Before delving further into my new series “When Helping Hurts” about service to the poor, I wanted to offer some background about how the faith perspective fits in. Please add your own thoughts, recommendations, questions, etc. in the comments section. Here goes…
It wasn’t until one of my college classes invited a guest speaker to share about poverty in the Bible, that I first heard about God’s “preferential option for the poor.” I was shocked at how many Bible verses referred to taking care of the poor and the oppressed. How had I never heard of this before? Later as a volunteer intern with Children of the Nations in the Dominican Republic, while we spent our days working in poor communities, our leaders guided us through a book that revolutionized how I see the world. It is called: Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity by Ronald Sider, and I still refer to it often.
Growing up in a church-going home, the words “Good News” were always just a vague catch phrase. However, in my pieced-together education about poverty, these words took on real meaning as I saw the Bible in a completely new way. In the Old Testament, God intervened to liberate the poor from Egypt (Exodus 3:7-8; 6:5-7). He warned and even destroyed kingdoms because the rich were mistreating the poor (Amos 2:7, 5:10-15, 6:1-7; Ezekiel 16:49-50; Micah 2:2; Jeremiah 5:26-29, 7:5-7; Isaiah 1:10-17, 1:21-26, 5:8-10; Hosea 1:8-9). In Old Testament times, “the rights of the poor and disadvantaged to possess the means to earn a decent living [took] precedence over the rights of the more prosperous to make a profit” (Leviticus 25:15-17, 25:35-38; Exodus 23:6-12; Deuteronomy 15:1-18). Over and over, from the beginning of time and throughout Biblical history, God showed his favor for the poor (Isaiah 58:3-7; Deuteronomy 10:17-18; Psalms 10:14-18, 146:1-9; Proverbs 14:31, 19:17…). I couldn’t believe I had never noticed this theme before. And the above references, which come from the Rich Christians book (chapters 3-5), don’t even touch on all the ones in the New Testament. I learned from Luke 4:18-19, Jesus states his purpose: “to preach good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” Maybe I used to think that these were just spiritual terms, but I’ve since found that they are literal as well. Jesus- himself from a lower-class family and a refugee- paid particular attention to the poor, the sick, the despised, and the marginalized during his time on Earth. At that time, Jesus coming into the world was quite literally Good News for people in those categories- as it still should be today. What am I getting at with all of this? Simply stated, I discovered that God deeply cares for the poor and the oppressed; and so did His son. His care went beyond occasional charity. It was about Justice.
If something is important to God, shouldn’t it be important to His followers, too? I’ve found the Christian concept of the Body of Christ to be very important in talking about this: we should be like many different parts of one organism, each with their own role in the here and now to achieve Christ’s work. What is Christ’s work? Things like Restoration, Renewal, and Reconciliation- slowly making things On Earth As It Is In Heaven. “When people look at the church, they should see the One who declared- in word and in deed to the leper, the lame, and the poor- that His kingdom is bringing healing to every speck of the universe.” (When Helping Hurts) One of my favorite examples of people living out Christ’s example and God’s calling comes from the first Christians, as reported by philosopher Aristides in AD 125:
They despise not the widow, and grieve not the orphan. He that hath, distributeth liberally to him that hath not. If they see a stranger, they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him, as it were their own brother: for they call themselves brethren, not after the flesh, but after the spirit and in God; but when one of their poor passes away from the world, and any of them see him, then he provides for his burial according to his ability; and if they hear that any of their number is imprisoned or oppressed for the name of their Messiah, all of them provide for his needs, and if it is possible that he may be delivered, they deliver him. And if there is among them a man that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessaries, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food.
Two hundred years later, Julian the Apostate- a pagan- admitted “that the godless Galileans [Christians] feed not only their poor but ours also.” That’s sounds to me like a great way to make our world a little more like it should be, like bringing heaven to earth. That is the way I believe we are called to act.
One of my favorite authors, Shane Claiborne, wrote some powerful, life-changing books like Irresistible Revolution and Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers. In an effort to demonstrate our call to serve the poor and oppressed, Claiborne depicts a conversation with God that goes something like this:
Us: “Dear God, our world is hurting and people are suffering. Please do something!”
God: “I did do something. I made you.”
Although convicting and- you might say- intimidating, I really appreciated hearing it put this way. We have a responsibility to our neighbors; and if we don’t act, who will? God is still the Mastermind with the Plan, but He relies on us to do the work on the ground. In this way, the burden of “saving the world” is off our shoulders and we have only to do the part that He has put in front of us. Although I feel I’ve only touched the surface of this subject, I’ll end with this poem/prayer on the subject from Archbishop Oscar Romero:
It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Other “When Helping Hurts” series posts: Intro: Caring, Intro: God and Poverty, Context Is Critical, Hung Up On Material, What To Do When, How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 1), How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 2)