The Upside-Down Kingdom, Chapter 6: Luxurious Poverty

The Upside-Down Kingdom, Chapter 6: Luxurious Poverty October 15, 2023

The Upside-Down Kingdom: Chapter 6: Luxurious Poverty

I’m curious why more people aren’t commenting on The Upside-Down Kingdom. Either fewer than usual are reading the chosen book this time, or people just don’t have much to say about the chapters. Or both.

I find every chapter of the book very convicting, very controversial, even within myself. I was raised in a church that tended to spiritualize all that Kraybill is talking about. We were poor, but we interpreted “poverty” and “the poor” spiritually—not in relation to money or material possessions, wealth or income or lack thereof. On the other hand, we had a sense that conspicuous consumption was sinful. So, as usual, I have to conclude we were just confused.

Well, Kraybill isn’t confused. He may be wrong, but he’s not confused. He knows what he believes; he thinks he knows what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of God.” And he strongly believes most Christians throughout history have over-spiritualized it. He believes Jesus taught that money (broadly defined as valuable possessions, “worth”) is spiritually toxic and that redistribution of wealth is a necessary part of the kingdom of God.

But, Kraybill falls short (so far) when it comes to giving us specific instructions about how the “economy of Jesus” is supposed to work today. He specializes in principles including in this chapter that Christians ought not to hoard wealth or prize material possessions or judge people’s status by their financial status. Christians are to give their wealth to the poor, avoid materialism, and cherish the poor.

It seems clear to me that Kraybill believes in the principle of the “preferential option for the poor” within the churches. God’s churches and organizations should avoid spending lots of money on unnecessary buildings (or unnecessary amounts on buildings). I know of one Christian university that recently spent somewhere around four hundred million dollars on a sports complex. (That was not the publicly announced amount, which was bad enough, but an “insider” told me that amount as the real, total amount spent inclusive of everything.) The justification was that it would bring in more than that in increased royalties and donations to the university.

I’m not blaming the university; I’m blaming the mindset of Christians (or so-called Christians). One regent of the university stated publicly that this complex on campus was the most inspiring thing in the history of the university. Really? Did he not know about the great student revival that happened there in the 1950s? I don’t expect everyone to know about it, but a regent should know about it. But maybe he still would think the sports complex was the most inspiring.

One thing seems clear to me from this chapter (and others) in Kraybill’s book: Christian organizations and churches ought to care more about the poor and needy than about their own prestige, glamor, status, wealth, power or fame.

So what are some Christian organizations that do that? Well, let’s see…. There’s the Salvation Army that has no cathedrals (or cathedral-like buildings), the Volunteers of America (a church that is devoted to the poor and needy), and …. Oh, I can’t think of any others except ones that are themselves poor and needy, like the church I grew up in.

There are, of course, Christian organizations devoted to helping the poor and the needy such as “Mission Waco,” an organization whose founder and leader (now retired) I knew well. I’m sure every city of any size has something like it. But then my mind goes to a church in the same city called Crossties Ecumenical Ministries. The church had (when I knew it well) only a few members but existed to spread the gospel among the poorest in the city and to increase the dignity and standard of living of the poor surrounding it in the poorest neighborhood in the county. The two pastors, both women, went around to well-to-do churches, inviting them to contribute to their thrice-weekly free lunch program and to let them hold workshops and seminars about the plight of the poor in the city. The church also organized and led a large program for free day-care for children of the working poor. The church’s building was a simple wood frame house, but its impact extended far beyond its humble walls.

Surely this is what Kraybill thinks Jesus wanted his church to be like, among other things—embedded in the poor for their well-being, not only financially but in terms of their dignity, protection, and increased opportunity.

Not far from Waco was an intentional Christian community that I came to know very well. I won’t name it here as it has enemies who publicly call it a “cult.” I don’t call it that, even though I don’t agree with all of its teachings. The community consists of almost a thousand members and its ethos is to take care of each other, which they do. Nobody’s possessions are considered “private” even though members do own their own property. It’s personal, but not private. There is no common purse, but everyone is well-cared for. There are no poor among them even though not everyone can work. Those who can work are given work to do. The church (at which I twice saw former President George Bush and his wife!) is beautiful but not ornate. There is no hint of a “prosperity gospel” even though the church is Pentecostal (and Anabaptist). But there is a gospel of giving and helping. Among the most favored members is (or was) an elderly widow in a wheelchair. Everyone takes care of her.

I contrast those examples of attempts to put “the upside-down kingdom” into practice with numerous churches I know all too well that obviously favor the rich and powerful and in subtle ways exclude the poor and weak. I was once a member of a downtown church that could not pay its youth pastor even though the trustees tied up legacies and donations in endowments for things like paying choir members who were not even Christians!

I have said enough. I’ll stop now. I wish Kraybill would say more about these practical applications of his principles, or I should say of Jesus’s principles.

*Note: If you decide to comment, make sure you read the chapter. If you didn’t read the chapter but want to respond, ask a question. All comments and questions should be relatively brief (no more than 100 words), on topic, addressed to me, civil and respectful (not hostile or argumentative) and devoid of pictures or links.*

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