Rev. Marvin McMickle: Our exceptional tolerance for poverty

Guest Column by the Rev. Marvin McMickle.

The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez once observed: “We should not begin with simply doing theological reflection and writing. We should begin with a political commitment to the poor and the needy.”

Theology should arise out of our own personal commitment to justice and equity. Anyone doing theological reflection whether in the form of classroom teaching, pulpit preaching or writing books or articles must do so with that challenge in mind.

Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund wrote this in the latest edition of UNICEF’s report on child poverty. The United States ranks second out of 35 developed countries on the scale of what economists call “relative child poverty,” with 23.1 percent of its children living in poverty. Only Romania ranked higher. It was another shameful reminder that, as economist Sheldon Danziger put it, “among rich countries, the U.S. is exceptional. We are exceptional in our tolerance of poverty.”

Those two observations by Gutierrez and Edelman create a narrative within which Christians should seek to understand their faith. What does it mean to be a Christian or a person of any of the Abrahamic faith traditions at a time when poverty and its offspring of violence, substance abuse, unemployment and incarceration run rampant throughout our society? Can you really be a Christian and not be concerned about the plight of the poorest and most marginalized among us? Is American exceptionalism less about our national achievements and endowments and more about our “exceptional tolerance of poverty among and around us?”

The sermons I will preach this week will, for the most part, seek to address that issue from the perspective of selected biblical texts. These sermons will attempt to make the case that there can be no authentic Christian faith that is not informed and impacted by the plight of the poor, and that also seeks to address and correct the public policies and private prejudices that create and sustain poverty often from one generation to another. It’s clear that the oracles of Amos resound with condemnation over the exploitation of the poor by people who lived lavish lifestyles. It is clear that in the parable Jesus tells about Dives and Lazarus in Luke 16, the great sin was not the wealth of the rich man, but that man’s neglect of the poor and suffering beggar that sat outside his door. The apostle Paul rounds out the biblical focus on that theme when he challenges the Gentile churches in Asia Minor to respond to the sufferings of the church in Jerusalem. He goes so far as to say that while generosity in giving to that cause is not a commandment, it is a test of the authenticity of our love as Christians.

Those sermons will be preached at a time when the Christian church, at least in North America, has largely gone mute on the subject of social injustice in general and the growing problem of poverty in particular. Why might that be the case? One of three possibilities should be considered. First, it may be that the church is afraid to disturb the socio-political status quo. It may be that too many church leaders and too many church members are simply afraid to speak truth to power. It is easier to talk about one’s personal salvation as part of a privatized view of religion than it is to demand from persons in power at every level of society that they use their power to fulfill the words of Amos and “Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” There are too many Christians so busy trying to get into heaven that they have either forgotten or forsaken the biblical mandate to show care and concern for those described by Jesus as “the least of these my little ones.”

A second reason for an absence of attention to the needs of the poor in our society may be tied to a growing interest in both the pulpit and the pew in a gross distortion of the gospel of Jesus Christ known as prosperity theology. That doctrine sets forth a premise that God’s primary design for our lives is that we enjoy health and wealth. Within that theological paradigm, there is no call to stand against or bear witness regarding social inequity and injustice. There is no challenge to vote, or donate money, or join a picket line or write a letter to a public official. There is only the claim that if you have the faith, then God has the blessing you need.

Who has the time or the interest to invest in the problems of poverty and economic disadvantage when you have come to believe that the heart of the Christian faith is about personal enrichment at the hands of a God that expects nothing from us but can be counted on to provide everything to us?     Of course, there is no biblical basis for that nonsense. There is, however, a TV schedule full of smiley-faced preachers standing before thousands of believing souls leading them in a prayer in which God is invited to “send them inheritances, bonuses, pay raises, increases, unexpected checks and even larger than expected tax refunds.” It seems clear that many 21st century preachers and congregations have confused the terms “prophets” and “profits” — choosing the quest for personal gain over the quest for a just and equitable society.

It is difficult to comprehend how far that pablum preaching is from Matthew 6:33 that says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” You could listen to such preaching and such preachers and never hear anything that even suggests that they are aware of the $15 billion being spent every month on wars, or the more than 2 million people in America who are incarcerated, or the fact that more than 10 times the number of black men have been killed in black-on-black crime than have been killed in foreign combat dating back to the Vietnam era. You could listen to them and never be reminded of the disintegration of the family unit, and the growing problem of out-of-wedlock births, and single-parent heads of households where a life of almost poverty is often passed from one generation to the next.

The third reason why the church may be so silent about poverty and the disparities of economic opportunities is that we lack the conviction to attack the structural problems that stand between us and the society we would like to see. Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist leader, was correct when he suggested that without struggle there is no progress. Our society needs to struggle through the issues of establishing at least a living wage for its workers, affordable and accessible health care for its citizens, quality education for its children, safe and decent housing for its families and a legitimate second chance for ex-offenders who have served their prison time and should not have to deal with a list of restrictions that prevent them from ever fully re-entering society. Failure to address all of those things will perpetuate the problems associated with poverty in the U.S.

To address and resolve those things will require a national will that must be ignited from somewhere within the nation. I would hope that it would be the church of Jesus Christ inspired by the challenge of Matthew 25:31-44 that will call our nation to respond to the cries of those that are hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, the sick and the imprisoned. If we do, America may yet become that beloved community which Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned more than 50 years ago. If not, if our exceptional tolerance for poverty continues in the richest country in the history of the world, then, like so many great nations before us, we will fall under the weight of the greed of some and the desperation of others. The words of Proverbs 29:18 have never been more true: “Where there is no vision the people perish.”