On Poverty And Prosperity
I dislike the term “rethink” because it is so in tune with the fashionable Emergent movement which claims as its mission to “rethink the way we do church”. Not unlike the hundreds of Christian sectarian movements that came before it.
Last month I posted a short article asking if we should reconsider how we define poverty, as it seems contradictory for Christ to have defined it as a state of material possession. I am now more resolute in the opinion that we should define poverty not by material possessions or income bracket, but by oppression, disrespect, pain, and fear. Is it not obvious that those who embrace low income willingly often find more contentment? Does the classic cliche of “money doesn’t buy happiness” not apply?
Despite my distaste for it, the term “rethink” does seem to fit this circumstance because it suggests that we take a closer look at how we normally perceive poverty and prosperity.
In that blog post I said “Isn’t it just like us Americans to think of everything in terms of what we materially do and do not have?” It seems this may be yet another part of our minds that we’ve allowed Mother Culture to colonize.
The teachings of Christ suggest the avoidance of money as the primary object shaping one’s life. How many times did he advise would-be followers to sell all their possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him? I highly doubt that this recommendation was for the sake of the immediate benefit of the poor receiving the charity, but rather for the sake of the transformation involved in the giver. Never have I seen this action taken, but I can imagine its profound effect on the giver, not to mention the incomprehensible motivation that could lead a man to accept this invitation in full. The effect of this giving is not for the sake of the poor but for the sake of the rich man, for Christ also warned that one cannot serve two masters – God and money. Like it or not, Money is the god of this nation and even the most pious among us cannot help but worship at its alter or lust for its promised glory and pleasure from time to time.
So what if we could transform our minds away from the colonizing effects of a money-obssessed culture?
If we think of poverty less as a financial state of being and more as an emotional and spiritual state, we may find ourselves led towards counter-action that is more definable as true love instead of charity. The difference, in short, is that charity would tend to be monetarily based, which leaves a buffer zone between giver and receiver. Charity, one might say, is an attempt at impersonal love, which could also be taken as a contradiction. The idea of love is personal investment in a non-monetary way. Jesus was against monetary relevance, yet somehow we’ve found ourselves so defined by money that we even measure our love by it.1 We find it easy to be charitable because it allows us to be impersonal with those in need, yet still “love” them. It also justifies our pursuit of more, more, more because the more we gain, the more we can give away in charity.
I constantly must remind myself that it was the poor woman who gave all she had who received praise, not the Pharisee who gave only a fraction. God’s interest is in the fraction, not the total. However “the Kingdom” is defined, I am assured that it requires not our service or building of empire to achieve. The Kingdom of God is within the hearts and souls of man, not his feats of tall towers, filled church pews,or supposed justice.
And so I ask, what if our charitable efforts, instead of just throwing money at the problem, were personal? What if, instead of sponsoring a child in Africa or southeast Asia or South America we were to be there by their side, actually getting to know them, actually allowing ourselves to become vulnerable to them and to the love that would bind us to them? Moreover, since I am a major proponent of localism, what if we were to do just this with those in true poverty in our own neighborhoods? How would our world be reshaped if we were to throw off the misled definition of poverty and love and understand those who need emotional and spiritual care just next door to us?
I don’t want to overstate this point. It is not a black and white issue, of course, and to be real in this world requires us to accept as fate, so to speak, the state of the human race and its dependence on its economy. To live in this world requires money to some degree but virtue is what we make of it, not what we’re presented with in the first place. To kick the empire from our souls is the task, and the measure is not a final result, but the effort given in response to truth. Disallowing money to define poverty and pervert our hearts will lead us to a more pure love.
Where this rethinking of the definitions of poverty and prosperity should take us is not towards an indifference toward greed and what we commonly define as poverty and prosperity, but rather an ability to see beyond the veil that is over our eyes and an ability to deny the falseness that we otherwise would not realize we are accepting. It would allow us to more fully understand each other, more fully understand who needs love, why they need it, and how to love them.
This is only one of many journeys we must pursue if we are to find a more true life and love.
1. A culture obsessed with economics can’t help but measure everything according to statistics and monetary value. How much did you pay for that engagement ring? How much did you donate to charities last year? (You keep track for tax purposes, of course)
Eugene Cho discussed today the need to learn to treat money as nothing more than a tool. Eugene’s thoughts and mine on this issue aren’t completely congruent but his thoughts are no less worth consideration.
Mike and Chris at subversivechurch have been discussing how to become a refugee. Cultural marginalization and refugee-ism could be considered the natural effect of denying how the otherwise dominant culture would like us to structure our lives. (commercialism, imperialism, materialism)