Sunday, January 19, 2014

Almost No One Wants to Know the Real Martin Luther King

"The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws--racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society...and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced."

Who said this? Malcom X? Robert F. Williams? No. It was, of course, Martin Luther King Jr.

Call him na├»ve if you wish--recklessly utopian perhaps--but do not pretend we've had the reckoning he demanded. The relentless drive to mythologize King is propelled by the yawning gap between the vision he proclaimed and the values of the society that claims him. He was too central a figure to forget, so he must be appropriated. He must be absorbed, becoming a totem to bolster the very societal ills he resisted.

Dr. King spoke of the interrelated problems of racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism--problems that were so embedded in the fabric of American life that they compromised the very structure of society. We modern Americans, appropriately colorblind and tolerant, believe that we've fulfilled the promise of the Black freedom struggle by...wait for it...being nice to each other. But militarism has a funny way of withstanding a pleasant hello. Materialism seems impervious to good social graces. To the extent we think of poverty, it is only to imagine growing the ranks of soulless middle-class materialists caught in the spiritual dead end that is the American Dream. Meanwhile, racism withers on the vine, we're told, because personal prejudice openly expressed is the unforgivable sin in modern America. Segregated schools, concentrated poverty, mass incarceration--these do not pertain to racism because they do not depend upon an individual acting malevolently toward another.

It is not wrong to celebrate positive changes in our society. It is essential and good to do so. But every year when this day comes around we do much more than that. As Kimberly Williams Crenshaw has written, "Sober assessments of how far we have come" are replaced "by congratulatory declarations that we have arrived." This reflects, broadly, the conceit of our present-minded culture that takes facile notions of human "progress" as obvious facts. More than that, it reveals, particularly, the persistent marginalization of what racism is and what it has meant and continues to mean to the American experience.

To talk about America honestly is to talk about racism. To talk about the present-day flaws in our society is to talk about racism. To talk about the working out of the gospel in the life of the Christian is to talk about racism. When we ignore race, that most potent and devastating of modernity's inventions, we do not rob it of its power. We merely accede to its quiet demands. Why do I live where I do? Why do I work where I do? Why do I worship where I do? Why am I successful? With hands over our ears and eyes firmly shut, we'd rather not know. The flipside of our colorblind tolerance is our insistent denigration of the importance of race to the lives of real people. We think in doing so we're dealing a death blow to modernity's evil offspring. In reality we're just unilaterally disarming, having lost our ability to distinguish between the racism that must be eradicated and the race consciousness that is necessary to achieve that eradication.

I spent years believing I could convince people of this. I have found that it is not something to be convinced of. It is something to experience, to learn, to be convicted of. It is a journey.

It's Martin Luther King Day. Sounds like as good a time as any to get started.

Friday, January 3, 2014

How a Failure to Understand Poverty Shows We Don't Understand the Gospel

What do you think of poor people? If you're a Christian, what does your understanding of poverty say about your grasp of the Gospel? Do your efforts to ameliorate poverty make your life harder on a daily basis? Should they? Do you find yourself sharing in the suffering of the poor or are they a distant abstraction? We would do well to ponder these questions more.

Look through the Bible for words like poor, needy, and poverty. You'll find verses warning against behaviors that can cause individuals to fall into poverty. For example:

Lazy hands make for poverty,
    but diligent hands bring wealth.

          Proverbs 10:4.

The plans of the diligent lead to profit
    as surely as haste leads to poverty.

          Proverbs 21:5

One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth
    and one who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty.

          Proverbs 22:16

I wish that last one seemed true more often in real life. Anyway, as the scripture says, there are all sorts of behaviors that pretty reliably produce bad life outcomes, including poverty. What you won't find in scripture, however, is the reasoning backward that is so pervasive in our culture. Our culture says, here's a poor person; therefore, this person must have been lazy, or unwise, or in some way flawed. Scripture's view of poverty is not like this at all. It exposes basic truths about negative habits that can produce poverty, but it never assumes, as we are so prone to, that a given instance of poverty was caused by such habits.

In fact, scripture attests to numerous other causes of poverty that have nothing to do with deficient individual character. For example:

The poor often lack important social connections, and frequently face deliberate exclusion.

The poor are shunned by all their relatives—
    how much more do their friends avoid them!
Though the poor pursue them with pleading,
    they are nowhere to be found.

          Proverbs 19:7

The poor are shunned even by their neighbors,
    but the rich have many friends.

          Proverbs 14:20

Wealth attracts many friends,
    but even the closest friend of the poor person deserts them

          Proverbs 19:4

The poor often lack the resources to respond to life-altering crises.

A person’s riches may ransom their life,
    but the poor cannot respond to threatening rebukes.

          Proverbs 13:8

The little the poor do have is often taken away unjustly, and their best-laid plans are often deliberately thwarted.

An unplowed field produces food for the poor,
    but injustice sweeps it away.

          Proverbs 13:23

You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor,
    but the Lord is their refuge.

          Psalm 14:5

Unscrupulous people often target the poor and seek to profit at their expense. A righteous person is one...

who lends money to the poor without interest;
    who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.

          Psalm 15:5

But the wicked take advantage of the poor.

For he has oppressed the poor and left them destitute;
    he has seized houses he did not build.

          Job 20:19

There are those who move boundary stones;
    they pasture flocks they have stolen.
  They drive away the orphan’s donkey
    and take the widow’s ox in pledge.
  They thrust the needy from the path
    and force all the poor of the land into hiding.

          Job 24:2-4

The poor also have to grapple with governments that frequently oppress them with unjust laws.

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
  to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.

          Isaiah 10:1-2

The cumulative effect is devastating, as the poor are often held down by a web of unjust laws and practices.

There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
    and detest the one who tells the truth.

 You levy a straw tax on the poor
    and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
    you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
    you will not drink their wine.
 For I know how many are your offenses
    and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
    and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
          Amos 5:10-12
It is not hard to see that such practices are rampant in our culture. Just think of the schemes of the banks, mortgage companies, and payday lenders. But the more subtle practices the Bible so wisely notes are present here too, and we are implicated in them. The norm in American culture is to live in the best community one can afford, putting as much distance between us and the poor as money will provide. The rich do indeed have many friends, while the poor suffer for want of connections. The Bible speaks of such states of affairs not as age-old ways of the world that we must resign ourselves to, but as expressions of cultures nearing the extreme limits of depravity. When God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah to decry extreme evil he focused on treatment of the most marginal members of the society:

“Among my people are the wicked
    who lie in wait like men who snare birds
    and like those who set traps to catch people.
   Like cages full of birds,
    their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful
       and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
    they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
    they do not defend the just cause of the poor.
   Should I not punish them for this?”
    declares the Lord.
“Should I not avenge myself
    on such a nation as this?

          Jeremiah 5:26-29

Indeed, the scriptures are full of such warnings. This is a dramatic contrast to American culture and American Christianity. We live in a culture in which material poverty and moral poverty are frequently assumed to go together. We readily believe that a lack of outward success reveals internal failures. By the same token, material success grants an automatic aura of respectability. The Bible offers a much more complex portrait of poverty. It recognizes that individuals often rise or fall on the strength of their qualities of character. But it does not -- not once, not ever -- take the poor as a social group to task for their poverty. On the contrary, the scriptures are overflowing with warnings and admonitions against the rich and the powerful.

The Lord enters into judgment
    against the elders and leaders of his people:
“It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
    the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
   What do you mean by crushing my people
    and grinding the faces of the poor?”
declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty.

          Isaiah 3:14-15

Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor
    will also cry out and not be answered.

          Proverbs 21:13

Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor
    amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor.

          Proverbs 28:8

The righteous care about justice for the poor,
    but the wicked have no such concern.

          Proverbs 29:7

This is not a mere matter of moral behavior. God calls us to a certain set of attitudes toward the poor because he explicitly identifies with them. To mistreat the poor is to shake our fist at God.

Do not exploit the poor because they are poor
    and do not crush the needy in court,

for the Lord will take up their case
    and will exact life for life.

          Proverbs 22:22-23

“Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan,
    I will now arise,” says the Lord.
    “I will protect them from those who malign them.”

          Psalm 12:5
Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
    but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.

           Proverbs 14:31

The Old Testament prophets saw God's identification with the poor as being so strong that they directly equated just treatment of the poor with the presence or absence of a relationship with God.

“Does it make you a king
    to have more and more cedar?
Did not your father have food and drink?
    He did what was right and just,
    so all went well with him.
   He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
    and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
    declares the Lord.

 “But your eyes and your heart
    are set only on dishonest gain,
on shedding innocent blood
    and on oppression and extortion.”

          Jeremiah 22:15-17

Jesus doubled down on the words of the prophets, declaring that eternal judgment and reward would be meted out on the same basis:

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
          Matthew 25:31-46

This is where it begins to get interesting. It turns out that the very group most of us look down on is not only the object of God's special concern; it is the primary target for the arrival of God's Kingdom on earth. When the Old Testament prophets spoke of the Messiah who was to come they emphasized what it would mean for the poor:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

  The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
  and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
  but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
  Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist
          Isaiah 11:1-5
And when Christ himself stood up in the synagogue to declare that the fulfillment of the prophets was at hand, he quoted this:
 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God

          Isaiah 61:1-2

When John's disciples wanted to know if Jesus really was the Messiah, his answer was simple:
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor."
          Matthew 11:4-5
The Gospel came for all of us, but it came in particular for the poor, because they are able to receive it. A lot of people like to spiritualize this to the point of nothingness. The Bible is quite explicit in rejecting these attempts. Though Matthew's recording of it is more commonly heard, it is worth paying attention to how Luke put this famous saying of Jesus:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God."
          Luke 6:19-20
The materially poor really do have a special place in God's heart and in his Kingdom. Lest we think this is a translation quirk, James is about as blunt about this as one could be:
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor.
          James 2:5-6

God has decided that in his economy the poor would be the repositories of special spiritual riches.

We must, first, admit that God has done this.

Most of us are loath to make this admission in any substantive way. But having done it we must grapple with the simple certainty that this is not a choice we -- we of middle class sensibility and material comfort -- would have made. Moreover, we must seriously consider the possibility of our spiritual impoverishment. The Gospel is  good news for the poor, and for everyone willing to become poor. It is a disaster for the rest of us. For the poor, the Gospel is hope and joy and life; there is little to lose. It can be the same for the rich as well, but first we must see ourselves in the poor. That's a journey that may well bring us to material poverty. If we think the Gospel and middle-class Americanism mix we have not understood the Gospel.

This is all particularly searing in light of the fact that I and nearly everyone reading this is outlandishly wealthy in a global-historical context. This is what Jesus said to people like us:
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

           Matthew 19:18-24
It is hard for us to come to grips with just how different the Bible's assumptions about poverty are from that of the average American Christian. We tend to assume, often subconsciously, that wealth is a sign of God's blessing. In contrast, the Bible is constantly warning about how dangerous it is. We also assume, again unconsciously, that the poor are to be pitied. In contrast, God has made it blatantly clear that he is on the side of the poor, so much so that he decided to give them spiritual resources those of us who cut ourselves off from the poor know nothing about.
It is hard to wrap my mind around these things, blinded as I am by my privilege, wealth, and unearned power. It reminds me of this:

The rich are wise in their own eyes;
    one who is poor and discerning sees how deluded they are.

          Proverbs 28:11
It is all well and good to be charitable. It is another thing altogether to go deeper into the meanings of the Gospel and join in the sufferings of the poor, not because they need you but because you need them.