If you imagine the major issues pushed by American Christians qua Christians, poverty alleviation probably doesn’t come to mind. This isn’t to say that poverty hasn’t been a historical concern of some American churches, or that no global Christianity features a strong emphasis on poverty. (Pope Francis and the Latin American tradition of liberation theology come immediately to mind.) Nor is it to say that Christianities that don’t focus so strongly on poverty are somehow pale or errant — there are a multitude of sound and worthy causes out there for Christian groups to take up as their own. Take, for instance, Christian abolitionists, Christian environmentalists, Christians against the death penalty, and Christians for nuclear disarmament.
Then there are your more prominent American Christian causes, the ones that tend to make the news: Christians against the continued legality of elective abortion, Christians against the teaching of evolution in schools, Christians against same-sex marriage. The list from here whittles into smaller categories; there are Christians against gun control and Christians against vaccination, but the point I mean to make is that poverty isn’t the default focus of Christians in the USA, despite what most people summon to mind when thinking of the example of Jesus.
With so many shadows falling over the world at any given time it’s hard to explain why one focus seems a more promising one than the next. But as it is currently Poverty Awareness Month, I thought I might try to explain why poverty is the center of my study as an academic and a practicing Christian.
I told you in my introductory post that I have bad taste in music. I do. This is an extension of my general lameness. At my high school in North Texas, I was (surprise) a regulation dork: I worked hard; competed in and, ugh, won essay competitions; spent nearly every weekend at debate tournaments; and never got into any trouble of any kind. I had teammates of various sorts (Academic Decathlon, debate, University Interscholastic League) but no ‘friends.’ I was never asked to any house parties, never received an invitation to homecoming, and was passed over altogether for my senior prom, which I thus didn’t go to. It hasn’t taken reflection to realize I was a loser; I knew it at the time. And so, as a sophomore, dweeby and lonely, I looked for some things to do with my time.
First, I singed up with my Methodist church to assist with Sunday school classes for pre-K children. There wasn’t much to it: say a prayer, pass out cups of pretzels and m&ms, and carry out a little craft project relating to the Bible. This got me in good with some of the other girls my age who spent a lot of time at church, and provided me with a fine enough reason to turn in early Saturday night. It was fun and low-impact, and then Emma joined our class.
Emma was seven years old, but had the mental faculties and motor skills of a child less than half that age. The day she arrived strapped into her motorized wheelchair, her mother, a harried and exhausted looking woman who worked as an ER nurse, explained to me that Emma had nearly drowned as a toddler. She’d spent a few minutes under water, her mother told me, and I remember feeling terribly uncomfortable at hearing her voice waver. Due to the brain damage, Emma had seizures, vastly reduced brain function, and needed round-the-clock supervision.
I was a little concerned. The other kids could use safety scissors for our crafts and were fine to munch on goldfish and nibbles of candy, but Emma needed pureed or baby food. When snack time rolled around on our first day, I slipped out of the classroom and found my way to the nursery. The women who looked after infants during the adult service reluctantly surrendered a little glass jar of baby food, wondering: why didn’t her folks find somebody to watch her?
I tried to feed Emma. I was about sixteen, the baby of my family, and I had no idea how to feed another person. Mashed carrot was everywhere, and it was only when I tried to clean her up that I realized her clothes were a little too small, and already dirty. Emma wanted her shoes off, started kicking and grunting, and so I took them off her feet and tried to smooth her hair back until she calmed down. But she kept kicking, and whining, and I was panicking — the other kids were staring, and I felt like I must’ve been doing something terribly wrong. When I stood up to go get help, Emma put her arms up toward me. She wanted to be held.
And that became our routine. Emma was calmer when held, so I sat cross-legged on the ground and held her in my lap through almost every class, helping her eat and sometimes do crafts — I could wrap her fingers around a little jar of glitter, for example, and help her shake. Sometimes she just slept, because the medication she took to prevent her seizures had a powerful sedative effect.
People, especially the other Sunday school teachers, talked about her family. Through the snippets of conversation I would share with her mother during drop-off and pick-up, I put together a sense of what was going on: no public school could take her because they lacked the resources, and private school wasn’t a financial option. Her mom was a nurse and her dad worked on cars. Emma was usually looked after by underqualified neighbors or her slightly older siblings, and spent so much time in her chair that she often had sores and diaper rash. It was a struggle to pay for her medicine. Everything else came second to trying to keep her well, and with two other children, there was a lot of everything else.
Church, her mom told me one morning, is really the only time I can relax.
I immediately thought: that’s not what church is for, it’s not a time to tune out and take it easy. Fortunately an epiphany of higher wisdom followed my initial snotty (hey, I was sixteen) impulse: poverty gets in God’s way.
This is true in a variety of senses. Poverty as an individual phenomenon is more harmful on the brains of developing children than crack cocaine; it truncates the lifespan by a number of years; is associated strongly with higher rates of asthma and overall susceptibility to illness, and can account for a loss of up to 8.2 years of perfect health. When we factor in that people are trying to deal with all of these challenges while participating in communities, we realize that poverty is also manifested as an overall detriment to society. Inequality is associated with violent crime, and poverty itself militates powerfully against getting and staying married. The cumulative stress of all these burdens prevents people who live in poverty from joining their more secure counterparts in moving toward human flourishing.
And human flourishing is the vision, if you will, of all Christian ethics. It’s the state we work toward so that we can better pursue the apprehension of the worship of God. It’s a step in the direction of our ultimate destiny with God, which makes it a vital part of the narrative of the church as a corporate body. It’s indispensable, in other words, to our thinking; we can’t rightly figure out the ethical Christian life without human flourishing as an end game. Yale Divinity professor Nicholas Wolterstorff explains here what the Christian ethical imagination should aspire to in terms of that flourishing:
It is the vision of shalom — peace — first articulated in the Old Testament poetic and prophetic literature but then coming to expression in the New Testament as well. We shall see that shalom is intertwined with justice. In shalom, each person enjoys justice, enjoys his or her rights. There is no shalom without justice. But shalom goes beyond justice. Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature…But the peace which is shalom is not merely the absence of hostility, nor merely being in right relationship. Shalom at its highest is enjoyment in one’s relationships. A nation may be at peace with all its neighbors and yet be miserable in its poverty. To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself…If individuals are not granted what is due them, if their claim on others is not acknowledged by those others, if others do not carry out their obligations to them, then shalom is wounded.
In other words, this is the vision that guides our ethical work; this is the hope, the aspiration, the motion. And we see that an immediate detriment to this movement is the failure of communities to meet the obligations we have to one another, as laid out in the Word. As a principle, shalom helps us understand what our obligations might be, but it also guides us in knowing the eternal purpose of those obligations. And it’s blighted by the kind of suffering Emma and her family and so many like them struggle through. In poverty like that, there is no peace, no serenity; even the possibility of peace is foreclosed upon by desperation, suffering, and strife.
Christians move together toward God. We’re an ethical and responsible community. It’s imperative that we don’t abandon those we’re obligated to not only because that is our instruction, but because to do so is to injure the peace of our total community, to harm our collective destiny as a church. For me, poverty is a clear and present form of injustice and abandonment with ramifications that are utterly antithetical to the Christian mission here on earth.
And though I didn’t think that in so many words at the time, I felt called in the direction of poverty. I stuck with it. Later in high school, I became a Big Sister, and after going to college I ran my university’s Hunger & Homelessness program, and then served on the board of directors of a local homeless shelter. Here in the UK, I work in a shelter once a week, and study the Christian ethics of handling poverty. I’ve found that once you become sensitive to poverty, you never have to look hard to find it: it’s all around us, and once you see it, it’s very difficult to look away.
So that’s the source of my focus, and I hope my journey might be helpful for those who are curious about the Christian left, or those Christians who are perhaps suspicious of what may appear to be a too-strong affinity with political coalitions not commonly paired with Christianity.