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July 28, 2012 by Kyle
No frills food, kerosene heaters and the health clinic are three things that will forever stand out to me as symbols of hard times. Those that have been without know about these survival techniques in addition to many others. Food, heat and health; these are just three of the essentials that we work, scratch and claw for. If you are currently in difficult times or have been in the midst of difficulty then you have your list of things that cause you to stop and reflect and hopefully return thanks to God for His provision. I remember my mom having to look through a designated shopping cart located in the back of the Pathmark supermarket. This is where they stored damaged and discounted cans. She would also walk the aisles where the white label no frill products were available. Even with a shopping cart full of deep discount stuff mom would still raise a fuss about how expensive things were. Upon further reflection on her complaining she would often time follow-up with, “Thank you Jesus” realizing that those no frills products resembled manna from the heaven.
Another poverty reminder was the use of a kerosene heater in the house. I despised the responsibility of walking to the gas station at Allegheny and Fox Street to get a $1.43 in kerosene in the dead of winter. Back in the 80’s if you didn’t pay the gas bill PGW would dig up your street to cut your gas off–very public and very embarrassing. Kerosene heaters and hotplates were the option after things were shut off. The kerosene heaters were smelly, they gave off unbalanced heat and were just dangerous inside a home. Even with the negatives in the end we were warm. Praise Jesus.
The public health clinic was yet another sign that you were poor. You spent weeks waiting for an appointment or half your day waiting as a walk-in. The bureaucratic avalanche was the known and dreaded part of the experience. The process of acquiring physicals, dental pulls or prescriptions was just part of being a member of the America’s economic subculture. Its important to note that much of American poverty would translate into wealth in Third World countries–this reality gives the American poor an opportunity to pause in gratitude but their situations are still dire. Poverty is often times determined by a particular context; the level of poverty in a Third World context does not invalidate the presence of poverty in a major US city. Of course poverty in the US doesn’t compare to the severity of Third World poverty but poverty is poverty.
The following is an alarming stat that I came across looking at the topic of poverty as it relates to the African American community. Research has determined that, “More than a third (35.7 percent) of all African-American children lives in poverty, compared to one in five children living in poverty in the country as a whole.” The link is to a fact sheet put together by Bread for the World Institute–the economic disadvantages experienced by the Black community in the U.S. is an ongoing tragedy that is oft ignored. While others ethnic and minority groups in the US have collectively experienced economic hardship, the impact on Blacks could be measured as a catastrophe of biblical proportion.
I am sure others have stories to be told and they need to be heard as these accounts in many ways mirror the gospel narrative. Jesus’ early ministry as presented in Luke’s gospel presents a veritable who’s who of the disenfranchised. (e.g., paralytics, hungry crowds, lepers, etc.) More on Jesus and the poor later. It seems reasonable to state that American poverty is either hidden or underreported by most media outlets. The face of poverty for many has been redefined as the “entitled”. The poor are the villified as those who constantly call the mass redistribution of wealth–you know those ‘Socialist’. The line of reasoning follows, ‘they always want something without paying for it’, as if this kind of exchange has been the preferred solution for the majority of poor people. The assumption is that the poor have done nothing for the economy except to drain the wealth of the rich using the government as the means to gather crumbs from the table of the affluent. This kind of reasoning runs rampid in Christian circles. In many places of worship wealth is generally used as a barometer of God’s blessing. While this can be true, in many cases the pursuit of wealth describes misapplied priorities; a symptom of a Western cultural pathology.
The politics and theology of many Christians in the Western church run counter to the Gospels. Jesus dealt harshly with the rich while at the same time showing deference to the poor. (Mark 10:17-27; Luke 12:13-21; 16:1-14, 19-31) Why is that? What does the Almighty know about the powerful and rich? He knows their weaknesses. For example, take the rich young ruler who was an oligarch in that he had both wealth and power. Jesus proclaimed that it would be harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. What happened to the rich, jet-set Jesus that we hear so much about through our prosperity gospel friends. Its seems from the text that Jesus describes the dangerous combination of wealth and power and how it may limit ones spirituality and eternal destination.
We must come face to face with God’s economy where the world’s wealth does not matter. In fact, as we read through the New Testament wealth can be a weakness. In this economy, the first will be last and the last shall be first. This is none other than a reversals of what Western Christianity has become accustomed to. What currently gets you unfettered access and privilege will eventually limit you in the future. Let me be clear, there are rich folk in the family of God and there will be folks who once were rich in the future earthly kingdom. Ultimately, there will be those populating the eternal New Jerusalem who were part of the upperclass in their pre-glorified state. The key takeaway is that according to Christ this is not the preferred status that one should aspire to. In the kingdom economy your money doesn’t work for you. Another takeaway from the text is that the rich can be armed with the abiding understanding of their duty to the ‘least of these‘.
Sadly, the gospel of free market capitalism has taken over the church in America. Individual accomplishment has trumped the benevolent community. We are more prone to reference texts that push away the poor like, “if a man doesn’t work he shouldn’t eat.” We have not understood the context of that statement and have applied it to those who seem to be perpetually unemployed. Unemployment can be connected to various other reasons (e.g., prison record, discrimination, nepotism or cronyism, etc.) Many have even reached for, “the poor you will always have with you” as a reason to ignore or dismiss poverty as a liberal agenda item. In the Matthew 26, the socially conscious disciples saw the expensive gift being used to bath Jesus’ feet and wondered whether this was good stewardship. Its important to understand that Jesus’ remarks about the poor was not a prophetic announcement of the inherent perpetual failure of serving those in need. Jesus took this event as an opportunity to refocus His disciples on His pending death. He contextualized this woman’s sacrifice as the ultimate act of worship. In other words, Jesus informs them that you will have many opportunities to serve the poor but you won’t have the opportunity that is before you now–to admire the Son of Man before the ultimate sacrifice and His ascension. Disciples of Christ are called to reach the whole person and the gospel ultimately redeems the whole person. This can start with attempting to know why poverty exists and where it is found and not universally blaming an individual’s condition on their indifference or penchant to exploit.
My point in all of this is to provide a contrast to the blind march towards wealth for wealth sake. Additionally, we must realize that the poor are important in God’s eyes–whether news outlets report on their condition or not. Its so easy to forget the face of poverty because our eyes are on the rich and privileged. If you are a disciple of Christ it is important to remember the words of Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The admonition to love mercy still rings true today.