Over the course of the semester, I have had the opportunity to reflect on holiness, hospitality, and justice. We looked at different people who worked tirelessly to bring holiness and justice to the world. Many of the people we read about lost their careers, friends, freedom, and some ultimately their lives. They struggled against the American dream and American ideals (for some) or their equivalent in their own country and they paid for it. I cannot help but think of proverbs:
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them. –Proverbs 22:8-9, 22-23
As I write this paper, I am watching people around the country celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. They are celebrating the death of a truly evil person yet we cannot fully blame bin Laden and Al Qaeda for terrorism. In many cases, we have sowed injustice and brought it upon ourselves. We have oppressed many people of the world and have failed to practice holiness and hospitality but instead practiced injustice. As the proverb says, we reap what we sow.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? Therefore, faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. –James 2:14-17
Given the destruction caused by earthquakes and tornadoes over the past few months, I am reminded of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed much of the city of New Orleans in 2005. My memories of Katrina revolve around friends of mine from that city, as well as some of the people who fled to Nashville, Tennessee, where we were living. In fact, I will never forget one woman’s sobbing plea in our church during a time of prayers. Here was a woman who lost people she loved—and everything she had.
Some Christians at the time suggested that this horribly destructive storm and the suffering it brought were signs of divine judgment on a Godless America. In one interview, Pat Robertson blamed Katrina on abortion, claiming that God was causing “the land to vomit us out,” because our society permits the “slaughter of the unborn.” In another, John Hagee argued that God struck New Orleans because it was “planning a sinful…homosexual rally.”
Now, even if I agreed with these two men about Christian ethics—, which I DON’T — I would still, have trouble believing in their kind of God. I speak as someone who believes in the wrath of God. Wrath is what God’s love looks like to us when we are drowning in sin. We feel our separation from God, and it is terrifying. However, do we really believe in a God who would punish a whole city, including the innocent, for the sake of the imagined sins of a few? In addition, do we really believe in a God who manipulates the weather and keeps lists of enemies? That’s not the God I know and love.
Yet there’s truly a sense in which we reap what we sow. We can’t be sure in this case (or in any particular case), but I don’t think it’s farfetched to blame Katrina on the changes we are causing to our climate. Surely, this kind of extreme event is becoming both more common and more severe. Moreover, we can be certain that the disproportionate effects of the storm on the poor and on people of color are a direct result of choices we’ve made. We failed to heed the warnings. The people of the Ninth Ward in particular suffered from poor housing to begin with and a pathetic government response once the storm hit land. While Katrina was not divine retribution perhaps, it was a symbol of what we sowed – inhospitality and injustice. We did not practice holiness and we saw what happened when a massive storm hit the United States.
In a recent interview, Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana called New Orleans “the place where the façade of American progress has been washed away.” He went on to observe, “Many would be happy if we could again apply the ‘make-up’ to the wound that affects us all, but such will not be the case. This wound is evident around our nation, but in New Orleans it has been exposed as the flood washed away the veneer.” In the same interview, Bishop Jenkins cited remarks Martin Luther King made about the Parable of the Good Samaritan in a famous sermon at Riverside Church in 1967:
On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.
In that very sermon, preached exactly one year before his martyrdom, King also called for a “revolution of values” in light of the Gospel and the common good. When injustice and oppression become known, we often react and work to prevent it or correct. In the months after Katrina, and in the months after the earthquake in Haiti, and likely in the months after the recent tornadoes, we will fight for the poor work to make their homes a better place and feel good about it. Then something else will happen and the attention will shift away. Oppression and injustice will reign again and they will be forgotten.
Now, with the present economic crisis, we see it more clearly. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, and lost jobs. Failed businesses and a banking system that nearly collapsed have made it clear that much of our economy was a house of cards. Yet will we see any real restructuring? Will we move beyond well-intentioned efforts to relieve the symptoms to the real medicine it will take to cure the disease? Will we transform the Jericho Road, so that men, women, and children will not be beaten and robbed there and thrown into ditches? Only time will tell. In the meanwhile, in the book of Proverbs, we are warned:
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.
In ancient Israel, the city gate was where people went for justice. In a democracy, the responsibility to create justice rests with each and all of us. As a society, we cannot afford to build prisons instead of schools. We cannot afford to pay people less than it takes to provide for their families—and to force immigrant workers into the shadows. We cannot afford to keep buying cheap, disposable junk on easy credit. No, we can’t afford to deny healthcare to millions—and watch others are squeezed for every last penny. Nor can we keep relying on fossil fuels as the fragile lynchpin of our entire way of life.
As a nation, we used to want more. The reality often fell short, but we used to aspire, at least, to be a beacon of liberty—a bustling, creative democracy with broadly shared prosperity and a wide-open welcome to strangers:
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Now, it seems, that door is shut. Our gated suburban communities, with their private security firms, reflect the image of Fortress America and the mercenaries who help fight our wars. How is it possible for a nation that lives like this to seek justice and the common good?
To be honest, our churches are complicit in the problems. Too often, we preach what Dietrich Bonheoffer named “cheap grace”—grace that soothes our consciences without calling us to repent and follow Christ. We may not all have bought into the false Gospel of the prosperity preachers and peddlers of hate. However, which of us can say our faith is as alive and vibrant as it ought to be?
We are at the beginning of a new day in the church. The church has the ability to step out and call out a lifestyle that encourages this behavior. The church can step up and fight for justice and hospitality. The church can work to bring about the kingdom of God in a new and tangible way. People are struggling and are lost but the church seems lost as well. The church is searching for an identity rather than being the church. The church is reinventing itself rather than being the church.
It is easy to become cynical and downcast in a time when things seem to be at their worst. However, we read about shining examples of people who are willing to sacrifice everything, even their lives, for the cause of the greater good. Not all is hopeless; not all is lost. We need to look at the examples of these people and find our own way to follow their example and continue the work they have started. Perhaps we will sacrifice more than we expect but in the end, the greater good, the kingdom of God, will be advanced. Isn’t that what it is all about?
Here is today’s sermon based on Isaiah 10:1-4. This is a revised version of the sermon I delivered recently in class. I made some corrections based on the suggestions of classmates and the professor. It is a tough sermon and a brutal topic.
The judgment of God thundered down on Israel as Isaiah spoke out to the people on their actions. I can see this scene in my mind – the people of Israel were gathered in Jerusalem as Isaiah spoke the words of God to them. I can see this scene in my mind – there is Isaiah standing in the middle of the square unrolling his scroll and reading the words of God to the crowd. I imagined they looked around to see exactly who Isaiah was addressing – “Is he talking about you?” “Did you do this?” “It wasn’t me!” The very words of Isaiah would have been difficult to hear – to those that actually listened. As they listened, I imagine they looked at themselves and asked a simple question: “When did we oppress? When did we do this?” Centuries later, this same question would be posed to Jesus as it is recorded in Matthew 25 and we find it offers an answer to these questions as Jesus answered, “when you failed to live as I told you” and when you lived as the world lives.
Have you ever considered the idea that justice is blind? Recently there was a story on National Public Radio on Lady Justice – you know the statue of a woman holding scales and wearing a blindfold. We find her at courthouses around the world and we are happy to see her because she is a sign that justice will only hear the facts and not judge us in any other way. We want our justice to be blind to all but the facts of our case and not to judge us on any other consideration or prejudice. Have you ever considered the idea that injustice is blind as well? Lady Justice has a sister called Lady Injustice who also wears a blindfold because she doesn’t see anything around her. Like Lady Injustice, we often have our own blindfold on, as we simply do not see injustice around us. “When did we oppress? When Jesus, when did we do this?” I am not sure whether it is because we choose not to see injustice around us – the case for some – or that we simply do not see injustice around – the case for most of us.
Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools tracks information that relates to its students including economic data. We live in a data driven world so it should not be surprising that even our schools make decisions based on data. The most recent economic data revealed that nearly 40% of the students in the Antioch High School cluster – the one my subdivision is zoned for – are considered economical disadvantaged which is a nice way of saying poor or live in poverty. That means four out of ten students that I pass at the bus stop each morning live in poverty. I pass them nearly every morning and they look perfectly normal to me but then maybe I simply do not see. Maybe I don’t see the shabbiness of their clothes, or the fact they are not smiling as much as others, or even that they stand aside from the others or maybe I simply don’t see because I can’t see or accept that poverty exists in my neighborhood. When we begin to realize that poverty exists in our very neighborhoods and affect our own neighbors we begin to see what is around us – our eyes are opened. “When did we oppress? When Jesus, when did we do this?”
I wonder how the poor become poor? Have you ever thought about that? How does someone suddenly find himself or herself living in poverty? I wonder if they wake up one morning and decide that today is the day they are going to become poor and live in a life of poverty. I wonder if they choose a life of struggle and hardship as they deal with poverty. No doubt, there are some who choose to do that as part of a religious devotion or vocation but I believe a great many more people find themselves in poverty for reasons beyond their control and perhaps they do not even realize it is happening at first. It is a slow process and then suddenly they wake up and they are in poverty. What could possibly cause it? While there are many likely causes, I think of the American dream – you know the very idea that has called immigrants to this country over the past 3 centuries with hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow. The idea that America is the promised land flowing with milk and honey. The dream of a house with a white picket fence, maple trees in the front yard, and 2.6 children playing in the backyard. The idea that leads people to want to buy houses, cars, and stuff just to keep up with the Baranoski’s. We celebrate the American dream and celebrate when we see it happen in our midst. The late Geraldine Ferraro said on the night of her nomination as the first female vice-presidential candidate, “My name is Geraldine Ferraro. I stand before you to proclaim tonight: America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us.” There was thunderous applause at the mention of the American dream. The result of our celebrated view – no our worship – of the American dream is that people are oppressed by the very thing they are trying to achieve. It is difficult for us to imagine that our lifestyle choices, our residence, our very purchases can lead to poverty of others. “When did we oppress? When Jesus, when did we do this?”
It is interesting that God’s words of judgment through Isaiah following the announcement of a coming birth of a child. The verse which tells us that “unto us a son is born, unto us a child is given, and the government will be on his shoulders and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” We celebrate this verse at Christmas time with pageantry and carols as an announcement of the future coming of Jesus the Messiah but what does it mean? What would it mean to the people who heard the birth announcement followed by a pronouncement of judgment? Jesus came as a Messiah to free the people – not from the government directly – but from the Roman dream. You have heard of it. The one that told the people to pay their taxes so the Roman Dream could continue. The one that told the people to stay in their social order so that the Roman Dream could continue. The one that told the people to get along with the government and religious authorities so the Roman Dream could continue. The one that said to simply do what you are told so the Roman Dream could continue. The Roman dream that said if you do what you are told, you will not wake up to a nightmare. Jesus came to free the people from this dream. Through his teachings, his parables, and his very life, he showed that a better life was possible. “When did we oppress? When Jesus, when did we do this?”
Jesus came to live out the 23rd Psalm – the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. A better translation is the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not buy into the American dream. You see, if we listen to the words of the psalm, God is assuring us that we will be provided for if we live justly. If we live as part of the kingdom of God, we shall be in want for anything. The world will be a better place and the king will be a true Shepherd.
Many of us live the American dream but at what cost? Four out of ten children standing at the local bus stop live in poverty. I can see one little boy in my mind who always stands apart from the rest of the group. His clothes are a little shabbier and he looks like he is deep in thought. I wonder if he worries about when he will eat again – especially if the state cuts funding for school lunch programs. I wonder if he has slept recently or if he lays in bed at night with his stomach growling in hunger. I wonder if he will join a gang when he gets older to break the cycle of poverty he lives in and take his piece of the American dream. “When did we oppress? When Jesus, when did we do this?”
God’s judgment on Israel followed a call to see the world differently and to live in the world differently to follow a different shepherd. We are not called to give up our houses, our cars, our gadgets – unless that is a specific calling from God. Instead, we are called to live differently as part of God’s kingdom, to embrace others, to see others in their woes, and to open our eyes to injustice. “When did we help others? When Jesus, when did we do this?” There was another crowd addressing Jesus in the parable of the sheep and the goats. This crowd lived in the kingdom, sharing resources, addressing needs, and seeing the world through open eyes. But notice the key difference, they lived with open eyes – open to the world around them and especially the people around them.
Here is today’s worship bulletin.
I am working on a prophetic sermon for a preaching classing – prophetic meaning dealing with an issue. My scripture comes from Isaiah 10:1-10. I have been working on children in poverty and what all that means. I am working through it but wanted to share some of the ideas/thoughts that I have developed as I wrestle Isaiah into submission for this sermon.
Did Jesus view poverty as evil, in itself? Was poverty something that justified human manipulation, destruction of societal infrastructure, and enslavement of all children born into that society? Can a nation properly be enslaved under the guise of helping the poor? Is it poverty that keeps people down? The last question is one I have been wrestling with quite a bit lately. Is it poverty that keeps people down? As I have been researching this topic (especially on children in poverty in Nashville) I have discovered that poverty is all around us. It is in my very neighborhood according to statistics (I used MNPS data to determine where poverty is most common). I determined that the high school zoned for my neighborhood has nearly 40% of the children living in poverty which means statistically 40% of the students I pass at the bus stop are living in poverty. This has put a face on poverty and it brings me back to my question – does poverty keep people down. I don’t think it is poverty but rather the “American dream” that keeps people in poverty. My neighborhood is a typical middle class working neighborhood in Nashville and we have a diverse population of people. However, the American dream says you have to own a house and have two cars, etc. and I believe it is sociological pressure that is putting people into poverty. We have all these systems that keep people in debt and the debt grows and then people cannot get out of it.
Poverty is an issue of justice. I had a thought that justice is blind because we want justice to be fair. However, we are also blind to injustice around us. I mentioned above that my eyes were opened when I realized that 40% of the children in my own neighborhood are living in poverty. I have been blind to poverty until it was exposed to me. Now, I wonder which children are in poverty. In a similar way, my church is an upscale community and I recently learned that there are federal housing projects in that community (and I was surprised). I wonder if the people in my church have been blinded as well (not meaning a negative thought but rather blindness due to a lack of awareness).
These are important things to consider as we wrestle with poverty but we have to be careful about how we address it. Isaiah was clear in his words from God – systems that oppress will be destroyed and the oppressors will be punished. This language can quickly lead us to change policies to redistribute wealth and make things equitable but does this create new systems of oppression? Just some morning thoughts as I wrestle with Isaiah and this prophetic sermon. I think I am getting a handle on it but this is a touchy issue and one that needs careful consideration.
Today marks the anniversary of the assination of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador. He preached a radical message in a fallen world as he spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture. In his part of the world, speaking against any one of those things could get you arrested or worse yet he continued.
“We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves, to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.” – Oscar Romero
Unfortunately, many people did not approve of his message and he was assassinated while celebrating the mass. He knew the risks and he was willing to take them to preach the radical message of Jesus to the world. Yes, Jesus’ message is radical and still would be if we hadn’t tamed it so much.
This semester, I have two powerful classes – one on the resurrection and the other on social justice. Oddly, they are compatible with each other. In the resurrection class, we of course look at resurrection but also the death of Jesus. Read the gospels, Jesus did not use violence, did not fight back, and didn’t really commit a serious crime except to ignore social rules. Jesus was put to death because he was focusing on the poor, social injustice, and torture. He spoke out against the oppression of the people and called for a new social order (aka the Kingdom of God). Rome didn’t know how to deal with this because Jesus’ message was dap ingerous but he wasn’t using weapons – he was using love! They had to put him to death to stop this message because they couldn’t stop it any other way (of course it didn’t stop the message anyway!).
In my class on social justice, we are looking at how Jesus’ message unfolds in the world today. Not surprisingly, many of the people who are sharing the radical (yes it is radical) message of Jesus are oppressed, imprisoned, or assassinated. Following Jesus’ teachings are just as radical today as they were 2000 years ago. You might that think that death is not likely but think back 31 years ago to the death of Oscar Romero and countless others since. In our country, it may not be likely that we will face death for preaching the radical message of Jesus but we still face risks. We may lose family, friends, our jobs, even our credibility. That is the cost of preaching the message of Jesus – that everyone, yes I said EVERYONE, is welcome to the table to embrace grace. My professor yesterday shared words of invitation to the table from a former colleague of hers:
“All who know themselves in need of God’s grace are welcome at this table”
That is what is radical about Jesus’ message. It is open to everyone. No one is different in the eyes of God. We are all equal. We are all loved. Look around you today. Do you see people who are not loved? Are you loving everyone? Are you preaching the message of Jesus – not the prosperity gospel, not the feel good messages – but the true message of Jesus that of radical hospitality, love, and justice.
What is the cost of sharing love?
Lord, Have Mercy: Praying for Justice with Conviction and Humility explores how communities are using prayer as they attempt to respond faithfully to complex social issues—whether war in distant lands, strikes by laborers, stem cell research, or any of a number of other issues—especially when they are divided on the issue confronting them. Claire Wolfteich does not provide easy answers or blueprints for prayerful discernment concerning the social justice issues she explores. Instead, she presents six carefully researched case studies of Christian communities who prayerfully considered the issue before them; in doing so, she provokes thought about the place and power of prayer in social justice decision-making processes. Among the stories she examines are those of prayerful antiapartheid leaders in South Africa, farm worker advocate Cesar Chavez and his followers, participants in pro-life rallies outside abortion clinics, and a Miami congregation divided over the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.
The congregational church in Miami immediately caught my attention. The pastor of the church, Donna Schaper, wanted to use her position in the church to live out her interpretation of following the gospel. This is not unusual as many pastors do shape, or at least attempt to shape, the mission of the church s/he serves. In this particular case, a liberal-minded pastor served a moderately conservative congregation who engaged in social work in the community but not to the extent, that Rev. Schaper wished. Tension developed and the congregation struggled. While the pastor, along with some members, continued to push the congregation towards social justice, other members resisted because they did not like the direction.
As I considered this tension, I realized we all have specific calls from God that may or may not match up with others. Each side in this case believed they were doing the right thing. Where does this leave a church or individual? I believe there are times when we have to follow the will of God even if we are against the norm or against those who love us. This particular story is a great example of what it means to work for justice in the world because it shows that there are times when we must do it alone.
However, I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if the pastor of this church toned back her activism or at least slowed it down. If she took the process slower, encouraged the congregation, and engaged them in prayer, would things have worked out differently? I think this is something to be considered as more people can make a bigger impact. I believe we need to weigh our convictions for justice with those around us and determine the best approach to work towards the end. Alienating those who can help you is not always the best approach.
The South African movement to pray for justice is an example of gathering people to your side and convincing them of your conviction to work for justice. While there were some opposed to praying for justice and the end of apartheid, many agreed it was a good approach. It was a risky move as politics and religion were coming together but seeking justice is not without risks. This raises some questions for me. I wonder when the need for justice outweighs the risks. When do we, in the first example, go out on our own to seek justice for others?
As I was reading the book, the events in Egypt were unfolding on live television. The people were seeking justice for their lives against an oppressive government. As I write this paper, missiles and bombs are falling in Libya as the world seeks justice for those who are attempting to do the same thing. I wonder what our responsibility to the world is. Where do we step in and do something to help others find justice. Are our actions in Libya worth the risk as we work to stop oppression? These are not easy questions to face. In South Africa, the ministers had to face the possibility of inciting riots and violence though their prayers but the greater good was at stake. What is the greater good in Egypt or Libya? Are the bombs worth it?
I find myself in a unique position. I serve as a chaplain in the US Army – an organization that to the world is not just or justice seeking. I wonder what my role in all of this is. Do I conform and live the mission because I am a member of the Army? On the other hand, do I risk my career and speak out for justice and peace. There is risk involved and I have to weigh my risks. I can speak for peace and justice and face the possibility of being forced out of the Army. If this were to happen, I would be free to protest and criticize military action while seeking peace and justice. However, I could not minister to those who are in the Army and charged with making war. They need an advocate; they need someone to care for them pastorally; and they need chaplains. In this case, I have to accept the need to keep quiet when I do not agree with something in order to work for inside for the greater good. I weighed the risks and they are not worth it in my opinion.
The author closes the book with a look at specifically praying for justice and conviction. The examples I cited above and my own personal experiences would be moot if they did not involve deep prayer. In a sermon in the Duke University Chapel, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about praying until we have worn holes in the carpet. As we seek to do justice in the world and find our role in work of justice, we need to engage in this sort of prayer. We need to pray to be convicted of the work of justice.
However, we reach a point when we have prayed enough; we reach a point when the answer is clear; and we reach a point when God says, “go”. At this point, we need to go and do justice in the world. Rev. Schaper and her church prayed over their mission of justice in the world and while I do not know if they prayed holes in the carpet, they felt they were convicted of their calling. They worked as if their conviction was right. The ministers in South Africa prayed for guidance and when they were convicted, they worked for justice. I have prayed holes in the carpet as I sought God’s will for my chaplaincy and now I work for justice as God has called me.
The work of justice in the world is never easy. However, if we work for justice out of our own personal motives, we will find insurmountable obstacles that prevent us from accomplishing what we seek to do. If we work for justice our of a conviction from God, we will find insurmountable obstacles but we will have the ability to work around those obstacles.
The following is a research paper for a class I am taking called Wrestling with Worldly Topics. We are working on developing a prophetic sermon around a theme. Mine focuses on children living in poverty. Here is my research paper so far:
United States citizens have a deep, abiding belief in justice. They are concerned with justice, most often envisioned as a basic sense of fairness: from the workplace to the home, in society at large, and in organizations to which they belong. They also expect conformity to law and a reasonable interpretation of law with attention to honesty and impartiality. From the Pledge of Allegiance to ordinary human encounters, people in the United States of America believe that justice is their birthright. Justice is not just a fervent expectation, but also a deep-seated hope, even when circumstances short-circuit people’s lives. Despite difficulties, hope for justice permeates people’s outlook and expectations.
Many, if not most, United States citizens’ understanding of justice includes a sense of social justice, the conviction that in a land of plenty all should have their basic human needs met: the needs for food, shelter, health care, and education (Marsh 22). Beyond that, they would hope that all are provided with opportunities to develop their talents and gifts and pursue their life dreams. Yet, social justice in the United States is often shattered by the realities of poverty (DeNavas-Walt).
Poverty in the United States of America has increased every year since 2000. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 37.0 million persons, 12.7 percent of the population, were officially labeled as living in poverty in 2004.1 when the data from the U.S. Census Bureau report are analyzed, the first point to emphasize is that poverty is increasing. The U.S. Census Bureau report includes visual representation of poverty since 1959. Of concern is the fact that “both the number (in poverty) and (poverty) rate have risen for four consecutive years, from 31.6 million and 11.3 percent in 2000 to 37.0 million and 12.7 percent in 2004.”3 Since 2000 the number of people living in poverty has increased by 5.4 million, and the rate of poverty increased 1.4 percent (DeNavas-Walt). Although the poverty rate for 2004 was 9.7 percent lower than it was in 1959, the number of people living in poverty today is the third highest number, just below 1959 and 1993, when almost 40 million people lived in poverty (Shipler).
Second, the recent census data indicate that poverty varies by age and that children under 18 have consistently had the highest rates of poverty from 1975 up through 2004. 15% of adults were poor; by 2000 these percentages decreased. In 2004 the poverty rate for children under 18 years (17.8 percent) was the highest of the three age groups and the number of children in poverty increased by 161,000 over the 2003 figures.5 The poverty rate for people 18 to 64 years of age increased to 11.3 percent in 2004; the number in poverty rose from 19.4 million in 2003 to 20.5 million in 2004. “The poverty rate for people 65 years or older decreased to 9.8 percent in 2004 . . . while their number in poverty remained unchanged at 3.5 million in 2004” (Shipler).
Third, not only is poverty greatest for children but also children (those under 18 years of age) had an increase in the rate of poverty and the number in poverty: 17.8 percent and 13.0 million children lived in poverty in 2004 as compared to 17.6 percent and 12.9 million children in 2003. While children were 25.2 percent of the total population in 2004, they were 35.2 percent of the people in poverty. The rate of poverty for children under the age of 6 years varied by families: related children living with families numbered 4.7 million (19.9 percent) in 2004; related children living in families with female householders and no husband present had a poverty rate of 52.6 percent as compared to 10.1 percent for children living in married-couple families (Shipler).
Finally, it is worth noting that the poverty gap has risen consistently since the mid-1970s. More fully, the poverty gap is a measure of the depth of poverty. It is defined as “the average income deficit (the dollar gap between a poor family’s income and its poverty threshold) experienced by poor families or individuals” (Couture 48).
People of faith know that the reality of poverty is both a crisis and an opportunity: a crisis in the lives of those suffering the effects of poverty and an opportunity for people to work together to provide charity as needed, but more importantly, to remove barriers to social inclusion by working to change social structures (Brueggemann 13). As religious leaders we seek images to guide us to a fuller vision of social justice. One such image is the metaphor of the table. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter, A Place at the Table: A CatholicRecommitment to Overcome Poverty and to Respect the Dignity ofAll God’s Children (2002) proposed this metaphor of the table as an image of inclusion and empowerment. The bishops claim that respect for persons made in the image and likeness of God requires us to make a place at the table of social decision making for all members of our community, especially women and children because they have frequently been absent from the table of social decision making.
Letty M. Russell has proposed that the table is an image of partnership. For Russell God is the preeminent model for partnership. The communication of love among the persons of the Trinity allows humanity to marvel at the “Trinitarian image of reciprocity, joint sharing in the work of salvation and the mission of the world” (31). God’s activity of “being partner in God’s self and being partner with us” (28–30) is the model for partnership among women and men. Russell defines partnership as “a new focus of relationship in which there is continuing commitment and common struggle in interaction with a wider community context” (18). The paradigm of partnership is envisioned as a circle of interdependence. Diversity is valued and participation welcomed. “Authority is exercised in community over community . . .” (Russell 18).
The table reminds us of our calling by God to seek justice for the poor. It can challenge us to be more inclusive: to make a place for the poor at our table among family and friends (Moran 191). It can relate to the table of fellowship where a community of believers shares the word of God and the body of Christ so they can reach out to others, especially those living on the underside of life. In its very simplicity it can bring home how all are welcome and how individuals are called to shoulder responsibility for each other and for the world. The table can be a symbol of love between God and humans, as well as a symbol of partnership with God. As God calls each to life and love, so too rich and poor are called to be with and for each other.
The starting point for our considerations is the goodness of creation and the dignity of each person. This first principle undergirds and inspires all that we do in working for justice. It is vital to remember that in scripture God’s response to the varied acts of creation was the simple but profound refrain, “God saw how good” it was (Genesis 1:3, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). God creates humans “in the divine image” (Genesis 1:27), bestowing a unique dignity on every man, woman, and child (Couture 81). First, God identified God’s self intimately with each human. Humans in turn share all the wonders of nature as well as living creatures. It is this anthropology Groome emphasizes his first step in educating for justice, namely gratitude for God’s gifts (71). The simple pleasures of earthly existence need to be remembered in times of calm as well as when life and stability are threatened. We are blessed to be part of such a wondrous creation.
Flowing from the largesse of a loving God is the second principle, namely that we are partners with God and one another. Russell emphasized that God’s partnership with humanity leads us to work more carefully and caringly with other people (83). God invites us to join in God’s mission of working to sustain and improve the world. This mission is primarily God’s initiative and we are invited to be partners by celebrating the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist and most especially among the poor (Matthew 25:31–40).
The third principle, the principle of realism, underlies this discussion of justice. The principle of realism means that we identify and become aware of how things are at this time and place. To state it simply, even as we affirm the goodness of the world, we need to acknowledge that there are serious problems. All too often we easily forget our relationship with God by placing our perceived needs and desire for comfort ahead of everything or everyone else’s needs. When we place ourselves above and before even God, we can easily ignore responsibilities to our family and our neighbor (Brueggemann 12). Because of misguided love, we may ourselves be guilty of personal sin, and in severing the bonds of solidarity, we may also be complicit in social sin. Blinded by ambition, a desire for wealth, and involvement in harmful relationships, we can easily fall into a pattern of evil: by direct participation, by approval “by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them”, by protection and non-disclosure (Marsh 11). Personal sin leads to social sin, which results from “social situations and institutions that are contrary to divine goodness” (Couture 102). A realistic appraisal of life in the United States may well lead us to question if American society through its political, economic, and social structures effectively denies people their right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In the name of efficiency and overreliance on the market model, are many families locked out and denied access to a decent life? In all honesty we can say that equality of opportunity has not led to equality of outcome, and for some in the United States, life is grim.
Yet this principle of realism draws us back to the principles already discussed. Specifically, because the world has problems, we are called to respond to God and God’s invitation to affirm and build upon the inherent goodness of the world and to work as partners with God and each other to address the problems of the world. When asked how she kept going in the struggle for justice, Letty Russell admitted, “I know the world is a mess.” But she also stated, “I’m always excited about what God might be doing and what I could be doing.” Russell expressed strong convictions that “God will mend creation.” Russell admitted, “We don’t succeed every time.” But she believes, “there is more to come.” For Russell, “Work for justice may not necessarily succeed, but it is the right thing to do” (172).
What else do we need to know to educate and work for justice? In responding to this question, I state my next summary principle: We need to know our rights as citizens of our nation and of the world community and as members of a faith community. We need to educate all people so that all of us know our rights. Those of us who are Americans are likely to think of our rights in terms of the American Dream, namely the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We are also likely to think of justice as a kind of fairness as demonstrated by a desire for all of us to live freely and to have fairly equal opportunities to provide for the basic necessities for ourselves and our families, specifically, nourishing food, adequate housing in a safe neighborhood, a job that pays a living wage, good schools, and affordable health care. We have a right to know any threats stemming from crime, disease, or poverty that might harm us or our neighbors. The reason is simple: people need a safe environment and the ability to live healthy, productive lives. The principle of realism challenges us to reevaluate how and why so many people in the United States are far removed from satisfying their basic needs and those of their children. We have a right to access information about these problems and we have a right to be involved in efforts to address them.
Familiarity with the alarming realities of poverty can push a person toward despair and a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. At such times we need to return to our fundamental principles. That is, we need to face the realties of poverty. At the same time we need to affirm our beliefs in the goodness of our world, and the power and potential of human efforts to change and even transform the world, and most importantly our belief in the guiding and enabling presence of a God who mentors us in the ways of peace and justice. Then, we need to draw from Christian scripture, history and traditions as we reflect theologically on the meanings of justice and poverty and how God is enabling and requiring us to respond to the poor as a matter of justice.
Justice in many biblical texts is defined in terms of right relationships and loving kindness between persons and God. We read that the biblically just person is “gracious and merciful and just,” one who “gives lavishly to the poor” (Ps. 112). God is presented in the bible as defender of the poor, a champion of those who are powerless because of economic and social deprivation (especially orphans, widows, and aliens); and God expects God’s people as a matter of justice to do the same, to also reach out to and care for the poor. Moreover, Jesus embodied how God acts in the world: with compassion and mercy. Jesus’ relationship with God inspired him to welcome those in need of healing, forgiveness, and inclusion. Jesus taught that love of God and love of neighbor is the commandment by which we are to live. Jesus’ followers continued to care for the poor. They often proposed the total sharing of material resources for the benefit of those in need. In the first Christian communities church leaders encouraged believers to respond willingly and generously to the poor. Generally, within the early church and then continuing up to the present day, Christians have seen loving service with the poor as a way of nurturing a vital connection with God.
As I draw from but look beyond the work of Russell, Groome, and Moran I would like to offer a number of specific principles concerning education for justice.
Promoting inclusive education for justice. Church members need a greater awareness of issues of justice. For instance, when the community gathers together at the Eucharist to worship and pray, we are welcomed by a loving God, and united by the desire to reach out to others. At liturgy we welcome families, single parents, visitors, and individuals—children, young adults, and older adults—to pray together around the table of the Lord. At the Eucharist we offer the substance of our lives as we share the word of God. A homilist has a unique opportunity to make justice live as he or she addresses those at Eucharist. The many scriptural references to how God acts justly that regularly appear in the liturgy could be integrated into homilies to inspire all participants to go and do likewise.
Providing knowledge about how justice issues are being addressed. Christians could be informed more fully about how/when church leadership responds to issues like welfare reform, social security, proposed federal and state budgets, immigration, and so on. Meetings at the parish level could include statements about how their deliberations will affect the poor. Parish adult education could focus on models of social justice and the modern saints who have spent and are currently spending their lives defending the rights of others, caring for those in need, and seeking ways to improve social, religious, political, and economic conditions for a more balanced and productive life. Generally, to be inspired to work for greater justice in the world, Christians need to know what justice work is already being done.
Educating for involvement. As we learn about poverty and the real life conditions of those living in poverty, another principle for educating about justice emerges. We need to get involved. Some might question why? Quite simply, we need to show that we care. As we know from scripture, Jesus’ story of the Last Judgment reminds us that our final judgment by God is a question of recognizing Jesus in the person of those in need and having seen our neighbor’s suffering, responding lovingly to their needs. The problems of the poor are to be shared by us as we work with God and with the persons who are suffering.
How to encourage involvement in addressing social justice concerns raises many complex issues. Parents and educators know how different people are: in terms of their personalities and preferences, their styles of learning, their motivation, and their talents and assets. If we picture justice as a continuum, each person is at a distinct point along that spectrum: from disinterested and uninformed, to someone knowing somewhat but unwilling or unable to get involved, to another with limited knowledge but open to doing whatever is possible, to some who are very knowledgeable and totally committed. Just as Jesus looked on the rich, young man with love as in Mark. 10:21, so too we need to love each person for him/herself. God can move hearts so we need to place our trust in God; justice is God’s work, and we are privileged to join in this venture (Couture 201). We are called to be creative in getting personally involved through direct action or service as well as in involving others: by speaking words of comfort and encouragement, presenting the work of social justice as a challenge as well as a social event, looking for ways to connect people, and sharing a vision of God’s reign of justice and peace.
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:8
Those who know me know that I am both a conservative and a liberal on certain issues. Those who know me also know that I closely follow politics and try to make the best decision I can when it comes to choosing our next leaders. I don’t shy away from politics or political issues but I have been told that as a Christian and as a minister, I should stay away from politics because I am “to be in the world but not of the world.” I am not sure how to take that statement but the other day in the library, I encounter a book by Tony Campolo called Red Letter Christians: A Citizens Guide to Faith and Politics. As you might imagine, I was intrigued and checked the book out and began to read. I find that Tony makes a lot of sense and I want to share some ideas and thoughts I have gleaned from the book so far.
First, he encourages Christians to become active in political parties and the political process - not to make a scene but to make a difference. He suggests that if Christians are part of the political parties they will act as “leaven permeating those parties so that they promote the justice and social well-being that is the vision of the kingdom of God” (p. 36). That makes a lot of sense because Christians are guided by a higher authority and a vision of a better world. Christians are in the world and not of the world. With that idea in mind, it seems that a Christian should be involved in the political process to help guide and steer the country on a path that would follow God and God’s kingdom. Now, some will argue that Christians can lose themselves in politics and begin to work for themselves rather than for the kingdom but I believe most truly want to make a difference in the world and that is their true motivation.
All of that sounds great and I am naive enough to think it is possible but that brings us to the ugliness of conservatives and liberals. It seems that our country is polarized between 2 extremes right now: the right and the left. There does not seem to be much middle ground. Tony addresses this issue in a way that makes my eyes open wide in surprise and wonder. He suggests that we need conservatives and liberals (what?!?) and that our country works better when we have both (okay, now close your mouth and get back in your chair). It seems that conservatives maintain lines that should not be crossed such as dealing with specific moral issues like pornography and sexually destructive forms of behavior (this is not to suggest that liberals embrace those but their focus is a bit different). Moral issues tend to be guiding factors for conservatives and as a result, they do hold part of the moral fabric of our country together. On the other hand, liberals destroy many lines that should have never existed. Liberals led the fight to get women the right to vote (which btw happened 90 years ago today), leads in social justice, and racial justice issues. It seems we need both sides to move forward in our country.
What I see happening today is that each side believes that they are ordained by God to put God’s will on the country and they do not need the other side. But if we let one side gain power over the other than we might have a country that ignores social justice issues in favor of morality or ignore morality in favor of social justice. I believe that Christians belong in politics as long as we remember who we truly serve (and it is not ourselves nor our party). We are called by God to be part of the kingdom of God and I believe if we keep that thought in mind, we will be on the right path (or is it the left path).
It is deeply ironic to consider all of this as I am about to dive head first into politics by being an Army Chaplain. Not that I am going to play politics – that is not my role as a chaplain but chaplains deal with the political issues and their ramifications for the military. For example, sometime in the next year or so “don’t ask, don’t tell” will be repealed or continued. It is a political issue that has moral implications that will affect many in the military. I pray that our leaders prayerfully consider all sides of this issue as they make a decision so it is not just a political decision but one that is guided by God.
I do recommend the book to any Christian and I will continue to share thougths and reflections as I read further. It seems that we do need to be part of the world if we truly believe we are working in the kingdom of God. We cannot avoid political issues if we are Christians because we must stand and work for the kingdom and kingdom issues.
What is a red letter Christian to do?
“Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundredwill be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD. –Isaiah 65:20-25
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” –Mark 12:29-31
If you judge people, you have no time to love them. –Mother Teresa.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father [God] and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you [as in loving God and your neighbor]. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” –Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV) *italics my additions*