Let’s NOT ‘care for’ the poor

By Rev. Darin R. Collins -  

I greatly appreciated this episode of the 12 enough podcast which highlighted a discussion between Rev. Dr. Jonathan Malone and his guest Rev. Dr. Bill Trench on the topic of Christian Social Ethics, specifically, Economics. I am certainly not the first, only or best to highlight the growing impression that Capitalism is not simply an economic system, but an overarching world view which shapes individual and societal desires, increasingly influences our ethics (see the work of Michael Sandel), not to mention the way we form our identity as human beings. Daniel Bell Jr., in his book The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World goes so far as to suggest that Capitalism offers its own theological system and vision. For instance, according to Bell Capitalist Theology is predicated upon a highly self-interested and autonomous anthropology. This anthropology is related to a view, not of the abundance of Gods graciousness but instead, the threat of scarcity. Not only is the God of capitalist theology not able to provide safety and security, but also unable to redeem autonomous individuals from their self-interest or from the anxiety of a world in which there is not enough for all. James K. A. Smith in his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation describes the liturgy of consumer capitalist worship (shopping). In this book Smith describes how the liturgy of consumerism both connects to Christian Faith and so shapes us as human beings. Briefly, Smith suggests that consumer capitalism, much like Christian spirituality and theology, seeks to answer basic human questions about pain, suffering and sin. Advertising highlights our imperfections (sin, suffering) and then offers us salvation through the purchasing of a product. Read together, it is not God in Christ who redeems us but instead, the market. Another book which explores these issues is Vincent J. Millers Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, in which Miller writes, "Christian desire is in danger of being distorted and exploited by consumer culture." All of this to say, stealing the title of Robert. H Nelsons book Economics as Religion, that perhaps the greatest challenge to Christianity in America today is the theology and liturgy of Capitalism itself. So I am glad to hear a dialogue between two local pastors about the issue of Faith and Economics.

I found myself largely in agreement with Jonathans guest, Dr. Trench, and offer the following response understanding that the topic for discussion is so complex that not everything can be said in one short podcast. Still, as much as I agreed with both Dr. Malone and Dr. Trench I wish that there had been a more nuanced discussion of "care for the poor." I heard a great deal of discussion about the Christian charitable response to the impoverished and this is an idea I would like to respectfully push in a slightly more radical direction. Leonardo and Clodovis Boff write in their seminal work Introducing Liberation Theology:

'Aid' is help offered by individuals moved by the spectacle of widespread destitution. They form agencies and organize projects But however perceptive they become and however well-intentioned - and successful - aid remains a strategy for helping the poor, but treating them as (collective) objects of charity, not as subjects of their own liberation.  The poor are seen simply as those who have nothing.  There is a failure to see that the poor are oppressed and made poor by others Aid increases the dependence of the poor, tying them to help from others, to decisions made by others: again, not enabling them to become their own liberators. 

While it is true that one can find many verses in the Bible which urge charity toward the poor, Matthew 25 perhaps being the most well-known, even in popular culture, I am reminded of Leviticus 25 in which the Jubilee Year is introduced. The Jubilee Year does not rely on charity as the answer to social or economic inequality. Instead, there is a total social and economic reset, land returned to family, family to land and slaves set free. The Jubilee Year does not deny that some, through hard work or through good fortune, will fair well economically and others will not. The policy of re-establishing an economic equilibrium assumes that wealth will tend to pool in the possession of a few over time. But every 50 years, equality is re-established. Charity is not a long-term solution to poverty. Under Jubilee practices charity takes its proper place as a short term corrective. It is not laden with being the only response to systematized impoverishment. In the social and economic reset of Jubilee, the impoverished and dispossessed are given a chance to provide for themselves once again. Theologically we might think back to Genesis 2:15 which tells us that at least one purpose of God's creation of humanity is to work and care for the land. Humanity is invited into the ongoing creative process as a (junior) partner. Jubilee correction restores and maintains the purpose of humanity, to be creative agents with God. Charity does not accomplish this.  

Furthermore, charity is not effective practically. As the documentary film A Place at the Table highlights, hunger in America has grown at an incredible rate through the 80s, 90s, and 00s concurrent with churches building their own food closets and hosting soup kitchens. Christians have been charitable and heroically so, but the number of hungry Americans has still grown alarmingly and shamefully. Charity is not the answer practically. Nor is it the answer theologically.  Whether we wish to use as a theological foundation the perichoresis of the Trinity, or the incarnation of Christ, God with Us, or the scriptural foundation of the life of Jesus, lived among the impoverished and socially outcast, creating space at the table for all, charity is again not the answer. 

Charity is not an adequate answer because it does not create community.

It does not heal social the social alienation that allows poverty, not to mention other social sins such as structural racism. While charity offers a gift to the impoverished, as Christians we believe that we are to offer the gift of ourselves to others. In Galatians 2 we hear Paul say, I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 

The response of the Christian to poverty is not simple charity, but, reflecting the life of Christ, the giving of ourselves to the socially and economically vulnerable other.

In this view, charity alone does not only deny the impoverished their fullest humanity, it also denies the fullest discipleship to the Christian. If it is Christ who lives in us, solidarity and community with the impoverished is the fullest expression of our discipleship to Christ. Charity is then an exercise which strengthens us to our ultimate goal which is the bond of love with the impoverished. It is this idea that has lead Gustavo Gutierrez to write, "we address the poor not only to make life better for the poor but also to announce the gospel to the world."

I write this post with humility. Carrying out the goal of growing from charity to solidarity and community is a challenging one and one that I admit I struggle with. I am certainly not suggesting that the church abandon its charitable efforts. Instead, I hope that this post encourages some to accept the whole challenge of the gospel, which is not to rest secure in charitable efforts and to struggle with the pursuit of loving community with the impoverished.   

Rev. Darin R. Collins, a Maine-iac exiled in Rhode Island has pierced ears, tattoos, plays guitar passionately but poorly, and is a Lord of the Rings & Dr. Who geek. He currently preaches at Berean Baptist Church in Harrisville RI.