The Rich, the Poor, and Jesus

The Rich, the Poor, and Jesus February 24, 2014

In November of 2013, Oxfam International released the results of a study that found an ever-growing concentration of the world’s wealth into the hands of a very few. The Irish Times quoted Oxfam chief executive Winnie Byanyima: “It is staggering that in the 21st century, half of the world’s population—that’s three and a half billion people—own no more than a tiny elite whose numbers [eighty-five souls] could all fit comfortably on a double-decker bus.”

The concerns of Oxfam over the findings are political inasmuch as this kind of wealth concentration rigs government processes in favor of the rich, which makes the divide between the haves and the have-nots permanent. This effectively destroys the reality of equal opportunity. Their research shows that “opportunity hoarding” is as rife as the hoarding of goods and resources.

The troubling nature of these findings seemed self-evident to me when I shared the Irish Times article about this report on social media. The response I got is a bit of a surprise. It didn’t surprise me that some people objected immediately to the conclusions of Oxfam. What surprised me was the visceral anger and resentment—with a tinge of hurt feelings even—coming from people I know who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ. They reacted as if I’d lobbed a Molotov cocktail into their living rooms.

I am not an activist. I am not involved in partisan politics in any way—I am political at all only inasmuch as I do vote. Is it possible to talk about the implications of this report without setting off an angry debate? I am truly puzzled about the rush of some Christians to defend wealth hoarders.

I understand where the antipathy toward social programs comes from. It began with the Social Gospel movement around the turn of the last century. Most associated with Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, the Social Gospel was a theologically liberal replacement of sin-and-salvation preaching with a focus on living the teachings of Jesus practically in relation to the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised. Reinhold Niebuhr took it a step further, argued that the aims of the Social Gospel should be sought by political means—and force, if necessary.

Fundamentalists rejected both of these notions, claiming that the sole commission of Christians was to save souls. This sentiment is evident in the words of the Fundamentalist preacher Vance Havner: “If they had a social gospel in the days of the prodigal son, somebody would have given him a bed and a sandwich and he never would have gone home.” Don’t let them get comfortable where they are, the thinking went. Make them as miserable as possible, so they will see their need to be born again.

The soul of the poor is their concern, not the physical well-being and comfort. I get that. What I don’t get is where this urgent, almost panicked, need to defend the rich comes from.

Jesus does talk about being reborn. Nicodemus comes to him by night (John 3:1-21) and Jesus says to him “You must be born again.” From there he doesn’t mention any kind of sinner’s prayer or confession however—he talks about deeds and tells Nicodemus “everyone that doeth evil hateth the light…. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought of God.” What are the deeds Jesus speaks of, and do they have anything to do with the rich and the poor?

Judging by the rest of the red-letter parts of the gospels, yes, a little bit, they do. One example: Jesus tells the rich young ruler, something so important that it appears in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21, and Luke 18:22)? “Sell what thou hast and give it to the poor.”

The response of some to the Oxfam post was tinged with real outrage: “Do we take rich peoples’ money and give it to poor people? Do we raid rich nations and give it to poor nations?” This is followed by the argument that, “Fifty years of the war on poverty should show that [giving money to the poor] is wrong.”

In a blog post for ABC Religion and Ethics, Stanley Hauerwas interacts with Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help. Of all the real problems the book discusses, the one I hear most often is that charity will “erode the work ethic of those being helped with the result that their dependency is deepened.”

Hauerwas admits that problems exist, but he doesn’t let Christians off the hook. His conclusion is not that you do not give, but that you don’t simply throw money at the problem. It comes down to relationships: “The challenge is to be with the poor. To be with the poor means one must first learn to listen to the poor and, by listening, to discover that the poor are not without resources for survival. That means, at the very least, if you want to be with the poor a commitment of time is required for the building of trust necessary to sustain honest relationships.”

To the discussion following my post of the Oxfam report, my nephew commented with the simple letters—though they’ve become a cliché, are they not still relevant?—WWJD?

Vic Sizemore earned his MFA in fiction from Seattle Pacific University in 2009. His fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, PANK Magazine, Pembroke, Saint Katherine Review, Rock & Sling and elsewhere. An excerpt from his novel The Calling was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Award; other excerpts from The Calling are published in Portland Review and are forthcoming serially in Connecticut Review. His short story “Hush Little Baby” won the 28th New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction. Sizemore teaches at Central Virginia Community College.

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  • Rachel Monger

    I think what you said “the challenge is to be with the poor” is the crux of the matter! And yes, this does take a significant commitment of time and effort, the investment into relationship. A valuing of life over money. May we take the gospel with us as we help without hurting, may we see the Kingdom of God come to dark and hurting places as the work of Jesus is done – spiritually and practically. Thanks! Rachel

  • H. Gear

    I agree with some of this. However, social programs are not the answer. Unless you work for a social program such as section 8 you really can’t understand how enslaving the program is to the people it “serves”. Most of the “clients” are young black women with children from 4 different fathers. If they make more than a certain piddly amount of money their allowance from section 8 is dropped. If they make more than barely over minimum wage their childcare is taken away. Basically, it’s not worth it to better themselves and make more money because as soon as they do their support is dropped. A better solution would to be offered an education in a technical degree where work demand is high and help with job placement, then slowly drop support over a number of years until they are 100% able to support themselves. The system as it stands sets them up for failure.

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful essay, Vic. As for WWJD, Jesus answers that in Matthew 25:31ff., which refutes the fundamentalist contention that (in your paraphrase): “The soul of the poor is their concern, not the physical well-being and comfort.”

  • Ryan C. Young

    On the Protestant side, there’s been a real shift away from organized religion (denominations) to non-affiliated/non-denominational churches. In the past, denominations came together to pool their resources to build hospitals, shelters, food banks, etc. That’s much more difficult (nearly impossible) for one church to do alone. We recently had someone from the area food bank come speak to our church. He knew his statistics inside and out (it’s a very large program). He estimated that 12-15% of those coming are “cheating the system”. As he said, it would be much more difficult and waste more money to try to “catch” those who really didn’t need the assistance. In his own words, he would let them “answer to God themselves”. The surprising thing (to me) was such a large percentage of those using the food bank have day jobs which don’t pay them enough to survive. At the end of the day, Jesus speaks so much about his love for children. Kids who grow up in extreme poverty didn’t ask for it. “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”

  • Vaughn Sizemore

    WWJD? When he saw someone in need, he wouldn’t tell them to look to a program offered by King Harod, he would feed/heal/resurrect them himself. He would teach the poor and uneducated how to fish, but he would also feed them first. Simply put, the Christian thing to do is to give time and money to helping the poor. That would be feeding them and teaching them to fish. It might include funding fresh water projects in the third world, participating in medical mission trips, local food banks, or teaching local people the job skills that you have and they need. You can’t count your taxes spent on government programs for the poor as charity because it’s not.

  • Wealth concentration to higher, tighter hands at the expense of the masses is what the “progress” of civilization is all about. All it takes is a little violence, and some religion to rationalize the violence.

    “The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich.” ~Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice, 1795

    “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.” ~Stanley Diamond (1981) In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization, p.1