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Systems, Part 9: Don’t Give to the Poor

Jesus didn't merely give to the poor; He joined them.

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Click here to read the previous Systems post: Cursed Are The Happy

I was in Australia when I first discovered the writing of Shane Claiborne, a Christian writer, activist, and member of a group called the New Monastics. Someone had left a copy of his book The Irresistible Revolution on the toilet, so over the course of a couple weeks, I had finished it across daily visits to the throne. If you were to summarize Claiborne’s writings, mirrored and upheld by his own lifestyle, in one word, it would be along the lines of ‘radical’.

In short, Claiborne lived and studied under Mother Teresa (Yes, that Mother Teresa) and worked in several other impoverished countries around the world after receiving his degrees from Wheaton College and Eastern University. He moved to Philadelphia a number of years ago where he founded The Simple Way, an intentional living community for people living in poverty.

Shane is a dude who practices what he preaches.

So if I were to summarize The Irresistible Revolution in one sentence, it would be, Live as Jesus lived and do what He did, literally.

But that’s a lot easier said than done, as highlighted by passages like this from Revolution:

“I asked participants who claimed to be “strong followers of Jesus” whether Jesus spent time with the poor. Nearly 80 percent said yes. Later in the survey, I sneaked in another question, I asked this same group of strong followers whether they spent time with the poor, and less than 2 percent said they did. I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”

or,

“I’m just not convinced that Jesus is going to say, “When I was hungry, you gave a check to the United Way and they fed me.”

I recall one argument built over the course of a few chapters which expound on Christians who are happy to give to the poor, or give to organizations which are helping the poor, yet none of that is in the same ballpark of what Jesus taught or modeled.

Jesus didn’t merely give to the poor, He joined them.

This is what led Claiborne to found The Simple Way: A tension between people maintaining their own comfortable social status while therapeutically giving to the poor, and the life and teachings of Christ. So Claiborne did just that, he joined the poor. He lived among them. He loved them and was loved by them.

And if I’m honest, this is a really scary thought for me to think: That Christ demands that I give up my social standing in order to follow Him. When I probe the depths of my heart, it becomes clear that things like status, car, home, and friends are idols on a very high pedestal because of my resistance to relinquish them for Christ. My dreams are not His dreams, in other words, and that’s a scary thing. Am I longing for the kingdom, or am I longing for my own idea of what a good system is? Am I longing for visible, tangible things like a wife and a comfortable, well-funded life, or do I trust God that He both knows and will give me the desires of my heart in the fullness of His kingdom?

I have quoted David Bentley Hart in a previous Systems post, but it’s worth repeating. In his article Christ’s Rabble, Hart builds an argument that all of Jesus’ teaching is polarizing and in-or-out language, leaving little room for in-between living.

“Christ condemned not only an unhealthy preoccupation with riches, but the getting and keeping of riches as such. The most obvious citation from all three synoptic Gospels would be the story of the rich young ruler who could not bring himself to part with his fortune for the sake of the Kingdom, and of Christ’s astonishing remark about camels passing through needles’ eyes more easily than rich men through the Kingdom’s gate. As for the question the disciples then put to Christ, it should probably be translated not as “Who then can be saved?” or “Can anyone be saved?” but rather “Then can any [of them, the rich] be saved?” To which the sobering reply is that it is humanly impossible, but that by divine power even a rich man might be spared.”

Hart proceeds to list several more passages in which God proclaims good news to the poor, but scary woes to the rich. And let me remind you, if you’re reading this on a phone or laptop, you are ‘the rich’.

I have a friend who is an atheist and has told me in the past that he’s a ‘pretty good person’ because he gives to the homeless whenever he passes them begging on the sidewalk. What I’ve realized is that the message of Christ asks far more of us than this. It asks us not to hand out spare change to those beneath us on the caste system, thus perpetuating their situation of dependence and ours of Good Samaritans handing out alms, but to join them. To do life, not with those of the same social ranking as us, or in the same socio-economic class as us, but with those all across the spectrum.

Jesus didn’t just give handouts to the poor, but He broke bread with them. He made friends with them. And even He, Himself did not have a home or a place to lay His head. He didn’t just toss medicine to the lepers, or even heal them from a distance; He touched the untouchable.

Think about it: What good do handouts do in light of affecting systemic change? Are you helping to overhaul the system of poverty by tossing a five-spot into the cup of a beggar, or are you merely perpetuating the very system you may think you’re healing? It’s a microcosm of rich nations doing more damage than good by giving handouts to poorer, needy third-world countries who are not then able to themselves.

Now, with all that said, it may be scary to consider abandoning all that you have and all that you cling to for comfort and security. And I myself am still wrestling with where the balance is between preaching a ‘poverty gospel’ and obeying God. That’s why I always refrain from giving specific imperatives and instead  let you in on what I’m mulling over in my mind. So for now, I hope this gives you some food for thought, and more than simply thinking about them, I want to hear your thoughts! I want to know what you think about this sliding scale of systemic poverty and the uncomfortable teachings of Christ.

Until then, we pray for the equalizing power of a just King: Maranatha, come swiftly, Lord Jesus.

e

4 comments on “Systems, Part 9: Don’t Give to the Poor

  1. This was an eye opening article Ethan, convicting that donating to some charities or feeling sorry for a homeless walking on road or handing them some alms in the comfort of our life is not being Christian at all. The Boldness to live a radical life requires God’s divine intervention. I just wanted to know your thoughts on the life insurances and home securities we have , as a christian are abandonment of those earthly securities a bold step or like some have told me that’s not a wise step.

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  2. This was an eye opening article Ethan, convicting that donating to some charities or feeling sorry for a homeless walking on road or handing them some alms in the comfort of our life is not being Christian at all. The Boldness to live a radical life requires God’s divine intervention. I just wanted to know your thoughts on the life insurances and home securities we have , as a christian are abandonment of those earthly securities a bold step or like some have told me that’s not a wise step.

    Like

  3. I have similar thoughts at times. My current dominant thoughts are that we all have different callings and many of us open up our lives to God’s will and He leads us in different directions. Some of us will be in high places because we are intended to effect change from there… I think of Ester. Or we can be the hand God uses to financially and prayerfully make way for others to go out and do what we cannot. I do wonder what that would look like though, if there is a balance between working a fulltime job, taking care of a home and family, and also breaking bread with the poor. Thanks for the article. May God lead us in His perfect will. May we humbly accept His plan for our lives.

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  4. Elliot Toman

    I ran across this article earlier this week without having time to stop and read it through. Then, this morning, my wife and I were talking with each other about Jesus’ model of ministry and I remembered it. Your thoughts perfectly echo and enrich what we’re discussing as we struggle with our fellow ministers’ propensity to build infrastructures and bureaucracies that effectively shield us from the poor. Thank you!

    I was also delighted by your quote from the Didache at the end. I look forward to reading more of your blog!

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