The Wisconsin Council of Churches has sponsored a series of poverty forums across the state. The intent is to bring Christians (and other people of faith traditions) together to look for areas of common ground on issues of poverty. Madison’s first forum was held this past Sunday at High Point Church. Ken Taylor of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families led off the evening by presenting national, state, and local statistics on poverty. Following that, Pastor Nic Gibson of High Point, Bishop Harold Rayford of Faith, Hope, and Love Family Church, and I offered theological perspectives on the issue of poverty and responsibility. (While no Catholic speaker participated, a number of Catholics were in attendance). Scott Anderson, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches worked hard to bring this program together and will be convening those of us who were on the program to discuss next steps.
It was a remarkable opportunity for coming together across confessional lines. Madison is a deeply polarized city in a deeply polarized state and nation. That’s true politically, but it’s even more true of Christianity in this city. There are few structures in place for Christians from different denominations to meet or connect. Although we live in the same city, we inhabit different cultural and religious worlds. It is my hope and prayer that this initial conversation will build relationships that cross our partisan political divisions and our theological disagreements.
After the jump, the text of what I presented (video of the evening will be available very soon)
I’d like to thank Scott Anderson of the Wisconsin Council of Churches for inviting me to participate in this forum, to thank Scott and Ken for their vision and energy in organizing this opportunity, and to my colleagues Bishop Harold Rayford and Nic Gibson, whom I’ve gotten to know as we’ve talked about what we might say this evening.
It might be helpful for you to know a little bit more about me as you listen to what I have to say on this topic. So, I’m going to offer something of a disclaimer by way of autobiography. I am, for all intents and purposes, a typical example of mainline, progressive Christianity. An ordained Episcopal priest, my academic credentials come from the very heart and soul of American progressive religion. But the path that brought me here began in a very different place. I was raised and received my undergraduate education in the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition. That theological tradition has shaped me profoundly and I would be happy to share something about that informally with you after our program.
I need to acknowledge another powerful influence on me. That is the theology of St. Augustine of Hippo, through whom I came to understand the depth of human sinfulness and to experience the beauty and joy of God’s grace. What all this means is that my remarks tonight are my own. I am speaking not as a representative of the Episcopal Church, the Wisconsin Council of Churches, mainline progressive Christianity, or the Wisconsin Democratic Party. My views are my own, that of an Anabaptist-Augustinian-Anglican seeking to follow Jesus in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
As I’ve been thinking about our topic for this evening and after our initial conversations, a passage from the Gospel of John has been running through my head. Jesus and his disciples were walking one day, they passed a blind man sitting beside the road. The disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
The disciples’ question is a question we ask all the time, even when we don’t want to admit it to ourselves. We ask it when we wonder what set of circumstances led to someone’s current situation in homelessness or poverty. It’s a question we ask, perhaps not publicly, but to ourselves, when we’re confronted with someone suffering from cancer or another illness. It’s the question we’re asking tonight, as we discuss poverty and responsibility. The question the disciples asked could be interpreted in slightly different terms—where does the responsibility for a person’s condition in life lie—with the individual (who sinned, this man?) or with forces outside the individual’s control (or his parents)?
As I reflect on this issue of poverty and responsibility, I do it in light of my understanding of the broader Christian tradition and scripture. Tonight I would also like to do it in light of those two poles of responsibility—the individual and society. To emphasize one over the other is a misreading of scripture and the Christian faith. I begin with creation.
God created human beings in God’s image. As Christians, we know God to be unity in Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one in community. As bearers of God’s image, we are created to be in community with others of our species. We are created and commanded, to love God and our neighbor.
Of course, it’s not quite so simple as that. We may be created by God, in God’s image, but we are fallen, sinful. Sin affects not only individuals but every human institution, even the church. A robust theology of sin tempers all of our hopes and efforts to improve ourselves and our institutions and all of society. With respect to poverty, a robust theology of sin confesses that the presence of poverty in our midst is sinful, that the evil choices individuals make can contribute to poverty, and that in spite of the transforming power of God’s grace, sin—corporate and individual—can impede the end of poverty, both for individuals and for whole societies.
Still, we are commanded to love God and our neighbor. Both Jewish and Christian scriptures bear witness to a continuing concern for the fate and plight of the widow and orphan, the poor and oppressed. They are our neighbors. But our neighbor is not only the one who lives next to us, bound to us by similarity. Our neighbor is also the one unlike ourselves. Those who live on the other side of the planet are also our neighbors. Those who have come to our community from a distant place, seeking opportunity, safety, hope, are also our neighbors.
Our obligation to our neighbor, to the stranger, the foreigner, is rooted in our shared experience. The Law of Moses made this clear to the Israelites:
You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. (Ex 22:21-22)
There are powerful forces at work in ourselves, our culture, and history that prevent us from recognizing our fundamental solidarity with all humanity. There is the myth of individualism, or the self-made man, especially powerful in our society. When we hear or tell stories of people who made it on their own, we often overlook all of the ways in which they had help (from accident of birth, or social connections, to sheer luck). And as many sages have pointed out, “you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have any boots.”
There are myths of ethnicity, racism, even nationalism, all of which seek to distinguish between groups of people and deny our solidarity with other humans. But the Christian rejects all such myths of difference, seeing in us a shared humanity, bound together by our common ancestor; bound together by our bearing of the image of God, bound together by our shared fallen-ness.
Our common humanity calls us to solidarity with all those who are suffering, among them the poor. Our common humanity calls us to see in the faces of the stranger, the widow, and orphan, human beings like us who bear the image of God. Our common humanity calls us to honor the dignity of every human being. We are, most of us, only a few paychecks or perhaps a functioning social or family network, away from poverty and homelessness. When we see the poor, we should see ourselves.
The tradition of the Hebrew prophets railed against the economic and social injustice of the Israel and Judah of their day. In the 8th century BCE, the prophet Amos criticized the political and economically powerful in Israel, who trampled on the needy, crushed the heads of the poor in the dirt, were eager for the end of the Sabbath and other holidays so they could get back to making money. He emphasized the economic inequality of the day—those who slept on beds of ivory and lived in houses hewn of stone, having accumulated their wealth by cheating and oppressing the poor. Nonetheless, they considered themselves faithful to God, performing the required rituals and sacrifices. But Amos warned them:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)
Jesus was speaking in the same tradition when he attacked the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. In the temple, the symbolic and actual center of economic, and political, as well as religious power in Jerusalem, Jesus criticized the powerful of his day:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Mt 23:23)
In each case, the attack was not on Judaism per se, but on people who thought their only or most important religious obligations were to matters of ritual practice.
Today, we live in a society in which economic inequality is greater than at any time since the nineteenth century. Globally the gap between rich and poor is even wider. Economic policies of the last decades have contributed to that inequality and it is increasingly true in our nation that people who once lived in relative affluence are falling behind because of the lack of good-paying jobs and affordable housing. All of these are things outside the control of individuals. Add to that racism, and gender inequality—with women still earning less than $.80 for the dollar that men earn. Christians are called to speak with prophetic voice to these structural issues that impede human flourishing and happiness.
Christians need to speak prophetically but with humility. Our speech and advocacy must be tempered with the knowledge that our vision is not perfect. We are not Jesus; we only seek to follow him. We need to admit that any structural changes that might occur, any public policy that might emerge from our advocacy, will be inadequate. Our efforts will not usher in the Kingdom of God. We need to remind ourselves that all human beings are sinful, that all human institutions are prone to evil. We must be vigilant to address and expose the sins and new injustices that will arise from the very things we seek to accomplish.
And we must do more than speak. As individuals, as congregations, as Christians who are resident aliens in this city, we have an obligation to reach out to our neighbors, to the widow and orphan, to the stranger and alien, to the those who like Jesus, have no place to lay their head. We have a duty to feed, clothe, and to offer housing for those in need. And we must do it, not with an eye to effectiveness, or to our own salvation, but simply as a response to human suffering, the suffering of people who like us are created in God’s image, are beloved children of God.
Sometimes our very efforts to help prevent us from recognizing the image of God in others. Our opportunities to help, our food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, tempt us, whether we are paid staff or volunteers, to see those who come to us, not as children of God, but as problems to be solved or customers to be served. We make judgments whether they are deserving or underserving poor. We assume we know what’s best for them.
Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, what we need is not to help, but to be—to be present among the poor, the homeless, the widow and orphan, to break down the barriers that separate us from them, the barriers that prevent us from seeing all that we share with these other children of God, like us, bearers of God’s image. Sometimes, what we need to do is get out from behind the counter, or the window, and sit down on the sidewalk bench where a homeless man is sitting with all his earthly belongings as he waits for the shelter to open. We need to sit down, shake a hand, listen to his story and share a joke or two. The story we hear may be heartbreaking. We may despair as we listen to how he got to this place, listen as he tells us of his hopelessness. We may learn of the mistakes he’s made; he might confess some of the sins that brought him here. There may be nothing we can do to improve his lot. But in our kind words and gestures, in our prayers, he may see the face of Christ in us, just as we see the face of Christ in him.