The Lord’s Prayer: A Systemic Theology of Poverty and Unemployment

By Professor Gerald West, Ujamaa Centre – University of KwaZulu-Natal

In a previous Ujamaa Centre newsletter available on CIHA Blog, we provided a link to the “Poverty Trends in South Africa.” A report by Statistics South Africa (2017) offers us statistical ‘proof’ of the realities the Ujamaa Centre works with every week as we engage with local communities in what we call our ‘Bread Theology’ programme.

This is how the report summarises poverty in South Africa in 2015 (the end date of the report): “Despite the general decline in poverty between 2006 and 2011, poverty levels in South Africa rose in 2015. When applying the upper-bound poverty line (R992 per person per month in 2015 prices), we see that more than one out of every two South Africans were poor in 2015, with the poverty headcount increasing to 55,5% from a series low of 53,2% in 2011. This translates into over 30,4 million South Africans living in poverty in 2015″.

Poverty has a race and a gender, with black Africans “carrying the overwhelming share of poverty by representing more than nine out of every ten individuals”, and with females representing 57,2% of the poor in 2015. Furthermore, the report confirms, women “constitute the majority of casual or contract workers”. With unemployment rates (not including casual or contract workers) having “stabilised at around 25,0%”, the prospects for social dignity and economic change are severely constrained. Many of the so-called ‘employed’ do not have decent work or earn decent wages.

The report is full of such detail, providing us with the social analysis we need to ‘See’. See-Judge-Act is the fundamental praxis cycle of the Ujamaa Centre. See = analysing reality; Judge = evaluate this reality from the perspective of the prophetic tradition of the Bible and theology; Act = change reality so that it conforms to the kin-dom of God. This report is one of many resources to ‘See’ African realities.

What is less evident are resources to ‘Judge’ this reality. Put simply, what are the biblical and theological resources for faith communities to become involved in socio-economic analysis and change? Without such resources the millions of Christian South Africans who are poor and unemployed have to rely on what they hear from their church leaders. There are two dominant theological responses to poverty and unemployment from within Christian theological traditions. The first maintains that this world is not as important as the world to come in heaven. The second blames the poor and unemployed for being poor and unemployed, insisting that they ‘claim’ their individual right to the blessing of God in this world. The first theological tradition is that of evangelical Christianity; the second theological tradition is that of prosperity theology. The Ujamaa Centre rejects both theologies. We work with a systemic analysis of poverty and unemployment. It is unjust economic systems, both local and international, that generate poverty and unemployment. We ‘See’ reality differently. We also ‘Judge’ this reality differently, using a systemic analysis of the Bible as a resource for a systemic analysis of contemporary reality.

For example, many Christians recite the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ as if it is about spiritual matters, we interpret this prayer differently. In Matthew’s version of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ (Matthew 6:9-13) it is clear that the prayer is about economics!

9 Pray, then, in this way:

‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.

10 ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven:

11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread.

12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil’.

I have placed a colon at the end of verse 10. Verse 9 makes the focus of the prayer clear; it is about God’s kin-dom coming ‘on earth’! Earth, not heaven is the focus. The prayer then goes on to explain what needs to change for God’s kin-dom to come on earth. First, communities (for the focus is on plurality and not individuality) would require bread for each day. This is an immediate need. But, second, and more importantly, there would need to be systemic change. Communities would require release from indebtedness. The rich are rich because the poor are poor. Wealth and poverty are systemic, and debt is one of the central mechanisms in constructing poverty. In the socio-economic world of Jesus poverty was caused by debt. Being in debt often resulted in the loss of family and community land. So, according to the theological logic of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, release from debt would lead to communities regaining their land and so having the means to provide their own bread. The ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is dealing with both poverty and unemployment!

Here is a theological resource with which to ‘Judge’ South African realities of poverty and unemployment. And what is the ‘temptation’? The ‘temptation’ is to be captive to evil systems! Unfortunately, the “Poverty Trends in South Africa” report by Statistics South Africa falls short of a fully systemic analysis of poverty and unemployment in South Africa. ‘State capture’ is not referred to at all, and neither is South Africa’s macro-economic complicity with neo-liberal globalised capitalism. But there are prophetic resources with which to ‘Judge’ such local and international systems. In Mark 11:27-13:2, Jesus deals explicitly with ‘temple capture’, as the elites of his day use the resources of the temple for their own enrichment rather than the service of the people.

I have discussed the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ in more detail in a recent publication of the Lutheran World Federation available here. (See: West, Gerald O. “The Lord’s Prayer as Economic Renewal.” In Global Perspectives on the Reformation: Interactions between Theology, Politics and Economics, edited by Anne Burkhardt and Simone Sinn, 85-94. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsansta, 2017.) Fortunately, the LWF understands the importance not only of ‘Seeing’ but also of ‘Judging’. African Christians, in their many millions, require access to theological resources for social change. And their church leaders require a theological analysis that will enable them to engage systemically with the governmental realm.

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