movement, movement

On Poverty And Prosperity

Posted in charity, christianity, conversation, culture, love, philosophy, poverty, religion by amoslanka on October 15, 2008

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.

Footnotes:

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) 

Additional Conversations:

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)

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8 Responses

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  1. wiredtoinspire said, on October 15, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    This is a packed post! I’m going to have to come back and re-read it at some point. I think it can be dangerous to use phrases like “rethink” if you’re not thinking but not so much if you actually know you’re using them because they mean something. :-)

    Anyhow, I have been thinking a lot about Jesus and who He was and what He did on earth and what He means to me–am trying to come to terms with some of that, and wrestling some against the flow of our culture to get to a place of peace.

    I hope to keep learning and growing. Thanks for being a voice.

  2. ash said, on October 15, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    you’re right when you say it is not a black and white issue, so here is some gray:

    i have a heart for refugees, displaced peoples in the world w/o a voice. i think and dream big, and while my beginnings are here at home, in atlanta, i will take a few steps necessary to prepare for “big.” that means, i do the research, i learn about the people and i will support, financially, non governmental groups that are currently working to take relief to those people. eventually, i’d like to go to. but until then…

    on the flip side, it is important, like you say, to start locally, where i am- so i find a way that i can use my current resources to provide a service for the needy, the homeless, or even local refugees around me.

    i think it can be a both/and action. i agree, too many people want to throw money at the situation. what they ought to be doing is finding out how their money can be used resourcefully used and then “investing” and “giving”- both locally and/or internationally.

    on your footnote? telling a government, who takes too much of our money, that we gave it away and we shouldn’t be penalized for it isn’t nec. a bad thing- of course this is a political arguement…i could get rash about, but i’d rather not…ha ha…

    this is a great post, amos!!

  3. subversivechurch said, on October 15, 2008 at 11:22 pm

    Amos,

    Great post. You said, “We find it easy to be charitable because it allows us to be impersonal with those in need, yet still “love” them.”

    Seems to me tithing falls into this problem as well.

    -mike

  4. amoslanka said, on October 15, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    @wiredtoinspire — i look forward to hearing more when you have time to read the rest. thanks very much for stopping by.

    @ash — thanks very much for you insight into the gray areas. There really are good intentions among those who may not otherwise realize how their worldview is formed by unseen forces. My hope is to help us as a multitude notice what we have otherwise allowed to slip under our radar– something we may not have neccessarily noticed otherwise. And concerning the footnote, I wouldn’t say its the claiming charity against the government, because charity (impersonal love) and government are both necessities in a broken, impersonal, and globally aspiring world, but its the valuation of charity that I am referring to. The politics is a mute point, the personal motivation is my focus.

    @mike — tithing is generally included in this idea. It is obvious that we primarily think not only of giving to God only monetarily but we even attach an exact percentage to it, further honing in our skills at money counting. I would want to recognize the true purpose of the Church, however, as a community center, which needs support by its people, its community, even though it does take on an odd form in a capitalist society.

  5. Alan Underwood said, on October 16, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Hey, I took you up on your invitation from the tip-jar post. This is really well done. Most people coming at poverty from a religious perspective don’t usually see that deeply into the issue.

    So, yes, Jesus did exhort his followers to abandon their money and let God take care of them (which they didn’t do). There is a problem there, of course. He never taught his followers the Loaves & Fishes miracle, so they all had to beg for money. I have -no- idea how their wives and families survived. It’s not mentioned much in the Gospel, but there was no social security for them, to be sure.

    But I do still (kind of) agree. The real problem with poverty is of course that it’s a trap. Once you’re in it, you can’t get back out of it. I guess that goes the other way, too. Being rich is its own trap, it’s just not as materially unpleasant.

    In the end, though, the problem isn’t money. It’s stuff. Everybody, at any economic level, needs food, clothing, and “stuff” and for that, they’ll need at least -some- money. So, the real problem with poverty is not a lack of money, it’s a lack of the basic things humans need. Money, in reality, is just a luxury good like jewelry.

    Meanwhile, many people have MUCH more money and stuff than they need and don’t care because if money is just “points in a game” (the way rich people see it) then it’s not “food and rent” (the way poor people see it).

    I think it’s kind of unfair to make “food and rent” the exact same value as “points.” But that’s the system, and it’s what we all live with.

    Just my $0.02 USD.

  6. wiredtoinspire said, on October 18, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    OK, as promised, I’m back. I wanted to wait until I had some time to really read through and think about this. I find that economics and finance and money as a whole has been a giant topic of conversation among my friends and family and co-workers lately, so it’s really interesting to take some time to really reflect on it in broader spiritual terms. I have a few thoughts about your post . . .

    1. First, when you say that it seems that those who embrace low income often find more contentment, I wonder whether there is a difference (even if only psychological) between someone who enters poverty (as an act of “throwing off the system”) and someone who is born into poverty or enters it because of an uncontrolled circumstance. It seems like “chosen” poverty might be easier to handle than the other because it brings with it a sense of empowerment–like, “I’m doing something noble” whereas for the person who has no choice, it might seem to be more hopeless, or they might feel more like a victim (whether this is good or bad, I don’t know, and I’m sure it’s not universal).

    2. You suggested that the teaching of Christ has a focus on avoiding money. I’m not sure that I 100% agree with this perspective. Even though Jesus repeatedly talked about money and on more than one occasion suggested that an individual sell all of his possessions, I don’t believe that he suggested that everyone live this way. It seems to me that because His interest was so much more in people’s hearts than in one specific doctrine or dogma, He spoke to each individual on a different level. . . If he knew that someone was in love with their money and possessions and would not be able to give their heart to Him (because a heart can’t be divided in that way), then he suggested they sell it all–not because He thought they really would–but because He knew the difficulty they’d have in doing it?

    Likewise, with the woman giving her last coins while the Pharisee puffed himself up and Jesus called his offering unacceptable, I don’t know if it was the financial amount that Jesus was looking at so much as the heart of each individual–one with an attitude of humility and sacrifice and one with an attitude of superiority and condescension.

    Jesus Himself was rather streamlined in his own operations–He didn’t have a big house or lots of “stuff” but He did party with people who did and was often a house guest of friends who had material things and didn’t position Himself as morally superior because He had been called to a transient life. It seems to me that He looks at each individual and knows whether money is their master or just something that they use to be effective in the world. I definitely think that many people struggle to keep a balance and that our culture makes it especially difficult to keep the right perspective on this, but I think it might be a bit off to suggest that Jesus expected everyone to take a proverbial vow of poverty. . . many misquote “The LOVE of money is the root of all kinds of evil . . . ”

    Definitely curious on any thoughts you may have on this take.

    3. Love your thoughts on localism and the suggestion that giving something personal and not just sending money overseas is a truer expression of love. In general your thoughts about measuring love with money seem spot on but unfortunate. It makes me think of how many kids grow up desperately wanting their parents to just BE with them and all they get is money or gifts thrown their way as a type of peace offering for the neglected time.

    Well, I think I’ve said enough. :-D Would definitely be game for hearing more on this.

    Peace.

  7. […] representation of affluent suburban life but what we rarely imagine is the true nature of poverty. If poverty is defined not by money, but by spiritual and emotional state, those in suburban American affluence would not be […]

  8. subversivechurch said, on December 4, 2008 at 7:17 am

    @ Wired,
    Good thoughts here. I too wanted to take some time and think about poverty a little more, especially your comments.

    Your first point is spot on. I would add that those born into poverty can also embrace it as a badge of honor and possibly anger. This isn’t just monetary poverty, but cultural and educational as well. I would suggest a book White Trash: Race and Class in America. Coming from West Virginia and being a part of the educational system, I really see this a lot.

    However during a trip to India earlier this year, I saw a side of poverty that is just accepted because culturally, those folks were of a lower caste. It blind-sided me, the attitude of those who were more wealthy. It was a flippant attitude towards those who were impoverished. Not that we are much better here. We try to salve our conscience with things like the Salvation Army and Angel Trees, but our lifestyles don’t change. In India, they forego such niceities to some extent. Obviously, that is painting with very broad strokes, but I wanted to make the point that poverty is viewed differently in different cultures and we should note such differences.

    The beauty and difficulty of following Jesus when we ourselves are in comparison quite weathy is to justify our own actions. Hence grace, but more importantly, community for accountability to strive for better. Jesus transends cultures with his bottom-up approach towards empowering people toward a fuller life. If those who are in poverty are considered our community, our equals, that money and education doesn’t matter, then we provide a feeling of worth, just as Jesus has given us. Following jesus isn’t about getting into some far off place called heaven, but about infiltrating such a place to this place, this time, here, now.

    On your second point, I would say Jesus partied with the rich becasue they invited him, he probably didn’t turn too many invites down from anyone. The rich probably had him visit just like mega-churches have Shane Claiborne visit; to make themselves think they are all about social justice.

    Good thoughts, good thoughts. I hope this revives this conversation.

    -mike


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