Sunday, April 12, 2009

The least of these

On Easter, Christians reflect on salvation and renewal. But many, in celebrating their “atonement”, all too readily forget the mission that was charged to them:

The Son of Man will put the sheep (good people) on his right and the goats (bad people) on his left. Then the king will say to those good people on his right, 'Come. My Father has given you great blessings. Come and get the kingdom God promised you. That kingdom has been prepared for you since the world was made. You can have this kingdom, because I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was alone and away from home, and you invited me into your home. I was without clothes, and you gave me something to wear. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you came to visit me… I tell you the truth. Anything you did for any of my people here, you also did for me.'
Matthew 25:33-40

Over the years, I have heard many say that "America is a land of opportunity" and that the poor are poor because of laziness, drugs, drink, etc. For some, this is true, but for many it is not. Poverty touches too many lives in this wealthy country. They are not “just statistics,” but rather an indicator that tens of millions of people lack the security and opportunities they need to thrive and contribute fully. According to the latest available statistics, average incomes for the bottom fifth of U.S. households were lower in 2007 than in 2000 ($11,551 versus $12,229), and average incomes for the next highest quintile were also lower ($29,442 versus $30,353).

The Center for American Progress reports that between 1959 and 1973, poverty in the United States fell by 50 percent. More recently, in the seven years between 1993 and 2000, poverty fell by 25 percent, and child poverty fell by 29 percent. In both periods, a near full-employment economy was combined with federal, state, and local policies and efforts that directly sought to address unemployment and poverty. But the record of the past eight years demonstrates that without such an effort, poverty increased exponentially. Our governmental policy choices have a great deal to do with determining whether many win the benefits of economic growth, or only a few.

These days there are too many folks who are all too willing to blame poverty on the poor themselves. Poverty will end for individuals, this group tells us, when they pull themselves up by their bootstraps and go to work. But this overlooks the side of the problem the Bible does not overlook. There are social, economic and political forces at work that contribute to poverty. There are many places where double-digit unemployment has been the norm, even before the economic downturn, rather than the exception. This suggests a lack of jobs, not a lack of willing workers.

The Bible does portray some poverty as having its roots in personal behavior. Proverbs warns that those who refuse to work, or those who do not lay aside resources for a rainy day, or who indulge various desires can quickly become poor. That these behaviors contribute to poverty is obvious.

However, the biblical witness spends considerable more time on other causes of poverty. The frequent use of the expression "widows and orphans" is understood to mean those who are economically disadvantaged and powerless to do anything about it. Often the poor are those who are victimized by the powerful for personal or political gain. Some become poor, the prophets point out, because the marketplace is not fair. There are many warnings in the Bible about unfair scales and unfair wages. In all of these instances, the Bible is critical of the institutions and systems that take unfair advantage of people who are powerless against them, not of the individuals who happen to be poor.

We have seen it all over the news the last few months. Due to deregulation of the financial industry the marketplace has not been fair. It was rigged to help the rich become richer at the expense of millions of hapless individuals. This recent greedy misadventure of Wall Street into credit default swaps (derivatives) and subprime mortgages is what brought the economy down and hard times for millions of Americans. If unemployment rates reach double-digits, as some economists fear, nearly 7 million people will lose their jobs, more than 7 million will lose their health coverage, and more than 12 million will fall into poverty.

By 2007, the percentage of poor Americans who are living in poverty had reached a 32-year high. (This closely coincides, by the way, with the timeline of Reaganomics). Millions of working Americans are falling closer to the poverty line and the gulf between the nation's "haves" and "have-nots" continues to widen. After tapping friends and family, maxing out their credit cards and sufficiently swallowing their pride, at least 23 million Americans stood in food lines last year – many of them the working poor, according to America's Second Harvest, the Chicago-based hunger relief organization. The surge in food demand is fueled by several forces – job losses, expired unemployment benefits, soaring health-care and housing costs, and the inability of many people to find jobs that match the income and benefits of the jobs they lost.

According to Stacy Dean, director of food stamp policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the reach of the economic slowdown has really taken down many folks who never expected to be poor. And according to Robert Forney, CEO of America's Second Harvest, this is not just a function of unemployment – a larger percentage of Americans are working poor, and the numbers have been growing for nine years. This may be the low-water mark for the economy, but for a whole lot of Americans – 43 million of them – the option of earning a living wage and benefits is not possible.

Blessed are the poor, for they need Christians' help:

The Bible is filled with significant and frequent references to God's concern for the poor. The evangelical social group Call to Renewal calls this situation "a moral outrage that our country refuses to do better." What role should people of faith have in making it better?

If Christians truly want to help our country do a better job of dealing with increasing poverty, where should we start? This goes beyond taking a turkey dinner to a poor family for Thanksgiving and then feeling good about oneself for giving charity or spending a day, even a week, helping to build a house with Habitat. If the faith community is going to participate in a response to the problem of poverty, we cannot overlook the economic and social forces that are beyond the reach of individual willpower. It means looking at tax codes, educational opportunities, healthcare, job creation, wages and benefits. It means re-regulating banks, mortgage, and insurance companies. It also means, if you are wealthy, paying more taxes in support of your government, country, and the social lifelines it provides for the “least of these.”

Jesus understood the obstacles we would encounter. Taking on the economically and politically powerful entities that create and maintain poverty in our world in order to increase their own wealth is no small task. But if we are to make a difference on behalf of the poor, that's exactly what Christians must do. When Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor," he was not saying poverty is blessed, but that the poor are not wicked or lazy. Jesus’ sermon was to remind us that the poor are not always responsible for their poverty.

As you celebrate the Resurrection and Atonement, where are you looking for Jesus? He is among those who have lost their homes through bankruptcy due to serious illness and not having enough or no health insurance; he is among those who have been abused; he is among those who have lost their jobs, and, consequently, their homes; he is among those who are caught in war zones; and the list goes on.

Jesus made it clear that in helping the "least of these” we also serve him. Whom or what do you serve?