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I attended the ‘Dignity for All’ conference organised by Church Action on Poverty and held in Leeds on 10th June 2023, and, in one of the workshops, I was fortunate to participate in a stimulating discussion on the topic: ‘Speaking Truth to Power’. Jesus spoke truth to power, of course, not least when he entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. As followers of Jesus, Christians are called to speak truth to power ― especially when too many people are struggling to make ends meet across the UK.
But what does it mean in practice? A key theme of the discussion was how Church Action on Poverty places an emphasis on supporting experts by experience (that is, people who understand poverty because they have lived it) to speak truth to power. For example, we learned how Church Action on Poverty’s Poverty Media Unit can train experts by experience to speak confidently and powerfully to the media and politicians. They become effective campaigners and spokespeople and can inspire others to take action. The Poverty Media Unit also produces podcasts which show some inspiring examples of experts by experience speaking truth to power, and these can be downloaded from their website for wider dissemination and use by local branches of Church Action on Poverty, as well as by churches and other charitable organisations that are engaged in training those living at the margins to speak truth to power.
I shared with the workshop how another innovative way of speaking truth to power has been the emergence of ‘Food Glorious Food’ in Sheffield: the first food bank choir in the UK. It brings together people who have used or volunteered in food banks, building community through music. I recounted how I had been fortunate to attend an inspirational performance by them at Sheffield Cathedral, for the launch of the End Hunger UK campaign in 2019. Choir leader Yo Tozer-Loft had said: ‘People were really motivated by the chance to lobby their MPs about food poverty. Even people who didn’t think they were singers said: “I want to raise my voice somehow”.’
Of course, we know that music has often been connected with protests by those who have been experiencing social injustices, marginalisation, poverty, exclusion or exploitation. Think of how blues music emerged in America in the late 19th Century as an authentic form of protest by black cotton workers (and later by others). Think also of how British folk songs have often expressed the struggles by workers for better terms and conditions from their employers, and a more just society in which to bring up their children. Music will always be an effective way of speaking truth to power, and protest songs sung by Christians are one way of doing precisely that, not least when out campaigning against social injustices caused by poverty.
Empowering those at the margins to speak truth to power confidently and effectively remains a central aim of Church Action on Poverty. But one can also speak truth to power as an advocate for those experiencing poverty who may not be able to do it themselves. Christian writers have a long history of doing this, often with impressive results. Examples are the seminal work published in 1931 by R H Tawney, Equality, in which he argues powerfully for a more egalitarian society than the one in interwar Britain, as a means of reducing poverty and improving the life chances of working-class men and women. Another is the ground-breaking work of 1942 by Archbishop William Temple, Christianity and Social Order, which was, in part, a critique of interwar poverty and its causes in Britain, and was pivotal in shaping the post-war welfare state settlement. The 1958 autobiography by Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom, is a third example, with its memorable account of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956-58, that set the scene for so much that followed in the struggle for equality and opportunity for Black people in America in the late 1950s and 1960s. These three authors shared a view that the radicalism of Jesus’s ministry merits nothing less from us when it comes to striving for social justice.
As many who visit this site will know, scripture, tradition and the human capacity to reason have played a large part in shaping Christianity, and no doubt will continue to in the decades that follow. However, in the last half-century or so there has been a trend within academic Judeo-Christian theology to explore whether experience might also play an important part in the development of theological insight. By listening out for God’s voice in others, it is argued we can learn much about God that the more traditional theological methodologies can’t as easily reveal to us. The technical term for this approach is contextual theology, and a key methodological requirement for conducting research in contextual theology, is the ability to listen attentively. Often this will entail adopting an approach to pastoral or academic encounter that arises from, and is shaped by, the lived experience of others, especially those living at the margins ― seeing Christ in their faces, seeing the cross where they stand, and thus letting God speak through them. In my view, this approach to doing theology lends itself to supporting the goal of enabling people living in poverty to speak truth to power. It respects their insights, their expertise, their wisdom, their overall perspective on things, and puts them at the centre of campaigns for reducing poverty and the social exclusion that goes with it. In summary: when it comes to tackling poverty and its causes, it is the voices of experts by experience that need to be heard loudest, as they are the most authentic voices in the room, although, of course, they are not the only voices in the room that need to be listened to. Care professionals, volunteers, politicians, economists, academics and the clergy (this is not an all-inclusive list) also have voices that are relevant to finding solutions to poverty and its causes. However, in my view, they should never become disengaged from ― or disrespectful of ― those who are experiencing poverty first hand. This is also the view of Church Action on Poverty, and was a key theme at the ‘Dignity for All’ conference.
Dr Joseph Forde is Chair of Church Action on Poverty, Sheffield. He researches and writes on welfare and Christianity, and is author of: Before and Beyond the ‘Big Society’: John Milbank and the Church of England’s Approach to Welfare (James Clarke & Co, 2022).