“For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Any one unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” (2 Thess. 3:10-11, NRSV)
While on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, there was in our group one particularly opinionated clergyperson. He not only held strong beliefs, but was quite willing to share them. Often he would do so loudly enough that I could not block them out, however hard I might try. He was especially fond of making his thoughts known on the second coming of Christ. What really caught my attention, however, was when he got onto the subject of welfare. He spouted out, in an apparent attempt to quote from 2 Thessalonians, “if they won’t work, don’t let them eat.”
I have entered into many conversations about poverty over the years. As someone who has worked and served in ministry in the inner city, I have seen poverty up close on a daily basis. The stories, the experiences and the reality never seem to match the one that is popularly given by the indignant taxpayer or the politician seeking votes. I must confess to some difficulty in remaining patient with those who fail to take time to see the reality before making judgment. The minister’s comment on the bus, however, angered me to a point that surprised even me.
The source of my anger was not so much the insensitivity shown, but the fact that it was coming from a clergyperson. He had taken a scripture out of its context to justify an uninformed and callous attitude—one that, to me, seems to stand in opposition to the preponderance of scripture on the subject of the poor.
While I may never meet the pastor in question again, I suspect that there are many more Christians, clergy and lay, who have not struggled with the message of the Gospel in relation to the poor. The subject of economics in general has received very little attention by the church or American pastors. For most Christians, the extent of dealing with the question of poverty has been to provide Christmas and Easter baskets. Some congregations, of course, have gone much further, actually serving meals or even providing shelter to the homeless. Yet most of the effort, while certainly worthy, is of the Band-Aid nature. That is, they are taking care of the wound after it has occurred, rather than engaging in prevention. Little thought or effort has gone into examining the economic system that leads to economic disparity.
On the denominational level, most mainline churches have official statements that make reference to the need to change societal structures and systems that cause poverty. However, these statements carry little power or force, because the average person in the pew doesn’t understand them—or downright disagrees with them.
“The vast majority of regular churchgoers (88%) say they hear about the issue of hunger and poverty from their clergy, but just 10% cite religion as the top influence on their opinions about government’s role in providing assistance to the poor.”[i] A survey of regular church attenders by the Barna Research Group found that just “Slightly more than half of all adults listed serving the needs of the poor as very important (54%).”[ii]
Each year a new study comes out, once again showing a declining “middle class.” Even more significant is that the percentage living in poverty continues to increase, while those at the very top get wealthier.
The figures appear bleakest when we look at the children. The Children’s Defense Fund reports that in 2009 “A total of 15.5 million children, or one in every five children in America, lived in poverty in 2009, an increase of nearly four million children since 2000.”[iii] Children are the most vulnerable in any society. They cannot speak for themselves. There is little that they can do for themselves to make any change in their situation.
A member of a previous congregation I served, an elementary teacher in a central city school, stated that she could not reasonably expect that her students could do homework. They often had no place to work in the home. Many persons often share the same small space. One child’s apartment she visited had no electricity, so there was no light by which to read. They often don’t have pencil or paper, let alone computer access. Further, many parents lack the skills necessary to help their children.
People of faith need to ask themselves some tough questions. Do we have a responsibility to the poor? Should we care that, in the United States, the top 20% of the population makes as much in income as the bottom 80%?[iv] The question can even be raised to the global level. Should we care that one nation, the United States, with 6% of the world’s population, consumes more than 40% of the world’s resources? Or should we care that “It only takes $34,000 a year, after taxes, to be among the richest 1% in the world. That’s for each person living under the same roof, including children. (So a family of four, for example, needs to make $136,000.) As of 2005 – the most recent data available – about half of [the world’s richest 1%], or 29 million, lived in the United States. In fact, people at the world’s true middle – as defined by median income – live on just $1,225 a year.”?[v]
For those of us who are solidly middle class or higher, I suspect we get somewhat uncomfortable when confronted with this kind of information. It is nice not to have to admit that we are the materially blessed, or to realize that we benefit at the expense of most of the world’s poor, especially in light of what Jesus says about our responsibility to those who are less well off.
As we approach Election Day, it is disappointing that once again there is almost no talk about concern for the poor. We hear a lot about the middle class, but it is almost as if the poor do not exist—except, of course, as a stereotype. They are lumped into that group that doesn’t want to work, that think they deserve a handout and are lazy. While admittedly there are some people like that, I would point out that they are not limited to only one social class!
I encourage people of faith to reexamine their Holy Scriptures to see what they truly teach about our collective responsibility to one another. It is easy to take one verse out of context to justify our own prejudices. However, the preponderance of scripture calls for a just society in which all share in the blessings of God. As we head to the election booth this November, how about not voting for the candidates and issues that best serve our own personal interest, but voting for the candidates and issues that we believe have most at heart the needs of the poor and marginalized?
Larry Clark, Pastor – Sylvania First UMC
[iv] U.S Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2009