Poverty of Ideas


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Proverbs 17:1-20, 1 Timothy 3:1-16, Matthew 12:43-50

Americans have a schizophrenic attitude toward people living in poverty. On one hand we canonize Mother Theresa for her work with the poor, and missionaries who feed starving Ethiopian children. On the other, we tend to think less charitably of the poor at home, and frequently require them to justify their poverty because we can’t stand the idea that someone somewhere is taking advantage of the “system.” Among Christians and nonbelievers alike, the poor are too often vilified rather than loved, torn apart rather than restored.

Do we honestly believe poor people “over there” are somehow different from or more deserving than people sleeping under bridges in Chicago? Poverty is a product of injustice and bad luck. America may have more resources and opportunity than many nations, but we can’t ignore the social, political, and economic structures that intentionally or unintentionally conspire against the poor. Jesus may have pointed that out once or twice.

We all know examples of people who’ve risen above – maybe we’ve done it ourselves – but lifting oneself out of poverty, especially generational poverty, usually requires exceptional talent. Hard work alone does not guarantee success. Your able body, sound mind, ethnicity, gender, and looks are all matters of chance helping or hindering  you. People who possess socially favorable variations of these traits have the opportunity to earn more, but do they inherently deserve more?

We treat intelligence and strength – and the success they engender – as virtues, but they are not something we choose; they are unearned gifts God has entrusted to us. Aren’t they meant to serve more than our bank accounts? Whether comfortable or afflicted, we should all do our fair share, but Christ taught if we have two coats and our neighbor has none, we should give them one. How often do we instead grill them about why they are too irresponsible to have a coat?

Who among us dares volunteer to tell Jesus we know who is deserving and undeserving, and the poor but unexceptional just don’t make the cut? Yet we do that with our votes and checkbooks every day.

The problem of poverty is complex, but the solution is never to dismiss poor people as weak or lazy. Both Old and New Testament scriptures have very clear positions on loving the poor. Why look for so many reasons not to?

Comfort: Whatever your financial or social status, in God’s eyes and heart you are equal to all His children.

Challenge: Examine what biases, hidden or overt, you might have against the poor. How do you think Christ would respond?

Prayer: God of love, open my heart to those in need. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways do you think America effectively works to alleviate poverty? In what ways is it ineffective?

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It Rolls Downhill

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Today’s readings (click to open in new window): 
Psalms 104; 149, Genesis 6:9-22, Hebrews 4:1-13, John 2:13-22

“Tourist prices” have been a problem for as long as people have traveled out of town. For example, non-Jewish currency was forbidden inside the temple at Jerusalem, so pilgrims needed to exchange it with money changers in the temple’s outer court before purchasing sacrificial animals. Doves, lambs, and other creatures are difficult to travel with, so livestock merchants also set up shop there. Both money changers and merchants took advantage of captive customers by demanding high prices. When Jesus arrived at the temple, he was so outraged to find “a den of thieves” where people traded faith for profit that he fashioned a whip out of cords and drove them all out. Not only had commerce defiled the temple, the institution that was supposed to protect the people was exploiting them.

The faithful are called to steward our resources justly. That means more than tithing and charity. Wealth does not buy us the privilege to shift social burdens onto the poor. In his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis describes how the poor are disproportionately affected by climate change and pollution. The wealthy consume resources and produce waste at a much greater rate than the poor, but poor communities are where we dump trash, manufacture toxins, and  ignore contamination. This burden shift occurs down the road and around the globe. Industries with environmentally devastating activities forbidden under national policies exploit poorer, unregulated countries. Many economic and social forces impact the differences between wealthy and poor communities, but property values are not Christian values. Living in a nice neighborhood doesn’t mean we deserve more justice. Faith calls us to deploy our resources in a way that protects the most vulnerable among us.

Are we in the outer court exchanging profit for justice, or are we working to make sure the poor – whom Jesus told us to serve – are at the heart of God’s kingdom? Rock bottom prices have high human costs. Pollutants we vote or litigate out of our back yards are forced into someone else’s. When the choices we make to better our lives negatively impact others, we need to make better choices. Maybe we can start by treating the poor as we would treat our own family … because Christ has made them so.

Comfort: Rich, poor, or in between, God’s justice is meant for all of us equally.

Challenge: Read about how the poor have been unfairly impacted by pollution in Ringwood, New Jersey (also known as Sludge City), Horlivka, Ukraine, or Flint, Michigan.

Prayer: Lord, help me to live justly, not just for my own righteousness, but for the love of your creation. Amen.  

Discussion: Where in your own community do you see links between poverty and injustice?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!


Wretched Refuse(d)

statue-of-liberty-2407489_1920Welcome to the first entry of C+C 2.0. As mentioned near the end of last year, I’m going to do some pieces that are a departure from the devotional and invitational posts. This one hits on topics that some consider political – specifically some comments recently made by our president – but I have no interest in partisanship. I do have interest in the intersection of America and Christianity. If that piques your interest, read on; otherwise another devotional will be up soon. Peace!

“Why do we want all these people from ‘shithole countries’ coming here?”
– President Donald J. Trump

So at last it’s laid clearly on the table; this is what a “Christian nation”  – or at least the representative it elects – thinks about immigration. We can cry all we want about how he doesn’t really represent us, but we elected him. He’s no surprise.

Let me make this clear from jump: this isn’t about legal or illegal immigration. The justice of that situation also desperately needs attention, but it’s a separate matter.

No, this is about how some of the wealthiest people in one of the wealthiest countries in the world view poor people, especially non-white poor people. It’s about failing to recognize the context of history, and how many of these “shithole” nations find themselves in dire straits largely due to colonial and capitalist exploitation by the rich and powerful – sometimes from the West and sometimes internally – and then dismissing them as failed states full of less-than-human beings.

This is about how a faith community claiming to follow a savior who said “Whatsoever you failed to do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you failed to do for me” (yeah, that’s the second part) could view and treat the “least” with passive contempt.

It’s about how America – in sad parallel with American Christianity – has become less a refuge of freedom for those oppressed  by empire, poverty, and discrimination …  and more an empire itself ferociously hoarding wealth and power in one hand while waving a flag of equality and freedom in the other. The crosses stretching across America have become support poles for the ultimate velvet rope of the most exclusive club, defining who gets in and who stays out based on who the owners of the nation (and the faith) like to be seen with.

America is in the business of continental gentrification. Now that we’ve pushed out the savages and ruffians and got the neighborhood up and running, we don’t want to let in “those” people who will take advantage of it and ruin it. Never mind the inconvenient history of building it on the backs of wave after wave of “those” people. African and Asian and Eastern European and Jewish and Catholic and Latin American and the endless variety of people we saw as less-than-human beings for a generation or so until we were up in arms about the next group threatening to ruin the neighborhood. Thanks for finishing that railroad. Your seat is in the back. Your neighborhood is across town.

In large part, immigration has long been a recruitment effort. The Polish and Hungarian neighborhoods in my town were the direct result of businesses bringing in entire communities to meet labor demands. These people didn’t come because they were already wealthy and successful. They came for the opportunity to escape shitholes. Without them, wealth sat idle. With them, it built cities, communities, churches, museums, and the rest of a nation.

But here’s the difference between running a business and running a nation. Once a business is done with the cheap labor (or replacing the expensive labor with automation) those people are no longer the responsibility of the business. A nation is never done with its responsibility. Citizens are not FTEs. We need to take them into account, or they will turn on each other.

It’s no coincidence this swell of populism is occurring during a time of divided wealth, deteriorating infrastructure, and decreasing church attendance. A national or religious empire (and have they ever really been separate in the West?) in decline is an animal which has cornered itself, and is therefore a danger to itself. When we were tackling frontiers, risk brought reward. Now that we have nowhere to expand and those we trampled on are forcing us to face the questionable tactics we used for that expansion, the greatest risk is admitting we’re not who we think we are. Even the middle and lower classes are defensive of criticisms of the rich when tribal reputation is all they have left to cling to.

I don’t actually think of America as a Christian nation, nor would I like it to be. I’m not at all keen on anything that smacks of theocracy. When you get my government in your religion they aren’t “two great tastes that taste great together” (anyone remember those commercials?); they’re more – and excuse my presidential language here – a shit sandwich.

But despite our worse instincts, some actual Christ-like influence has managed to permeate the culture. Those words about the tired, poor, huddled masses on the State of Liberty may be a product of an enlightened France, but they resonate with the religion that says God backs a loser. Even when our country – and our faith – don’t live up to the hype, citizens and would-be-citizens cling to the ideal expressed in those words. After all, most our families didn’t come here because the government was recruiting the already successful, but because the nation welcomed, needed, and sometimes stole the poor; some part of us remembers where we’ve come from, even when our own success and fear of sharing it diminish our enthusiasm for extending that same dream to others.

Businesses that contribute to society. Nations that contribute to the world. Faith that contributes to the Kingdom.  Have we – or our representatives – forgotten they are all built on the “least of these?”

A powerful business, nation, or faith that turns its focus inward and seeks to protect itself at the expense of others is not a reflection of Christ. Heck we’d have to get out the silverware polish and a sandblaster to uncover even the barest glimmer of common decency.

If you really want to give a hand up instead of a handout, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. Yes, welcoming the stranger is scary. Christ says welcome them anyway. Yes, a small minority will want to take advantage. Christ says give to all who ask of you.  (Right about now you’re tempted to rationalize that into something practical. Why? Christ wasn’t practical.)  Yes, your way of life may feel threatened. Christ says there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friend, and if we truly claim Christ as our friend, who then can we exclude from friendship?

A church or a nation that gets disheveled and dirty because it’s in the business of turning the hopeless into the hopeful is doing its job. Christianity and America are not meant to be beautiful, sterile showplaces focused on preserving their own self-proclaimed wonderfulness. They are meant to be sources of justice in not just a legal sense but a moral one, and justice takes guts and grime.

Through our faith language and our nigh-religious devotion to capitalism, we have turned spiritual and economic salvation into “I’ve-got-mine” individual experiences, when true salvation is communal. Doing so has impoverished us in countless ways. True salvation seeks not to isolate, but to replicate. When much is given, much is expected. Jesus said that, too.

Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?

If we are Christian, the answer is “Jesus said so.”

If we are American, the answer is “they have and will make us stronger.”

If we are both, why are we still asking the question?

Why Three Kings?


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/browser):
Psalms 72; 147:1-11, Isaiah 49:1-7, Revelation 21:22-27, Matthew 12:14-21
Epiphany readings: 
Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Today we celebrate Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles. Traditionally the gentiles are represented by the Magi. The gospel of Matthew tells us wise men followed a star from the east, paid tribute to the infant Christ, and returned home by a different route because a dream warned them King Herod was plotting against the newly-born messiah. Most nativity scenes depict them as three kings, though there is no scriptural basis for their rank or count other than the number of gifts.

Maybe they’re better off dropping the king bit and sticking to being just wise. Psalm 72 describes what it means for God’s presence to be felt throughout the gentile world, and kings don’t fare well. They bow before the presence, offer tribute, and oppressive ones are crushed. On the other hand the poor, needy, and oppressed are mentioned favorably ten times in this twenty-verse psalm. God judges them with justice; he defends, delivers, redeems, helps, pities, and saves them. Jesus’s message of the first being last and the last being first doesn’t originate with him; it is a natural evolution of the messages of the psalmists and the prophets. Jesus is the one who brought it home.

A mainstay of modern Roman Catholic social teaching is a preferential option for the poor. In other words, Christians are obligated to serve those who are impoverished financially and/or spiritually. Theologians of other denominations share similar teachings. Depending on our worldview, how we choose to meet that obligation can take many forms. Christ has trusted us with a duty, and also trusts us to determine the best means to execute that duty. Sometimes that means we can disagree about how we should serve. What it never means is starting from an attitude where the poor – of pocket or spirit – are a nuisance, morally lacking, or lesser than anyone else. Whatsoever we do for the least among us, we do also for Christ. We are to be kings bowing to babes.

The Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh represented royalty, holiness, and death. Jesus re-gifted them to us as humility, grace, and life regardless of our worthiness. Let’s pay it forward.

Comfort: God’s love is for all, not just the privileged or perfect.

Challenge: What programs in your local community help the poor? How can you help them?

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for all I have. I will not forget that you ask me to share it with those who have less. Amen.

Discussion: We are often distrustful or uncomfortable with people who have significantly more or less material wealth than we do. Why do you think that is?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Poverty Line


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, 2 Chronicles 6:32-7:7, James 2:1-13, Mark 14:53-65

The 2017 Federal Poverty Level – a factor in qualifying for some federal benefits – is $12,060 for an individual, and $24,600 for a family of four. We often call this threshold the Poverty Line.

Unfortunately many people make a host of assumptions based on a person or family’s financial position relative to the Poverty Line, which tells us one and exactly one thing. Assumptions multiply if people use the benefits available to them. Somehow the American Dream – and its bastard child the Prosperity Gospel – have managed to frame poverty as a moral failing, despite Christ’s consistent solidarity with the poor.

Jesus talked a lot about the poor. More importantly, he talked to and with the poor, assuring them their circumstances did not reflect God’s love for them. As Christianity gained favor with the affluent, the church found it necessary to counsel those who carried biases about the poor into their faith. In his epistle James wrote:

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Today’s judgments and evil thoughts are more subtle. Our attitude toward charity waxes and wanes according to our judgment of whether people in need are deserving or undeserving. Somehow their decisions and actions seem to warrant more scrutiny than our own. We mask the stinginess of our hearts and wallets behind otherwise noble concepts like stewardship and accountability.

Jesus didn’t make distinctions among people in need based on their worthiness. As Paul reminds us in Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Perhaps the biggest mistake we make when talking or thinking about the poor – is thinking of them as “the poor.” To follow Christ is to be a servant to all; there’s no service in washing clean feet.

Additional Reading:
For more thoughts on today’s scripture from James, see Solidarity.

Comfort: Poverty is not a sign of God’s disfavor. 

Challenge: Pay attention to what aspects of life and society unnecessarily favor people of greater means over people of lesser means.

Prayer: Gracious God, teach me to see all persons as you do. Amen. 

Discussion: What are the differences and similarities between tackling poverty on a national or global scale, and loving the poor on a personal level?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Breaking The Cycle


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Exodus 6:2-13; 7:1-6, Revelation 15:1-8, Matthew 18:1-14

The “cycle of poverty” describes how the experience of poverty, usually over several generations, alters people’s perceptions and behaviors such that they can not find a way to escape it. Culture, education, and economics can also work against people caught in the cycle. Some exceptional people manage to break out, but more often people need the grace of intervention. Intervention vs. charity is sometimes described as “a hand up instead of a handout.” It’s a catchy saying, but implies people are more in control of their circumstances than they actually are.

Not everyone agrees with this viewpoint. Some insist we can all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and failing to do so illustrates a lack of will and/or character. However, the Book of Exodus seems to sympathize with the damage inflicted by such a cycle.

When God sent Moses to tell the captive people of Israel they would soon be set free, “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.” Was God’s next step to lecture the Israelites on their character and willpower? No. It was to send Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh, where they could makes foundational changes on a systemic level.

“But those were slaves, not the poor,” we might argue.

The distinction between slavery and poverty is not as sharp as we might like it to be. The hard truth is, the wealthy have greater freedoms – including the freedom to make good economic decisions, hire good legal representation, etc. – than the poor have. We can stereotype welfare queens and panhandlers, but does anyone believe they weren’t also once children with dreams to be doctors or artists or astronauts? Dreams don’t die, they are suffocated by injustice.

Jesus declared “Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks” placed before children. He was speaking of spiritual stumbling blocks, but poverty and its associated injustices affect both the physical and spiritual well-being of children. He told the story of a shepherd seeking one lost sheep out of a hundred; how would he feel about the one billion left behind to poverty (fifteen million of them in the United States)?  What we do about poverty and how we think about the poor matters to God.

None of us can solve poverty, but we can change how we understand it and how we approach it. We are all accountable for our choices, but we are all also accountable for helping make sure those choices are available to everyone.

Comfort: Needing help does not make you weak or sinful.

Challenge: When you are tempted to blame people for their circumstances, remember some of the bad decisions you’ve struggled to overcome.

Prayer: Loving God, help me to be generous and wise, to meet needs that will change people’s lives. Amen.

Discussion: When have you asked for help? If you’ve needed help but not asked for it, how did you feel about getting it – or not getting it?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!