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Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 20:226234 Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN 1040-2659 print;

1469-9982 online DOI: 10.1080/10402650802068242

Religion and Poverty in the Caribbean


JUDITH SOARES

Poverty is a condition that persists throughout the world, but more so in what has been termed the underdeveloped or the developing world. In this region of the world where the population of the poor is increasing, sometimes exponentially, through national and international inequities and inequalities, there seems to be an inability of national governments and international agencies to successfully remedy the situation. Many reasons have been proffered for the causes of poverty: poor governance, bad management of the economy, lack of nancial resources to make the necessary investments in health and education, lack of capital investments, lack of entrepreneurship, gender inequities, low income and high levels of unemployment, and war and conict, among others. he many solutions, including those wrapped in the poverty alleviation/ reduction/eradication garb, have not even scratched the surface of this social ill. In fact, despite the many and varied poverty alleviation/ reduction/eradication projects and programs, some funded by international lending agencies such as the World Bank, poverty in the developing world is on the increase. In the case of Latin America, for example, The Barbados Advocate of March 4, 2007, reports that the recent summit of Latin American leaders, the Rio Group, held in Guyana in March recognized, with dismay, the rise of poverty in the region. Consequently, they called for a reversal of the abysmal record of social inequality where over 50 million people were actually denied access to sufcient food. But in all of this, there is a still, dynamic voice of concern that speaks to poverty and related social issues. This voice is grounded in a contextualized reinterpretation of Christian theology, known as liberation theology, which is concerned about the well-being of the poor. It is a theology that emerged in the Latin American context in the late 1960s, and which emphasizes that Christian action and church structures must function in the human reality of oppression and liberation as expressed by Gustavo Gutierrez and Juan Luis Segundo, two of the original architects of liberation theology. The intention: to transform society through social action and on the basis of the Christian message of justice, peace, and love because the liberation of

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the Latin American poor, as with the poor in the Caribbean, was bound up in salvation history. According to Vatican 11, it is a history where human development and liberation from the structures of oppression were key motives for the transformation of Latin American societies and, by extension, Caribbean societies, where an appropriate brand of liberation theology was developed. Emerging, quite logically, in the lower church of the Roman Catholic Church, liberation theology, then, calls for both thought and action on behalf of the poor, on the part of the Church, the laity and all those who follow God. But, are the Church, Christianity, and biblical doctrine at one on the issue of poverty? In our view, the Church, Christianity, and biblical doctrine are at odds on the issue of poverty, which is a main theme throughout the Bible. This theme is grounded in the narrative that God is on the side of the poor and the disadvantaged. Therefore, any interpretation of Christianity or biblical doctrine as a justication for the existence and persistence of poverty ies in the face of Gods intention to set the captives free and to bring liberation to the poor, as recorded in the text of Isaiah 25. In concretizing our view, we look at the case of Jamaica where secular philosophy was combined with Christian doctrine in an attempt to address the sociopolitics of change and to alter the foundations of poverty. In Jamaica, and the wider Caribbean, poverty, as a social, psychological, political, and economic condition, persists. Affecting the majority of the people of the region, poverty has its genesis in colonialism and slavery, consequent on the incursions into the region of European powers anxious to create wealth to fuel their own emerging processes of capital accumulation in the fteenth and sixteenth centuries. The result of this early global expansion was the creation of societies built on racial and class oppression, and the social exclusion of a bonded population brought from Africa to replace a virtually decimated native population. The colonization of the region by the British in the seventeenth century saw the creation of a plantation society to produce sugar for the European markets to serve, in part, as the base for modern capitalism in Britain. Plantation society was based on master/slave relations where the latter were the main units of production and the former, the main consuming unit. Hence socioeconomic relations were based on undisguised exploitation and coercion. Therefore, the poor, the dispossessed, and poverty have been with us for centuries. or slave society to remain intact, however, ideological domination was necessary in the preservation of race and class rule. That is to say the plantocracy, or the ruling class, was not able to rule unless it could establish continuing authority over its labor force based on a body of ideas common to all, and could use its institutions to gain universal acceptance of those ideas. To this end, race and the ideology of racism, embodied in

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religion, were used by the colonial ruling class as a means of controlling slave labor and consolidating and rationalizing the economic system of plantation society. Because religion had rationality among the slave population, we can agree with Edgar Thompsons relevant analysis of slavery in the United States of America, which notes that in that countrys south, it was fairly easy to maintain control of the enslaved Africans because they themselves accepted the negative ideas of their racial inferiority. Once the ideology of race was established as a principle of control and had universal appeal, then slave relations were not resisted by members of the enslaved race. In the Caribbean, this was witnessed in the consolidation of a deliberately constructed racist ideology that identied the African with less than human qualities. In this social and economic formation, the Church, the main protagonist of slave relations, disseminated the ideas of racism at both the popular and intellectual levels, and was, therefore, the main vehicle of socialization whose rst priority was defending the established order. In fact, the Churchs view, as expressed by Bishop Reginald Courtenay, was that the black population was unintelligent, immoral, and loose, embracing base motives and indulging in sinful, shameless, and worldly behavior without giving thought to the social and religious consequences. Furthermore, as Morris, in his 1949 piece The Christian Origins of Social Revolt, pointed out, the ruling class argued that slaves possessed less than human qualities and their lowly station in life was decreed by God who had created them that way. Essentially, then, Christianity served as an embodiment of racism, the ideology of slavery, and, therefore, was an essential part of the social order of slave society in which slaves were encouraged to accept their lot as ordained by a God who made them lesser beings. Despite this, and at the same time, however, a radicalized Christianity provided a revolutionary discourse for the slaves to show that slavery was indeed wrong in the sight of God whose words clearly indicated in Galatians 3 that all people are equal, and social discrimination constituted a sin as all were equal in Gods Kingdom. This led to a number of protest actions, including rebellions and revolts, the aim of which was to bring slavery to an end. For example, the 1831 Christmas Rebellion in Jamaica forced the British to fast forward Emancipation, which was ofcially declared in 1834. At this time, planters were compensated for their loss of labor and the slaves received nothing for their loss of employment, achieving the status of dispossessed. Herein lay the roots of Caribbean poverty. This dual ideological manifestation of Christianity and the conservative role of the Church were not conned to slave society, but is being witnessed in contemporary times. This ideological tension, therefore, underlies our discussion as we address our main concern: the relationship between the

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Church, Christianity, biblical doctrine, and poverty that survived slavery, and gures prominently under the system of capitalism, introduced on the ruins of slave society. In so doing, we offer that there is an inherent dialectic in biblical doctrine that allows some to understand and accept poverty as the will of God, and some to understand this social phenomenon as going against the will of God. We argue that this dialectic manifests itself, at the same time, not only as the opiate of the poor, but also as the justication for the presence of the poor, and as a challenge to the structures that create and perpetuate poverty. he Church, in this context, maintains its historical role as a means of social control, as there continues to be a holy alliance between Church and state. By this, we mean that the Church, as an institution, does not challenge, but presides over the structures of oppression, perhaps because it has been so intricately bound up with the traditions of the status quo from colonialism to capitalism, and has always provided the ideological prop for the state in the form of biblical interpretation. This is in spite of the fact that the majority of churchgoers in the region are the poor who ock to the churches seeking solace and the message of hope offered by a bourgeois interpretation of Christianity that is instrumentally used to get the poor to accept their own oppression, status, and condition and the socioeconomic structure of capitalism as the will of God. As stated before, this comes from a specic interpretation of biblical content imposed by the economic and political coordinates to maintain their rule and to disguise the exploitation of the exploited. This interpretation teaches obedience, submission, subordination, and heavenly reward for a people enslaved by collective sin and marginalized by the thrust to accumulate surplus capital. In the Caribbean, then, the Church, as an institution, has not concerned itself with challenging the structures and institutions of poverty, despite the existence of liberation theology as a body of thought and action. And, despite the Latin American theologians call for a preferential option for the poor and the reminder of the Caribbean Conference of Churches to act in obedience to Jesus Christ and in solidarity with the poor, the Church has maintained its position as the guardian of the unequal relations of production, distribution of resources, and exchange of goods and services. Although a part of society, the Church stands apart from society and its people, preferring to eschew engagement on social issues, including those of poverty. By so doing, and presenting God as a distant deity unconcerned with the human condition, it objectively supports positions of social injustice. Therefore, instead of heeding these calls, its concern is to improve the moral and spiritual life of the poor, in an abstract sense, to keep them in their place and to help them to be better workers in the process of production.

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This approach contradicts the principles of Christianity as recorded in Scriptural text. Biblical narrative, such as the aforementioned Isaiah, for example, tells us that God identies with the poor and promises to support them in their distress and to deliver them from poverty. In the same vein, Ezekiels view of the righteous person is one who does not oppress, and commits no robbery but shows kindness and exercises compassion and care for the less fortunate. In the period of the dispensation of grace, St. Luke tells us that Jesus, who had more than a revolutionary spirit, often worked among the poor whom he said were specially blessed by God. The compassion and neighborly attitude of the good Samaritan, including the feeding of the ve thousand, which signals communion and solidarity with the poor, and the lesson of non-discrimination found in John 4, for example, are symbolic of the kind of justice society craves. In addition, Matthew 25 records the words of Jesus who clearly expressed the principles on which a social gospel is to be built and the corresponding social action: feeding the hungry and the thirsty, clothing the naked and providing shelter for the homeless, all in the spirit of fellowship and goodwill. In Philippians 2, Paul espoused a social gospel, urging fellow humans to avoid selshness and self-aggrandizement, and to adopt a more giving and sharing approach toward each other. Galatians 5 tells us that, at the same time, spiritual wholesomeness comes from love, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, joy, patience, and humility, and is difcult to achieve under conditions of poverty and in systems of exploitation. But the basic law of social justice is to be found in Matthew 7, which advises that we should do to others what we want them to do to/for us. In the same tradition, Jesus reaction to the Sadducees and the Pharisees, who represent the status quo, symbolizes the challenge to societies based on social exclusion. Matthew 16 records the warning Jesus gave his disciples against the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees that He saw as antisocial, based on self-interest and selshness, and which could pervade ones social consciousness if accepted as universal truth, and, thus, undermine the cause of the poor. n the case of women, who are both socially and ideologically marginalized, and among whom we nd the poorest of the poor, we note that St. Luke gives them a central place in biblical narrative. Commonly known as the book of women and the disadvantaged, St. Luke, which opens with the exaltation women, locates Mary, a poor woman, in a social context that resembles the Caribbean. It is a Judeo-Christian society where there is social discrimination and an unequal relationship between the ruler and the ruled, rich and poor, women and men, the abled and the disabled, the whole and the unwhole, and the young and the old.

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In this situation, in agreement with Bur, we see Mary embodying a set of ideas and values that run counter to social and economic systems constructed on the basis of capitalism and social injustice. These are values that are rooted in social salvation and social righteousness, and are diametrically opposed to those of individualism, personal prosperity, and personal salvation. Here, we see the inclusion of a poor woman in Gods plan to transform society in the interest of the socially disadvantaged. Mary, in expressing these values, proclaimed in the Magnicat, found in St. Luke 1, that God had justly uplifted the poor by choosing her to bear that One, Jesus Christ, who was to serve the poor and to liberate the subaltern classes. According to Mary, God, by exalting the lowly and the disadvantaged, had sent a signal to the rich and powerful that theirs (the poor and lowly) was the Kingdom of God. Simply put, then, Christian doctrine records God as a champion of the poor. Christianity, in this sense, has provided for society, the Church and the laity, the core of ideas necessary to address issues of poverty and social justice. It is this core of ideas that provided the ideological framework for Jamaicas attempt in the 1970s to transform social relations to reect a more just society based on the Christian concept of the equal value of all human beings, and the practice of Socialism is Christianity in Action and Socialism is Love in much the same way that the Scriptures tell us that God is Love. In the 1970s, the government of Jamaica adopted a political program of democratic socialism that it popularized as Socialism is Love. Prompted by biblical doctrine as expressed by Saints Luke and Matthew, which speak to deliverance of the poor and the disadvantaged, and is inuenced by Latin American liberation theology, the government was able to link secular philosophy with Christian faith and doctrine, not just to appeal to the community of believers, but as a response to the growing inequality that has historically been a feature of Jamaican society. In this process of change, Christianity was a critical element in achieving human liberation. Here, the resources of the Christian faith were employed, not only as a critique of injustice, but also to provide the symbols of social justice in a sacral society now eager to confront the politics and economics of poverty and social injustice. Religious symbols and texts, which were linked to everyday issues, were given new meanings to create a deeper understanding of social life and to encourage commitments for addressing, according to Prime Minister Manley, the degradation of the human condition. Through this approach and understanding of personal salvation as an aspect of Christian witness, Manley and the government were seeking to expand the prophetic character of Christianity to provide the context for dening, validating, and articulating what he saw as just political, economic, and social aspirations.

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his new thrust, then, was based on the view that socialism was a political philosophy that best gives practical expression to Gods call for equality for all people, founded as it was on the Christian belief and biblical advice that each person must love thy neighbor as thyself. This was one of the fundamental laws of social justice. Practically, Socialism is Christianity in Action and Socialism is Love meant a radical reform of the system of capitalism expressing itself, for example, in universal health care, free education to the tertiary level, an adult literacy program, special programs for young people, price subsidies, price and rent controls, land for the landless, the protection of workers rights and worker participation at the workplace, a 40-hour, 5-day work week, a national minimum wage, a Maternity Leave law, a Status of Children Act and a Family Court to protect women and children, equal pay for equal work of equal value, and a National Bureau of Womens Affairs to address issues relating to a social group that had always existed on the margins of society. The principles of Christianity were extended to the international sphere as issues of racism and apartheid, while colonial and neo-colonial exploitation were seen as blatant denials of the Christian faith. In addition, a new international economic order, spearheaded by Manley, to address issues of poverty between countries of the North and those of the South upheld the Christian principles of equality and justice, because this new economic arrangement sought to include the notion of justice in existing international economic relations. The vision here was that this social gospel sought to integrate the material and the spiritual in building a new society in which poverty, social domination, unemployment, illiteracy, and injustice would eventually cease to exist. In the spirit of national unity, the government called on the churches and all Jamaicans to join in the ght against the degradation of human life. The immediate response of the Church to this new social, economic thrust was silence. Those church leaders who supported an orthodox theology cautioned the people about accepting what they understood as a new evil that had reared its head, and was a serious threat to the church. Some individual church leaders, such as the Anglican Ernle Gordon, however, responded positively to democratic socialism and a social gospel, arguing that capitalism, as a social, economic and political system, was unchristian and any church that was not committed to justice for the poor denied the holiness of Jesus. At the end of the day, the Church took a stand against a social gospel and social justice, despite the improved condition of the poor and the dispossessed. What should be noted here is that the Church, in the face of the intense debate, sought to preserve itself in its colonial context as a defender of the status quo as it stood rm in direct opposition to the fundamental socioeconomic changes that were taking place. In so doing, it, at the same time, opposed a social

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gospel, social salvation, and collective sin, all of which embraced a new order where there would be human responsibility toward others and each other. Essentially, the Church supported the violation of the principles of social and human rights that had denied the Jamaican poor their humanity. For this institution, there was a separation of the Spirit and the Being because God, a distant individualistic entity, was only concerned with the spiritual health of His people to the exclusion of all else. For those church people who embraced a social gospel and liberation theology, democratic socialism was not just a combination of the secular and the religious. It was also an integration of the Spirit and the Being, a case of social salvation in Gods Kingdom of justice. This project of the politics and economics of change indicates that although poverty exists, it does not have to persist and, therefore, the poor will not always have to be with us, regardless of the position of the Church. The religio-political and social program of democratic socialism has shown that it is possible to alter the foundations of poverty and to transform the class relations in society. Because the roots of poverty are historical and its causes structural, however, any attempt to correct this social imbalance would call for a transguration of society and its relations in a way so that many that are rst shall be last; and the last shall be rst, as stated in Matthew 19. In this respect, Jesus attack on the gamblers and money lenders in the temple where he overturned the tables of money lenders and the stalls of vendors in favor of embracing the blind and the crippled symbolizes the turning of society upside down, creating, in its wake, a social situation where not only will the last be rst, but the rst last, as already stated. Interestingly, these principles of Christianity closely resemble those of communism, to which the Church is opposed.

RECOMMENDED READINGS
Beckford, George. 1972. Persistent Poverty: Underdevelopment in Plantation Economies of the World. London: Zed Books. Bisnauth, Dale. 1989. History of Religions in the Caribbean. Jamaica: Kingston Publishers Ltd. Braithwaite, E. K. 1977. Wars of Respect: Nanny and Sam Sharpe. Kingston, Jamaica: Agency for Public Information. Bur, Jacques. 1994. How to Understand the Virgin Mary. London: SCM Press Ltd. (English edition) Caribbean Conferences of Churches. 1976. Handbook of Churches in the Caribbean. Davis, Edmund. 1977. Roots and Blossoms. Barbados: Cedar Press. Ellis John. 1913. The Diocese of Jamaica. London: Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. Galeano, Eduardo. 1973. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of Pillage of a Continent. New York: Monthly Review Press. Gordon, Ernle. 1979. Fatalistic Theology. Daily News (June 8): 7. Gutierrez, Gustavo. 1973. A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis/London: SCM Press. Hart, Richard. 1980. Slaves Who Abolished Slavery: Blacks in Rebellion (Vol. 2). Kingston, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, UWI.

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Lewis, Gordon K. 1983. Main Currents in Caribbean Thought: The Historical Evolution of Caribbean Society in its Ideological Aspects, 14921900. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Manley, Michael. 1979. . . .We Must Tackle Structures. . . Lecture Delivered to the Third World Foundation, London, October 29. Manley, Michael.1977. Liberation of the Human Spirit. Address Delivered to Jamaica Educational and Cultural Institute Fundraising Dinner, New York, October 27. Manley, Michael. 1975. From the Shackles of Domination and Oppression. Address to the Plenary Session of the World Council of Churches Fifth Assembly, Nairobi, November Morris, W. D. 1949. The Christian Origins of Social Revolt. London: George Allen and Unwin. Peoples National Party. 1974. Democratic Socialism: Position Statements on Socialism. Peoples National Party. n.d. Democratic Socialism: The Jamaican Model. Segundo, Juan Luis. 1976. The Liberation of Theology. New York: Orbis Books. Soares, Judith.1992. New Churches Old Ideology: The Role of Fundamentalism in Jamaican Politics, 19801988. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, Queens University, Canada. Soares, Judith. 1986. Religion and Politics in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Jamaica with Special Reference to the Church of Jamaica and its Leaders: A Critical Perspective. Unpublished M.Sc. Thesis, University of the West Indies. Thompson, Edgar. 1940. The Planter in the Pattern of Race Relations in the South. Social Forces (December): 245. Williams, Eric. 1964. Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch.

Judith Soares is Senior Lecturer and Tutor/Coordinator for the Women and Development Unit at the University of the West Indies Open Campus. E-mail: jsoares@uwichill.edu.bb