For the last 10 years, I have been living in a tribal society in the Middle East. Family connections are strong and are used to secure jobs, licenses, benefits, healthcare, education, etc. The system works well for those who are part of it, but for those on the outside - foreign workers, refugees, people from lesser families, the poor - it can be difficult to get things done. Social mobility is often limited by surname, and there is a growing gap between the elite and the rest. I love living in this country, but as rich westerners, our money gives us a voice. I wouldn’t like to live here if I were poor. In the Old Testament, God places special emphasis on protecting the vulnerable - widows, orphans, foreigners, the landless, slaves and the poor. These were all groups without a voice inside the system, who could quickly fall into poverty or be taken advantage of. Those within the tribal system had means of protection, but special measures were needed for those outside. In comparison to many countries, Britain and Ireland are very fair societies. Anyone can get healthcare without a credit card, schooling is provided free for all, social services do not take into account your surname before calculating the benefit. No one is really starving. However, there are still many people on the ‘outside’. Many people feel excluded, whether from decent education, from the job market, from family life, from a ‘way up’. Many hold out no hope that their lives can improve, and in these days of deficit-inspired cuts in government services, perhaps more people are going to fall out of the system. One of the church’s roles is to mediate God’s Biblical concern for the needy, the vulnerable, the poor and the excluded. This should be a central part of the mission of the church today, even in rich countries. In recent times we have delegated much of this role to our Christian-inspired state, although some churches have continued to make this a priority.  Now that the money has run out, all churches need to get involved. The solutions to many of today’s societal problems are complex and sometimes generational. By getting involved, we risk getting dirty, getting things wrong, making things worse, being misunderstood, possibly even wasting our time. But if we are to follow God’s commands, we have no choice. As the apostle James said, ‘pure and faultless religion is to look after orphans and widows in their need’. Has the church become another ‘insider group’, part of the elite, looking after its own interests rather than tending to the needs of those on the outside? If so, perhaps these next few years of austerity in public services will be an opportunity to serve again, in practical witness. When Old Testament Israel forgot the poor, God’s prophets railed against her. The outward practice of religion was not enough to stave off the punishment of exile. God wants his people to make a difference to those around them. Stephen McIlwaine. Stephen McIlwaine is a water engineer from Belfast, living and working in the Middle East.
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2 Responses to Outsiders

  1. Osmond Mulligan says:

    Thanks for this article. It is interesting that Stephen has been working and living outside Ireland, and so developed some insight into the plight of ‘Outsiders’. When I first went to Africa I was told that there was no point talking to hungry people about the love of God until we put food in their stomach! I have just been studying Luke 5 in my S.U. notes, and been impressed by the countercultural message of Jesus in contrast to the priorities of the Pharisees. Not only did he challenge Peter about the use of his boat and the need for His guidance about fishing, but he touched the leper and healed him and then had a party with Levi, who had just moved from the ‘receipt of custom’ for the hated Romans. I was also reminded of the other story of the 10 lepers healed by Jesus in Matthew 15 where only the Samaritan returned to thank Jesus for healing. Jesus identified with the outsiders on the periphery of the religious ‘elite’. In Ulster we need to be involved with those who battle with addictions, or with ex-paramilitaries and their families (both ‘sides’), or with those in prison and their families. The Prison & Probation service cannot cope with the needs of ex-prisoners when they are discharged from prison. There are not enough beds in hostels and there are not enough people who will support them in getting a job or even being a friend in need. Osmond

  2. Cheryl says:

    Thanks for this, Stephen!
    The ways outsiders are excluded here are more subtle, perhaps. Families are too busy looking after each other to think about caring for – or even noticing – the outsider.
    This is a core Gospel issue. Until the Church engages with outsiders as Jesus does, our theology is abstract and unreal. Outsiders, such as asylum-seekers, immigrants, international students, people with family and financial difficulties, those without internet access or computer know-how…

    The more “outsiders” we list, the more we realise “they” are us. I hope to get to know my true self better as I take more interest in those excluded from my privileges and comforts. Maybe I need to see myself as an outsider before I will have eyes to even see the others.

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