I was fourteen years old when I realized my family was poor. A girl at my school had made fun of me for wearing knock-off converse brand shoes because my parents could not afford to buy me the high end ones. It was in that moment I became different, separated by an invisible wall from the people around me. I had heard about poor people before, we discussed in church how it was part of our existence to feed and care for them. But those talks did not introduce me to the isolation that my financial status could and would eventually create between many of my peers and me. From my understanding from the church, poor people were a ministry opportunity, not part of an isolating class structure that forcibly changed the way one engaged with life on a daily basis.
I write all of this knowing that though I grew up on the lower end of the economic spectrum, I was very blessed to have far more than other’s around me. My father was a pastor of a small church and my mother was an artist, but both worked tirelessly to ensure that I had a home and food. I tell this story because it was a pivotal moment in my life to realize how the church decontextualizes poverty from the political system in which it emerges, framing it as an inherent part of society that exists so the church may have a place to meet their ministry quota for the month. It is not systemic, crippling or even characteristically racist, it simply is the way things are.
As much as a conversation about the economic policies of the American government is required in order to address an issue such as poverty, I want to take this post to focus on the contextualization of poverty and the role the church has played in negating political actions as apart of their approach. Instead of asking why we allow the capitalist system to exploit, enslave and even destroy the lives of so many who were not endowed with an economic advantage from birth, the church acts as if it is a customary part of human society. The 2008 housing crash, a result of corporate greed and corruption that the free market creates, was not addressed by religious leaders as a horrendous reflection of our political system’s ethics that left millions in poverty and benefited the very men who bankrupted them. Instead the church has approached this situation as if it saw an opportunity to launch trendy outreach projects by its members, refusing to act as a disturbance to this political statues quo. If religion is to meet the needs of those in poverty, it must first recognize context of the system where it is inherent rather than simply persists.
I would like to focus on two areas in which I believe the church refuses to highlight the political context of poverty in our current day system. The first is framing poverty as an issue similar to any other sin committed by god-depraved people, while also seeming to lack any moral outrage over the widespread corruption festering in corporations and the wealthiest. The second, even more of an extreme ignorance to the intrinsic poverty of capitalism, is the wealth inequality created in the African American community and blatant ignorance to institutional racism in order to avoid making political statements in favor of minorities. Along with these two cases of decontextualizing by the religious community, I hope to highlight the political call Simon Critchley outlines in his book, Infinitely Demanding, and the requirement to be the manifestation of dissent to a state demanding absolute authority and power over the oppressed.
The type of religious background that I came from had an ability to detach itself from crucial societal conversations. They would assert that the issues most uncomfortable to talk about in its member’s lives could simply be deduced to a sin problem. The church treats being poor much like any other problem someone “wrestles” with. Some people wrestle with alcoholism, some with righteousness, and others with poverty. Laziness has surely plagued the life of the poor, rather than the greed of the richest in society strangling them. A spiritual community cannot claim to stand on any moral authority when it so blatantly favors the wealthy and unless the church is willing to address the dangerous corruption of wealth in America it must be silent on any criticism of the poor. To the church, if someone is homeless and forced to beg for their next meal on the street, surely that is the result of a person who could not hold a stable job because of a drug addiction. It is not the drug companies preying on patients through opioids, which then paralyzes them from any work via the addiction and furthers the very poverty cycle that they will continue to benefit from. Instead of questioning this progression and why it is we have a society where people are seen as profits and many starve to death from financial needs, we see the poor as an opportunity for ministry and a basic part of an unending equation. The church almost believes that yes, poverty infests society at an alarming rate, but God created the church to address it rather than question it.
In the book Infinitely Demanding, Simon Critchley claims that philosophy begins where the disappointment of our political realities sets in. A search for moral ethics is built when we are met with the depravity of the status quo, allowing it to go unchallenged, and creates inside of us a demand to bind ourselves to the concept of what is good. When facing the issue of poverty, this should be the posturing of the church. Critchley goes on in further chapters to explore Karl Marx’s critique of Hegel’s Rechtsphilosphie, as it pertains to this issue of political engagement of citizens and what he describes as the truth of democracy. The truth of democracy is not enlightenment with the state in order to make it better; it is actually to be detached and defiant to a hierarchy and social order created by the state’s ruling class. The church should be disturbed by the grotesque abuse of power by special interests in our government that has insistently abused those not as privileged. When we call for the church to be active participants in political discourse for the sake of the poor, we are not calling for them to simply support small social programs that only serve as a bandage to an infesting disease of corruption. We are calling for them to act as a disturbance, to demand fundamental change in state power, and protect those most vulnerable among us like our theology claims to desire.
The second instance of the church’s negligence in poverty goes even deeper than a refusal to engage in civil actions against it; it is actually an ally to the innate systemic racism that our country was built on. There is no way of discussing poverty without acknowledging the extreme inequality of wealth that African Americans continually face. In many churches, not only is talking about the context of poverty a taboo topic, but discussing the system of slavery and continued methodical exploitation of black wealth, art and lives is definitely not an invited topic at Sunday school meet and greets. From the private prison industry acting as a new mode of slavery, to the structure of the tax system funding public schools disenfranchising black communities in an endless cycle, the church has refused to discuss proper penance that the American political system must face. Churches are protected by the state through tax exemptions, but rarely do you hear a pastor call for reparations for African Americans who had the produce of their labor extracted from them the minute they could work. Slavery was America’s original sin, protected by the church, but it is also important that we recognize the allying between capitalism, poverty and exploitation of minorities that we have allowed sneakily worsen through economic policies in our society.
The story of Jesus in the Gospel, whether you believe him to be the Son of God or just a rabbi, is all about a man challenging a political structure that’s wrapped in the security of the church. Professing a belief in Christ and the implication of his time on earth means that the spiritual must reckon with the defiance to the hierarchy that he imposed on his followers. The issue of poverty creates an invisible wall that separates us from the ones we want to love, humiliates us of our upbringing and leaves us thinking we were born into the wrong family or are guilty of unrecognized sin. Real ministry does not seek to simply throw cash at the less fortunate so they can be brought up to our level of wealth, it seeks to restructure an economy that values it’s citizens based on what and how much they can produce. It actively calls out the greed and fraud allowing so many to advance financially at the expensive of lives being ruined. A religion that’s striving to reflect the heart of the Divine is not afraid to discuss the economic abuse still committed against African American’s and cannot stand to function in a system where their profits are clearly at the hands of the lower class and minorities exploitation.
I grew up poor, religious and wanting to help those with less than what I had. As I have grown and studied our political system, I am increasingly convinced the only way in which we can tackle the issue of poverty is for the church to become the most disruptive voice against the state and wealthy corruption. Until then, the church will only be putting bandages on a systemic wound.