A reflection on the BBC’s ‘The Debt Saviours’

A sketch by Wesley Fryer. http://pocketshare.speedofcreativity.org/tag/jesus-2/
A sketch by Wesley Fryer. http://pocketshare.speedofcreativity.org/tag/jesus-2/

Grace Dalton reflects on the BBC’s recent documentary on the organization Christians Against Poverty (CAP), and whether it presented a balanced view of the charity.

A recent documentary, The Debt Saviours, aired on a Friday evening on BBC2. I was already well familiar with the organisation that it probes, Christians Against Poverty; I watched with the aim of considering the messages that were to be imparted to hundreds of thousands of non-Christians.

“How do you expect to be judged at the gates of heaven?” John Kirkby, head of CAP is asked in one scene.

“I’m not expecting to be judged at the gates of heaven, I expect to be welcomed in.”

“What makes you think that?”

“My faith.”

“My worry about the BBC’s interview of John Kirkby, is that some viewers will perceive this as a sense of entitlement on his part, and perhaps on the part of Christians generally. Whereas the Gospel is that anyone is welcomed on account of what Jesus has done and not by any merit of our own.”

My worry about the fragment of interview quoted above, is that some viewers will perceive this as a sense of entitlement on Kirkby’s part, and perhaps on the part of Christians generally. The Gospel is that anyone is welcomed on account of what Jesus has done and not by any merit of our own; but this is not made clear in the documentary, and therefore it may well seem that the emphasis is on a Christian believing that HE will be “welcomed.” I wonder whether Kirkby said more at this point about Christ, words which the BBC omitted to show?

Instead, responding to the presenter asking him why he’s just brought Jesus into a conversation with a beneficiary — despite the willingness of that client to be prayed for — a CAP staff member very capably explains: “We believe, as a Christian body, that there is a place in heaven for everyone, and I think it would be too good to miss out on. One thing that God promises is, in heaven, we don’t have any of this — we don’t have any sickness; we don’t have any stress; we don’t have any poverty; and you’re there for eternity. That’s what we believe as a Christian faith. It would be very selfish not to share that news with other people.”

But this is not followed by a further question — or if it was, it’s been cut. So the audience sees Kirkby saying that he believes he’ll be welcomed into heaven on the basis of his faith, but the good news that there’s a place for everyone is brushed past.

“It seems bizarre, however, that so much time is spent with the camera closed in on Kirkby as he participates in the worship — it’s as though the camera man is trying to push Kirkby into snapping at them to get out of his face. Kirkby continues to sing and smile ear to ear, but I suspect that a deliberate attempt is being made to portray him as unhinged.”

At numerous points in Debt Saviours, we’re shown congregational singing of some of the most recent Christian songs. How many people are deterred from Church in some small part because they wrongly imagine them to be exclusively filled with hymns? (I commented, on a post about the ‘loneliness epidemic,’ that Church is an opportunity for social contact that more people should try. The reply to my comment was that it might work if one is over fifty.) It seems bizarre, however, that so much time is spent with the camera closed in on Kirkby as he participates in the worship — it’s as though the camera man is trying to push Kirkby into snapping at them to get out of his face. Kirkby continues to sing and smile ear to ear, but I suspect that a deliberate attempt is being made to portray him as unhinged. Why not give the wider congregation a few more moments of screen time instead of expending quite so many on Kirkby? That many people are filled with joy in worship is skirted around so that Kirkby can be implied to be eccentric.

At several points, text facts are shown on screen in white font against a black background — but why not present some measure of CAP’s efficacy or independently assessed credibility? More relevant than telling us the number of staff, for example, would be the success rate that CAP has in getting beneficiaries into the black. We’re told that 6,000 clients have committed to Christ — to an agnostic audience, this might well prompt some suspicion, and no numbers are offered telling us of how many clients this 6,000 is a part (only 4%, according to CAP’s site). We aren’t told how many clients have been helped with advice; how many have been supported into work; how many have become debt free, nor any other measure of success that would convince the secular viewing public of CAP’s virtue. There’s plenty of data in CAP’s financial reports. So why did the documentary not include any of it?

Also absent is any remotely adequate explanation of CAP’s practical support; jobs clubs; life skills classes and debt counselling offered to beneficiaries for free by CAP which are life changing for tens of thousands of the nation’s most disadvantaged people. But the audience aren’t shown this. CAP’s initiatives are obscured, so that viewers are left ambivalent about its merit.

We see Kirkby entertaining bankers at a fundraiser on “Jersey, The Channel Islands”, as an on-screen caption tells us. We’ve not been told anything about locations at any other point in the documentary. Might this reference to the islands be a deliberate, subtle attempt to subconsciously conjure up viewers’ anger about tax havens? We’re given several lines about the payment system operated by CAP: indebted individuals pay CAP who pay off their loans, and CAP has an arrangement with banks from which they benefit financially. It’s oddly vague. Presumably CAP’s funds and involvement ultimately make it possible for extortionate interest to be avoided by those in debt; but what’s shown might give the impression that CAP is aiming to profit itself. Kirkby is shown telling the bankers that their plans are expansive and they “have needs” but no footage is included of him telling the bankers about beneficiaries. It seems a deliberate effort to give the impression that Kirkby is greed-driven.

“The BBC cameras were there when @MartinSLewis came. They filmed him saying ‘Christians Against Poverty is not about helping Christians, it’s about helping people.. I, not as a member of your faith, will continue to support you with every ounce of my being’.”

Tweet by Glen Scrivener, evangelist and author

We see an aged photo of two small boys. Our tugged hearts are broken as a late-20’s Gaz tells us that at the time that he was one of those boys, he was being abused. The nickname that he tells us that he was subsequently bullied with when his torture became known to his classmates makes us aware that this abuse included rape. His mother threw him out as a teenager, leaving him living in a skip. Gaz’s attitude is truly remarkable; our secular culture today favours the concept of moving on, but he goes further, telling us that his experience is nothing to run from, but is a tool to help others. Will non-Christian viewers take note of this? One of the most frequently expressed objections to God is that He permits suffering — but Gaz, like many Christians, is testament to the fact that suffering can be used for good when our lives are dedicated to God, almost nullifying the atheists’ objection. Watching him later recount to CAP beneficiaries having encountered his abuser in adulthood, Gaz describes his conscious decision to forgive — but we see no mention of Jesus. It seems to me certain that this will have been on account of the programme’s editing.

Glen Scrivener, a notable online evangelical personality tweeted about the making of this programme, “The BBC cameras were there when @MartinSLewis came. They filmed him saying ‘Christians Against Poverty is not about helping Christians, it’s about helping people.. I, not as a member of your faith, will continue to support you with every ounce of my being’.” This was affirmed by Martin Lewis who retweeted Glen Scrivener’s comment — and yet that moment of footage ended up on the cutting room floor. Why? Martin Lewis has an OBE, appears regularly on television — both as a guest and as a host of his own programme — and has 12 million people subscribed to his website’s weekly email. To exclude commentary from such a respected figure would seem to betray significant bias on the part of the programme makers.

Tweet by Glen Scrivener, a prominent Christian evangelist, on the BBC programme
Tweet by Glen Scrivener, a prominent Christian evangelist, on the BBC programme

According to 2017 Barna research, 59% of British adults see a role for the Church, but only 33% believe that Churches are currently making a positive difference in the world. Debt Saviours should have been an occasion for some of the non-Christian public to discover that the Church is serving a role; but the obfuscation of CAP’s efficacy in relieving debt has perhaps denied them this.

“We all have joy, hope, peace, love and compassion in our hearts that we believe are the fruit of knowing and following Jesus. [… P]ouring love, care and attention into often very dysfunctional families [… is] what we believe Jesus asks us to do.”

Statement on the Christians Against Poverty website

Have the BBC cut footage of Jesus being mentioned? It seems to me unlikely that evangelicals would fail to mention the Gospel for all of the time that they were being interviewed. CAP’s site states: “we all have joy, hope, peace, love and compassion in our hearts that we believe are the fruit of knowing and following Jesus. [… P]ouring love, care and attention into often very dysfunctional families [… is] what we believe Jesus asks us to do.” The programme’s neglect of these points renders it shallow, devoid of the ultimate message of hope, and misleads the audience into imagining selfish motivations on the part of CAP.

During CAP’s retreat, Kirkby informs one beneficiary — Holly — that she’s now debt free, and he and a female mentor shower Holly with congratulations. Holly sits alone on her bed and releases some of her joy in expletives. It’s authentic and heartwarming, as much as I dislike the F word. Prior to this, she’s discussed wanting to become a Christian and being uncertain of how to do so. Later she declares her intention to engage substantially with the Church. Her story truly appears a genuine example of a CAP client becoming enthusiastic about exploring Christianity — but the documentary has been so devoid of The Good News being shared with beneficiaries, one might wonder why.

It is made clear, however, that prayer is offered, as we witness during several visits to beneficiaries. Kirkby, quizzed about this by the interviewer, expounds, “I hugely believe in the power of prayer.” “But they’re vulnerable,” the interviewer asserts — “so it’s not surprising that an individual would say yes.”

Kirkby: “Well yeah, they’re in need of hope.”

Based on this programme, perhaps many non-Christians will take the view that the deception which they consider Christianity to be overrules the hope that’s created. It’s common practice for journalists to ask questions to which they know the answer of course, so perhaps the interviewer has the intention of drawing out of Kirkby what needs to be underscored. Yet it seems very much to be the interviewer’s presumption that it’s inherently wrong that people would be presented with an offer of prayer whilst they’re particularly likely to accept it. It’s been pre-determined that prayer is inherently conniving or exploitative, and that CAP are cynically targeting disadvantaged, perhaps even gullible people of whom they can take advantage. Christians watching are gladdened to see the good news being shared; but the interrogation by the presenter — who keeps himself off-camera throughout — seeks to affirm non-Christians’ suspicion that the priority of Christian organisations is proselytising.

“‘It wasn’t a perfect representation of CAP but still worth doing. Of course, there are frustrations that the documentary didn’t show all we wanted but viewers aren’t daft. They see through it,’ wrote CAP. I dearly wish that were true for all viewers! CAP were manipulated by the programme makers, and some tweeters and bloggers observed this whilst others were led to believe that CAP is the manipulator.”

On their blog, CAP published a statement about Debt Saviours. One point that feels pertinent is that they were allowed no editorial control. They decided to agree to the project whilst taking this into consideration since it would be an invaluable opportunity to make themselves known, but what legitimate reason could the production company have had for allowing CAP no input whatsoever? “It wasn’t a perfect representation of CAP but still worth doing. Of course, there are frustrations that the documentary didn’t show all we wanted but viewers aren’t daft. They see through it.” I dearly wish that were true for all viewers! but I’m certain that it wasn’t. CAP were manipulated by the programme makers — and some tweeters and bloggers observed this whilst others were led to believe that CAP is the manipulator.

Nevertheless, as they note on their blog they “felt the love. A team of us were kept busy on social media through Friday night and #TheDebtSaviours was trending. Across the weekend it never stopped.” The crux of the matter is whether the net positivity in viewers’ minds on witnessing CAP’s help and kindness outweighed the negativity felt by viewers as a result of the skewed portrayal of CAP’s Christian ethos. On the assumption that individuals who are opposed to offering prayer to non-Christians would have already harboured this resentment, such that in their minds the programme would have made little difference, I suspect that Debt Saviours may indeed have had a slight net positive impact. There’s certainly multifarious commentary on social media:

#debtsaviours The more I look into CAP, the more frightening it looks. If only it was just helping ‘The Poor’. It/Kirkby appear to have links with C3, Phil Pringle, and a host of apparently rich evangelists in NZ, Canada, Australia. These were not mentioned on the programme. Why?

@CAPuk @JohnKirkby #debtsaviours OMG, am I the only 1 who finds all this a bit sinister? These ppl are vulnerable & to get them up and speak about what CAP have done for them was using their abuse/history for donations. What a lucrative business though! BTW, r cults tax exempt?

#Debtsaviours Seems to be a program on BBC2 where evangelicals are preying on the most vulnerable people in our society. Very creepy.

“Conflicted by #Debtsaviours. We work with @CAPuk and they deliver great outcomes for clients. But some of the evangelical practice did make me feel very uncomfortable. Questioning my own bias as most of #twitter seems supportive.”

Comment on Twitter

#Debtsaviours just a big recruitment drive for their church.

Watching #Debtsaviours Known @CAPuk since it started & nothing I didn’t already know. As an atheist I always struggle with people with firmly held religious views not least because faith in a god is so clearly ridiculous I assume that anyone who says they believes is a fraud.

#debtsaviours I personally have no faith but I do know that the work my Mum does for @CAPuk is about helping people of all faiths (or none) and backgrounds in the community. She was disappointed the portrayal on @BBCTwo didn’t show more of their work within EVERY community.

Conflicted by #Debtsaviours. We work with @CAPuk and they deliver great outcomes for clients. But some of the evangelical practice did make me feel very uncomfortable. Questioning my own bias as most of #twitter seems supportive.

Christians Against Poverty’s work has had a positive impact on the lives of the people it’s helped. But that doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to some of its more ethically dubious practices, says our chief executive @Stephenmevans1 https://www.secularism.org.uk/opinion/2018/10/the-questionable-ethics-of-evangelical-debt-advice … #TheDebtSaviours

The article to which this last tweet linked — a statement by Secularism UK — conveyed predictable hostility, alongside the single complimentary sentence, “Christians Against Poverty’s work has had a positive impact on the lives of the people it has helped.” It claims — on what evidence is undisclosed — that “CAP has a poor reputation amongst professional debt advisers from organisations such as Citizens Advice.” But that it then states that, “A particular concern is that the volunteers invite their clients to pray. It also invites some clients along to ‘discovery breaks’.” This suggests that there’s a lack of real evidence that CAP are ineffective in debt alleviation. Secularism UK alerts us that clients are “manipulated into considering ‘the reality of a God who loves and cares for them.’” But does not ‘manipulation’ imply the motivation of profiting from the person being manipulated? Some viewers of Debt Saviours will interpret CAP as manipulative — but some will acknowledge that, if nothing else, CAP’s pastoral care is positive for individuals feeling dejected. As one tweet in reply to Secularism UK stated:

“Struggling to see the ‘ethically dubious practices’ you seem hung up about. @CAPuk #DebtSaviours does not insist clients participate in prayer/weekends away in order to use the service. They are just taking a more holistic approach, they care, is this so wrong?”

Comment on Twitter

Struggling to see the “ethically dubious practices” you seem hung up about. @CAPuk #DebtSaviours does not insist clients participate in prayer/weekends away in order to use the service. They are just taking a more holistic approach, they care, is this so wrong?

I was slightly disappointed in #DebtSaviours @BBCTwo @CAPuk is an amazing organisation which helps people of all faiths and none, but it was portrayed as slightly cultish in its #Christianity which I think gave the wrong impression.

@BBC You’ve focused too much on the ‘Christian’ and not enough on the ‘Against Poverty’. I think you’ve been pretty divisive, if I’m honest. Not all clients make any link to a Church, but they still get help!!…..

….I have to agree; pretty nasty attempt by #BBC to discredit #CAP in the eyes of our liberal pluralistic society – #DebtSaviours last night. Debt is a killer – too many suicides. CAP has literally saved hundreds of lives.

Well done @JohnKirkby putting up with this muppet skeptic interviewer

What a guy. Could listen to John Kirby #christiansagainstpoverty @CAPuk all day

Many other tweets gushed with glee to see a Christian organisation on BBC primetime television, but most were conspicuously from Christians. Perhaps some will be inspired to consider ways in which they support work like CAP’s; but of paramount significance is the impact that Debt Saviours had on viewers like these:

Sorry, I’m a militant atheist but I don’t think people are being fair to CAP. They do good work and sure, they bang on about god a bit, but their motivation is to bring people into their community rather than dump them when the job is done.

Can’t fault religion when it causes people to do good things like this @CAPuk #Debtsaviours

#Debtsaviours If you believe that they were following an imaginary friend in the sky, and are deluded, at the least, their delusion is leading those who work for CAP to strive to help those in desperate need. This isn’t being a fraud, it’s genuinely seeking the good of others.

It falls to us to pray and strive for those around to come to know that indeed CAP wants to tell people about Christ — because He offers to pay the ultimate debt that we each owe.

 

* * *

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16[1]

 

Grace Dalton is a Christian blogger and commentator based in the UK. You can find her own blog and personal website at:

https://gracedrawsfluffythings.blogspot.com/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/13783773%40N02/?rb=1

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+3%3A16&version=ESVUK

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