God Knows There's Need: Christian Responses to Poverty

God Knows There's Need: Christian Responses to Poverty

God Knows There's Need: Christian Responses to Poverty

God Knows There's Need: Christian Responses to Poverty


The subject of poverty is rich in meanings and associations, among them hunger, stench, disease, disfigurement, shame, revulsion, and loss. It is a topic that has preoccupied the mind and hearts of the faithful since the inception of Christianity.

In this insightful volume, Susan R. Holman blends personal memoir and scholarly research into ancient writings to illuminate the age-old issues of need, poverty, and social justice in the history of the Christian tradition. Holman weaves together stories from late antiquity with three conceptual paradigms that can bridge the gap between historical story and modern action: sensing need, sharing the world, and embodying sacred kingdom. In the first four chapters, the author explores how personal need influences the way that we look at the world and the needs of others. Beginning with the story of her own encounters with need and her discovery of the world of early Christian texts on poverty and religious response, the author re-tells these historical narratives in new ways, and traces their influence on post-Reformation history. The second half of the book uses a complex amalgam of images and stories to consider several recurrent themes in any religious responses to poverty and need: poverty and gender, the dilemma of justice in material distribution, ascetic models of social activism and contemplation, the language of human rights and the "common good," challenges of hospitality, and the role of liturgy in constructing a vision for restorative righteousness.

Tying these historical texts to modern responses to need, Holman begins with her own encounters with need and describes her discovery of the existence of never-before-translated early Christian texts on responses to poverty, hunger, and disease. Holman's embrace of the historical perspective will prove useful in interdenominational and ecumenical dialogue on religious responses to social welfare needs. Through their sensitive exploration of nuances and tensions, these essays invite reflection, conversation, and response for scholars and students as well as concerned laypeople across a range of Christian faith communities.


In a song inspired by his native county Durham, English folksinger Jez Lowe envisions the seventh-century monk, Bede, revisiting his ancient haunts in modern times and weeping. Viewing the stark poverty of the region today, the old monk “feels the curse of all their debts and damns their debtors. If just one could stand high, and say we’ll take no more,” the singer laments, “but their will’s been broken … the wind blows all day saying more’s the fool you … and Bede weeps.”

Indeed, the countryside where Bede wrote his History of the English Church and People, the same region that gave birth to the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels, is a place that today is scarred by closed mine pits, high unemployment, and a working class focus on survival. The coastal town of Whitby, which I know best, has three heroes: St. Hilda (or Hild), Captain Cook, and Dracula. Despite its summer crowds, chips shops, and lean and haggard hotel-keepers, Whitby is a bleak place, a beautifully spare town, pared by centuries of misfortune, where the wind indeed blows all day. The Vikings decimated St. Hilda’s seventh-century monastery (which Bede describes) so cleanly that its remains consist of a few tombstones, bookbinding clasps, writing styli, spindle-whorls, loom weights, and combs—and one lead bulla, a seal from a lost document authorized by Boniface, archdeacon of Rome from 654 to 685, possibly his papal reply to the abbess’s complaints about the obnoxious bishop, Wilfrid. The gaunt abbey shell that is visible for miles, like an etched lithograph of skeletal darkness, is twelfth century, founded by one Reinfrid who, “pricked to the heart” by the sight of the ruin and desolation he saw (and likely caused) at Whitby during the carnage of William’s conquest, gave up soldiering to become a monk. The abbot’s book, begun around 1160 and preserved today in the town museum, describes among the ruins forty roofless monastic oratories, abandoned monastic cells. Fond to repeat the pattern, Henry VIII deroofed Reinfrid’s abbey; the only remaining shelter in the enclosure is a narrow eastern stairwell that is dark with pigeons.

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