least, seem to have been rushed through in a unilateral act that was defined by tight deadlines and hand written addendums. There are many asking how fair the reforms are, and if they will simply burden the poor and further profit the rich. These are fair questions, but the impact of the answers may not truly be known until April 2019.

One of the issues raised was the corporate responsibility a nation has for its poor. Erik Erikson (@EWErikson) argued (on Twitter, naturally) that “The Bible teaches it is an individual responsibility to help the poor” and he further poured scorn on the notion, exclaiming “Shame on those who’d pass of their personal obligation to the government.”

It raised some issues that I felt couldn’t really be responded to in a couple of pithy tweets, or even explored in a deeper thread. Firstly, how do I go about undertaking my personal response in the most effective way? Secondly, does passing on the obligation to help to the government or NGOs bring shame or something more else? And finally, what does the Bible really have to say about the way we help the poor?

How do I undertake my ‘individual responsibility’ to help the poor?

I don’t think that it’s entirely wrongheaded to suggest that a Christian (or anyone else for that matter) has a moral duty to help the poor when we are able to do so. It’s clear from Christ’s words in Matthew that we should help where we can. In reference to the calling of the righteous at the judgement of man He says, “For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.” And when the righteous ask when they helped, He goes on to assert, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.” It’s clear, here at least, that we have a calling to meet need whenever we encounter it – and it should be our instinctive nature to act, not out of duty or compulsion. The righteous cannot recall the good they have done; they were simply acting out their natural compassion. (I’d love to unpick Christs words here further, especially in the light of taking in refugees and showing compassion to prisoners, but those are other blogs for other times).

So, how to we put this calling into action?

Surely, the easiest way for me to help the poor is to identify those in immediate need and provide help in the best way I can. That seems fairly straightforward. Right? For instance, if I see a homeless person and I want to help out I could provide them with a little bit of money – a few spare pence. It’s not going to break the bank. But, they might use that money on drugs or alcohol or some other vice that I’m uncomfortable with enabling. So, instead I could buy them some hot food, maybe some basic toiletries too. I could meet a need. Great – personal obligation fulfilled, conscience clear, soul lifted. Or is it?

I’ve met a person’s needs. Pretty basic ones – the need to be fed and clean. The food will last a few hours perhaps. The toiletries a week or two. So imagine that homeless person is lucky enough to have one encounter like that a day – each person fulfilling a personal obligation to help – is their problem really solved? No. The problem is they don’t have a home. Or they have an addiction. Or they have a mental illness. Or they have been abandoned. Or any combination of the above. Now, do I have a personal obligation to meet these needs and to what extent? The answer might very well be yes: I could provide a spare room, take them to a clinic, or point them in the direction of a service provider. I could even fund these options through charitable donations (which is something we’ll come to later). As an individual I can meet some of these needs, but I’d argue that my personal intervention in this scenario would be short lived and ineffectual. I’d need more power to intervene in a meaningful and lasting way.

The other problem in this scenario is me. I may see a need and I may be prepared to meet it – but what if my unconscious bias interferes with my ability to help? I may see a single mother in need of support, but I disagree with her sexual ethics and decide to help elsewhere. I may see a drug addict and blame them for their predicament; no one forced them to take the drugs after all. I may see a refugee begging in the street, but he’s not my countryman or my brother in Christ, so why help? As humans we are fallible, and we may feel justified in denying help to those in need on a moral basis. This approach to giving IS wrongheaded both morally and spiritually, but it happens, yet it can be mitigated through corporate giving. By paying my full share of tax I can help to supply housing and child care to the single mother; I can provide clinical care and rehabilitation to the addict; and I can provide a home and safety from exploitation to the refugee.

As we are called to meet need when we encounter it, does passing our obligation to help on to the government or NGOs bring us shame or something else?

As I’ve said above, the issue with my personal intervention is that I lack power to make long-lasting change or my unconscious bias might prevent me from helping those in most need.

Government agencies and NGOs can help in way that I never could. That is the simple truth of the matter. They have resources and networks that can spread aid far and wide that only exists because of our participation in collective assistance. By paying our tax or donating to charitable bodies we can intervene in long lasting and meaningful ways. When disaster strikes the Disasters Emergency Committee responds with funds, equipment and resources that those worst affected can access in a matter of days. The DEC has responded to a range of disasters and they do so with expertise and efficiency – if this was left to individual fulfilling their obligation, well, how would it work? One might argue that by making a personal decision to donate to a DEC appeal we are fulfilling an individual responsibility to help, rather than relying on the collective morality of the government. Even then, it still needs an act of corporate giving to be effective. You’d need to work in union with people across the whole spectrum of society for this to work.

However, I think we can pay into the government system and meet the needs of society. On a grand scale, in the UK, everyone that pays their tax into the system is entitled to medical care free at the point of use. The NHS is a lumbering system, and it is strained, but it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. By funding it, we can help the poorest in society access medical care at much the same rate as everyone (the private system does somewhat subvert this egalitarian approach, but no system is perfect). It allows the poorest to receive the same medication and treatment as everyone. It allows the poorest to have their babies in a safe environment and be supported in the first months of family life. The NHS is why Breaking Bad could never have existed in the UK; the entire series would have been one scene, “Mr White you have lung cancer – here’s a course of treatment. Nope, no cost to you.”

The other thing to consider here is that we all gain from a system of government. Before we consider our responsibility to the poor, just think: our national interests and citizens are protected by standing armies; our laws are enforced by police forces; our lives are watched over by highly qualified medical staff; our children educated by brilliant teachers; our infrastructures built and maintained by engineers, labourers, and architects. All these benefits start at the government level and if we all gain from them, we have an obligation to pay into the system according to our ability to do so. Corporate gain can only be supplemented by corporate input. It’s no shame paying into a system that benefits everyone – it creates a system where everyone is lifted up, and I’d argue that it is a Christly duty to lift up the “least of us”.

 

I have an individual responsibility to help when I can and I should also support the poor corporately, but what does the Bible really teach us about our responsibility to the poor?

It’d be very easy to simply trot out Jesus’ command to, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” in response to the notion of corporate giving. If the government taxes us, we pay. We may not like where the taxes go to, but we have a duty to obey the law of the land we live in. If a government operates effectively and justly it will use those taxes to meet the needs of the poorest in society and not use its position to punish them with punitive measures. In Britain we saw the Poor Law of the Victorian era used to create such heinous conditions for the poor in order to reduce the government’s burden. In doing so, we were guilty of diminishing and demonising the poor because we thought we could do without them. If we’re not careful we’re going to do the same with Universal Credit – as the system put in place to administer the benefit drives recipients into debt and into the arms of food banks. A modern, developed nation should not have its forcing its poor to choose between heating or eating – a factor that has been central to at least one death this year.

And we see this at the heart of the lesson of the widow’s mite. I have heard numerous sermons on the widow’s mite and how often the story that she is a wonderful example of corporate giving as she pays what little she has into the Temple treasury. I’ve often heard used as a call to put what we can onto the offering plate. But is it that simple?

The widow puts “all she had to live on” into the treasury. She is being driven further into poverty by giving; she has little or nothing left. And those that gave before her? They gave “out of their wealth” – their surplus. Their giving did not impact on them. It came out of the extra they had. Their budgets were not dented. I’d argue that Jesus calls those of us that have been blessed with a good wage, a secure job, and the ability to do so, should give more so that we do not burden the poor with the charge to give. Such attitudes “devour widow’s houses”, and if we observe the Law, but burden the poor with debt and need that we could help relieve then we face being “punished most severely”.

We should also remember that as Christians we are “one body”. We are united in Christ and as such out individualism is limited. We come together as churches and give into those churches so that they can work in their communities reflecting the grace of God. When we pay into the offering the church can not only support itself, but meet the needs of the poorest in both its own body and its community. As such, is there shame on us for passing that responsibility to the church’s oversight? Of course not.

Not only this, but we’re also told that if one part of the body suffers “every part suffers” and we should be filled with “mutual concern” for one another. If we’re reaping our blessings and ignoring the poor (whether that be in our churches, or society at large) then aren’t we failing?

But it’s not only with money we can or should act corporately – we can do this in prayer too. In South Korea there is the concept of Tongsung-Kido – early morning corporate prayer that is loud, intense and unified (you can read an account of this type of prayer at the link below). We are even called to pray in agreement in Matthew, and surely this act of unity over individualism has a purpose. I would argue that as Christians we are more powerful against the forces that impoverish our communities if we act as the body of Christ – not as individuals meeting need as we see fit. Christianity is a corporate act – not an individual one.

We have a covenant with the poor. To lift them up. To meet their needs. To quench their thirst, feed their hunger, soothe their pain. To do for the “least” as we would do for the Most High.

This winter 128,000 British children face being homeless. Countless families face hygiene poverty as inflationary pressures mean that they have to choose bread and eggs over toilet rolls. This isn’t irresponsibility; it’s poverty.

We must meet need when we encounter it. We are called to do that as individuals. Ultimately though, we can combat poverty much more effectively in society when we work in unison both as members of the family of Christ and as citizens of the world.

http://www.unyumc.org/news/perspectives-entry/how-honest-are-you-in-your-prayer-time

The Spiritual Consequence of Sticking With Roy Moore

To my Brothers and Sisters in Christ in Alabama,

The consequences of backing Roy Moore are spiritual, not political.

Right now it might feel like you are faced with a choice between liberalism and conservatism and, in order to defend and uphold the values you hold dear, you need to support and defend a man that ostensibly holds these same values close to his heart.

You might feel that faced with this choice you have to support and defend a man that has been accused, perhaps falsely in your mind, of the most heinous of crimes because, if the choice is between a fallen conservative and an ascendant liberal – well, the choice is easy.

But this choice is not the real choice that you are faced with. This choice is one of politics, not one of faith. They might be indistinguishable at the moment, but I believe this choice is deceptive – a trick to distract you from the real choice that you face.

That choice is between righteousness and unrighteousness; between holiness and unholiness; between effective witness and false witness. The choice you face is one with spiritual consequences, not political ones.

Roy Moore has been accused of molesting at least one minor. She was 14. He was 32. He was in a position of power. Voices from within his own party suggest that they have no reason to disbelieve this accuser – but they still side with him in order to block a liberal Senator being elected. Consider that: his colleagues consider the accusations to be made in good faith, but they are making a political decision to support him. It tells you a lot about a man’s character if he backs an abuser to hold on to power.

This is not what we are called to as Christians. We are not called to covet power at the expense of the truth. We are not called to victimize the vulnerable so that our own creed can come out on top.

In Matthew 18:6 it says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” I’m not a theologian, but it seems obvious to me; that if you cause a child to “stumble” (the New Living Translation puts it as “fall into sin”) then being drowned with a great weight around your neck is a preferable punishment to whatever God has in store. If the accusations against Roy Moore are proven to be true there are legal and political consequences that he will face. These will pale in comparison to the spiritual consequences he will face if he chooses not to repent.

As I say, I’m no theologian, but if you shore up Moore knowing that he has led a child into sin – then, to me,  you participate in the victimization of that person. You compound the crime against them. You amplify leading a child into sin. Would you knowingly bind the millstone to your own neck just to have a conservative in power? That seems too high a price for me.

Remember:

  • A child that ‘looks like an adult’ is still a child.
  • A child that ‘lead him on’ is still a child.
  • A child that gave ‘consent’ is still a child.
  • A child that ‘knew what they were doing’ is still a child.

Children don’t need our condemnation; they need our support, our guidance, our strength, our protection. As a teacher, I’ve seen the toll that sexual abuse takes on a child. I’ve seen how broken they become. How insecure. How untrusting. When an adult abuses a child – causes them to stumble – they crush the child and damage the adult they could become. Christ has a special pace in his heart for children, do you?

So, the choice is this: Stand with a man that caused a child to “stumble” or stand with Christ in protecting the weak?