Sunday, 16 August 2015

Dr Thomas Guthrie on Wisely Considering the Case of the Poor

William Carey, the great missionary, when leaving for India in 1793 said 'I'll go down into the pit, if you will hold the rope.'   When Dr Thomas Guthrie was called to Old Greyfriars, Edinburgh in 1837 from his country charge of Arbirlot he said something similar when comparing the difference between his two charges; 'I can compare it to nothing else than the change from green fields and woods and the light of nature to venturing into the darkness and blackness of a coal pit.'

Throughout his whole ministry Guthrie took a great interest in the poor of his parish - primarily, although not exclusively, in the overcrowded Cowgate.  Even before arriving in Edinburgh Guthrie believed a minister should live amongst his people; 'Now, I should like a clergyman never to step out of his own door but he steps in amongst his people.  I would have him planted in the very centre of his population' (letter to Mr Dunlop in 1837).  Initially Guthrie lived in Argyll Square and then in Brown Square which would have both been where today's Chamber Street is as can be seen from this old map.  It is hard to imagine the squalor and poverty that Guthrie saw on a daily basis as he visited his parish.  He recounts his early days; 'I can never forget, nothing can efface the impression made on my mind, when I first lifted the veil from the hideous veil of starvation and sin that lay before me. The scenes that I was called on to witness the first three or four days of my parochial visitations almost drove sleep from my pillow.  They haunted me like very sceptres, and, after visiting till my heart was very sick, I have come up from the College Wynd with the idea that I might as well have gone to be a missionary among the Hindoos on the banks of the Ganges.'

Dr Guthrie was no ivory tower minister.  He was the embodiment of salt pressed against the decaying flesh of the world around him.  This came at a heavy price with Guthrie's future health problems.  He became a magnet for his parishioners seeking temporal and spiritual help on a daily basis; 'My door used to be besieged every day by crowds of half-naked creatures, men, women, and children, shivering with cold and hunger; and I visited many a house that winter, where there was a starving mother and starving children, and neither bed, bread nor Bible - till, with climbing stairs my limbs were like to fail, and with spectacles of misery, my heart was like to break.'So how did Guthrie respond to all the challenges around him?

His starting point was that man is made in the image of God.  The half naked child sleeping on the streets of Edinburgh was, to Guthrie, as precious in the sight of God as the Queen on the throne. In his first plea for Ragged Schools in 1847 he compared what some regarded as 'rubbish' as shining jewels; 'Yes it is easy to push aside the poor boy in the street, with a harsh and unfeeling refusal, saying to your neighbour, "These are the pests of the city."  Call them, if you choose, the rubbish of society; only let us say, that there are jewels among that rubbish, which would richly repay the expense of searching.  Bedded in their dark and dismal abodes, precious stones lie there, which only wait to be dug out and polished, to shine, first on earth, and hereafter and forever in a redeemers crown.'  Our response to poverty will depend on our starting point.  If we see people with honour and dignity, made in the image of God, our response will be full of compassion and we will seek to go the extra mile.  If we see people as economic units as George Osborne does, our response will be very different.

Secondly, Guthrie took sin seriously.  He was no socialist.  He knew that little is achieved by the mass and indiscriminate distribution of money or food.  Sinful nature often makes a bad situation worse as Guthrie found on his many pastoral visits.  Poor families with little we're ravaged further my a drunken or profligate parent.  This was the time of the 'dram houses' and 'gin palaces'. Indiscriminate (however well meaning) compassion often compounds problems rather than solving them. If you need any evidence of this just look at Africa and the billions spent my Western aid agencies with little long lasting effect.  For more on this read 'When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself' by Corbett and Fikkert.  In believing in original sin as the source of society's problems, Guthrie responded, as we shall see next, in a gospel centred way.

Thirdly, Guthrie believed in the 'almost omnipotent power of Christian kindness'.  Our response to poverty needs to be gospel centred.  Guthrie knew that compassion without the power of the gospel would change little.  Only the grace of God can truly change the human heart.  We get a flavour of Guthrie's view of poverty in his great work 'Seed Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools' (published 1847, 1849 and 1860).  Having outlined the plight of thousands of 'ragged children' on the streets of Edinburgh he famously said 'These Arabs of the city are as wild of those of the desert, and must be broken into three habits, - those of discipline, learning, and industry, not to speak of cleanliness.  To accomplish this, our trust is in the almost omnipotent power of Christian kindness.  Harsh words and harder blows are thrown away here.'  The ragged school model sought to work with families by offering the children a comprehensive system of education, food and industrial training during the day while encouraging the children to return home in the evening.  The aim of the ragged school was to teach young people how to survive and thrive.  Unlike today's welfare state it did not crush people under the weight of a faceless and unresponsive bureaucracy.  Christian compassion needs to be personal, genuine and it needs to go 'above and beyond'.

Fourthly, Guthrie's response went to the root of the problem.  His response to poverty was what might be termed today 'tough love'.  He sought to restore self respect, hard work and sobriety.  While he had all the time in the world for the innocent victims of drunkenness and poverty he was very outspoken against those who perpetuated their poverty through vice.  He had no time for encouraging laziness or indolence through well meaning compassion; 'The money which is lavished on sturdy beggars, on the wasteful slaves of vice, on the reckless and improvident, you have no right to expect repayment of.  These are not the poor.  On the contrary they plunder the poor, and prey on poverty; and hardening men's hearts by their frauds, improvidence, crimes and detected impostures, against the claims of real poverty, they deserve not charity but chastisement.  It is a scandal and a shame that such devouring locusts are permitted to infest our city and swarm in its streets.  These vices of a system which the police stangely tolerate, and our charity unwisely maintains, are visible in the botched and brazened features of those thriving solicitors.  The very breath with which they whine for charity smells of the dram shop.  It poisons and pollutes the air; and those who contribute to foster this profligate system have no claim to the blessing.'  The Victorians often receive a bad press for their view of the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor but how can it be compassion to prop up a man or woman's vice while their children starve?   Welfare must always be a hand up not a hand out.  This is surely the principle of 2 Thess 3 v 10.  If a man is able to work, and work is available, our whole system of welfare should be focussed on helping him work.

Finally, Guthrie wasn't interested in 'harm minimisation' or 'risk management'.  His focus was on transformation. This final quote perhaps best sums up Guthrie's views.  It encourages us to have a 'wise' response to the poor.  
'Blessed is he that wisely doth
The poor man's case consider'

'So run the opening words of the 41st Psalm, in the Scottish Psalter.  Wisely?  He wisely considers the case of the poor who, wherever it is possible, supplies them with work rather than money; who helps them to help themselves, who encourages them to self-exertion, and teaches them self respect; who patronises not indolence but industry, not the intemperate but the sober; who applies his money to relieve the misfortunes that come from the hand of Providence, rather than such as are the divinely ordained and salutary penalties of vice.  And who thus goes to the work of Christian benevolence will meet with many cases to cheer him on, and keep him up to this mark, "Be not weary in well-doing."

This is the challenge for the church today.  As Bryant Myers says in his book Walking with the Poor; 'Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.  Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.'  Poverty is not just about money.  It is about lacking the networks and relationships that can lift us up when we fall.  This is where the church needs to be - to go beyond relief and an emergency response to poverty and walk with the poor in the long and often hard journey of discipleship.  What our broken, fractured communities need more than anything is the bread of life, the Lord Jesus Christ. Christian compassion so often compounds the plight of the poor rather than offering a helping hand to a new and better life.  In the Psalmists (and Guthrie's) words we do not 'wisely' consider the poor. Compassion that compounds and excuses sin is not biblical compassion.  We need to feed the hungry but also present Jesus in all his beauty and majesty.