Friday Forum: The Church, poverty and ground rules for discussion
On Saturday, I posted about how life in Christ challenges and changes our perspectives on many issues. I found myself offering the central claim that living our lives in Christ requires us to embrace honesty as opposed to the superficial permanent grin of everything being fantastic at all times. Indeed, I even went so far as to suggest that living in Christ allows us to embrace periods in our lives marked by poverty, mournfulness, chaos, doubt, and surrender. In the comments, a reader of my blog [and incidentally someone I know personally] offered this additional perspective.
There’s another kind of “Christianity” that sees the Church as little more than a social service agency, commissioned to go out and ameliorate social problems – as if Church members were already unequivocally healthy and wealthy enough to heal and enrich others.
Sound Christianity is realistic about poverty, mourning, chaos, doubt, and above all death. But it doesn’t see them as the end of the story. And it incites Christians, particularly at times like Lent, to almsgiving of all sorts as much for the healing of the Christian from the passions as for the benefit of the recipients. And it eventuates in a joy that isn’t plastic at all, nor is it equivalent to optimism or uplift.
Now, admittedly, words begin to fail because the same words used in various contexts mean markedly different things. I have run into hundreds of different (and disparate) senses of what it means to pursue justice, particularly relative to other persons around us. When we consider these senses relative to our lives in Christ, an exorbitant amount of confusion often results. From my vantage point, much of this confusion stems from conflating the political with the personal.
Yet the issue about how the Church relates and responds to persons in poverty is a big deal to me. It is such a big deal to me that I am working rather deliberately to position my scholarship at the intersection of engineering education and global poverty, owing in no small part to my desire to live an enacted faith. So I have basically given you one of the main organizing principles active in my life right now in a rather broad-sweeping sentence. I do not think I can do justice to either the sentence or my thoughts on how the Church relates and responds to persons in poverty in a single post, so I am going to be posting a series on the issue, with posts appearing on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Depending on what goes on comment-wise, posts may also appear on Fridays.
These issues tend to be polarized issues, which strikes me as most unfortunate because I think reasoned and balanced discourse is immensely critical if we are indeed to live our lives in a way that allows our actions to help us conform to the will of God for the good of ourselves, for the good of the Church, and for the life of the world. So I would like to advance some ground rules for discussion.
1) I am an absolute, utter, total hypocrite, trapped between a sense of the ideal and the pragmatic. I run into my own limitations all of the time, frequently over-extend myself, and have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew. I make no claims as to how to “best” relate and respond to persons in poverty, other than to say I can liken it only to what I heard about those called by God to be evangelists. Each of us, in our own small way, are called to bear the good news of Christ to the people around us; some of us are recognized within and through the Church to be commissioned to be evangelists (or if you prefer missionaries or enlighteners of cultures not yet influenced by the good news of Christ). I think everyone of us is capable of something akin to giving someone who is thirsty a drink of water, but I also think that we approach figures like Mother Theresa with complete respect and awe for her ability to stay identified with the poor over the course of her whole life. I would be a completely arrogant and wholly prideful fool to somehow assert that my presence and willingness to serve could somehow eradicate poverty in a community. So the first ground rule is to recognize that all of us will have different degrees to which we can engage with the poor in our midst owing to any array of circumstances.
2) Questions related to poverty in the world around us are not solely political questions requiring exclusively political action. I do not advocate for any major political party’s approach and do not think that somehow one’s politics describe the totality of one’s commitment to poverty. Something like living-wage legislation, for example, may or may not improve the situation of the poorest members in a community. When working from a perspective rooted in common sense, the devil is in the details. I am completely undecided as to the effectiveness of political action marked by marching on Washington or framing my vote in terms of a particular issue; yet I firmly respect the people who, through active searching of their conscience, decide that they must participate in the political process in any number of ways. I think the government can be useful for some things while simultaneously wishing it would stay completely out of other things. So the second ground rule is to recognize that people will have variant political perspectives.
3) I find it incredibly difficult to keep straight the assorted theological authors who advance a sense of “social justice” in their writings, even though I have read a considerable number of them. Like any diverse group of authors, I hold some of them in fairly high regard, tolerate others of them, and think that a few of them advocate for a particular stream of action that wholly divorces their approach from doctrine and/or history. Across the spectrum, it can be difficult to wholly dismiss an idea or phrase because of the variant contexts that motivate it. For an example of the point, the campus ministry affiliated with the Orthodox Church (Orthodox Christian Fellowship) has a program called “Just Love” which is a program to immerse students in service to urban communities whereas I also know that “Just love” can be a moniker to embrace radical religious pluralism. So a third ground rule is to understand that I may need help in interpreting your context; links can be exceptionally helpful.
4) I often find myself sharing greater common ground than I expect to find with others, particularly when we start talking. I’ve already confessed my inadequacy on the topic and the limitations of the words in play. I still have a lot of learning to do and welcome the chance of that happening, particularly as this sort of work is what I think may be in my vocational future. So a fourth ground rule is that if you know me personally and I say something that strikes you as imperiling my soul, then I would appreciate you talking to me about it, preferably in person. If you don’t know me personally and a comment is the best you can do, then thanks in advance for your respectful comment!
From my vantage point, I see Christ calling us out on how we respond to the poor. I think the single largest challenge of responding to the poor involves cultivating sight to see them. So as a preview, tomorrow’s post will discuss the poor and what I mean by using that term.