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Ending poverty is a Christian issue because we need God’s help to do it
When this Anabaptist agrees with the Pope
I’m an Anabaptist, a proud part of the Radical Reformation, which was a further departure from the High Church than either Luther or Calvin’s Reformation. As such, I don’t pay much attention to what the Pope is saying, but I found myself agreeing with the Vicar of Jesus Christ when he Tweeted (don’t you love that the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church does Twitter?) the following:
I love the message that we are all saved together, or none of us are. It was a moment of ecumenism in a sea of religious animosity. That our salvation is not an individual expression, but a communal one. And that part of that, according to the Bishop of Rome, is that we must fight poverty. He says as long as decadence and suffering co-exist, the entire creation will groan (just like Paul says in Romans 1), and we can see that evidently in climate change (the Catholic Church does not deny climate change, for what it’s worth).
The reason I agree with the Servant of the Servants of God (and yes, I do like all of the Papal titles, if you haven’t noticed, and I rarely get to use them) is because it is manifestly biblical and Christian to care for the poor. One of the Pope’s detractors replied to the Successor of the Prince of the Apostles’ tweet by misquoting Jesus. The famous passage, used to clobber the poor, is a rebuke from Jesus. He says, in Matthew 26:11, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” He is rebuking his disciples for questioning the devotion of a woman who was anointing him with expensive perfume, by suggesting they should sell the perfume and help the poor. Jesus is calling out their hypocrisy and the bad faith nature of their accusation, and certainly not saying that we should not serve the poor. In fact, Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15:11 when he offers this rebuke: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”
Jesus is prophesied as a savior of the poor
It really does not take much investigation into the text to see how much the Bible says about poverty and the danger of wealth, even. Not only will the creation suffer when there is massive inequality, but in order to bring heaven to earth, as Isaiah foretold, and John the Baptist reiterated: “Every valley shall be filled in, every mount and hill and low.” The Son of Man comes to equal the playing field, in terms of material wealth, but also He condescends to us in order to save us. Mary, the mother of God (and since we’re being all Catholic, you might call her the Theotokus), prophesies similarly when she agrees to birth the Son of God: “he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
The early church radically redistributes
Equality and mutuality are hallmarks of the church. This is why the early Christians were known for their radical redistribution. Here’s two telling passages from Acts:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”—Acts 2:44-45
“There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.”—Acts 4:34
James and Jesus harshly judge the wealthy
On top of that, Jesus and James both reserve harsh words for those who serve mammon instead of God. Jesus plainly says you can’t do both: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
To the Rich Young Ruler in Luke 18, Jesus says, “Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” But despite this impossibility, in the next chapter, with Zacchaeus, Jesus demonstrates that the radical redistribution he calls for when he’s speaking to the Rich Young Ruler is quite possible. After a meal with Jesus, Zacchaeus, the corrupt tax collector, agrees to make things right with those he stole from:
James goes further in chapter 5 of his epistle:
“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.”
A lack of mutuality between Christians has dire consequences
By the time we get to Acts 5, because of the mutual agreement the church has made, there is deadly consequences to when the members are dishonest about what they share. I know this is of Scripture, but I’m just scratching the surface:
“But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. ‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.”
What epic consequence to defrauding the community. Ananias died because he lied to God. Not sharing our money in common is that of offense, and we can see the dire consequences in this passage, but also around us, even this moment.
Poor people are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. The economic downturn is increasing poverty. On top of that, victims of climate change are also disproportionately poor. The income gap between middle- and upper-income households is growing. The wealthy have recovered most of their losses during the pandemic, and in many cases have gotten even wealthier. These are just related to the current events, but they showcase a problem, and one that the Sovereign of the State of Vatican City tells us above: when there exists just massive gaps between suffering and the decadence, between the poor and the wealthy, between the haves and have-nots, the whole earth suffers, and we suffer, and God does too.
Let’s agree that we have a problem
Now, there is a plethora of arguments for how we solve the problems above, and I’ll let the policy professionals sort that out (although, I do have an opinion or two of my own on the subject), but what I would like to achieve is a consensus that income inequality and poverty are major issues, that we know poverty is a problem to be solved (as opposed to the aforementioned person who insisted that Jesus argued that it wasn’t an issue to be solved).
But I think it’s important for us to realize that income inequality and poverty have been problems since the Bible was written and even before that. One of the reasons that the Bible is full of dialogue about poverty is because it was prevalent then; the Bible remains relevant now because the same problems are still with us. Not only that, the immorality of inequality that’s evident in the Bible keeps us from believing that somehow we don’t have a problem at all.
We need more than material solutions
Despite this, though, when it comes to poverty—a material issue—we only look to material solutions. In fact, it is popular to suggest that the free market will solve our problems, but in many ways, that requires more faith than I have. I thought this statement from a “classical liberal” was telling of the need for extra-material solutions.
Even this theological language suggests that something greater than us is needed to solve our economic problems. This person is arguing that that thing is the market—maybe she’s onto something, but her socialist and communist counterparts, it seems to me like all economic theory desires something greater than what is present. An ideal marketplace that's perfectly regulated, an economy with the perfect social safety net, a socialist revolution, and communist heaven, all of these grandiose prospects require a metaphysical imagination. But I want to imagine even more.
But our imaginations are trapped with the current political and economic circumstance. What we think is possible, in terms of politics or economics, is stuck in the ways of the world, and it would appear that, though we can alleviate some of the issues surrounding poverty with materialist solutions even within this political economy, what we need is something greater. We need something that is more than material, more than physical, more than natural to imagine a world where we can overcome poverty. That’s why I think God must be a part of it, with Christians invested in it.
It’s true that sometimes religion mutes the cry of the poor, or sedates their suffering to silence them. And for that reason, our faith has been seen as an impediment to equality, but I think it can aid it. I don’t think strict materialism will give us the materialist solutions we need—it may have helped get us into this mess, in fact. And while faith can be a great comfort to the oppressed, it is far from the opiate that Karl Marx called it. In fact, I believe it is more like an amphetamine that stimulates us for change.
So, my call today is for Christians to pray against poverty. Not only does this raise awareness of our national and global problem, it extends our imagination beyond what we think is possible. It de-centers us as the primary agents of change, and when we do it together, it includes more people. Finally, a prayer relies on God to do the heavy-lifting in the face of overwhelming powers that make us feel tiny. Praying gives us the courage to try something that seems otherwise impossible.