I have always admired the evangelical preacher and author Tony Campolo. Once, preaching to a large congregation of evangelicals about Third World famine victims, he said, “They’re starving, and you don’t give a damn. And what’s worse, you are more upset that I just said ‘Damn’ than that these people are starving!”
Do we really give a damn that 10,000,000 will go to bed hungry tonight in this country?
I took five minutes to Google some figures the other day. As of September 2011, 46.2 million people in America fall below the poverty line. Yesterday’s Plain Dealer reported that 18% of Northeast Ohioans are not sure where their next meal is coming from.
The United States is now behind every European country and all of developed Asia in infant mortality. Despite the so-called “best health care in the world,” we can’t keep our babies alive.
When we were in Haiti two weeks ago, one of the midwives who is “catching” babies for a month (she grew up outside of Detroit) informed me that inner-city Detroit has a higher infant mortality rate than Haiti.
The poorest in our country and across the world suffer malnutrition and bad health, have lower education, no jobs, shorter life spans. They are stuck in corridors of urban poverty with little or no hope. There are no jobs to get, and no transportation to get the jobs that are moving away from our cities. It is a negative spiral that is a moral stain on our nation. And the fact that pockets of urban poverty are populated by mostly African Americans present a whole other matrix of racism that is never honestly dealt with.
On Good Friday evening, Deanne and I joined Jack and Mary Ann Breich on a fascinating trip through Cleveland to find homeless men and women who make their beds under bridges, and down alley ways. If you pick up your Tower (our newsletter) for May you can read about our experience and the people we met.
Did you know that there are between 4,000 and 5,000 people in the city of Cleveland who look for a place to sleep and a meal to eat EVERY night?
And Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.”
What was he talking about? Because I see nothing blessed – well, let me put it this way, I wouldn’t want to trade, would you? In America, being poor is a curse, a blight, a statistic. Jesus’ words are scandalous to our way of thinking. They are even more provocative than Tony Campolo’s “damn.” Poverty is no blessing, at least not the way our culture sees it. Who wants to be poor?
And I really don’t feel comfortable about trying to tell you why the poor are blessed because I am not one… and I will sound patronizing.
Yes, it is blessing, I guess, not to watch trash TV. And not have to worry about your possessions when you don’t really have any – although T-Bone was pretty upset the night that somebody stole his blanket.
Yes, I do think that poverty in the eyes of the world can bring about a power of community that judges the competition of wealthy society. The Peasant Movement of Papaya – one of our potential partnerships in Haiti – showed the collective power of the collective imagination of the workers of the land.
Yes, it is a metaphorical blessing, I suppose, to see in the poor the simple way, the way of absolute need. If only you and I would go after the Kingdom of God, go after the blessing of Jesus, like a poor person will go after a bus ticket…but how humiliating.
Yes, there is a romantic notion of the “happy” poor. But I have really never met a poor person – one who can’t feed their children, who can’t buy new clothes, and who knows deep down that their local school will not really give their child a step up and most of society either scorns or pities them – who was “happy.”
How could God permit such great misery? Why can’t “they” just work harder and make “it”? Try telling a person who works two jobs, 16 hours a day, and has to leave their kids alone because the after-school programs and Head Start have been cut, to just work harder.
In Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Upon Mountains, which describes Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti and around the world, caring for the poorest of the poor, he quotes a Haitian proverb “Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe.” The literal translation is: “God gives, but doesn’t share.” To Dr. Farmer this proverb was interpreted to mean: “God gives us humans everything we need to flourish, but God is not the one who is supposed to divvy up the loot. That charge is laid upon us.” I think he is absolutely correct. You and I are the body of Christ. Our job is to witness to God’s justice which another intellectual mentor, Walter Brueggemann, once defined as “finding out what belongs to whom and giving it back to them.”
From my reading of the biblical witness, from my understanding of Jesus’ position on this, it seems to me that the church’s role is not on helping people earn wealth and status, but on freely sharing from the collective abundance, building relationships with, advocating for the least of these my brothers and sisters.
The poor may not be “happy” in the conventional sense that we define “happiness” – but the poor can be powerful – when they organize around their collective self-interest and demand equity, and when we, the faithful-but-not-so-poor join hands in solidarity – then there is a collective blessing that is powerful beyond measure, and we might even inch more towards what Jesus was talking about – the nearness of the kingdom of God. We might all be set free!
Honestly, I don’t really know what “blessed are the poor” means. I don’t have a program. I don’t know what to do with this but to be honest with you about my own tension. I just want to be aware. I want you to be aware. This week I want you to notice! I want us as church never to forget God’s preferential treatment for the poor – which doesn’t mean that God loves you less, because it’s not a zero sum game.
By the absolute “luck” of the draw and the whim of natural process, I was born a white man in America to educated white parents in the 1950’s when the economy was booming and only my father worked and we only had one car and only one black-and-white TV.
I could have been born in Haiti, or been one of a number of kids who go to bed hungry, my parents scratching out a living on the hard dirt. I could have been born in Appalachia, or in inner-city Detroit. Even with my advantages, I might have become someone sleeping in the alley off 9th street, needing my fix and waiting for a truck to drive by and give me food.
So every day I try to stay humble and try to stay open. I remain in the tension, I carry my baggage of privilege and wealth and try to manage it faithfully. It is what it is.
“Blessed are the poor” will always befuddle me. “Woe to the rich” will always frighten me.
But the vision of sharing the abundance, of building relationships, of being able to drive downtown and meet folks, and watch Mary Ann sketch; the incredible privilege of traveling to Haiti and getting my heart stretched and my mind blown; the power to stand for what is right, and to make sure my government does not forget the poorest, and to struggle with you in figuring out our priorities, the call to follow Jesus – leaves me blessedly boggled and confused and vulnerable and in lots of tension. But tension is good – it shows where the cutting edge of your growth is – so pay attention to it. As Thomas Merton once said, “The longer you can stay in the tension the better.”
Blessed are the poor. Blessed are you. And thanks be to God who gives us abundantly everything that we could ever imagine and calls us to share so that others might eat, and others might live, and that we might move and grow towards the poor, towards the beloved community of the Kingdom of God.