Christians addressing poverty

I’ve been invited to a consultation with the Department of Community Services as it overhauls the Income Assistance program. I am not here as a Minister, rather they want me here because of my outreach facilitator role in downtown and North End Dartmouth. Still as a Christian I come to this conversation with certain assumptions. From my seminary education there was the Liberation Theology of the 1980’s that has remained with me, that is “God preferential option is for the poor”. Arising from the centrality of the Exodus story to the Older Testament and Jesus’ reaching out to the poor, women, persons living with illness and persons from other ethnicities and religions there comes the foundational belief that God is on the side of those who are marginalized in our society. At this time of year we are reminded of Mary’s song, which includes this verse: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Within the Christian tradition there are many voices that speak to this song and this aspect of God’s mission. Leaving aside those Christians who somehow live as if the cause of the poor is absent from their personal witness there are different outlooks on this matter. Two of these are well articulated by Mary Jo Bane and Lawrence Mead in their recent text: Lifting Up the Poor: A Dialogue on Religion, Poverty and Welfare Reform.

Drawing on the summary of this text, which I have read and absorbed there are some interesting perspectives to be heard. “People who participate in debates about the causes and cures of poverty often speak from religious conviction. But those convictions are rarely made explicit or debated on their own terms. Rarely is the influence of personal religious commitment on policy decisions examined. Two of the nation’s foremost scholars and policy advocates break the mold in this lively volume.”

Bane and Mead “bring their faith traditions, policy experience, academic expertise, and political commitments together in this moving, pointed, and informed discussion of poverty, one of our most vexing public issues. Mary Jo Bane writes of her experiences running social service agencies, work that has been informed by Catholic social teaching, and a Catholic sensibility that is shaped every day by prayer and worship. Policy analysis, she writes, is often “indeterminate” and “inconclusive.” It requires grappling with “competing values that must be balanced.” It demands judgment calls, and Bane’s Catholic sensibility informs the calls she makes.” The gospel text, Matthew 25:31-40, provides the lens Bane uses to understand how faith influences this dialogue. If one believes that the poor who stand before us are in a real sense Jesus himself it changes the dynamic of the relationship.

“Drawing from various Christian traditions, Lawrence Mead’s essay discusses the role of nurturing Christian virtues and personal responsibility as a means of transforming a “defeatist culture” and combating poverty. Quoting Shelley, Mead describes theologians as the “unacknowledged legislators of humankind” and argues that even nonbelievers can look to the Christian tradition as “the crucible that formed the moral values of modern politics.” Mead cites John 5:1-9 as his central lens to understand poverty, that is a person who is defeated by poverty and challenges does not to be reminded he is lost, poor, has endured a history of neglect, what he needs is to be lifted up, encouraged, supported, and cheered to “take up your mat and walk”.

“Bane emphasizes the social justice claims of her tradition, and Mead challenges the view of many who see economic poverty as a biblical priority that deserves “preference ahead of other social concerns.” But both assert that an engagement with religious traditions is indispensable to an honest and searching debate about poverty, policy choices, and the public purposes of religion.” This dynamic is often played out in conversations between mainline and evangelical advocates for social justice. I have learned much from both. It is a conversation I hope continues, or in some cases, begins…