In my previous post Speaking of the Poor — It’s Not Their Fault, I wrote about poverty through my experience as a minister. The post was in response to recent comments made by noted financial expert and evangelical author Dave Ramsey, who suggested that poverty in America is simply a result of bad decision making on the part of the poor.*
Though there isn’t any denying that poverty is compounded by bad choices, poverty is also the result of problems that are beyond the control of any single individual or family. In fact, while everyone of us has made choices that either help or hinder a healthy life, we also are the product of choices that others made for us. From the family into which we are born to systemic issues such as racism, poor health, lack of education, etc… are issues that contribute to poverty and are often beyond the control of those suffer in poverty.
Yet for those of us raised in a functional home where such issues were not a problem, it becomes easy to forget how difficult it is to overcome such challenges. Even worse, it’s tempting to judge the behaviors of those who still struggle in everything that is poverty, be it the working poor or the homeless. I’ve heard some people suggest before that people are poor because they choose to be or that poverty is some sort of bed they deserve to sleep in. One person commenting on my blog even suggested that some poor people are like a prodigal child and that “hunger sometimes is the best discipline to bring a prodigal to his senses.”
This is disturbing! I don’t know the people who have such thoughts. However, I can surely say that I’ve never met a poor person who was happy living in poverty or a hungry individual who would be better served by starving. Herman Melville once said, “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” In fact, at some point such criticisms become an exercise in self-righteousness. Can I get an “Amen!”?
What Can We Do?
As a minister, I encounter a lot of individuals and families who call the church looking for help. To be honest, “benevolence” is often a very frustrating. I’ve never met a church member who disagrees with me on that. The frustration comes from seeing people make bad choices as well as seeing the systematic problems (sometimes injustices) that prolong a never ending cycle of poverty. Yet I wonder if part of the frustration stems from the fact of wanting to help by trying to solve a problem that isn’t ours to solve.
Let me be clear, as people belonging to God, the church is called to do justice and show mercy (cf. Mic 6:8). That involves helping people when we encounter them in need (mercy) and addressing the systemic problems that create poverty (justice) as we can. What role the government and other civic organizations have towards the poor is an important question but not my concern. My concern is the church and I believe the church’s first response to poverty is to follow Jesus.
For Christians, this time of year is known as Advent and our attention is focused on Jesus coming into the world. If that means anything then it is a call for us to follow Jesus as he comes into the world for the world. Born in a manger and put to death on the cross, Jesus is born in humility and dies in humility before he is raised in victory. Throughout his ministry Jesus chose a life of downward mobility, willing to be present with those rejected by others—including the poor. So rather than trying to solve the problem of poverty, our first responsibility is to be present with the poor that we encounter. Not as a judge nor as someone who is better but as a friend!
Such presence can take the form of volunteering in a shelter, inviting a struggling family over for dinner, taking time to listen to the story of the person we’re trying to help, and so on. When we spend time with Jesus and allow Jesus to take us into the world as he comes into the word, among the poor (and others who suffer), possibilities abound. As we are present with the poor, we trust the problem of poverty to God who is always redeeming and restoring. For one day, all things will be made new!
* This post was originally published as a similar article titled The Church and The Poor in Connecting 28 (December 4, 2013), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.