Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Christianity, Islam and the Challenge of Poverty - Archbishop calls for co-operation on global poverty

Wednesday 18th May 2005

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has said Christian and Muslim leaders should work together to forge a new vision of a prosperous society to challenge the orthodoxies of the global economy.

In an address  'Christianity, Islam and the Challenge of Poverty' (full text below) in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, where he is chairing a major seminar of Christian and Muslim scholars, Dr Williams, insisted poverty was not just a matter of material deprivation or lack of access to power and influence.

It was also, he said: "the modern Western person cut off from the depths of religious and cultural meaning by a series of relentless messages about consumer gratification."

Dr Williams said that, for all their differences, there was a "common agenda" between Christian and Muslims in rejecting "any simply individual idea of the good life."

He added: "Wealth itself has to be redefined to mean access to the resources that make our existence stable and meaningful – so that material abundance created at the expense of such access, at the expense of cultural or family stability, or the presence of the signs of faith in public life, will represent a net move towards poverty."

Dr Williams also rejected claims that religious approaches to the debate on poverty and world trade lacked rigour: "It has to be said clearly and often that the religious objection to aspects of the current global trade regime is not a sentimental aversion to wealth or a sort of commendation of endless large-scale almsgiving. It is rather to do with the ways in which certain practices make it impossible for some nations to be economic agents in any meaningful way."

Dr Williams urged Christians and Muslims "to look out for opportunities for a particular sort of collaboration." These included being "advocates for the visibility of religion."

"We know where the roots of poverty lie – in the refusal to accept the meaning that God gives the world, a refusal which shows itself not only in atheism but also in the anxious and greedy spirit that cannot see the human context of economic activity," he said.

A transcript of the Archbishop's address follows:

Christianity, Islam and the Challenge of Poverty

Bosniak Institute, Sarajevo


It is likely that religious believers of all traditions would begin by warning that 'poverty' is not a word with a single definition. We may think first of apparently straightforward material deprivation – a low income, no public welfare or emergency provision, poor health care, inability to afford basics such as food. But behind this lies a set of more deep-rooted concerns about the lack of access to power – power, that is, which can be used to change one's situation. It is a commonplace now that the problem of poverty is inseparable from the ways in which a global economy can dictate the terms on which a nation's economy behaves: it is bound up with debt, with protectionist practices that make it impossible for a nation to enter the international markets on fair terms, with the way that the presence of multinational companies can affect the free operation of local elected governments. And deeper still there is the level at which poverty has to be thought about in terms of resources not easy to quantify – the stability of a domestic or an educational environment, access to unpolluted natural space, familiarity with the practices and languages that offer access to human meaning.

Poverty is the widowed woman struggling to feed an orphaned grandchild in Malawi or South Africa. It is the child abducted from home to fight in an insurgent army in Uganda or Myanmar. It is the politician in Central America or Eastern Europe trying to balance budgets for hospitals or schools in a faltering and debt-laden economy. It is the citizen paralysed by a culture of endemic corruption, disabled by pollution, trapped in working practices that undermine family and stable community – and this last is not restricted to the poorer countries of the world. So it is also the modern Western person cut off from the depths of religious and cultural meaning by a series of relentless messages about consumer gratification.

Our religious traditions thus have a double responsibility in such a context. They define what human community looks like when it is properly in accord with God's character and purpose; and they challenge what it is that holds back human communities from living in such a way. In the Christian perspective, the definition of human community is worked out primarily in the context of the historical mission of Jesus, and subsequently through St Paul's theology of the Body of Christ; and in what follows I want to trace the development of this definition in order to see how it confronts the particular crises of our own day in regard to poverty. It is important to do this sort of work if we are to avoid an approach to poverty which is essentially just about benevolence to those who suffer material deprivation. Basic as this may seem to be, the truth is that Christianity, like other faiths, has a more nuanced and a more positive contribution to make, with a distinctive doctrinal content. In the context of interfaith encounter, we need to bring to the surface how our actual beliefs shape what we do – not simply to agree that kindness is better than cruelty.

As the gospels present it to us, the mission of Jesus of Nazareth is about the way in which the community of God's people – historically, the Jewish people who had first received the law and the covenant – is being re-created in relation to Jesus himself. He is consistently concerned with those who have no voice or standing among the people – not only the materially poor, but those who have no chance of satisfying the full demands of the ceremonial law and those who are despised because of sickness or sin. When someone responds to Jesus in trust, when someone receives healing from him, the effect is that they are, according to Jesus, set free to take their full place among God's chosen, free to worship and offer sacrifice and to be confident that they have an indestructible value in God's eyes. Because of that sense of their value, they will be free from anxiety about material things and free to take certain risks in order to make known to others the promise that Jesus offers. Thus they are able to live in a community that is not constantly threatened and divided by rivalry and acquisitiveness; they are able to offer each other a love that is like the love given by Jesus in God's name.

In such a community, it is unthinkable that any particular person should be left as a victim without voice or power, with their destiny decided by others. The community itself may be a community that adopts a level of material poverty as a matter of calling, but this is clearly different from a situation where such privation is imposed because of the greed of others. And the commitment to refrain from passing judgement on others or insulting them means that no-one is deprived of respect. This is a community which counteracts poverty in the sense that it resists whatever it is that denies a voice to people, and draws all together in a shared possibility of offering acceptable worship to God.

For Christians the crucial fact is that the community established by Jesus in his ministry is restored after his crucifixion, when he is raised to life. And more than that: his death, seen as the perfect offering of sacrificial, worshipping obedience to God, establishes the possibility of a community which shares in Jesus' own intimacy with God, breaking down the barrier between earth and heaven. Hence the whole community becomes a sort of extension of God's presence in Jesus – the Body of Christ – and, because all have the dignity belonging to those God regards as his children, it is a natural development that St Paul speaks of the Body of Christ as the place where all are given gifts by the Spirit of God to share with the entire community. To each and every Christian believer is given the dignity of being a 'giver'; the believer does not receive gifts for his or her own sake or use, but receives an active capacity to shape the character of the community by what is bestowed on them by God.

St Paul, in his second letter to Corinth, spells this out further in the important eighth and ninth chapters, where he urges some of the Christian communities to be generous to others so that they may also have the chance to be generous in return. The nature of Christian giving here is seen as the sowing of seed – that is, the beginning of a process of growth. It is not simply the alleviation of a problem; it creates something, the possibility of reciprocal action. The community in tune with God's will is one in which all have a role that is in some sense creative, positive. It is therefore, once again, a community in which many of the various kinds of poverty identified earlier should not be visible. Whatever the level of material prosperity, what will be typical of the Christian group is that it seeks ways of making all members participants in the common work of shaping its life so that it can be a visible image of God's purpose for humanity. It is definitely not a matter of (to use the dismissive phrase often heard) 'throwing money' at the poor; it is treating the less advantaged as potentially your own associates and helpers (and perhaps rescuers). And it also takes for granted the basic belief that pervades Paul's letters – that the privation or suffering of any one part of the Body is the privation of all. To help the poor to a capacity for action and liberty is something essential for one's own health as well as theirs: there is a needful gift they have to offer which cannot be offered so long as they are confined by poverty.

Christianity and Islam alike have a long tradition of commending almsgiving, the practice of simple instinctive generosity to the poor. But while this is a given in the tradition, it should not be assumed for Christianity any more than for Islam that this is all that can be said about a proper response of faith when confronted by poverty. The Jewish vision, so clearly set out in the 'Jubilee' vision of Leviticus, is one that refuses to accept an infinite spiral of acquisition on the one hand and deprivation on the other; it assumes instead that God's people will have institutions that seek to control this spiral and to check from time to time that some members of the community are not suffering long-term exclusion from the freedoms of ordinary economic stability. Both Christianity and Islam inherit something of this vision.

It is the same vision that equips them to resist the poverty that can characterise cultural life and personal relations. In emphasising the significance of faithful marriage partnership, for example, they resist that corrosive form of poverty which deprives children of security. In taking tradition seriously, they provide a hinterland of human resource, a sense of the proper relativity of the present moment and the need to explore indebtedness to the depth of history. We might try to sum up this part of the argument simply by observing that our traditions do not in fact treat poverty as a matter of material security which can be remedied by a transfer of material resources; they begin with a picture of human capacity under God and human community as it is formed by the act or call of God, and on the basis of this find themselves combating many different varieties of poverty in the name of a vision of free interdependence. Our care for our common social space today needs to have this notion at its heart.


How does this appear in the light of the various problems posed by the globalised economy? And what actual strategies do or should we adopt in making faith's resistance to poverty effective?

For the Christian, there is a central paradox in some of the language of the gospels and the Christian tradition. Accepting voluntary poverty is a thoroughly positive thing in this language. But it is seen as a specific manifestation of that letting go of anxiety about material security which is the outward mark of a life lived in comprehensive trust in God's acceptance. The person who accepts the calling to poverty – in monastic life, to take the obvious example – does not thereby say that material deprivation is good, but that material prosperity and comfort is something whose absence can embody a lesson about inner freedom, when it is freely surrendered. The voluntarily poor person does not declare that involuntary poverty has to be endured; the lesson is rather to the wealthy. Human life and value do not depend on the unlimited ability to accumulate material security.

This vocation is therefore part of that pedagogy by which the prosperous are challenged – as in II Corinthians – to give, not in a way that makes them paupers, but in a way that equips the poor to begin to have a reciprocal relation with them. The surrender of some part of their freedom on the part of the prosperous works towards a real mutuality, not just a reversal of the roles of rich and poor. It is thus true that 'wealth creation' can be described as a proper Christian aim if it is clearly directed towards the creation of increasing numbers of persons who have the freedom to join in the process. And this, incidentally, ought to be the light in which we approach the vexed question of 'free trade' and 'fair trade'. The proper equipping of a poor nation to take a substantial part in the global economy through an open market is in principle entirely good. It is perfectly true that trade is a tool of prosperity. However, the forcing of the pace of trade liberalisation produces social cost which may threaten the longer-term welfare of a nation; and it is a standing outrage that 'free trade' is commended to economically vulnerable nations by other nations who persist in protectionism. It has to be said clearly and often that the religious objection to aspects of the current global trade regime is not a sentimental aversion to wealth or a sort of commendation of endless large-scale almsgiving. It is rather to do with the ways in which certain practices make it impossible for some nations to be economic agents in any meaningful way.

It is likely, then, that religious believers will be found among those who are sceptical of appeals to the market as the primary agent of benevolent change; but they should also be found among those who seek to encourage the kind of enterprise that creates wealth in the form of employment, which represents increased levels of control and capacity in a social environment. Perhaps one of the most distinctive contributions that can be made by religious communities is the active encouragement of local credit schemes. Whether in the shape of the Anglican 'Five Talents' initiative in Africa, or the Grameen banks of Muhammad Yunus in South Asia, there is a way of furthering economic maturity that belongs most obviously with religious conviction simply because it assumes that a dependable local community, bound by trust and common commitment, is an ideal unit in which economic empowerment can take place.

Not much is to be gained simply by religious groups and religious leaders repeating slogans about the costs and evils of globalisation. But if they can learn to work together in encouraging microcredit initiatives that make persons and small communities into real economic agents, they will be doing something profoundly worthwhile. They will be assisting people to exercise the creative responsibility which is God's gift and purpose for human beings.

Similarly on the international stage we need more open and sophisticated consultation between Christian and Muslim teachers and leaders on the ethical principles of investment and development. Get beyond the standoff between 'free trade ' and 'fair trade' and we shall have made real progress; and this can only happen if we have a robust sense of what economic activity is meant to deliver in the long run – which is not wealth in the usual narrow sense of material abundance for certain persons, but the liberty to make and sustain a stable, dependable environment for human growth.

Economists are coming to acknowledge that measures of national wealth and poverty in terms strictly of average income tell you little that is significant of the health or viability of a society. Wealth itself has to be redefined (as hinted above) to mean access to the resources that make our existence stable and meaningful – so that material abundance created at the expense of such access, at the expense of cultural or family stability, or the presence of the signs of faith in public life, will represent a net move towards poverty. And – to give a pointer to issues that will be dealt with in another paper – the loss of access to an unpolluted physical environment is likewise a net decrease in wealth, as argued by economists like Partha Dasgupta.

It is impossible to deny that Christians and Muslims have a common agenda here: both faiths have at their heart the living image of a community raised up by God's call to reveal to the world what God's purpose is for humanity. Both, that is, turn away from any simply individual idea of the good life. Both are thus inevitably drawn in to reflection on how the life of society can be moulded to the life that God desires for human flourishing. Historically and theologically, they have offered very different solutions, with Christianity keeping a more obvious gap between the visible community of the Church and the institutions of the state, and Islam normally working on the assumption that the good society is one in which divine law is directly realised. Both, however, have a necessarily critical stance towards a society that has no means of limiting rivalry and acquisition, or which tolerates indefinitely habits and practices that deny to large numbers the possibility of exercising that freedom to be creative in social matters that we have seen to be so important in religious speech.

They will therefore be on the lookout for opportunities for a particular sort of collaboration – not primarily in the defence of religion in a secular context, though there may well be circumstances where that is desirable, but in the defence of a certain vision of what properly belongs to human agents. They will be advocates locally of institutions that build trust and capacity, internationally of institutions that safeguard a level playing field in economic exchange and limit unaccountable economic power. They will also be advocates for the 'visibility' of religion. In the pluralist societies of modern Europe, this cannot mean religious dominance; the near-panic that afflicts some secularists at the notion of the visible and audible participation of religious groups in public discourse reflects an unhappy historical memory of times when the Church assumed an ideological monopoly. But things have changed. It is not that we have to resist extravagant claims for public religious authority; the problem now is more that we have to resist the potentially tyrannical assumption that the secular perspective is so obviously normative that religious commitment should not be publicly visible. And to resist this is certainly not to defend the rights of institutions; it is to defend rather the right of a society to have access to meaning. It is an inseparable part of the struggle of faith against poverty of every kind. Believers will affirm that public ignorance of the language of faith is a civic deprivation: it denies to people the most radical perspective possible on their present existence and robs them of the most persistent and indestructible ground for constructive criticism of any status quo.

One final observation may be in order. A situation where religious and ethnic rivalry obscure this common commitment to address poverty, material and spiritual, represents a luxury in the world that is coming to be. Our faith commitments are of course different, our truth claims are not simply compatible. But we do share a world, one which is scarred by all the varieties of poverty I have sketched, and more; and which is threatened by environmental disaster of an unprecedented kind. We shall continue to debate our truth claims; a global ethic for today is not one in which we dissolve our differences in a liberal consensus. But we all begin from the belief that human welfare is not something that can be sorted out by pragmatism and human goodwill alone; we begin from the fact of a called community, charged with showing God to God's creation. Our patterns of holiness are often different, though they also converge in unexpected and challenging ways; yet our sense of what makes for health in common life is, just as often, close enough for conversation and for common work. If the 'secular' is always at risk of forgetting the non-negotiable value of the other (the other person, the material world) in the eyes of the creator, we have a calling we can all make sense of. We know where the roots of poverty lie – in the refusal to accept the meaning that God gives the world, a refusal which shows itself not only in atheism but also in the anxious and greedy spirit that cannot see the human context of economic activity. Against this, we appeal to the law of God made plain to us – for Christians, made flesh for us in the Saviour, implanted in the Body of Christ which is the Church. What our faiths have to offer, not least in divided and disadvantaged societies, is quite simply a different depth of resource for human hope.

© Rowan Williams 2005

Back · Back to top