I think that economics is the bleeding edge issue of our time. I recently had the opportunity to hear Colleen Wessel-McCoy, a Poverty Initiative Scholar, talk on this subject and she helped me in framing some of these issues with the suggestions of this typology around poverty.
There are at least four ways that we can explain poverty in our society: accident, pathology, destiny, systemic.
Poverty as accident assumes that our system is generally a generous and fair system and then bad things happen, like disasters or bad economic cycles that unfortunately enough impact families. Our response to this is to create short-term assistance.
Poverty as pathology says that bad behaviors and choices people make create poverty. Our response to this is that what we need to do is stigmatize the poor so people don’t want to be like them, then they will be afraid to make bad choices and then we won’t have poverty.
Poverty as destiny spiritualizes and romanticizes the poor because they are closer to God. The response here is often simple charity or no response at all. Why would we try to take away their destiny?
Finally, A systemic view of poverty sees the system itself as creating poverty, it is tilted against against certain people, or better yet, it is tilted towards the benefit of a few. In the systemic view, poverty is not an accident but rather the consequence of the powers and principalities at work. Our response here is to empower the poor within our communities and churches to make change.
Martin Luther King, who spent the last few years of his life challenging the economic injustices of America and organizing a “Poor People’s Campaign” summed up the systemic view well when he said:
“What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger.”
King understood something very deep about our own country, that we can pay lip-service to “rights” while blocking equality in other spheres of our society.
I am convinced that the systemic view is the Christian view. I believe that the other views may connect with what we’ve heard taught about the poor in the past, but are they really true? On closer examination, a broad experience of knowing and living with the working poor, and a deeper understanding of the economics of our time, the first three options are distractions to the real problems. And in fact, if the poor are stigmatized, as they so often are by politicians, than it’s no wonder we have such a difficult time siding with them. We hate to be thought of as people who have bad judgment, who are “push overs,” or who just give hand outs.
The New Testament is rife with examples of how an “economics of empire” is a systematic structure that is oppressive and something that the kingdom of God is opposed to. Here are only two examples.
First, Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, finds himself at the temple, a landmark that had become symbolic of religious, political and economics oppression – why have you made this house of worship a den of thieves. In fact, the only thing that Jesus ever loses his temper over is the oppression of poor people by the people in power at the temple who had grown accustomed to exploiting for profit the most vulnerable. In the story I am thinking about Jesus points out the widow who gives two coins to the treasury. Unfortunately, we’ve tended to read this story in a way that continues to prop up and justify this temple economics (Mark 12:41-44). We, the preachers and bible teachers, have said that Jesus is holding up this woman to say, look, you all need to give all you have to the church, every last penny! And then we take up the offering. But this is the exact opposite of what Jesus is actually saying. Notice that if we broaden our scope by only one verse – which is broken up by a chapter delineation – the very next line Jesus begins to condemn the temple saying that not one stone will be left standing (Mark 13). (Those darn super-imposed and artificial chapter markers!) Jesus is not holding the woman up as a symbol of piety, but a symbol of oppression. Look how the religious institution of the time has utterly failed this woman to the point that they will take her last two coins and send her on her way, most likely to her death. The institution that was meant to care for widows and orphans has become a house that robs them. This is systemic economic injustice.
A second example is from one of my favorite books in the New Testament: Revelation. Revelation is a text that has nothing to do with the end of the world, and everything to do with living in moments of great crisis and empire. Revelation is a liberatory text that is all about how to resist the “liturgy of the empire” by participating whole-heartedly in the “liturgy of the lamb that was slain.” Revelation is full of references to the economic oppression of the imperial order. Every mention that remotely relates to economics is about contrasting the religion of empire and the religion of the lamb. The Mark of the Beast is not a suggestion that one day we will all have mirco-chips under our skin, or a reference to Obama’s yet-to-be mustache, but a direct challenge to the economic order of the Roman imperial system. It is an unveiling — which is, after all, what Revelation means — of the how those who refuse to play by the rules of the imperial order will be treated. The “eikon of the beast” is meant to be taken as a counter-reference to “image of God.” The coins of the empire had the image of the emperor, his title, name, and years, imprinted on them. The coinage was what propagated the myth of the Roman empire. As Wes Howard Brooks writes:
“These coins were an affront to those who resisted empire. As far as Revelation is concerned it was not possible to denounce Rome as satanic and simultaneously use the empire’s medium of exchange – its currency
John called the small struggling-to-survive communities of his time to non-participation in this oppressive structure, to live a counter-story of hope and gift committed to the lamb who was slain.
The bible is a beautiful and challenging resource that can help us begin to navigate questions of economics in our times. But we have to dislodge ourselves from the way we have read it in the past that understand poverty from perspectives that turn out to not be biblical at all. I think the bible is one of the single most important texts for understanding poverty and reframing our perspective on those who are poor.
As the economy of our country continues to becoming more an more a battle field of the empire, how will our churches response?