arrogant middle class white people

I can say that because I am one.

I got thinking about this post when a friend of mine went to a Christian gathering of some kind. The people there, all middle class white people, were discussing giving to the poor in their area – a great cause!

My friend however was appalled at the way in which the these people spoke so condescendingly of the poor. They talked about maybe inviting them to dinner or church so they could teach them how to earn and save money, and so that these people could learn from their lifestyles.

Teaching people how to earn or save might not be so bad, though it betrays a naivety about the poor, as if all poor people were poor because they were bad at handling their finances.

But the arrogance of thinking that the poor would do best to learn from middle class lifestyles is striking. After all, middle class people do not have it all together… it has been well documented that the Australian Happiness Index has been dropping over the last few decades, and that depression rates have been rising. In an early January New Scientist magazine, Israeli researcher Yair Amichai-Hamburger diagnoses a large part of the problem; ”In this era of mass consumption, we are surrounded by advertising that urges us to find fulfilment through the acquisition of material goods.”

So according to this middle class crowd we should give to the poor and show them our lifestyles so they can look forward to lower happiness rates and higher depression rates. I know this is a bit of a strawman argument, but this kind of attitude is reflected in a lot of well intentioned “help” offered by people,  not least white middle class people (like me).

This attitude, among all the other issues it raises, misses an important truth – the middle have a lot to learn from the poor. Yes, that’s right – we need to be taught by the poor.

Why? Because the poor can teach us about relationships. Such people must often rely on each other to a higher degree than the middle class because of their low economic position. In doing so personal relationships often become crucial, whereas for the more affluent among us relationships are often unnecessary, or worse, they become a nuisance. The middle class striving for happiness in one’s standard of living is a myth (though an extremely low standard of living can obviously detract from happiness) – the truth is that meaningful relationships are necessary for happiness, not material wealth.

It is also worth pointing out that the poor teach us about ourselves. A friend posted this quote on her Facebook today, and it says well what I want to communicate:

“Our problem is not primarily with how we see the poor, but with how we see ourselves. If we still think and convey by our behaviour that in some way we are fundamentally different and better as persons from the man sleeping in cardboard boxes in the alley, we have not been brought with clear eyes to the foot of the cross, seeing our own neediness in the light of it” (Dallas Willard)

The poor also teach us about God, and our connection to him/her. There is a reason the Bible makes the case that we see God in the poor, and that we learn about ourselves by how we treat the poor.

I don’t really know where I am going with this, but I guess this is a challenge for me personally, to see that though helping the poor is important, I should not be importing to them my lifestyle, because it is not perfect, nor necessarily even good. Helping the poor must look different to this naive concept (a topic for another day), and it will no doubt include the poor helping me.

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Posted on October 29, 2010, in Culture & Art, Mission and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Matt…

    I nearly swore….actually I did when reading this…

    This sort of @#^\#^$^&& which one will find on dairy farms in great quantity is rife within the church eldership systems.

    It’s this type of thinking that had me dragged around a car-park for over an hour being prayed for in that my right leg would start working and be healed… after I was told I didn’t have enough faith and that I shouldn’t complain nor cry about my condition.

    It’s this sort of thinking that kept me homeless and sleeping in my van for 6 weeks when I separated from my abusive wife… all in the name of getting me to go back and live with my wife… who had been physically, emotionally, financially abusive….

    When I lived on the street(parks) I found a deeper level of relationship amongst homeless people then I did within the church…. when I played poker with my brother in the pub… I found a deeper level of acceptance from non believers than I did within the church.

    My wife and I are now seriously considering / praying about deliberately buying a house and ministering in one of NSW highest areas of poverty…..

    It’s been my observation and experience that the Pentecostal church (I emphasis my experience / observation) for the most part are more interested in seeing social masks of respectability being worn within the congregation and fellowship then it is in real fellowship of seeing warts and all.

    I have sat, prayed and ministered with Christians who are going through sexual addictions who dare not tell their church elder ship… or who have and were black banned as a result. The same goes with other forms of addictive and social behaviour.

    Fuck it!!! It is enough to make one swear!

  2. My mate Meki who is the Pacific Islander Liaison at a school in western Sydney told me “the definition of poverty in Samoan culture is eating dinner alone”……

  3. Craig – that’s my favourite thing you have written on my blog.

    Baz – sick quote. I would also say poverty is not being able to make choices for oneself aka lack of empowerment. How much does our attitude to the poor have the potential to make them even poorer based on that definition?

  4. Hey Matt… we do agree about a lot of stuff it seems lol!

    It’s an area I am passionate about. We can be financially well off…but have great poverty in spirit.

    The success syndrome within church drives me nuts. Even at college amongst the students…I am going to do this… I am going to do that… and so we strive to reproduce and emulate others…and cause others to emulate them instead of being whom God is calling us to be and releasing others to be whom God is calling them to be.

    I was deliberately being provocative with my previous comment and I believe some of your readers would have been more upset with a few of my words than they would have with the content of my experience….

    My personal experience of poverty has taught me contentedness and patience as well as a greater sense of trust in a mighty God and less trust in my self.

    The Scriptures I read, call for us to mutually encourage one another. Therefore to do this we need to realise our own lack and need for encouragement which can be provided by those who are different to us.

  5. hey Matt,

    great post, you should preach on this topic sometime. It reminded me of when I was traveling and I stayed with some missionaries who took me to their church on Sunday, and the church was full of other missionaries. They spent their week ‘ministering’ to the poor but when it came to worshipping and fellowship, acts that equalise us as believers, they didn’t want to share that experience with the people they were ministering to, who had plenty of churches where they worshipped in their own way (and not with Hillsong music). The lesson from this? If you won’t eat with people, who are you kidding to think that you are in any position to be feeding them?

    I feel that a lot of the time in the church when discussing ‘the poor’ it’s an issue that we have to tolerate. People receive it thinking what’s the minimum I have to do to satisfy my ‘poor helping’ quota. I think it’s more important when giving to the poor (and I don’t just mean giving money, i mean giving yourself) to do it joyfully than any other giving you might interpret the Bible as calling you to do. In fact, I would say that if you don’t have a particular desire to give to the poor, then don’t do it. My dad, who has spent considerable time in Korea, both North and South, once told me that if you don’t feel an affinity with a culture, then you have no place being there. I think Christians should take this advice very seriously, because unless you have a genuine love, respect and attraction to a culture or way of life, your presence there as a ‘helper’ will cause more pain than good.

    I’ll end my contribution to this discussion with an annecdote from my time in Uganda. I was teaching leadership skills for a World Vision project, so as part of this I decided to spend some time at a Ugandan Leadership school run by Kampala Pentecostal Church (the church that operates the Watoto projects). When I was in class no one would sit next to me except the one other white girl attending the course, even the pastor leading the seminars wouldn’t call on me when I put my hand up. After a few days we were called on to get into groups to discuss ‘cultural lies’ that have been embedded into our way of life. I said to my group that I think there’s something wrong with the way they perceive me. One of the men said ‘it’s because we think white people are superior to us.’ What has gone wrong with our efforts if this is what we’re teaching people?

  6. I despise this strata of society.Rude, ignorant, condescending. Everything they do is an affectation. Drinking wine with every meal for instance and pretending to enjoy opera etc.The reality is that they are gutter trash hiding their humble beginnings (childhood spent in a council property for instance) Amoral, sleazy and alcoholic whilst paying lip service to the god they have no interest in.Very bad table manners which gives credence to their exaggerated sense of entitlement and importance.

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