My Complicated Relationship With the Poor
“I had come to see that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor…I truly believe that when the rich meet the poor, riches will have no meaning. And when the rich meet the poor, we will see poverty come to an end.” — Shane Claiborne
I live just outside of Denver, Colorado, and in my city a report was recently published on the state of homelessness in the metro area. The report found that from 2021-2022, the number of homeless people in the city increased by nearly 100%. If that shocks you, it's because it should. Things are definitely not okay in the land of the free and the home of the brave. The report also found that on any given night, and average of 40% of those homeless folks are sleeping outside on the streets.
It's a complicated thing, homelessness, with many complicated causes, and no easy solutions. But it's made even more complicated by the conflicted relationship many Western Christians—and I count myself among them—have with the poor, and with poverty in general.
One the one hand, Christian teaching makes clear that the poor hold a place of special honor in God’s heart. As one pastor put it,
“Jesus showed his solidarity with the poor through his teaching, parables and lifestyle. It is no coincidence that in his very first recorded message he referenced the poor…Imagine God incarnate making his human debut and selecting one message from the Hebrew scriptures to begin his teaching…'The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’” —Mark Lutz
It's abundantly clear from Jesus's ministry that he identified strongly with the poor, and that he wants his followers to identify with them as well.
But on the other hand, my particular brand of Western Christianity, true to the culture in which it lives, emphasizes individualism over communal responsibility—meaning, more or less, that everybody is supposed to make their own life work, and if they fail at this, it's probably because they didn't handle their decisions well, and for that reason probably shouldn't be rescued because they need to learn how to do better on their own.
So you see, it's complicated for us first-world Christians. It's almost like we've been taught two different gospels, and we just can't quite get them to line up.
So, if you're anything like me, you try to find subtle ways to skirt the issue. You cleverly avoid any honest consideration of the fact that Jesus chose to be born in poverty, that he spent his ministry as a homeless man, that he often railed against the deceptive trappings of riches and the privilege they bring. You like very much to think of these qualities in Christ as symbolic for you. When he identifies with the poor literally, he is only asking you to identify with the poor emotionally. To have compassion from a distance, as it were, is enough. Certainly, he is not asking you to identify with them to the point of moving in next door. Surely, he doesn't mean for you to incarnate Christ in their midst, to live with them as one of them for the sake of love. The economics of that don't make sense, right? It’s much more efficient to have wealth so that you can leverage it to help the poor. How can you meaningfully help the poor if you become poor yourself?
Yeah. I know all about those arguments. I've lived them. The fallacy in this thinking, though, is believing that what the poor need most is money. They don't need a hand out from a stranger. They need a hand up from a friend. But to be their friend requires you to enter into their world. To move into the neighborhood. To become one of them.
Western Christians are taught from early on to pursue the wisdom of the Old Testament, because “wisdom leads to wealth, and wealth is a sign of God’s favor.” That approach to faithfulness is attractive to the ego, and falls nicely in line with the cultural ideals of a capitalist society. It never really occurs to us to notice how strange it is for a people who eagerly pursue wealth in the name of their faith to have as their model a man who chose a life of poverty and homelessness. But it is very strange indeed. If Jesus came to model for us what the Kingdom life looks like, why would he choose the life of a poor man if he meant for all of us to be fabulously wealthy in his name?
When satan came to test Jesus in the desert, one of the offers he made was that he would give Jesus the wealth and bounty of the earth if Christ would only bow down to him. Imagine if it was you: What would you do if you were offered all the wealth in the world to do with as you wish? You could pay for orphanages to be built in every city. You could bring fresh drinking water to every person on earth. You could single-handedly solve poverty on a global scale. You could show the love of Jesus in a thousand different ways in a million different places all over the globe. Think of the impact you could have—the power for good. All you'd have to do is bow to satan's will and ways just a little, just enough to get your hands on that incredible bounty. It would be a small deal with the devil in service of the greater good, wouldn't it?
It’s the same argument Boromir made to the Fellowship of the Ring: “We can use this Ring of Power for good! We can use the enemy's own tool against him!” But the Fellowship knew that the power of the One Ring would never work that way. It would inevitably corrupt and control any attempt to leverage its power for good.
Jesus understood this too. He said no to satan’s offer. He would make no deals with the ways of this world. He would live by the presence and power of God’s Kingdom alone, and bow only to its will and ways. Later on, he made this particular distinction explicit to his disciples. “No one can serve two masters," he said, "Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money" (Matthew 6:24).
But here, in America, we serve both God and money all the time. We don't see any conflict in this at all. The fact we are living in a way that Jesus explicitly said was impossible for his true followers should deeply trouble us. It should cause us to seriously consider the possibility that we have misunderstood the nature of Christ and of Christian faith in a profoundly fundamental way.
Jesus embodied God in the form of a poor man. He accomplished his mission, and literally changed the world without ever taking on any of the titles of privilege or power or wealth that were available to him in his day. He demonstrated a way of embodying the “upside down Kingdom” of God that circumvented every traditional avenue of power and influence in favor of identifying himself with the poor, and forsaking any of the trappings of wealth.
His life is the quintessential model for what Christianity looks like, how it lives, and what it does. That we have managed—that I have managed—to nullify this truth in favor of a religion that equates wealth with Divine success is a testament to our willingness to deceive ourselves for the sake of obtaining comfort, status, and power in the eyes of the world.
Just to be clear: I am writing all this to myself. These are issues I am currently struggling through. I share them with you because, well, I know you're in this same quagmire with me. I know the vast majority of us who follow Christ in the Western World are all just trying to do our best with what we have, and with what we know. So if any of this stirs you up like it has me, welcome to the struggle. If not, no worries. This post wasn't for you.
So here's where I am now, and what I will be thinking about for a while: Jesus said it is easier to pull a camel though the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. If I as an American Christian truly am as knowledgable about my faith as I claim to be, I should at least consider the possibility that I have not yet entered the Kingdom of God at all.