Thursday, August 11, 2011

Why Poverty Matters, Part I

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.
Stephen Colbert

...let us go out with a “divine dissatisfaction.” Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in adecent sanitary home.
Martin Luther King

*This is the 1st of a 2-part series on poverty and class in America.

The very simple fact that we are 100 generations removed from Jesus' original disciples and I am attempting to convince (convert?) a mostly Christian audience that we simply must do something serious about the structural reality (ie, the desperate need to change government policies to give everyone an opportunity to live with dignity) of poverty in the US (and the entire world) is a sure sign that we've traveled a long way from the path of the Master. Jesus was on a mission, recruiting followers who would be energized to fulfill his Dream of God's Peaceful and Just Reign "from Judea to Samaria to the uttermost parts of the world." Jesus taught that this Dream would be realized slowly, strategically and methodically, by a small group of disciplined radicals, modeled after the growth of a mustard seed or the covert yeast hidden in a loaf of bread.

Jesus yearned for a mustard seed community whose word and deed would ripple out into wider society, peacefully overwhelming the world with God's original plans for Israel, the freed slaves in the wilderness (Exodus 15). God yearned for a people who took just enough of the resources God gave them (called "Manna" in the Hebrew Bible & "daily bread" in the New Testament) leaving the rest for everyone else. Jesus' campaign, from the shores of Galilee all the way to Jerusalem, can be seen as an attempt to recapture God's vision of Manna & Mercy for both Jew and Gentile alike.

In fact, when Jesus rebuked his disciples on the night before his murder that "the poor will always be among you," he was quoting from Deuteronomy 15, a passage that re-emphasized God's call for Israel to care for the poor, stranger, widow and orphan (Dt 11:4-5):

There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.

Indeed, a few verses later (v.11), God quite realistically echoes the call to care for the poor and marginalized because God's People would fail in this vocation, leading to exile:

Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.'

According to biblical scholar N.T. Wright, this is precisely the significance of Jesus' Kingdom Dream: to bring Israel (and with her, the entire "gentile" world) out of exile and into a faithful obedience to the vocation of being salt and light to the world. Surely, Jesus' Dream called for a renewed heart that re-imagined and re-energized a complete overhaul of social, political and economic policies that have historically crippled the poor and vulnerable.

However, Jesus' Dream has become a contemporary nightmare in North America. Most Christians have translated the Dream as only a renewed heart: a sincere quest for personal piety and a guaranteed ticket to heaven when they die. From now until death, however, their way of life has become marinated in a neocapitalist framework that has very little to do with either just enough or everyone else. In the words of UC Berkeley's Robert Bellah, who has perhaps studied the intersection of faith and politics more than anyone else in the past half century, we Americans

are united, as it turns out, in at least one core belief, even across lines of color, religion, region and occupation: the belief that economic success or misfortune is the individual's responsibility, and his or hers alone.

For most American Christians, this meme fits their uber-individualistic call to "follow Jesus" like a glove.

As we travel further and further away from God's Dream of a society of just enough and everyone else, we can reclaim the real biblical call to care and share by recalling the words of Martin Luther King, whose last year of life was dedicated to exposing the link between racism, economic exploitation and militarism. Back in the 1960s, our black and brown brothers and sisters were fiercely overrepresented in rugged unskilled jobs, prisons and Vietnam. Fast-forward almost a half-century and these sick trends have simply accelerated (click here to check out the Tavis Smiley and Cornel West Poverty Tour). King's Dream was no different than Jesus', leading Coretta Scott King to reflect on King's I Have a Dream speech: “At that moment it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared. But it only lasted for a moment.”

Indeed, it only lasted for a moment. Since King's assassination in '68, white conservative Christians have ramped up their political engagement, promoting a "family values" (anti-abortion and anti-same-sex-marriage) and "small government" (lower taxes and less regulation) platform that really only seeks to flush social programs (like Medicare and Social Security) that have been effectively keeping millions of elderly out of poverty for decades. The ease with which conservative Christians schlep off New Deal style programs with a "socialist" label or an argument like "it was actually World War II that ended the Great Depression" can be quite reasonably attributed to the astonishing rise of Fox News (only 1.38% of Fox viewers are African-American) as a primary shaper of their socio-politico-theological consciousness (consider the conservative Catholic Sean Hannity's interview just yesterday with the Mormon Mitt Romney: Hannity asked if Obama's economic policies were just because he is just "in over his head" or because he believes in "black liberation theology"). This is just a glimpse of what we get when just enough and everyone else is swept away by leaders who make millions off the fear, paranoia and resentment of their constituents.

In the decades immediately following Jesus' assassination, the leaders who extended his Dream all over the world, were convinced that the prophecy of Isaiah 2 had actually come about in the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus and the continuation of the very tangible lifestyle of the inaugurated kingdom in church communities (according to the great scholarship of Gerhard Lohfink in Jesus and Community--1982):

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

If Jesus was the Messiah, then it was Time to enact God's Dream of Manna & Mercy through policies that refused violence (swords & spears) and promoted jobs (ploughshares & pruning-hooks). As it turns out, King's complex and interconnected understanding of injustice (race! capitalist exploitation! military adventures!) was masterfully echoing the teachings of the church fathers. When Jesus sent out revolutionaries to canvass the towns of Israel in the 1st Century, he exhorted them to be "as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves." Today, we must cultivate the imagination and purity of heart for political action that transforms systems of economic, racial and military injustice.
We highly recommend the art-filled writings of Dan Erlander whose children's books for adults are reshaping the theological imagination of our own apartment church:


  1. Stumbled upon your blog today and am enjoying reading it. (I think I found it because of interest in "Surprised by Hope" by NT Wright and my church doing a study on "Manna and Mercy").

    Blessing and peace on your journey!

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