An express invitation is extended to the needy to share in the Passover, in accordance with the original command ׳which emphasizes that no family unit, no matter how destitute, should be excluded from its observance (Ex 12:4, 47). In another sense, everyone is needy, and awaits redemption, and prays that it soon will come.
Because my brain is all about networking and making connections, sometimes one thought trips my brain to go in a certain direction, which may seem to other people to have nothing to do with the original thought.
I have been thinking about the topic of this post for a long time. I did not seem to be able to put into words my thoughts. But when I read the above quote from John at Ancient Hebrew Poetry, (sorry, I don’t have the link to the exact post) thoughts started to come together. Where my brain went with his quote had very little, if anything, to do with the bigger point of his original post. But, the connection happened, and now I think I’m finding words to at least begin exploring what has been on my heart for a while.
For many months, I have been troubled by one explicit statement and several implied ones along the lines that it is the responsibility of Christians (or at least that it should be one of our goals) to eradicate poverty or at least to fight poverty.
Several questions, maybe even concerns, have been niggling around in my brain as I think about this line of thought (and I know there will be some overlap and redundancy in the questions):
1.Who are the poor and needy, and who determines who falls into that category?
2.Is something missing when “eradicating poverty” is the starting point or the goal? And, if so, what is it? (This is a question I’ve asked myself in a variety of ways, based on my feeling/assumption that something is wrong, but I’ve not been sure what)
3.Is the point the poverty or the poor and needy? And what are the implications of the point or focus being one or the other?
4.Who is missed and what needs are overlooked by an insistent concern only with the poorest of poor? (I am not questioning this on the personal level. That is, if God has called you, personally, to minister to the poorest of the poor, or even to fight against poverty (or fight for its eradication), I feel no need to call that into question. On the broader level, however, what part of that is a mandate for the body of Christ as a whole, on the corporate level? What needs do we miss right beneath our nose, because we rank neediness according to standards of poverty and human suffering?
5. In trying to “help the poor” (or, for example, Save Africa), do we end up demeaning needy people in the process?
6. What is our role as followers of Jesus in the face of extreme suffering by people around the world, most of which certainly is exacerbated by poverty?
7. What is our role as followers of Jesus in relation to wealthy people? If the focus is on fighting or eradicating poverty, how do we view and relate to spiritually needy people with sufficient or even excessive physical wealth?
8. What are the responsibilities of followers of Jesus who ARE wealthy?
9. Who draws the lines of when a person is sufficiently needy to be “worthy” of serving? (I hate even saying it that way, but sometimes it is what I wonder when I hear the criteria for ministry being tied into a person or group of people’s poverty)
10. Who draws the line for how much wealth and materialism, how much luxury is allowed in ones home before a Christian is judged to be selfish or living too excessively when there are so many people living “in poverty”?
11. Where is the line drawn for consumption becoming a contributor to someone else’s poverty?
Helping the poor and fighting poverty seem like noble causes and also spiritually important. But, when they are the focus and starting point, something seems to go askew or awry or get messed up.
I have, in small ways lived on both sides of the coin. As a missionary, I felt the tension of living extremely simply compared to what I was accustomed to, and yet, by nature of being able to pay for my airfare to get there, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind in the village we were living in that we were extremely wealthy. Yes, we had an outhouse. No, we had no running water. But, we had a tank to store water. Which put us in firmly in the luxury lifestyle. When the pipe to to the storage tank at our house sprang a leak, our immediate neighbors went out into the potholes in the road that were filling up with water and did their laundry. Were we selfish and extravagantly wealthy because we had stored water, while our neighbors still went to the center of town and waited in line every day for water? Possibly.
As a single mom, I have received much charity and help. Sometimes I have felt awkward and dehumanized in the process of trying to get the help I qualify for. Mostly, though, I have felt real gratitude at the generosity of others. Am I poor? Sort of. Not really. Don’t know. Depends. If you knew my income, you’d say yes. I qualify to receive food from the food pantry, four times a year (that’s the total amount any family is allowed to go), plus Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. I have a nice car–purchased by my church. My computer was a gift. As was my second computer when my first one started having troubles.
I’m embarrassed when people come into my bedroom/office, because there sits a very large screen TV . And we all know that if you can afford a large screen TV, you shouldn’t be living off of charity.
Only, it was a gift from my neighbor when he upgraded to a flat screen TV for the Super Bowl. He thought my kids would like his old TV. Even though I told him we don’t ever watch real TV, and only occasionally watch DVDs. Still, he wanted us to have it. So, there it sits, a mockery. You’re poor? You need financial assistance? But you have a big screen TV.
I read this article, called Charity Tourism, and the rather controversial dialogue that followed out of it with interest, because, again, I’ve been on both sides. (I’ve fed the homeless at Christmas before. This past year, lots of people generously brought food and gifts by for us, just because it was Christmas and because our finances are really limited. This year, to many people, I am the poor.) The article was posted in December, and the questions raised, especially in the comment section, continue to rumble around inside of me.
Do we criticize and judge the poor? Am I poor enough to receive such charity? Who is or isn’t? Do we criticize and judge the benevolent? Was I serving my own purposes when I fed the homeless? Was I helping or making things worse? How and when do we decide who fits in which category–truly poor vs. leaching off the system; truly generous vs. arrogantly throwing trinkets to soothe ones conscience?
First, I think it is not too wise to draw such blanket conclusions and make wide assumptions as were made in the Charity Tourism article. If (being wildly speculative to the extreme), 99 percent of all people who helped the poor were doing so out of pride and conscience-soothing attempts, would that negate the sincerity and humility with which the 1 percent truly gave from their hearts and made a difference? If (being just as bizarrely speculative), 99 percent of the poor just weren’t trying hard enough or were lazy or were using their resources frivolously, would that negate the neediness of the 1 percent?
Of course, I’m being ridiculous in these numbers. I hate stereotypes, though, and it feels like when the talk turns to poverty and generosity, stereotypes, even well meaning ones, abound. And being a literal person who cares about details, I wonder what important realities (and more important, what actual needs of very real people–both the poor and the generous–who do not neatly fit the stereotypes) are missed.
I read another quote from an article on the Lutheran perspective on vocation. The author is talking about “the common order of Christian love.”
This is the realm of the Good Samaritan. People of all three orders [church, household and state] come together here, ministering to each other and “to everyone who is in need.”
“To everyone who is in need.” I guess where I’m at right now is preoccupying less about who is needy and who is not, who is suffering and who is not. I still care about those who are suffering, and I hope I am passing a great compassion on to my children. But, I do not want to define or limit compassion according to specific criteria. I want my children to have eyes that see suffering and need in the lives of people whose paths they cross, regardless of the degree of the lack of wealth or even the presence of great wealth. Yes, I hope my children have a part in alleviating the suffering in the world. But, mainly I hope that they make a difference by caring for specific people who suffer, by loving people where they are, and by communicating the love, peace and salvation Jesus offers, in the place of suffering, whether or not they effectively relieve suffering or knock down poverty. If my son were to take in a homeless family, and my daughter were to show kindness to Britney Spears, is only one helping a truly needy person?
Even as I write this, I’m aware of injustices, of extreme poverty, of great suffering, far away and nearby (and yet, even as I say that, I hear the disqualifiers that are often used to minimize the suffering and poverty nearby: how can an American, after all, be really, worthily poor? Even the poorest is wealthy compared to the rest of the world). I do not want to make light of the realities that people are living in and with. I do not want to live blindly or so comfortably that I neglect those who suffer from great poverty. But neither am I comfortable with rigid standards and elevation of certain types of poverty or suffering above another as more worthy. Nor I am comfortable with blanket judgment of wealth and individual resources as innately bad when there is any inequity left in the world.
I hope this doesn’t sound like I have answers. I really don’t. And I also hope it does not sound like I am judging in a blanket way those who are committed to helping the poor and fighting poverty in big, corporate ways. I am not. Again, I don’t have answers, but I do have lots of questions.
I was thinking–I don’t want to be ashamed of either my resources or my need. But, I have struggled with shame because of both. Are my needs really important in the bigger scheme of things? Should I spend money on this or that when people are going without food someplace else? Do I need this new refrigerator? Is it wrong for me to buy this thing? Can I really receive this gift of charity? Am I truly needy enough? A jumble of questions, all over the map, in the mind of someone who is both poorer than many and wealthier than many more.
Okay, maybe I’ve just realized how the opening quote ties into this rambling topic for me. At Easter, I want to be able to take communion next to you. If you are rich and live in a mansion and have no debt and seven cars and paintings that cost more than the total value of my house which I can’t afford to buy, I want to be able to drink the cup after you and not have you feel guilty on my account. I am your sister. We are in this walk of faith together. Feel guilt when God convicts you, but not because I am kneeling next to you. Give when and where God shows you. Keep your eyes open to needs around you. But, please don’t focus on my neediness or poverty. Please, let’s share the bread and wine together, because in Christ there really is no rich and poor. And before the cross, we are all needy.
And if, at Easter, you who kneel next to me, are homeless, I want to be able to take communion with you. I want to be able to drink the cup after you and not have you feel pitied by me. If God moves me to give you the coat off my back, I hope I will do so. But, more than that, I hope when we are there at the table together, that it is not your needs that move me and draw me to you. I want to join with you, there sharing the bread and wine, because I am your sister. Please, let’s share the bread and wine together, because in Christ there really is no rich and poor. And before the cross, we are all blessed beyond imagination.
Together we go out–I, along with the one who is loads wealthier than I and the one who is loads poorer than I– singing a hymn, joined by our shared neediness and poverty, rejoicing in our shared blessing and wealth. Ready to bless those who cross our paths, no matter the need. Ready to receive whatever generosity another is moved to pour out onto us, regardless of where we fall on any standard of need.
Idealistic? Probably. But, it’s the cry of my heart, and this picture, dream, longing (not sure exactly what it is) is in the place of my heart that longs to make a difference in the lives of “the poor and needy” while simultaneously feeling quite turned off by that as an agenda.