Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

The Politics of Poverty (Proverbs 22 and James 2)

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[This article is part of a series of posts on the politics of scripture. While the focus of this series is on weekly preaching texts, the blog also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression.  We also welcome sermons.  Submissions may be sent to david.true@wilson.edu.]

We don’t expect our politicians to say much about the poor, but what about the church? When was the last time you preached or heard a sermon on the poor?  Not poverty, but the poor, and not as an illustration, but as a focal point. (We might ask the same thing about a college or seminary class that purports to be about the cultivation of wisdom or faith.) The readings from Proverbs and James (see below) refer to the poor directly. Both passages are striking because they go further than a soft paternalism that might urge us to care for the poor. James and Proverbs offer not an appeal to our altruism, the work of charity, or a political agenda or campaign. They are not looking for votes or a clear conscience. They see the poor as part of the community and concern for the poor as an integral part of the life of faith and wisdom.

This last bit–connecting the concern for the poor to genuine faith and wisdom–is striking because we so often see these as distinct from, perhaps in tension with, care for the poor. There have been countless sermons about cheap faith–and this may be the time for another–but it may also be an occasion to emphasize that true wisdom understands that the rich and poor are kindred.

There is precious little genuine concern for the poor in our politics. What we hear instead is political scapegoating of the poor. Why shouldn’t this week’s sermon include a contrast between the Bible’s concern for the poor and the modern Republican resentment of them? Then there’s the Republican fixation on what might be called a dependency syndrome. Has the party that is so eager to claim God’s blessing ever heard these verses?

22Do not rob the poor because they are poor,

or crush the afflicted at the gate;

23for the Lord pleads their cause

and despoils of life those who despoil them.

Of course, Republicans will deny that they ever harmed the poor, but today’s passages call for a depth of concern that animates the individual and the community. When Republican politicians aren’t demagoguing the poor, they are busy trying to limit responsibility to individual good deeds. The lectionary passages in contrast look to expand our sense of responsibility. In a modern society, responsibility to the poor can’t help but involve government.

Of course, this isn’t just a Republican problem.  Almost all of us, whatever our politics, should plead guilty. We’ve allowed ourselves to be played–so that Republicans talk incessantly about self-reliance and Democrats carry on about helping the middle class. Democrats may sound more compassionate, but at least Republicans are honest: they resent the dependency of the poor. But then don’t we all?

We Americans prize our independence. And why shouldn’t we? We’ve grown up in a society dedicated to nurturing the desire to live independently. The illustrations of our desire are legion. (One might draw on Robert Putnam, car culture, “social” media, the cul-de-sac, housing patterns….). Consider, for instance, the retirement goal of living independently. It would be easy to overstep and be insensitive to deep worries and real goods that are at risk, but the point is that independence has become a fetish or idol in American society and I suspect modern societies more generally.

This is, of course, standard fare for an academic, but we academics may be the worst of the lot. Most of us work in disciplines that are walled off from other disciplines and from any notion of an integrated life. As a profession we’ve become resigned to this just as we have come to accept that education for most students will be little more than the pursuit of a job that might, if they’re lucky, enable them to live a comfortable, independent life.

In such a society what can poverty represent but a horrible failure, a failure that unnerves us. The poor in our social imagination are like victims of a contagious disease, a plague of sorts. They carry dependency. The truth is that we all do, of course, but many of us are cursed with an illusion that independence is around the corner.

In such a world the uncomfortable truth is that the poor reveal our condition for what it really is. Whether we are wealthy or poor, we need each other. We are radically dependent and no amount of wealth or education will change this basic fact, no matter how hard we try.  It is not independence that is around the corner but a life of generosity. This is the life of wisdom and faith, faith in a God on whom we can depend.

———————–

Dave True is Managing Editor of There is Power in Blog and an editor of the journal Political Theology. He is Associate Professor of Religion at Wilson College.  His most recent publication is a booklet titled The Church and Politics for the curriculum series Being Reformed: Faith Seeking Understanding.

 

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
22A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,

and favor is better than silver or gold.

2The rich and the poor have this in common:

the Lord is the maker of them all.

8Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,

and the rod of anger will fail.

9Those who are generous are blessed,

for they share their bread with the poor.

22Do not rob the poor because they are poor,

or crush the afflicted at the gate;

23for the Lord pleads their cause

and despoils of life those who despoil them.

 

James 2:1-10, 11-13, 14-17

2My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?  8You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

11For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and 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? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.


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I teach religion and ethics at Wilson College, serve as Managing Editor of the journal Political Theology and Executive Editor of the journal's blog, Political Theology Today. Currently, I am working on an article on the Tea Party's political theology.

(3) Comments

  1. Republican resentment of the poor??? You really ought to get from behind your “walls of academia” and actually talk to poor people! Mustering the courage to do so might deliver you from your poverty. Every materially poor person with whom I work wants nothing more than a chance to showcase their moral affluence by freeing themselves of the burden of material dependence. Self righteous indignation toward those who would dare to provide a pathway to material security while preserving their moral dignity are users of the (materially) poor. They hope to be whisked into Heaven by clinging to the coattails of the poor. Life is not found in the abundance of one’s possessions; it is also not found in depriving persons of their possessions in order to propagate poverty by making and keeping the poor materially dependent on so-called social welfare. A worse disease than “dependency syndrome” that you imply is the affliction of all Republicans is the equally debilitating malady of “freedompobia” which restricts the flow of the lifeblood of liberty to the vital organ of the human spirit. I’m afraid that, while you may not be materially affected, you are a carrier of that malady. When that virus is spread to the vulnerable it can take generations to send it into remission. So, on second thought, stay inside your “walls of academia;” it might curtail the spread of the virus.

    • Dear ME Bowers,

      I’m sorry the post came off as self-righteous–very sorry. I in no way meant to excuse myself from the judgment of these scriptures. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. I also in no way meant to be partisan. I see this as a larger — cultural — problem than either party. I could see the post angering both R’s and D’s.

      Do you disagree with my claim that Republican politicians — many of them — have fanned the flames of resentment of the poor? I’m thinking here of the demonizing of welfare recipients, which has shown up again in this campaign. In terms of freedom, I’m not looking to ditch freedom–far from it. My point is to check what seems to me a misplaced confidence in our own ability to operate independently. We may just disagree about this being something to worry about.

      As far as “walls of academia” goes, Wilson College is anything but that, but I do worry that our society is full of walls that serve to segregate the poor.

      All good wishes,
      dave

  2. Dave, thanks for your clarification. Yes, I’m very aware of resentment toward recipients of public assistance but I’m clueless as to their political party affiliation. The loudest expressions of resentment come from ordinary people who work hard to have a life only slightly if at all “better” than the recipients of social welfare. They see it as less of a poverty issue than as one of fairness – they are not much more than a paycheck shy of poverty themselves. They resent what they perceive to be freeloaders being supported by the taxes siphoned from their meager paychecks. I hear resentment voiced also by some who are in less dire straits than these “working poor” and even some who are quite well-to-do. Their resentment stems from a perception, grounded at least partially in fact, that abuse and fraud are widespread and becoming more rampant. They resent even further the fact that dependency upon welfare is passed from one generation to the next. I even hear resentment from the recipients of public assistance themselves who complain of being trapped and unable to afford to try to escape their dependence. I believe that all of this resentment is misdirected. It is a broken bureaucratic delivery system that guarantees this resentment. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to spew resentment at people than systems. I’m not exactly saying that government is the problem but I AM saying that government is NOT the solution. Government by its very nature is incapable of dispensing hospitality, neighborliness, generosity, morality, forgiveness and charity –all of which are essential to true “social welfare” –and I am weary of politicians, pundits, preachers and priests who want to place that responsibility in the halls of government. They expect the government to perform a function for which it is not equipped. Its primary (if not only) role is to ensure an environment in which those things can thrive. Unless faith communities reclaim their rightful responsibility of lending hand and feet to these matters of the heart the faith they proclaim is “just so much straw.” Until then, I would advocate for some sort of public/private partnership – but then there is that whole separation of church and state thing. Anyway, I am in total agreement with your point about the “misplaced confidence in our ability to operate independently.” However, while that theme gets mentioned in the end of your article, the rancor of your accusations toward Republicans (and Democrats and Academics) in the preceding paragraph precluded any possibility of planting that seed in hospitable soil. Starting with the idea of our mutual dependence upon a generous God who calls us into community might cause the conversation to be more dialogue than debate. Thank you for stimulating my thoughts as I continue trying to wrap these texts around these thorny issues for Sunday’s sermon.

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