Friday, December 21, 2012

Who Are the Poor?

Radicalizing the Middle Class
The link above takes you to a blog article written by a pastor, Randy Nabors. Randy has a lifetime of experience and wisdom in helping the poor, pastoring an inner-city congregation, and overseas ministry in Africa. He knows what he's talking about.

So I read the article with mixed emotions as I felt something was not quite right in his thinking.  I don't disagree with much of his opinions. Scripture clearly calls us to sacrificial giving -- not just skimming off the top of our wealth so that it doesn't hurt. Giving is supposed to make us wince. The wealthy alone are not called to give; everyone is. The middle class should be giving money, time, and gifts. This is all rather old news, but that doesn't mean all Christians are doing it.

What unsettled me? Perhaps it is the lines Randy draws. He defines the poor and the middle class as if he were a government official. Who is poor?

A family who qualifies for food stamps? WIC? Medicaid? Lives in government housing? Has a father in jail? Is unemployed? Loses a home to foreclosure because of unemployment? Can't afford to own a home and must rent? Has violence or substance abuse in the home? Can't ever afford private education?   

Our family qualifies, based on some of that. But I doubt Randy would consider us poor. Why?

Because we both have bachelors and masters degrees from private institutions. We're well-read and articulate. Our kids are in college. We come from middle class families. We've never had our phone turned off. We don't struggle with substance abuse or addictions. Basically ... we "look" middle class. My husband is a pastor.  I sing in the choir. We own a mini-van and we homeschool. Thus, are we middle class? I wonder how Randy would label us. Because his article does seem to be about labels. Some are poor, some are middle class, and one group must help the other, according to him. but people don't fall so tidily under labels. Here are a few quotes:

"In fact it has been my goal to help every poor person I know to become middle class, at least.  I would wish all of my church members, all or my family, all of my friends to be millionaires." When I read that, I was bemused. At least he doesn't think poverty is desirable, and being middle class is loathsome. He wants people to have more money, not less. At least, he wants the poor to have more money, and the middle class to have less. Tell me:  if the middle class person becomes officially poor, by his giving, what has been gained?  If a poor person becomes middle class, how does that improve his spiritual state?

You see, I dislike all this economic labeling. What is real poverty? Being a lost soul is poverty. Not knowing Jesus, is poverty. There is a poverty of spirit that is much more horrifying than any lack of money.  I know poor people who are content and satisfied in their small trailers with their broken possessions, because they own the most valuable thing in the universe -- Jesus and His kingdom. I know very wealthy people who are troubled and angry and so very impoverished because they lack the one thing that would make them content -- Jesus and His kingdom. I frankly don't find poverty, real poverty, to be about money. We are to help orphans and widows. Have you ever known an abandoned child whose family had the money to send her to a pricey boarding school? I have. She's as much an orphan as any other child.

Next quote: "It is as if we are corporately banging on the gate of Eden to get back to an idyllic life, to somehow realize the Millennium through affluence." Hmm. I'm not sure what he's objecting to here, the fact that Christians long for God's paradise, or that that paradise will be a plenteous, wealthy one.  Because both these things are good things. We are to long for the paradise of the New Earth, and it's good news that God will provide for all our needs, and we'll be healthy and safe and at rest, and rich. God's heaven is a wealthy heaven. As Randy says, our goal is to lift the poor up into more affluence, which is a desirable state. But this quote second-guesses that goal. 

The person most praised by Jesus for her giving was a poor widow, not a middle class businesswoman. The poor widow gave everything -- her last cash. She sacrificed. The point is not for the middle class and wealthy alone to give until it hurts; that's assumed.  The point Jesus makes is that everyone -- the poor included -- is to give till it hurts. The poor are to give also.

What?  If that's true, then Randy's assertion that the middle class should give so that the poor can be raised to a middle class level, is incorrect. Jesus commends the poor to give, and they will stay in their poor state when they do so. In fact, the widow was poorer after giving ... in her purse.  But she was richer in her spirit. She was trusting God. 

Giving is not about changing people's social status, moving from one label to another. Giving is not about transforming someone else's life; it's about transforming yourself, giving until you must depend on God. If someone else is helped by that, that's up to God. Your job is to make yourself dependent, giving until it hurts because that hurt is good for your soul. Randy seems to touch on this:

"I want your body, your skills, you social skills, your connections, your energy and physical strength, your education.  I want them to be shared with the poor and not just indulged for yourself." It's not just money. Give all of yourself. Some of the traits you take for granted in your own life, may be greatly needed by someone poorer in that trait. But again ... this has nothing to do with financial status. A financially poor man who has a gentle spirit, or a gift of music, or a skill in wood-working, or simply a spare bed in his hovel, can give to a wealthy man who is angry in spirit, needs beauty in his life, needs to work with his hands, or is lost and wandering in life and needs to share a simple home with a good man. Giving goes both ways. It is impressive to see a rich man give to a poor man, but how much more astounding to see a poor man give from his inner wealth, to a rich man whose spirit is starving? Yes. Yes!

The following two quotes really bothered me:
"I condemn no one for thrift, for self-discipline, for faithfulness in marriage, for study and achievement.  In fact all of these things are necessary for the poor to eventually truly change their lives.  I only wonder who will teach them, who will model for them these things...."  

[Involvement with the poor]  has to be done with submission and respect to indigenous leadership and not with paternalistic and patronizing attitudes."

I find these two quotes contradictory. In the first, he assumes that poor people lack thrift(!), lack self-discipline, are unfaithful in relationships, don't study, and don't achieve. In the next quote he says that we must work with the poor without condescension. I find the first quote itself to be condescending. Again -- financial status has nothing to do with traits like thrift, self-discipline, faithfulness, achievement. I've known many financially poor people who excel in these traits! In fact, many poor people are more thrifty, more disciplined, more faithful, and more studious, than the wealthy. What assumptions! What presumption! Do the poor need financial assistance? Yes. Should the middle class traipse into their lives offering lessons on marital success and thrift? Hardly!

I live in that netherworld between the poor and the middle class.  We ourselves are generally poor, financially. However, we mingle with the middle class -- we live there. I know that traits like marital faithfulness and self-discipline are not the possessions of the middle class, even in the church. Middle class Americans can instruct no one in these things. Christians of any stripe can only barely give instruction in such matters. Middle class America, adept in marital fidelity? What planet is Randy living on?

I know he lives in the gritty inner-city world of urban poverty, and so some of his labels and assumptions must have some ring of truth. I just wonder if he's been there so long that he's forgotten what the help looks like. It comes from Jesus, from a transformed heart -- for everyone, rich and poor. The Church -- the Kingdom -- must reach out to the spiritually dead. That's the gospel. The two labels we're looking for are not "poor" and "middle class," but "spiritually wealthy" and "spiritually dead." The sharing of cash is a good thing too. I've been on the receiving end of that sharing so many times, and it is a huge blessing! I'm not arguing against it! But I'll state loudly that such cash transactions have no eternal value for the recipient. They may have some spiritual value for the giver. If you give the poor money, do it knowing you're changing your own heart. Their bellies are fed, their hearts are brightened. If you give enough, you're made more dependent on God, which is eternally valuable.

"I think we all will have to think beyond just the discretionary to the sacrificial if we are really going to spread the Kingdom among the poor. " Agreed. This is Biblical living. I'd only omit "among the poor." The Kingdom is to be spread, period. To the rich also, who probably lack its presence in their lives more than the poor do. We are to look for people who are spiritually needy, wherever they are.

I commend Rev. Nabors in his life-time of sacrificial work for the Kingdom. He is God's servant. I only mean to add a little more complexity to the picture he's painted of the work we all must do.

2 comments:

  1. This has been a really interesting post - thank you! It is 5am and I have a bad cough so cannot sleep, and altho I usually read your blog, I dont think I have commented before.
    You are right, it is not about financial matters, but spiritual attitudes. I think life in the UK is different. I am a pastor's wife, and currently our financial state is very difficult - we genuinely have barely enough to get thru to the next paycheck. [this is I believe, a temporary state!] but we have had extended times of real financial poverty when we have been incredibly rich spiritually.
    He makes some good points - but as you say, some are contradictory.
    There are no easy answers - I guess we must each walk the path the Lord puts us on, and seek to share His love with others, that they may see what we do and glorify Him and come to know him for themselves.
    God bless you as you seek to serve him, and thank you for blogging!
    May 2013 be a year of unexpected blessings for you and yours xx

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  2. Angela - thank you so much for commenting! My husband read your comment and said, "It sounds like they are in situations much like we've had." And you make such a good point, so true -- times of financial distress are times of spiritual richness. We have found this also, over and over again. Of course, the non-Christian cannot experience this richness. And truly, truly! -- it is the spiritual richness that his soul desperately needs. Often, I think, that is also found when a loving person is generous and tender with the one who is materially poor. It is a blessing, and it makes you cry. But there is nothing quite like the bond that forms when one is utterly dependent on God. Thanks for these words :)

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