The Privileged and the Poor
Last week while attending my first board meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals, I was able to sit in on a discussion on Evangelicals and Poverty. This forum featured a mild debate of sorts between Arthur Brooks (American Enterprise Institute) and Jim Wallis (Sojourners). Arthur Brooks said something that I found very interesting in his closing comments:
“The real way the rich are stealing from the poor is by not sharing their secrets of success.”
At first I just heard this statement as a politically conservative one that carried more intellectual pontificating than faith-based conviction to actually tackle the multiple issues surrounding poverty in the U.S. As a political moderate I tend to have enough reflective criticism for both the right and the left. But, after further reflection, I believe that Mr. Brooks’ statement is a window into a biblical principle for the empowerment of the Poor.
A major issue when it comes to poverty and race is the relational divides that exist. The Privileged can’t share secrets with a group of people that they don’t even know by name. I don’t make this point to take away from dealing with the systemic and institutional sides of poverty, but they won’t be dealt with as long as the relational gaps that exist widen. If the Poor are merely homeless people you see holding up signs at intersections, children you interact with on a short term missions trip, or faces you see in the media, are you truly in a position to speak on the issue of poverty? Too many Privileged People are giving commentary on people they aren’t in relationship with.
You could apply this same relational problem to the issue of race. I don’t believe that most White people are racist, but I have heard too many White people make comments about people groups that they are not in relationship with. Just to be fair, people of other ethnicities do this too, but I bring up Whites because they remain the most privileged people group in the U.S. at this moment in time. When you give commentary on other people groups that you aren’t in deep relationship with, it could open the door to people perceiving you as being racist or prejudiced.
When I was the pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church in North Minneapolis, I was fortunate to have a number of conversations about poverty with fellow staff members. One staff member that I had very deep and sometimes mildly heated conversations on the subject was Mr. Neeraj Mehta. He would say often that poverty is about the lack of relationships. At first I thought this wasn’t a very strong beginning point for tackling the issue of poverty. As I’ve thought about it about it more and more though, my Brother Neeraj is absolutely right. We must close the relational gaps between the Privileged and the Poor. When the Privileged and the Poor are reconciled, we will see poverty as we know it in the U.S. dismantled. I’m not sure if we will ever totally eradicate poverty in the U.S. (though I passionately hope so), but I do believe through relationships, we can put a major dent in it.
To dismantle poverty in this way, we not only need multi-ethnic congregations, we also need multi-class congregations. Poor people ought to have a voice in the Church. They ought to have the opportunity to serve as elders, deacons, preachers, and board members alongside the Privileged. Putting all Privileged People in power and places of influence may be the American way, but it’s not the Kingdom of God way. How can Privileged People suffer with those who suffer when they are not in friendship or community with those who suffer? Jesus Christ modeled a ministry life of being close and personal with the oppressed, suffering, outcast, and marginalized. American Christians seem to be held captive by the matrix of economic and racial compartmentalization. Because of this, too many Privileged Christians have compassion for the suffering, but they aren’t in intimate relationships with them. People don’t tend to share secrets with people they don’t love, respect, value, or trust.
Could it be to this degree that all Christians are biblically called to be incarnational? I’m not saying all Privileged People need to sell their houses in nice neighborhoods and move to under-resourced ones. What I’m saying is that for the Privileged Christians, we ought to live in the blessed gift of having a diverse community of friends across racial, ethnic, and class lines. To accept this gift is to live more deeply as a Kingdom citizen. Christ was in the business of closing social and relational gaps. This is why He was up close with Samaritans, the diseased, the paralyzed, the left for dead, and the Privileged. What if as Privileged Christians we spent more time talking about people we were in relationship with than giving commentary on people we don’t?