There is a lovely and heartwarming biographical piece in the NZ Herald on David Cunliffe, the Leader of the Opposition and the potential alternative Prime Minister to John Key. For some further reading, in the New York Times Paul Krugman - Nobel Prize winning economist - sets out in very simple terms the American economic problem and solution. What do David, John and Paul have in common despite their political differences? Also, and apart from having first names drawn from the Bible ... and apart from their liking for President Obama?
I suggest all three have in common their desire to see the respective economies of NZ and the USA perform better. All three know there is poverty, sometimes appalling poverty within the two economies and they all want to see people freed from poverty. Differences between the three concern 'how' people will move from poverty to plenty.
The politics of Jesus offers some intriguing as well as challenging things to say about poverty and its relief. Within the political statements (in word and in deed) made by Jesus is a 'bias to the poor': they are blessed, he feeds them when hungry, he approves reaching across cultural and racial barriers to mend their wounds, he heals those on the margins of society and restores them to the centre, and he instructs a rich person to sell everything and give it to the poor.
Further, the general ethos of the kingdom of God is utterly egalitarian. Whether we go to the Epistle of James with its critique of congregations who offer better seats for the rich, or to the first chapters of Acts and see the early church living out a communist vision for community life, we see in the New Testament that Jesus' words and example impacted his followers deeply and transformatively.
Yet Jesus also said something which is arresting in its profoundness and in its continuing relevance. "You will always have the poor among you." By saying that at the point of receiving an extravagant gift, Jesus opened the way - followed by Christians ever since as justification for building extravagant churches - for a bifurcation on the use of wealth by his followers. But a profound sociological insight has been left to us: there will always be poor people. Whether we are strictly capitalist or communist, pursue some kind of pure Christian or Islamist vision for society, work miracle through social democracy and the welfare state, there will always be poor people. This is both depressing (is it forlorn to attempt to eradicate poverty?) and realistic (we should do our best to help the poor but not under the pretence that we have the power to eradicate poverty).
Fast forwarding to our Down Under society and its politics, there is something profoundly depressing about stories of poverty, regularly wheeled out on the pages of our papers. I cannot recall one such story where there was not a responsibility factor on the part of the poor person or family. That is, no matter how appallingly they may have been treated by a landlord or employer, or ignored by a government agency charged with finding housing and paying benefits, there was a factor in which they themselves played a role (e.g. committed a crime, spent money unwisely, mistreated a house in which they were tenants, unwisely moving from one part of the city to another). In other words, a factor (and stressing the word 'a') in NZ poverty is the question of acting wisely or foolishly (about which the Bible also has more than a few things to say). The reality of life today is that whether we had a government with more money to pay out more to the poor, there seems to be an inordinate capacity on the part of some to nevertheless make choices which lead to deeper poverty rather than to escape from poverty. Jesus' insight captures this phenomenon.
Acknowledging these matters does not let followers of Jesus off the hook in regard to social responsibility. Society through parliament has many opportunities to make decisions for the betterment of people, even if some potential beneficiaries will not make use of the opportunities given them. If there is any one matter confronting us this election, it concerns housing.
Speaking anecdotally, after four and a half years back in Christchurch, this winter I have personally encountered homeless people in the context of the outer suburbs for the first time. A tiny sign of a larger iceberg of need in our city which is particularly short of affordable housing post the quakes.
One part of the politics of Jesus is the manner in which Jesus instructs his followers to recognise that we all share in responsibility for the needs of others. Affordable housing is easy to declare to be a government problem. But it is something we all share in. If you want an affordable house in NZ today it is measurably more possible at the stroke of a pen as more land is made available by councils and government to build houses on; but the quid pro quo is that the value of my house might decline as a result. Am I willing to pay the price for your assistance into better housing? There is also the small matter of whether I am prepared to pay more tax in order for you to have a better accommodation benefit.
And, as Paul Krugman might say, if the government gets involved in building more houses, there will be more opportunities for people to be gainfully employed!