Widows: They Haven't Gone Away

For Christians living in the economically developed world, the Biblical emphasis on caring for "widows" is one that we tend to rapidly contextualise away from its traditional and literal meaning.

Our line of reasoning goes something like this:

  1. there aren't that many widows around today and those that exist tend to be elderly
  2. the state (shaped in part, we claim, by centuries of Christian influence in the west) is now the main provider of care to widows
  3. the equivalent person in our culture to the widow of biblical times is a) the single mother or b) the victim of sex trafficking.

No doubt such contextualisation has its place, but recent research reveals that, internationally, the plight of widows remains significant.

The Loomba Foundation, of which Cherie Blair is a patron, has this week launched a new report showing that 115 million widows around the world live in extreme poverty. Prejudice, mistreatment and exploitation are common among this section of the global population.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the countries with the largest number of widows broadly reflect those with large general populations - China (43 million widows), India (42 million) and the United States (13 million). Indonesia, Russia and Japan have a total of 24 million between them and there are around 245 million widows worldwide.

Widows in Afghanistan (2 million) and Iraq (3/4 of a million) are, according to the report, among those in the most difficult circumstances. The irony of this fact cannot be missed, both countries having been invaded by the orders of the British government while Mrs Blair's husband was prime minister.

The report also highlights the suffering of over 500 million dependent and adult children of widows, many of whom are severely affected by homelessness, poor health, economic and sexual exploitation and violence.

It is notable that both the old and new testaments place the care of widows at the heart of the responsibility of God's people. The church in Jerusalem, the first church to come into existence, ran a daily food distribution service to widows within its community, supported by the generous giving of its members. Deuteronomy 10 is typical of this Biblical emphasis:

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.

Whereas many Christians in the west will continue to try and apply the Biblical commands to their specific cultural circumstances, it is worth remembering that "real" widows remain a significant part of the global population and, as in Biblical times, are at the sharp end of economic need.

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