One of the privileges of ministry in the part of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom, where I live is the opportunity to lead a multicultural church.
Most of the Afro-Caribbean families who worship with us are first-generation immigrants, members of the original “Windrush Generation.”
When I visit their homes, I am invariably struck by the many graduation photos of children and grandchildren that line the walls, often alongside a picture of Barack Obama and the U.S. presidential crest.
These pictures give expression to the aspiration and perseverance of this generation, and they provide a testimony to the journey of liberation and socioeconomic advancement that they have enjoyed in recent decades.
This story can also be explained by a black liberation theology, described by one writer, Anthony Reddie, as a journey from “nobodies to somebodies.”
When I go to the homes of some of the hard-pressed white British families in my congregation, however, I see few, if any, signs of an understanding of the gospel, which provides an explanation for the marginalization they feel and offers the hope of better prospects for the future.
One possible reason for this lack of a wider perspective is offered by Lynsey Hanley, a sociologist who grew up on the Chelmsley Wood estate near Birmingham, in her book “Respectable: The Experience of Class.”
She suggests “the middle-class approach to life … is founded on a bedrock of security,” a confidence in better prospects for the future that justifies planning for the long-term and that allows for the time and energy to think about life in more abstract and conceptual terms.
In contrast, she writes, “The working-class approach to life … embodies generations of uncertainty. For how long can we keep the family together? Will our child survive? Will I still have a job tomorrow?”
That middle-class perspective shapes many of our tools for sharing the gospel.
We invite people to attend courses (itself a notion more likely to appeal to those who see their own lives as a project, the goal of which is to fully realize our potential), with topics like, “Why and how do I pray?” and “What am I doing here?”
These are good questions, but ones that you might not have the time or inclination to consider if you’re further down the scale of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
What does good news look like if you’ve just been moved onto universal credit, and it’s now a four-week wait for income? What hope is offered by Jesus if there isn’t much work available on a zero-hours contract?
The picture of Jesus offered to us by the gospels is that of a figure who is constantly taking sides on behalf of the poor and marginalized.
The stories of his birth found in Luke include a song of praise (Luke 1:46-55), which speaks of the poor being lifted up while the powerful are removed from their thrones as well as a prophecy about the divisive outcomes of Jesus’ mission.
A few chapters later, the Gospel famously describes the event early in his ministry when he addresses the synagogue in Nazareth appropriating the language of Jubilee and Isaiah’s vision of “good news for the poor” (Luke 4:14-21).
For every blessing offered to the outsiders in Luke’s version of the beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26), we read an equivalent word of warning to those positions of power and privilege in the current age.
When Jesus is loving and compassionate in the Gospels, it is invariably toward those who are struggling.
Where he is angry, it is in response to those in positions of power who are abusing their authority (such as the Temple authorities or Pharisees) and even toward the very presence of disease and brokenness in the world (“pity” is probably too weak a word to fully convey what he feels toward a leper in Mark 1:41).
Tragically, many of our presentations of the gospel skew this vision of Jesus, presenting him instead as someone who is angry with individuals who have sinned.
Of course, God makes a call to each of us to repent, but surely our message can be presented in ways that do more justice to the big picture kingdom vision first proclaimed by Jesus: a message of God’s love for people; his willingness to enter into the experience of life in a fallen world; his displeasure at the injustice and greed that mars so many lives; and his determination that there will one day be a reckoning, a judgment not only on each of us but also on empires like Babylon, whose wealth is built on exploitation and avarice.
As the saying goes, this would be a gospel that comforts the afflicted but afflicts the comfortable, discomforting for some but genuinely liberating for others.
Trevor Neill is minister of Yardley Wood Baptist Church, Birmingham, United Kingdom. A version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times of Great Britain, the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @TrevorNeill1.