Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Answer to Poverty: Democrats or Republicans?

It's no secret that both Democrats and Republicans disagree about how to help those who suffer from the cycle of poverty. Each party has their respective ideology and method for solving the issue. So which one is better? I say neither.

I was recently talking with a friend of mine who used an illustration to simplify the difference between the Dems and the GOP.  Imagine, he said, you have a group of people who are impoverished and in need of food; the Dems answer is to provide food for those people via the government, while the GOP's answer is to have the government hold out the food like a prize and motivate those in need to work for it. The former approach meets the immediate need while the latter supposedly meets the long term need.

Oversimplified as it is, this illustration reveals something fascinating about the current political brain: nobody is thinking in terms of kenosis. Neither Democrat or Republic - or the average American - is ever thinking about the option of downward mobility in order to bring healing to the poor. The possible solutions offered in our political dialogue nearly always presuppose the maintenance of the status quo, which especially includes our economic status. Put simply, most Americans - especially politicians - want to bring about a solution to poverty that does not require any sacrifice on their own part (aside, perhaps, from the casual monetary donation).  How could anyone imagine downward mobility? We live to accumulate, increase wealth, and climb the social ladder!

But anyone who confesses to follow Jesus must ask the question: Can poverty be healed without sacrifice? Can poverty be resolved if I am unwilling to become poor myself?  I wrestle with this question as I read of Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-22. Jesus invites the man to join the kingdom movement by selling his things and giving to the poor, but the man is unable to downgrade his economic status and therefore unable to enter into the movement that has good news for the poor. And then there is the new community at Pentecost who relinquished economic status and private property and instead embraced downward mobility and a community of sharing. 

In Shane Claiborne's cogent confessional The Irresistible Revolution, he exhorts readers to follow Jesus into community with the poor: 

"Far from saying in defeat that we should not worry about the poor, since they will always be among us, Jesus is pointing the church to her true identity - she is to live close to those who suffer. The poor will always be among us, because the empire will always produce poor people and they will find a home in the church, a citizenship in the kingdom of God, where the 'hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent away empty'." (160)

Instead of programs that give to the poor from a distance or incentives offered from the upper echelons, Jesus invites his followers to go and live among the poor. Claiborne continues: 

"[When] the church becomes a distribution center, a place where the poor come to get stuff and the rich come to dump stuff [then...] no radical new community is formed. And Jesus did not set up a program but modeled a way of living that incarnated the reign of God, a community in which people are reconciled and our debts are forgiven just as we forgive our debtors (all economic words). That reign did not spread through organizational establishments or structural systems. It spread like disease - through touch, through breath, through life. It spread through people infected by love." (159)

The current political dialogue is evidence that we do not yet understand Jesus' invitation to "downward mobility." We live in a disoriented world where private property and economic status equals security and happiness. However, we must remember that Jesus is offering nothing less than abundant life and the riches of the kingdom of God. After seeing the rich young man walk away Jesus explains to his followers that no one who has left behind family or possessions will not find 100 times that in the family of God. "As we abandon our possessions and biological families, we trust that others too are abandoning their possessions and families, and that there will be an abundance that begins now and lasts for eternity." (Claiborne, 176) If you don't buy this ideology, then I challenge you to read Claiborne's book and read about how the poor take care of one another in the kingdom of God (I'll personally mail you my own copy - but have only one).

While Democrat and Republican politicians continue to argue back and forth about how to help the poor while maintaining socio-economic borders, none seem willing to go the way of Jesus and "downgrade" to be with the poor. Thus, I am neither fooled nor enticed to believe that they offer any real solution to the issues surrounding poverty in our country. The answer, I believe, is what Jesus modeled and invited us to follow: become poor, live with the poor, and share together in the kingdom of God.

I can already hear the objectors screaming, "That will never work!" So allow me to say two things. Firstly, go on screaming; and debating; and so on. I'm not trying to figure out what will "work." I'm trying to figure out what's true. I'm trying to figure out how to follow Jesus because God has promised that in Christ the reality of the entire cosmos finds its true order, its true hope, its true love, its true life. 

Secondly, imagine what it might look like if all the people who professed to follow Jesus followed him into life with the poor. Many may scream "That will never work," but imagine if Christians actually dedicated their life to figuring out what it means to live with the poor.

For a more politically engaging resource, see this awesome treatise "Can My Vote Be Biblical?" from Evangelicals for Social Action.



While this post is more of a polemic against the anti-kenotic approaches to resolving poverty, I realize that I may have also made "downward mobility" sound a bit too easy. It's not easy. It is not as if we can all quit our jobs or sell our possessions and begin living among the poor - whatever that really even means and looks like in our day. Therefore, I'd like to simply offer a few ideas about how to begin moving toward life with the poor in your respective communities.

1. Look for the food.  Most communities have localized food banks or organized dinners for those who need food. Find out about these things. Go and spend some time at a food bank on a saturday morning; talk with the people there; maybe you'll find ways to share your services and make friends.

Find a church that hosts a meal for the marginalized and attend it. All you have to do is show up - and that's the hardest part. Just go! And don't go to stand behind the table and serve (unless they really need servers!). Sit down and share a meal together. Break down the hierarchies and divisions. Be with others. It's free and it's easy. I've met some amazing people this way.

2. Volunteer your self. In addition to food programs, there are always after-school programs and organizations that reach out to marginalized youth (think YMCA or Big Brothers Big Sisters). Find a program that allows you to be with others. And if you can't find one, start one. Drop in to a Drop-In Center and play cards.

3. Explore your community. Maybe walk instead of drive. Maybe go to areas you don't usually go. Maybe spend some time on the street or in a park. Try that coffee shop that is implicitly only for the street folk (instead of the trendy café). Talk to a person who begs for money; ask if you can buy them a meal or share a cup of coffee. And so on.

4. Practice hospitality. John Caputo says that hospitality is not when we have our friends for dinner. Hospitality is when we welcome in the stranger and those who are in need. This is much easier said than done; and it is indeed a danger to invite strangers into your home. Perhaps a good place to begin is by inviting people to participate in your church community.

5. Fast from materialism. Learn to live more simply and give more generously. Fast from unnecessary luxuries when you can. Forego the brand new sneakers that cost and absurd $80. Try shopping at used clothing stores and discover the blessing of recycled materials. 

6. Rethink your future goals.  When you think about where you want to be in 5 years, think about how you might be closer to living with the poor and marginalized.

This is not easy and I'm still trying to figure this out myself. If you've got ideas, please share.


  1. yo Josh, your post immediately reminded me of Henri Nouwen's words:

    Faith is the active trust in God who has promised us the Holy Spirit from above. Is there a way for us to nurture that faith within? The answer is yes: it is the way of poverty, the way that Jesus himself shows us as he moves toward the cross. Jesus consistently refuses the way of power, influence, and celebrity. Always, he chooses the way of weakness, powerlessness, compassion, and obscurity — the way of the poor. And so every time we choose poverty over wealth, powerlessness over power, humble service over popularity, quiet fruitfulness over loud acclaim, we prepare for our rebirth in the Holy Spirit

    I agree that politicians, and their economists (or maybe its the other way around?), don't seem to be interested in sacrifice. I don't ever expect that to be the case, even though that seems to be absolutely necessary from both a Christian an economic perspective. I think Claiborne says this when he talks about how empire will always produce poor, which makes the perpetual mission/identity of the Church to be with the poor.

    So, what are you really asking here? You seem to have written off political "solutions" to poverty. Are you now just searching for the Church's response outside of politics? Will politics ever be involved?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Joe. So... what am I asking here? I'm asking for anyone who identifies as Christian to learn the way of poverty with Jesus (and me! as I continue figure it out...let's figure it out together). I'm asking Christians to put Jesus' invitation to downward mobility FIRST in their life, rather than endorsing lofty political/economic theories that *don't demand any sacrifice on their part*.

    I'm not writing off political solutions to poverty altogether. BUT, I am writing off ANY political solution to poverty that doesn't require sacrifice and/or kenosis. That's my point. My point is: you can't heal poverty without becoming "less rich" or "poor-er" etc.

    There may be political solutions that incarnate the teaching of Jesus to live among the poor, I just don't know of any. It's difficult once you get into politics in America because we have simultaneous contradictory narratives. We have one that says everyone is entitled to their freedom and happiness; and that doesn't work so well with the whole Jesus narrative. So, while it would be awesome to bring the Jesus model into politics, it seems that there would always be supporters of that former narrative who would not want to stop, say, at $200k salaries and "downgrade" and care for the poor if it means the cessation of growth/profit/happiness etc.